When is the best time to come on safari?

This is an excellent question, but, like most good questions, it doesn’t have a simple answer.

The good news is that there is always a good safari season in Africa. You just need to be aware of what you want to see and where you’d like to see it – then the ‘when’ becomes pretty simple, thank you to Africa Geographic.

March to May

Weather conditions in Southern Africa are best at this time of year with clear skies, stars forever and golden warm temperatures. Wildlife viewing can be a little patchy in some places as much of the vegetation remains thick, and animals do not need to travel far for water.

It’s autumn in Southern Africa, which means the heat of summer is becoming a memory and the rain has retreated. This is a great time to visit South Africa in particular. On safari, this is probably the best weather you’ll experience both in the Greater Kruger area (national park or the private reserves on the western fringes), the Highveld (Madikwe Game Reserve) and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The days are warm but not blistering, the evenings and mornings are cool but not cold, and there is very little wind or cloud – blue skies for months. The bush is still quite thick after the rainy season, but that’s not to say you won’t have some epic animal encounters with a backdrop of green and gold leaves.

March and April are good months to visit Cape Town, the winelands and the garden route, the edge has come off the summer and the coastal winds are becalmed. Long, languid evenings in the winelands; pristine, uncrowded beaches and changing colours characterise a visit at this time of year. That said, beware into June as the Mediterranean climate will turn wet and windy.

In Namibia, Etosha National Park remains a patchy destination during this period with dispersed water and, therefore, animals. Sossusvlei, however, is stunning – cooling down, not cold and with clear skies for stars that make you feel as if you are living among them (which you are of course!). This is a great time for desert photography both day and night.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is cooler, the risks of being mired in mud are minimal so this is also a good option before the cold of the Kalahari winter. Also in Botswana, Chobe National Park is cooler and drier but not crowded yet. By June, the big zebra herds of the migration will be concentrating on the floodplains of the Chobe River. The Okavango Delta floodwaters have not arrived yet, so you might pick up some great discounts but be aware that only those destinations very close to permanent water will be able to offer water activities (mekoro and motorboat rides).

June to August

This is by far the most popular travel time in much of Africa. It is high-season and most places are priced accordingly. But it is high-season for a reason. Wildlife viewing in Southern Africa is superb, with cooler temperatures allowing for full days of exploring. The floodwaters have arrived in the Okavango and conditions in Zambia and Zimbabwe are perfect. In East Africa, the Great Migration is congregating for the final push up into the Mara – epic river crossings, abundant life – one of nature’s most gobsmacking spectacles.

This is Southern Africa’s most popular time for safaris. It is winter, but in most places, this means chilly mornings and comfortable middays, which allow for full-day excursions and magical picnics in the wilderness that would simply be unpleasant in the sweaty, insect-riddled summer. In the Greater Kruger area of South Africa, the trees are losing their leaves and the water is concentrating, which means much more predictable and reliable wildlife viewing. The winter colours – fading greens and soft yellows – complement the gorgeous wildlife for photographers. The risk of malaria is also negligible.

It can be cold up on South Africa’s highveld (Madikwe Game Reserve), so bring warm clothes or be prepared to satisfy the lodge curio shops’ yearly budgets. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Kalahari are often cold at this time of year, but the days can be warm with excellent sightings as the land dries and the vegetation becomes sparser. That said, the central Kalahari can be rather dusty and priced for the high season.

This is not a great time to visit Cape Town, the Garden Route or the winelands. It is the height of the rainy season – storms borne on driving northwest winds that gave the Cape of Storms its name, batter the coastal areas. That said, if you fancy red wine next to log fires in beautiful, albeit wet, surroundings, the Cape can be good fun at this time and you may well find some great discounts at the more fancied spots.

Namibia comes into its own in the cooler weather. Etosha National Park boasts those iconic scenes of thirsty animals descending on the waterholes and elephants coming out of the salt pan like ghosts – covered in the white, salty dust. Exploring the desert from Swakopmund or any other desert launchpad is excellent on warm winter days. Sossusvlei is chilly in the morning and evening but warm in the middle of the day – a perfect time of year to climb some of the world’s tallest dunes and bask beneath a sky so crisp, it feels like you can see to the end of the universe.

In Botswana, the Okavango Delta floodwaters arrive around July and this magical inland delta turns into the mosaic of crystal channels, green islands and magic wildlife that has made it one of the world’s most popular safari destinations. In Chobe National Park, the elephants are back on the river banks, Savute Game Reserve’s long grasses are receding and game viewing is spectacular. Now is also a great time to explore Makgadikgadi National Park, where you can access the desolate pans and, early on, the massive herds of the zebra migration are on the pans before heading off to the west.

September to November

It’s blazing hot in the south but the game viewing is spectacular with a landscape of gold, copper, grey and bronze. The vegetation is sparse and the animals must concentrate at the remaining water. The Great Migration is thinking about leaving the Mara and heading into the Serengeti. Primate trekking is wet but possible with occasional discounts. The Horn of Africa is cool and magical while this is an excellent time to visit the Indian Ocean islands.

Southern Africa. Spring in the south is possibly not what you’d expect. In South Africa’s Western Cape, it is still wet and windy for September and probably October. In November, you could have a very special time as the winelands transition from winter to spring. Up the Garden Route, you’ll also have a crowd-free experience before the holiday season with empty, endless beaches and odd-ball wine farms. It’s the end of the whale-watching season in Hermanus.

For safari-goers, this is a fascinating time in Southern Africa. As far as animal viewing goes, this is probably the best time of year to visit. It is the height of the dry season, and animals must concentrate around the few remaining water sources. For the birders, each day brings the arrival of a new migratory avian traveller – here to breed for the season or simply enjoy summer’s hospitality.

That said, beware – the ambient temperatures become very hot, very quickly. There is seldom rain and the vegetation is sparse. The trees can remain leafless deep into this period and grass will not flush until the first good rains, which normally come in November (although relieving showers before then are possible.) Latterly, you’ll see the thunderheads forming in the afternoons and, if you’re really lucky you’ll experience that unbelievable feeling as the first rains fall on a parched land – nature’s collective sigh of relief will still you completely.

In the Greater Kruger area of South Africa, the spring safari season arrives like a blast furnace. As herbivores come to drink, predators lie in wait close by. The vegetation is at its sparsest – there are no leaves on the trees, the grass is cropped short. Dust turns the dusk and dawn carmine and peach. The downside for some is that the woodland areas can look harsh – but there is a subtle beauty in the dry copper, bronze and gold that makes for stunning photography.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Kalahari destinations are very hot (much human hydration required) but with astounding scenes at the waterholes – jackals and falcons bombing in to grab thirsty doves and sandgrouse. The same applies to Makgadikgadi National Park in Botswana where the vast dry pans with their islands of ghostly baobabs are accessible to vehicles and even horses. Game viewing on the Boteti River is particularly good in the dry season.

December to February

It’s summer in the south – the migratory birds are in residence, many of them singing their little pharynxes off, attracting mates and building nests. There are baby herbivores all over the place and predators following them. It’s also hot and there is a good chance of rain but an afternoon thunderstorm is the perfect way to end a hot African day. Make sure to bring wet weather gear and take care of malaria areas. Much of East Africa is experiencing the low tourist, secret season so there are parts of this region, Uganda and Ethiopia particularly, that are magnificent around now.

Southern Africa. In general, it is lush, verdant and potentially wet. An exception is South Africa’s Western Cape and Garden Route which boasts a Mediterranean climate. Once the Christmas season crowds have dispersed, Cape Town, the winelands and the Garden Route are stunning. If you come in December, expect a festive jamboree all the way up the coast. Later on, you can expect to enjoy some of the world’s best beaches, quaint seaside towns and glorious scenery with a few locals and other intrepid travellers. The winelands shimmer in the heat and there is nothing quite like sipping a crisp sauvignon blanc as the sun disappears over the rugged, vine-strung valleys.

For the safari-goer, South Africa doesn’t have a poor season to visit. That said, each season has its special charms. During this period, the bush is lush, full of exuberantly breeding birds and baby herbivores. It is also hot and the chances of rain are high (normally in the afternoons). The Greater Kruger region, especially the private lodges on the western fringes, offer good value at this time of year, while Madikwe Game Reserve is an excellent, malaria-free option.

A visit to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park or any Kalahari destination is likely to be blisteringly hot but, at the same time, full of exuberant life making the best of the rare wet. Deception Valley in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve is wonderful at this time of the year but take care of the mud – especially if you are self-driving.

Namibia can also be blistering and it is not the best time to visit Etosha National Park given that the animals are dispersed because of the rains. Sossusvlei can be fascinating at this time of the year – wet with a great sprouting of life that comes with rare moisture in the desert.

Botswana’s Okavango Delta can offer up some good dry safari season discounts but there are no floodwaters, so few lodges can offer water activities. Savute Game Reserve, Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve are attractive because there will be fewer people and many birds but, you’ll find thick bush, a good chance of rain and dispersed animals. It is scenically stunning, however. If you’re of an adventurous disposition and fancy some self-driving, then you need to be careful of getting stuck and should probably plan to travel in convoy with at least one other vehicle. Some areas may be inaccessible if there is very high rainfall.

In Namibia, this is when you’ll find the iconic scenes of springbok, elephant, zebra and eager predators coming down to quench their thirst at Etosha National Park’s waterholes. The Skeleton Coast, cooled by the Atlantic, is a beautiful respite from the heat before taking in the stark majesty of dry safari season Sossusvlei (not that it’s ever exactly wet in the Namib Desert).

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