Safari through the Seasons – Best time for a safari in Southern Africa

We are often asked when the ‘best time’ to go on safari is. Typically in Southern Africa, the simple answer is the dry winter and spring months of June through to October.

But WHY do we say this, and what are the implications if you simply cannot come on safari at this time?

  • Why do safari specialists recommend the dry season as the best time for a safari?
  • What can I expect if I am travelling at a different time?
  • When might I actually WANT to come on safari at a different time?

best time for a safari

Why do we recommend the dry season for your safari?

Animals need water and food. In the dry winter months the animals are forced to come to waterholes and the rivers to drink, increasingly as the season continues. Because of their need to drink frequently they tend to stick around to feed in these areas as well. You need to go where the animals go.

Most of Africa’s national parks are vast and not fenced. Thus animals, especially elephants, can and do trek for hundreds of kilometers in search of water and fresh nutritious grasses. Thus once the rains come, they will generally leave the over-grazed areas around the waterholes in search of fresh grasses. They are not fenced in and they’ll travel in and out of the official boundaries of the national parks at will.

Note: Much of what I say below also holds for East Africa but because of their two rainy seasons and the pattern of animal migration. You might want to also look at our page about the Serengeti.

Or download our Insider’s Guide to the great Serengeti wildebeest migration for a more in depth account.

Dry Winter (Late May to August)

Animals need water and food. In the dry winter months of May/June onwards,  the animals need to come to waterholes (either natural or pumped) and the rivers to drink.

In terms of your safari, this means that the animals are predictably seen at certain places and so your chances of finding them increase, almost exponentially, as the dry season progresses.

As the winter progresses the bush dies down and so it’s easier to spot the game. The lower grasses also make walking safaris more viable as it lowers the danger factor of stumbling a dangerous animal unexpectedly.

Finally the daytime temperatures are very pleasant and so you can comfortably stay in the sun for longer. So you don’t need a roof canopy on your vehicle which can restrict your view. This is especially important if you’re a keen photographer or birder. The game drives can be longer, even all day in some reserves and parks, with your guide taking a picnic lunch to enjoy in the bush.

The dry season is when the Okavango Delta is in full flood, this is the best time to see Victoria Falls and the important rivers of the Zambezi and Chobe are a magnet for animals…

Downsides

But there are some downsides.

  • As the winter progresses, it gets dusty and the landscape becomes much less attractive.
  • Secondly the nights will be cool – even in Africa – and can be downright cold in South Africa.
  • Finally because it is the best time for game-viewing, this is the peak season for most safari camps with much higher prices, especially in Botswana and Zambia. Zimbabwe is less affected.
  • South African lodges tend to have annual prices as their seasonality is not so marked – see later for why…

Recommendation – this is a perfect time for a safari!

Etosha-Elephant-Portrait-BS-1600

Spring (September to October)

During the months of September and October, all the above advantages for the dry winter game-viewing are amplified – the animals get even more desperate for water as most of the streams and pans start to dry up as the temperatures rise.

Downsides

  • The landscape does get even drier and dusty. This may not be so obvious close to the big rivers of the Luangwa, Chobe and Zambezi or in the seasonal waters of the Okavango Delta. But it will be very noticeable in the Savuti, the Moremi, the Kruger and many other areas.
  • Temperatures rise relentlessly. There is a reason why October is colloquially called ‘Suicide’ month in the safari industry, especially in Zambia. Physically your safari becomes less pleasant – though the game-viewing does make up for this.
  • Walking safaris are usually shorter and end by 8am as it’s simply too hot to walk. Generally the set departure mobile walking safaris come to an end by the beginning of October at the latest.

Recommendation – this is still a perfect time for a safari as long as you can cope with the heat in October!

Cheetahs-drinking-KZN-BS-1280-pano

Early Summer (November to December)

This is the time that you have to be careful about… November is a tricky month. The first summer rains usually come sometime in early November – though they can be any time from end of October to late November.

This brings blessed release for the wildlife which is wonderful. But – make no mistake – it has clear implications for your safari!

The animals no longer have to come to the waterholes and rivers to drink. In fact they now want to leave those areas because they have eaten most of what’s available there. The grass is gone!

Immediately after the rains is generally not best time for a safari. The open plains now have fresh new grass and lots of surface water, and so the wildlife scatters and heads off into the grasslands – sometimes for hundreds of kilometres. (Remember no fences!)

Downside

  • This means that the game-viewing changes (within 2 weeks) from being excellent to being distinctly on the poor side.

Upside

  • However it’s not all doom and gloom. If you come with appropriate expectations – and we cannot stress that enough – then there is still lots going on.
  • Safari prices reflect this with a change from peak season prices to low season prices usually at the start of November. These are often much lower so you get what you pay for!
  • If you come at the start of November you may even be lucky and arrive before the rains.
  • Immediately the summer rains come, the animals start having babies so this is a time when you will start to see lots of young animals. The bush bursts into colour and of course the summer months are much better for birding with migratory birds arriving to boost the resident species.

BUT please don’t expect to see 100 elephants drinking from the river!

Recommendation

If you are coming to Africa mainly for a safari, consider travelling at a different time – unless you are a keen birder. If you are coming for both general touring and a safari, then consider South Africa. The fenced national parks of the Kruger and Madikwe and private game reserves Sabi Sands , Timbavati and Eastern Cape are not as noticeably affected as the unfenced reserves of Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

safari pricing

 

 Summer to Autumn (January to early May)

Again much of what I said for early summer still applies. BUT, the effect of the rains gradually decreases as the summers continue. The rain usually consists of a heavy downpour once a day. The game-viewing will not be as prolific as in the dry winter months and will be harder to spot because of the lush bush, but it won’t be as absent as immediately after the first rains.

This is called the ‘Emerald Season’ or more prosaically the Green Season. It’s a beautiful time of the year when all is green and lush. All the migratory birds in full breeding plumage – it’s a great time for butterflies, flowers and colourful insects.

The skies are exploding with colour and are very photogenic especially at dawn and sunset so keen photographers often love the summer season. The afternoon rains bring slightly cooler weather – you might even need a sweater just after the rains – though days are hot and sunny.

As the vegetation next to the rivers/waterholes gets renewed the animals start coming back to these areas though not in the big numbers of the dry season. The rains usually stop by mid March and so April and May are also a great time to visit as the bush is starting to dry out.

Downsides
Mosquitoes could be a problem for some people and it is hot and humid (though it is much cooler during and after the rains).

Recommendation

Try to come from late March/April onwards as there is little or no rain, with game sightings on the increase. Its is quiet time of year so you have the bush – and the sightings to yourselves.

Kafue-giraffes-sunset-SS-1280-pano

 

Sometimes you will want to come outside of peak time. If so, check out our Green Season Safari  suggestions for the best places for a safari during those months.

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Tips on Safari Photography Part 1

Tips on Safari Photography Part 2