The arrival of May during my northern hemisphere childhood promised the long, warm and sometimes sunny days of summer. South of the equator, however, things are heading in the opposite direction. Days are shortening and chairs are getting pulled a little closer to the campfire.
Africa’s cooler temperatures coincide with drier weather as summer’s great rainclouds wring themselves out and fade into winter’s empty blue sky. Having been soaked in summer, Southern Africa’s best safari destinations – the Kruger National Park, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia – are now drying out quickly. Game viewing is becoming easier as summer’s generous greenery fades and big herds of zebra, elephant and buffalo move from rainy-season pastures to dry-season wetlands, their stragglers attracting the attention of predators.
But May’s fine weather is not just confined to Southern Africa’s parks and reserves. Much of South Africabasks in some of the year’s best weather and it’s a clever month to take a trip to the Indian Ocean too. Considering that May is a ‘shoulder season’ month – a pleasant combination of almost-peak-but-certainly-not-low season – travellers to Africa will also benefit from more room availability and no high-season crowds.
I recommend Botswana as a destination from May until October but, in May, the weather is sublime – warm sunny days and mild nights with a just snuggle of chilliness makes it a perfect month to tour Africa’s gold-standard safari destination.
Summer’s lush grazing is over and animals prepare for the dry and hungry winter. Out on the Kalahari grasslands, clouds of dust signal the approach of massed zebra herds – bickering and mane-tossing – as they make their way to winter wetlands further north. The first big herds of elephant start appearing in the Chobe River and Linyanti regions, a taste of the thousands that will arrive in the depths of the dry season. Another phenomenon is also underway: the Okavango Delta is quietly, slowly and very steadily flooding into its dry southern fingertips.
It is one of Nature’s practical jokes: as most of Botswana dries out for winter, its biggest wetland – and the world’s biggest inland delta – gratefully receives billions of litres of clean fresh water, trickling down from the distant Angolan mountains. You can even walk ahead of the creeping water as it inches down dry, hoof-scuffed channels. Great shimmering floodplains form and ephemeral rivers and lakes slowly fill up. You can imagine where all the animals are heading.
How to do it: Camp Kalahari is a great place to take in the end of the zebra migration while this 8-day trip makes the most out of its itinerary to deliver two beautiful Okavango Delta camps and a hint of adventure at super-wild Savute in the Chobe National Park.
Top Tip: Combine your Botswana safari with a few days at Victoria Falls. This gigantic southern Africa waterfall has just come out of its peak months (March and April) which means you'll be able to see beyond the spray. View Vic Falls from the air or enjoy a leisurely sunset cruise upriver.
The Garden Route & the Eastern Cape – South Africa
Combining South Africa’s Eden-like Garden Route with the game reserves of the Eastern Cape delivers a safari and beach holiday with a difference. Ideal for a self-drive adventure or a sit-back-and-relax guided tour, this coastal region blends scenery, experience and relaxation in equal measures.
Start in Cape Town. Why not? May sees mild and sunny weather in the Mother City and you can take in Table Mountain and the Cape Winelands in a couple of easy days. Then engage cruise mode and tour the Garden Route, on the Western Cape’s picturesque and unspoilt Indian Ocean coastline. There are cliff-top hotels, family villas and romantic hideaways to stay at and activities range from golf to dolphin watching.
And then it gets really interesting. The call of the wild still echoes in the broad valleys of the Eastern Cape – it is big game country and home to lion, leopard and cheetah as well as elephant, rhino and buffalo. Staying at one of the handful of private reserves puts you in the pound seats for game viewing and, since the entire region is malaria-free, you can enjoy the thrills of Big 5 game viewing without the health risks – perfect for families with young children.
How to do it: this 16-day Cape Town, Winelands and Garden Route trip is a slow-paced self-drive itinerary that begins with all the attractions of Cape Town and the Winelands before taking in country manor accommodation along the Garden Route and a Big 5 finale in the Eastern Cape – perfect for families, groups of friends and couples.
Top Tip: Combine your Garden Route and Eastern Cape holiday with more safari adventures at malaria-free Madikwe (great for families) or discover the luxurious side of a South Africa Safari with a few days in the exclusive Sabi Sands on the border of the Kruger National Park.
kwaZulu-Natal – South Africa
Speaking of beach and safari combinations, how about taking it to a sub-tropical level? South Africa’s kwaZulu-Natal province is often overlooked by international visitors jetting in to Cape Town and the Kruger but KZN, as it likes to be known, has game reserves brimming with the big 5 and its golden, palm-fringed beaches provide tropical retreats on par with the world's best.
It is hot and humid during the rainy summer but May has lovely visitor-friendly weather – mild and dry – which makes it the perfect time to discover what KwaZulu-Natal has to offer. There are historic battlefield sites to visit, country lanes to dawdle along and epic mountain scenery. Private game reserves like Phinda, Thanda and Mkuzi have earned international reputations for diverse and rewarding game viewing as well as superb bird watching. Enjoy day and night game drives and guided walks wrapped up in a wildlife experience as appealing to Africionados as it is to safari first-timers.
How to do it: families will love this week-long self-drive tour: two of kwaZulu-Natal’s most child-friendly accommodations are on the itinerary of this 8-day holiday plan – one on the Indian Ocean coast, the other in a private Big 5 game reserve.
The Quirimbas, Bazaruto & the Seychelles
You would think that a holiday to an Indian Ocean hideaway would be a no-brainer all year round but there is more to it than just turning up on some archipelago ready for the hammock and room service.
Mozambique’s Bazaruto and Quirimbas archipelagos are divine in May. The cyclone season is long over as is the scorching heat of mid-summer. And as cooler and calmer weather kicks in, conditions underwater improve leading to greater visibility for divers and snorkelers. Bazaruto is home to larger, more-established resorts as well as smaller boutique getaways while the Quirimbas is more of an exclusive, private-island experience. Both are equally suitable for families or couples and each combines easily with a safari in Southern or East Africa.
Top Tip: Combine your kwaZulu-Natal holiday with a luxurious train journey. Rovos Rail is the epitome of style, class and elegance, and is the perfect way to celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary. We recommend the 7-day Cape Town and Railway Journey for beautiful views and a superb Cape Town stay, or the Best of South Africa Train Journey for nine glorious days through South Africa's most scenic regions.
The Seychelles in May is a great month as it manages to tick several boxes without really trying. Underwater visibility is at its peak – up to a staggering 30 metres or close to a hundred feet – and the weather is warm and mostly dry.
How to do it: our 12-day journey through Kruger, Zimbabwe and Mozambique will be a hard one to forget: six nights divided between two extraordinary safari destinations followed by a dazzling boutique resort in the Bazaruto Archipelago. If that does not entice you, try a 12-day Kruger and private island experience, blending the exclusivity of the Quirimbas with the Big 5 thrills and spills of a Kruger Park concession. Another amazing romantic getaway is a 14-day Cape, Kruger and Mozambique journey - an incredible combination of three of our favourite destinations.
And for a holiday fit for a king, our 9-day Kruger and Seychelles Honeymoon sets the bar high: sumptuous safari accommodation in a private Kruger reserve and a tree-top villa in the Seychelles.
May has long been one of my favourite months in Africa. The weather is just about perfect if you go to the right places, and its status as a ‘shoulder season’ means you get most of the advantages of peak season without all the downsides of low season. It also marks the start of the most popular time to travel for a safari in Southern Africa – June to October – so you can get in first before the crowds arrive and the prices go up. Then you can return to that northern hemisphere summer we were talking about…