When to go on an African Safari
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There is no singular best time for an African safari. Each country and park are preferred in different months by different appeal, with the distinct wet and dry seasons creating alternate experiences. The landscape changes color and the wildlife changes its location, offering distinct wildlife encounters at different times of the year. Traditionally, the dry season is seen as best for game viewing. But wildlife doesn't just vanish and the off-peak wet season can offer stunning impressions of exploring the wilderness alone.
An Overview of Africa's Seasons
Seasons work so predictably when you're in the northern hemisphere; temperatures are rising and falling, trees shedding their leaves, landscapes defined by spring and fall colors. Take a photo through the window and there are a thousand clues as what time of year it was taken. Seasons provide the same predictability in Africa, although the clues of nature are different to those at home. Africa's seasons are predominantly marked by rains. There are dry seasons and wet seasons. In some countries, they're called long rains and short rains. In others, it's named specifically as the rainy season. Regardless of the vernacular, Africa's landscapes are dictated by seasonal offerings provided by the sky. Rain transforms the landscape, the annual bounty producing a feast for flora and fauna. Animals move with the seasons, spreading during the rains and congregating close to the permanent water as the landscape becomes scorched through the dry season. These seasons play a huge role in the safari experience and dictate the answer to when is best to visit Africa for safari.
Deciding vacation dates based on the rains isn't geared towards sunbathing around a pool or packing the umbrella. Visitors are naturally attracted to the idea of staying dry. For animals and locals, the rainy season is something everyone looks forward to. Certain tribes even conduct ceremonies to celebrate or encourage the rains to arrive, a relatively natural reaction in a habitat of drought, not that far removed from tourists crossing their fingers for dry, sunny days on vacation. But for an African safari, dry and wet seasons isn't about whether you get wet. These two distinct times of year have a huge effect on both the landscape and the wildlife that inhabits it. Consequently, they provide contrasting safari experiences.
The rains bring fertility, transforming the landscape into a luscious haven. Huge plains of grass rise to shoulder-height, trees blossom and flower, dormant vegetation ignites into life, and rivers flow once more. The change is remarkable. In just one or two weeks a scorched yellow landscape can erupt into a carpet of lavish greens and kaleidoscopic tones. This fertility is pounced upon by wildlife. After months of scratching and competing over shrinking food sources, the herds can now spread and dine on nature's bounty. Those flowering trees become monkey and giraffe food. Shoulder-high grass gets chomped down to ankle level as thousands of ungulates feast. Revived vegetation is enjoyed by browsers while flourishing rivers allow mammals to stray far from their traditional range. While less iconic, these wet luxuriant landscapes, when Africa is in bloom, are undoubtedly more pleasing on the eye than the brittle and burnt remnants before the rains arrive.
Here's why it's so important to the safari experience. During the dry season, wildlife must fight for meagre resources. Their migrations and movements become predictable. The majority will stay within relatively easy reach of permanent water, often a river that runs through a park or a series of waterholes yet to shrivel. Especially as the dry season draws to an end, and the landscape holds its breath in anticipation, so much life is concentrated around water or vegetation that's still alive. When the rains come, wildlife scatters. It moves to feast on the newly found abundance. The availability of water allows herds and individuals to explore new areas, knowing that there's a new fluid bounty. The animals cover a wider range, and there's less space on the landscape. This makes it more challenging to spot some of the safari favorites, particularly the predators. High grass and flourishing vegetation now provide shade and concealment; the landscape feels less open, and you must look harder to spot most animals.
This is a classic example of dry and wet seasons playing out, something that reigns true in many national parks. Such iconic examples are also more prevalent in flat open landscapes. In a continent the size of Africa, there's always subtleties and nuances that challenge the norm. Explore valleys or visit mountain slopes and the distinction isn't as clear-cut. Deltas might flourish in the dry season because the rain takes three months to snake its way down the highlands. Long-distance migratory patterns are dictated by peculiar breaks in predictability or localized climate phenomenon. Some species defy traditional logic, like the antelopes that don't need to drink so they can stay far away from the drama at a river. So while seasons bring a certain predictability, there's often something unusual that symbolizes an alternative means of survival.
Other than Christmas and New Year vacations, peak and off-peak safari seasons equate to the dry and wet seasons, with the core peak months for safari being those at the end of the dry season. The dry season traditionally offers better wildlife viewing. Therefore, it's the most popular time. Wet season can make some trails flooded and impassable, meaning certain national parks are avoided for weeks or months at a time. Malaria risk and the prevalence of mosquitos is also elevated during the wet season, another factor that has people leaning towards the dry months.
But there's a huge caveat to consider when following any advice on the best time to visit a particular country or park; Everyone is thinking the same way. Tourism numbers are concentrated during these – often well-advertised – prime months. That means more safari vehicles, busier camps, and increased prices. Some parks operate on such a large scale that increased visitor numbers make a little change to the experience; the difference between 20 and 200 safari trucks is less keenly felt when it's over a national park the size of Belgium. Private reserves and private concessions border national parks, are often able to provide exclusivity all year round, catering for just a dozen or fewer guests in regal style. But in some destinations, people can find that the abundance of vehicles and tourists detracts from the experience. A leopard in hunt mode is a wonderful sight, solemnly prowling through the grass towards an unsuspecting gazelle herd. It's less enchanting when 15 safari trucks surround the scene, and another ten are shooting up dust as they accelerate towards the action. Visit the Maasai Mara outside migration system and you can have great swathes of wilderness all to yourself. As soon as the wildebeest cross the Mara River and enter Kenya you might have to look hard to find a panorama that doesn't feature four wheels.
So Is There a Perfect Time for African Safari?
So while parks and reserves often have an “ideal” time to visit, there is no perfect time to go on an African safari. Take the Maasai Mara once more. Arrive outside migration season and you'll still see large herds of wildebeest, the males rutting and galloping in redolent displays of strength There will still be many predators on the prowl (most of them don't have the stamina to follow the migration) and a great chance to see genuine hunting scenes. Even the notion of a perfect time of seeing the great wildebeest migration is a false one. 2 million mammals don't vanish if you arrive at the “wrong” time. These animals are always around, and you'll see them doing different things in different places at different times of the year. Likewise, while wildlife disperses during the rains, it doesn't disappear. It still inhabits the park and can be readily spotted on the safari; you'll just need to take a different route and look a little more closely.
From certain perspectives, the wet off-peak season could also be considered the ideal time to visit. The landscapes are more vibrant and alluring, impressing the camera with their rainbows of color. Ungulate herds skip and dance, delighted faces adding another focal point to the landscape. Many species time their calving season to coincide with the flourishing fertility of the land; babies are much easier to raise when food is readily available, and the daily gauntlet to a waterhole can be avoided. The safari adventure intensifies, muddy trails providing a layer of adrenaline to the game drive and denser vegetation bringing increased intimacy, especially in woodland areas.
The major factor in choosing less-popular months is the limited number of other tourists. There's a far greater sense of wilderness when you go a full day without seeing another safari truck. Wildlife may even be found closer to a camp or trail due to the lack of vehicles and noise in the park. There are undoubtedly some months which may be best to avoid and these are relative to the individual parks rather than applicable to an entire country. But outside of these individual times, an argument could be put forward to go on safari at any time during the year.
The Nuance of Dry and Wet Seasons
The presence of rain neatly divides the year into clear seasons: it's wet or dry. However, the landscape doesn't respond to such defined changes during the dry season. Rain offers a swift transformation, bringing colors and vitality to the habitat. This remains clearly apparent at the start of the dry season. In fact, arrive in the first month of the dry season and everything still resembles a wet season environment. Only gradually does the fertility wane. Only after a few months must wildlife huddle together close to permanent water. This is why the publicized “ideal” time to visit a national park is at the end of the dry season.
Temperature on African Safari
Temperatures don't follow the same easy pattern. Southern Africa's rainy season comes during the summer, bringing an increase in heat humidity. In East Africa, the long rains, and the month just after this deluge, is the coolest time of the year. Most of Africa is undoubtedly hot, but the temperatures remain relatively steady, rising into the low 90's but exceeding this only on rare occasions. Conversely, it can get chilly at night through the coldest time of the year, and thick sweaters and blankets required to enjoy the outdoor views. The individual country pages have more detail on temperature and climate.
Shoulder Transition Seasons
In many national parks, there's a fluid, sweet time-frame, a time that provides the best of dry and wet season safari conditions. It remains quiet, yet the rain has rescinded, wildlife is becoming easier to spot, the grasses aren't high, but the landscape's vitality remains. These shoulder transition seasons are an excellent time for a safari. Pinpointing a perfect week is impossible as these habitats change every year. Water arrives at slightly different times and releases differing amounts of annual rainfall. Any month at the start or end of a season is likely to be a month of transition, a versatile time that can mix something for everyone.
Scorched savannah burns through a rainbow of reds and oranges, the brittle grass reflecting the sun's loop across the sky. Trees are stripped and blackened, some reduced to elegant silhouettes that mark the horizon. You can sense the lack of water. Desperation is etched into the faces of ungulates, lions lounge with excessive laziness, and the landscape cracks beneath your feet. The heart of the dry season feels evocatively dry. It seems like the landscape is waiting for rain, pushing itself through the days before the bounty arrives. Spiraling pockets of dust skirt across the land, emitted from elephant footsteps, cantering herds, or flutters of wind. For many people, this stark baked landscape reflects the Africa of their imagination.
It's not always so severe. The dry feel increases day by day, intensified in the month before the rains are due. Over the season the water gradually disappears, waterholes shriveling, rivers withering, vegetation plucked of its exuberant color. While the wet season brings a dramatic and almost instantaneous transformation, the dry months alter the landscape slowly and gradually, draining it of its life. Compare the months following and preceding the wet season and you'll have a huge difference in vibrancy and feel.
As the name suggests, the weather will be dry. The lack of moisture means it's a dry heat without intense humidity. However, consistently clear skies do mean long days of sunshine, something that can be tiring if you're exposed. While safari vehicles ensure you're mostly in the shade, walking safaris are restricted to the cooler hours. At this time of year, the wide-rimmed safari hats aren't just for show.
Why the Dry Season is an Ideal Time for Safari
Traditionally, wildlife is considered easier to see during the dry season. During these months, the location of wildlife is more concentrated and predictable, there are fewer places for animals to hide, and the prevalence of weaker animals makes for evocative contests between predator and prey. Here's how it works:
As the dry season progresses, the landscape is gradually stripped of its resources. Monkey pick away the fruit from trees, elephants uproot trunks as they march through the savannah; water evaporates into the blue sky, and grass is mowed down by grazing herds. As the months roll by, wildlife must compete for increasingly limited resources. Sporadically fertile areas become dry and empty once more. The landscape's scarcity takes its victims, a habitat's finite resources only able to sustain a limited number of mouths. You can often predict how this might look by investigating the quantity of wildlife in a particular park or reserve. The elephants of Chobe and the wildebeest of the Serengeti suggest a landscape fertile enough to support staggering numbers. But these are rare examples. Most habitats are finely balanced, and no species dominates.
Water is at the core of competition and the battle to survive the barren months. Almost everything gradually comes to depend on the same permanent water sources; rivers, waterholes, lakes, even dried up riverbeds that hide underground channels. The landscape is more fertile around this water. In particular, look out for the increased density of trees along a river. Naturally, increased fertility means increased food, which attracts the herbivores which in turn attract the carnivores. Many species must drink regularly, so they must stick close to channels of permanent water.
With wildlife predictably concentrated close to the permanent water source, it's easier to locate on a safari. While a national park might be the size of a U.S. state, for some months, only a fragment will be alive with mammal movements. Journey close to a river or tour the waterholes and you should encounter most of the park's wildlife. Furthermore, there are fewer places for animals to hide. The grass is short, and the trees shed of their greenery. Necks and tails pop up above the grass, tangible betrayers of camouflage that can't be concealed. Big cats lounge in the grass, but they're not fully submerged, a fur of spots hanging elegantly above the ground. Remember that this dry season change is gradual. The start of the dry season still looks and feels very much like the wet season, just with clear skies. Then the culmination of the dry season is this battle for survival magnified.
Ironically, the increase in vehicles and tourists can ultimately make certain animals harder to spot, even though the magnified numbers are because it should be prime wildlife spotting time. You'll be hard pressed to find an animal who enjoys noise and traffic. When the trail of vehicles moves from sporadic to regular, wildlife prefers to keep its distance and seek distant hiding places. This is especially relevant to Africa's more elusive and rarer characters. But some are never shy. Lionesses waltz over to a safari truck and lie down in its shade, resting with a yawn as wide eyes look on. Soon there are six safari vehicles watching on, the rest of the pride finding their own piece of mechanical shadow.
The dry season brings other benefits. A lack of water means fewer mosquitos and a lowered malaria risk, something very beneficial for family safaris; parts of a Botswana safari and Namibia safari only present a malaria risk during the wet season. Roads are as accessible as they can be, dry and dusty rather than wet and slippy, meaning you can explore everywhere in a national park. In Southern Africa, the dry season also coincides with the cooler winter temperatures.
The Safari Experience During the Dry Season
The predictability of clear skies provides further help in seeking out wildlife. In the cooler morning hours wildlife is active; ungulates are cantering around, large mammals indelibly playful, predators out on the trail of breakfast. By 9 am or 10 am, the ground is already starting to bake. A safari truck brings shade for you at least, but animals are already seeking out scraps of the shadowed ground. As the sun sits high in the sky, the landscape's energy is drained. By midday and early afternoon, most are at rest, with or without shade. The young recline and rest, watchful mothers grazing unhurriedly nearby. Whole herds gather beneath a single acacia. Lions pant as they slumber, eyes open but body empty. Those that keep moving do so almost in slow motion. The change can be staggering. In the cooler morning hours wildebeest charge around like wound-up batteries, suddenly surging and racing across the plains as if wired incorrectly. Males rut, straggly hair waving in the wind as they unravel this ball of energy. By early afternoon, they tiredly plod along and rest whenever shade is encountered.
During the dry season, game viewing is very different throughout the day. Leaving early allows you to see the habitat when it's alive with energy. Sunrise and early-morning game drives are always recommended as they increase the chances of spotting more elusive wildlife and scenes. It's also a more memorable time to admire the regulars of the landscape; antelopes are far more enchanting when the herd is animated. Walking safaris, hot-air balloon trips, horse-riding, and cycle safaris are also preferable before the midday heat kicks in. When the afternoon heat rescinds the energy returns, mammals are awoken from their siesta, wound back up with energy. This is also a good time for game drives. On most safaris the itinerary is flexible, and guides will discuss when you want to depart in the morning. While vacations should be relaxing, safari is a little wasted if you're always having a lie in.
A dawn safari at the peak of the dry season, when a scorched landscape brings the mesmerizing nuance of yellow, brown, and red, provides game viewing at its absolute prime. Wildlife is visible and active, so many species visible in a relatively small area. While the sun and heat can be draining, but camps and lodges always provide space for a languid afternoon when required. The major disadvantage to safari at this time, especially in the weeks immediately preceding the rains, is the popularity. This is peak season and it comes with increased tourism numbers. Safari vehicles, like animals, are pulled to a concentrated area. Whether this is significantly detrimental depends on your impression of safari. Some don't mind being around many other safari trucks. Having so many eyes on the lookout ensures that nothing is missed, especially when guides are in radio contact with each other. Other visitors prefer more secluded quieter times when escapism and wilderness are more apparent.
The name sometimes provides too much of a clue. The wet season suggests rain. Lots of it. You're expecting tropical deluges throughout the day and huge storms are engulfing the landscape, which isn't necessarily true. Rains in Africa come in all forms and shapes, from trickling daily drizzle to ferocious ten minutes of colossal droplets. It arrives at irregular intervals, a few days of rain followed by a week of dry weather, or a single flash storm and then a lingering wait for the next burst of dark clouds. It's certainly possible to go on safari in the wet season and not see a single drop. Rain predominantly falls in the evening and through the night, especially in East Africa's wet season. Some drops might linger through the morning, but the heavy unstoppable rains very rarely impact on safari activities. In Namibia and Central Botswana, the wet season lasts for five or six months, but it might only rain a handful of occasions.
Rain transforms, reenergizing the landscape with instantaneous force. Grass surges to monumental height, leaves return and grace revitalized branches, vegetation jumps to life, a fresh rainbow of colors dominate the landscape. The abundance is clearly visible, and the vitality is contagious, passed from habitat to inhabitants. Wildlife is radiant as it enjoys the bounty. Calves arrive, stumbling and staggering beneath the unflinching gaze of a protective herd. Ungulates dance with energy, grazing and browsing with a ferocious appetite. Predators no longer compete with each other, each able to stick to its home range and find ample food. Large mammals thump and thud through the trees, eating a little bit here and a little bit there. Birdsong erupts, replacing the arid silence as flamboyant wings cut across sheets of standing water. It's undoubtedly a beautiful time, the landscape in full blossom and at its most extravagant. Just like when stark snowy winter erupts into a green spring, a habitat's wet season is buoyed by the impression of possibility.
Grass flourishes, nature's most hardy feature bursting out from slumber, quickly demonstrating its longevity as it covers the vistas with towering swathes. Often it can rise over a meter in height, creating hundreds perhaps thousands of square miles of thick green plains that are occasionally dotted with marsh and swamp. High grass is dangerous for ungulates. It looks inviting, tempting the grazers in with its flushed promise. But it's the easiest place for an ambush. Many of the big cats adore these hidden enclaves. Solitary hunters can rest and hunt without being seen. So when the grass is high, it becomes extremely challenging to spot leopards, cheetahs, and Africa's small cats. Lions are a slight exception; they prefer to rest on drier ground but will still use the high grass as cover for hunting.
Why the Wet Season is Ideal for African Safari
While the locals celebrate the arrival of rains, the majority of tourists stay away. Very few people go on safari in the wet season. Some parks are virtually empty, devoid of wheels or the shouts of other tourists. This off-peak time enables you to appreciate fully the enormity of the wilderness, just you and your guide roaming through thousands of square miles of uninterrupted terrain. Sounds and sights aren't interrupted, and you watch unhindered, losing yourself in a scene that's devoid of human involvement. There's an unflinching sense of escapism, a vast habitat becoming a private reserve for unbridled exploration. This is particularly beneficial for low to mid-end multi-day safaris in popular destinations. It's less noticeable in private concessions as they can offer an exclusivity throughout the year.
Safari accommodation has tiered pricing with off-peak months cheaper than the prime dry season. This can be a significant saving, especially for mid-range safaris. Furthermore, limited numbers of guests offer an increased intimacy; sitting around a fire as giraffe wander past is even more idyllic when it's just you and your partner. You're unlikely to end up at a camp that's in the “wrong” part of the park. Some camps and lodges close at the height of the rains, a helpful indication of when parts of a park become too inaccessible. Safari companies are also adept at picking the right accommodation for the time of year, being flexible to meet client's needs.
Energy and vitality add further enchantment during safari activities, especially when encountering the plains mammals. A herd of 100 standing zebra looks cute and photogenic. The same herd on the move is a very different experience, black and white streams calving across swathes of green. This is when animals are strong. Localized migrations are taking place, and there's an obvious show of movement. Calves arrive during this time of indulgence, able to dine on the landscape's bounty. But they must be carefully watched. Baby ungulates attract a diversified collection of predators, including birds of prey, jackal, and relatively elusive small cats. Bachelor males seek confrontation, testing the boundaries of harems and announcing their challenge. There's still a wild tension to the atmosphere, more fluctuating and volatile than in the dry season, but equally hypnotic.
The Safari Experience During the Wet Season
Clouds scatter the sky, remnants of last night's shower slowly filtering away. Pockets of shade flicker across the ground and it's noticeably cooler with this shelter from the sun. Most wildlife still rises early and is very active in the morning hours. But there's not the same search for shade and the same mid-afternoon dip in energy. Even at midday, you might see lionesses wandering across the plains, something unthinkable during the dry season. Ungulates feast, eating on the move as they seek out the freshest grazing and browsing. Hippos can be spotted out of the water, having a morning snack when the cloud cover is strong. There's less need to seek cover from the sun, meaning more animals are out in the open for a longer part of the day.
At this time of year, there's less emphasis on timing safari to coincide with the coolest part of the day, although you'll still benefit from rising early. However, actual rain can be an annoyance during any safari activity. Black clouds and torrents can easily rip the color from the landscape, something that's particularly detrimental for keen photographers. Even when it clears, those gray skies can mean your stills potentially lack vitality. On game drives, you shouldn't get wet, with the vehicle's roof keeping you dry. Other safari activities might be postponed if the skies look menacing. Remember that it isn't always raining. Even at the height of the wet season, you might not encounter any actual rain during safari activities. Consideration of the actual rain is more pertinent for visits to Africa's beach destinations or climbing its mountains, where the inches of rainfall are higher.
With wildlife dispersed there's an increased perception of surprise. Animals spread to distant ranges, often crossing to areas outside a park's boundaries. As you explore, it's hard to predict what will be encountered and an unscripted day slowly unfolds. Remember, just because wildlife is harder to spot doesn't mean that it's disappeared. And while the quantity of animals seen might be lower, the quality of individual sights is elevated.
Unfortunately, there are no defined dates that are easily applicable to the whole continent. Dry season on one coast might be wet season elsewhere. Even within a country, there can be large disparities in climate and seasons. The overviews of Africa's safari destinations provide more detailed and individualized information. As a general overview:
- Botswana – Dry season from April / May through to around November. The wet season is during the summer from November to March / April, with January and February having the most days with rain. Note that the floods arrive in the Okavango Delta around June, after a three-month journey from Angola.
- Namibia – Officially, the dry season is May to October and wet season November to April. However, don't expect much rain. Namibia is true desert, and rainfall is sporadic.
- South Africa – Huge diversity. The north follows a climate akin to Botswana although less predictable and defined. Cape Town and the South follows a temperate almost Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers (November to March) and cooler wetter winters (June to August).
- Tanzania and Kenya – Dry and relatively cool from June to October. Infrequent rains form a wet season from late-October to December, known as the short rains. Dry and hot January to mid-March. Abundant rainfall in April and May, known as the long rains. A Northern Kenya safari and Southern Tanzania safari have a drier climate than the central belt of national parks either side of the border between the two countries.
- Uganda and Rwanda – These high-altitude countries have significantly more rainfall than Kenya and Tanzania. December – early March and June to September is dry season although it still rains sporadically, especially in the rainforest. The wet season is very wet.
Where to go During Wet and Dry Seasons
A general overview of countries' climate is the starting point. Each national park and safari destination reacts a little differently, and it's useful to consider each individually. Some can become inaccessible at the height of the wet season, with impassable roads restricting movement. At the height of the peak season, some of the smaller parks and reserves can feel a little crowded. Large national parks and exclusive private concessions can continue without an interruption to the escapism. The individual destination pages provide more detailed information.
The Increasing Unpredictability of Africa's Seasons
Local tribes living in these environments have a remarkable intuition. By following the sky's change they can pinpoint the day, rains will arrive. Everyone gets ready to plough and plant, and the sky unfurls right on cue. There's no need for a weather forecast or barometer. It's something you learn over the years. Scroll back 50 years and many of these tribes could predict the arrival dates of the rains a year in advance. There was a metronomic consistency to the seasons. This is changing, just as the climate across the world is changing. Wet and dry season dates are no longer as definitive. Dates are stretching and changing as rain arrives earlier or later. This can cause some distress to those trying to pinpoint a safari to the last or first weeks of the dry season. There's also an increasing amount of unseasonal weather. Remember, fixed dates are an easy fix to what is a fluid phenomenon.
To combat the unpredictability when deciding when to go, look at the months at the heart of a dry or wet season. If the wet season is given as March to May, then there's a very strong possibility that April is the wettest month. If dry season is May to November, then July and August are unlikely to have rain. In essence, those months on the edge of seasons are shoulder months, increasingly prone to a climate's unpredictability.