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Where to Go in Africa in January

South of the equator, January is midsummer. If you’re planning to come to Africa at this time, you might hear things like: it'll be hot, it'll be wet, the wildlife is as widely dispersed as the abundant surface water (instead of conveniently concertrated around waterholes), and some lodges and camps are closed for the "off" season.

I recommend you ignore these negatives: January is a magnificent month in Africa and many regions are wearing their seasonal finery. In several cases, it can be argued, January is the best time to visit certain safari and beach destinations – wildlife migrations are in full swing and the beaches are hot and dry. You’ll also benefit from lower rates, more space to yourself, and for the most part, dry and sunny weather.

And with the month’s top experiences ranging from gorilla trekking and game viewing to scuba diving and wine tasting, it’s clear that you’re not missing out on anything by visiting Africa at this time - the only remaining question is where to go. Here are five destinations that are at their best in January.

Where to go in Africa in January - Sailing to Mnemba Island
Sailing to Mnemba Island

1. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

Go gorilla trekking in Bwindi in, say, April or November and you’ll discover why the rainforests are so named. But January sits in a short dry spell - prime time to embark on what many consider one of nature’s great bucket list experiences: a face-to-face encounter with mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

That’s not to say it’s going to be bone-dry. Bwindi’s equatorial location and average temperatures (stuck in the mid-twenties Celsius) means tropical conditions whatever the month, but January’s drier days make trekking through the forest much easier, especially when the way ahead is lit up by great shafts of sunlight, pouring in from an arboreal vaulted ceiling. Butterflies dance in shimmering clouds in forest clearings. Back at camp, the sunnier weather means you can enjoy walks to local villages and volcanoes – and the scenery is simply stunning.

Where to go in Africa in January - gorilla
Gorilla encounters: one of Africa's best bucket list experiences.
Where to go in Africa in January - gorilla trekking
Gorilla trekking is easiest in the drier months, like January.

How to do it: Stay in one of the homely thatched cottages at Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge, overlooking the national park itself and specialising in gorilla treks. For a complete package, the Fly-in Gorilla Safari takes you swiftly into the heart of the action, finishing with big game viewing at Lake Mburo National Park.

2. Western Cape, South Africa

South Africa’s summer playground groans under the weight of visitors in festive December and its New Year aftermath. But once the revellers have left, the Western Cape gears down as the summer heat builds up.

Cape Town, the Cape Winelands and the Garden Route make great mix-and-match destinations for a January holiday in Africa. The weather is close to perfect and the emphasis is on being outside. Hiring a car makes things easy and gives families and couples the freedom to explore at their own pace.

Start off with Cape Town and summer treats like Kirstenbosch Gardens concerts and sunset drinks on Table Mountain before discovering the Cape Winelands, where whitewashed kitchens serve from-the-garden lunches under oak trees, and wine tastings are held in the coolness of underground cellars. Further afield, the long beaches and warm water of the Indian Ocean’s Garden Route will appeal to families while discreet forest lodges and cliff-top villas make it perfect for couples too.  It’s super easy to add on the private game reserves of the Eastern Cape.

Where to go in Africa in January - Garden Route
Plettenberg Bay: long beaches and warm waters perfect for family vacations.
Where to go in Africa in January - wine tasting
Wine tasting in the Cape's gourmet capital of Franschhoek is a must.
Where to go in Africa in January - Franschhoek
Lunch at a charming post along the Garden Route - perfect for self-drive touring.

How to do it: Couples looking to celebrate will love the Ultimate South African Safari - Cape Town, the Kruger and the January-green Kalahari in one luxurious package. If self-driving is your thing, the Exclusive Cape Journey is a made-for-romance journey that includes some of the region’s most intimate accommodation while the Garden Route Meander blends the Western Cape’s best beaches with Big 5 viewing.

3. Southern Serengeti, Tanzania

Predators have been tracking the annual Masai Mara/Serengeti migration for millennia; humans may have traded their spears and rifles for cameras and camcorders, but the heaving, chaotic event – over a million wildebeest, antelope and zebra on the hoof - thunders on regardless.

In January, the heat is definitely on in the plains of the Southern Serengeti where about eight thousand wildebeest calves are born each day. If recent rains produced good grazing, the animals feed frenziedly to carry them through to the next stage of the Great Migration. Needless to say, the herds are under constant attack from the Serengeti’s fearsome predators. Big cats take the lion’s share - pardon the pun - but hit-and-run jackals and packs of wild dog and hyena add to the drama. If you’ve ever wanted to see tooth and claw in grisly action – the Southern Serengeti in January is one of your best opportunities. 

Where to go in Africa in January - Southern Serengeti
The Southern Serengeti welcomes about 8,000 wildebeest calves a day early in the year, making January a prime time to visit.
Where to go in Africa in January - Masek Under Canvas
Exclusive comfort and all the thrills at Masek Under Canvas.
Where to go in Africa in January - Serengeti sunrise
Sunrise in the Serengeti.

How to do it: Masek Under Canvas and Ubuntu Camp couldn’t do it better. Open only in migration season, these sophisticated, colonial-style tented camps put you in the pound seats, offering game drives, balloon safaris and guided walks to catch all the action. For a more comprehensive East African itinerary, the Luxury Migration, Lake and Crater Safari combines Kenya’s Masai Mara with Tanzania’s heavyweight highlights.

4. Kalahari, Botswana

January lies firmly in the clutch of Botswana’s rainy season; the massed elephant herds on the Chobe River have dispersed, dry-season waterholes lie abandoned. Further south, in the Kalahari, the rains have transformed the red thorny scrub into a teeming green wonderland. Shallow lakes attract flocks of flamingos; big cats stalk herds of jumpy springbok and their lambs; and the air whizzes and hisses with swooping birds, drawn to insect swarms and wild fires.

It’s the Kalahari at its best, and it’s not even all that wet: the average rainfall for January in the Kalahari town of Ghanzi is 104mm. And it falls, on average, over a meagre nine days. You won’t need an umbrella – in fact, you may not even witness the rain itself. Bird watchers will be stunned at the diversity of the Kalahari’s birdlife while wildlife photographers will be delighted by the imagery afforded by one of the Kalahari’s best-kept secrets – the summer zebra migration.

Where to go in Africa in January - pronking springbok
The sheer joy of a pronking springbok.
Where to go in Africa in January - Cheetah in the Kalahari
Cheetahs thrive in the flat, open plains.

How to do it: The Botswana Summer Explorer kicks off with three nights in Deception Valley, made famous by the book ‘Cry of the Kalahari’ and made notorious by its concentration of predators. Finish with Botswana’s game-filled northern wetlands and majestic Victoria Falls.

5. Zanzibar and Mombasa, East African coast

If the view from your window is of a cold and soggy January day, consider the fact that on East Africa’s balmy Indian Ocean coast, the water and air temperature is nearly the same: a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius (77 Farenheit). In Mombasa, January is the second driest month of the year; in Zanzibar, the year’s first month averages a total of five rainy days. If you want a hot and dry beach holiday – Kenya and Tanzania’s coast in January is hard to beat.

Mombasa is a busy port but south of the city lies squeaky-clean Diani Beach with family resorts and boutique hotels. If you’re into big game fishing, it’s the sailfish and marlin season; if you prefer to be underwater, it's a good time for scuba diving and snorkelling – head for Zanzibar and its outlying islands, such as Mnemba, Mafia and Pemba, for epic reef diving. If you plan to dive off the main island, keep south for the best conditions.

Where to go in Africa in January - Mnemba Island Lodge
Mnemba Island Lodge is ideal for snorkelling.
Where to go in Africa in January - Afrochic Diani
Afrochic Diani is an ideal tropical resort.

How to do it: With only 10 suites,Afrochic Diani isone of the most intimate hotels on the coast. There’s everything from diving and golf and game drives and elephant encounters on offer but if you want a more complete package, the Fantastic Mara and Zanzibar Adventure combines classic game viewing with a week at a Zanzibar resort. The Extravagant Tanzania and Zanzibar Escape follows the safari and beach theme; its sweeping itinerary takes in East Africa’s top game viewing destinations and ends off on a castaway island.

Travelling to these destinations can be done with relative ease. Fly straight into the heart of the action, whether it’s the Kalahari, Bwindi or the Serengeti, from international travel hubs Nairobi and Johannesburg. And after all those early-morning starts on safari, adding on a rewarding beach holiday is even easier. Connect with Mombasa or Cape Town via regional flights, sit back on a sun-drenched beach and wonder what all the fuss about January in Africa was about.

Written by Dominic Chadbon. Connect with him on Google+.

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