As Africa Safari Experts, we’ve broken down the benefits of travelling in safari high and low seasons into this informative infographic to help you choose the right time of year for your for Big 5 vacation.
HIGH OR PEAK SEASON
WHEN Africa’s winter runs from about May to October (ie northern hemisphere summer). Most of Africa experiences spring and summer rain (November to April or the northern hemisphere winter), which propels grazing and fills rivers so the animals can survive a dry winter.
WEATHER Expect cool to cold mornings and evenings with warm afternoons. It will be dry with sunny skies.
WHAT TO PACK Morning and afternoon game drives will be very cool so dress in layers. If you are prone to feeling the cold, bring gloves, a scarf, a beanie, long trousers, a fleece jacket and closed shoes – all in browns, greens and greys. Game-drive vehicles may have hot-water bottles and blankets to keep you cosy. In South Africa, vehicles are generally totally open (without roofs) so you may experience a cool breeze while driving.
Even though it is winter, bring sunglasses, a hat and eco-friendly sunscreen. Click here for a full list of what to pack.
WHAT THE ANIMALS ARE DOING The biggest advantage to travelling at this time of year is that the game is much easier to find. The vegetation thins out radically because of the lack of rain and animals don’t move far away from the remaining water sources so you can often spot them far more easily.
Some animals that are nocturnal (awake at night time) in the heat of summer – like bat-eared foxes – become diurnal (awake during the day), radically improving your chances of seeing them.
Females are generally heavily pregnant, waiting for the summer rains and fresh grazing to arrive to give birth.
WHAT WON’T YOU SEE Migratory birds fly to North Africa and Europe for the winter and babies are not born (because there isn’t enough grazing or water to ensure their survival). Trees aren’t in flower and less hardy plants may dry up completely.
What you also won’t see – and may not miss! – are the bugs. Insects generally go into the larval stage during the dry winter, meaning there are fewer mosquitos, ticks, flies, butterflies, ants, dragonflies and so forth about. Check with your travel clinic about malaria medication regardless of the season or destination. Fewer bugs has a downside though: insectivorous birds, reptiles (including snakes) and amphibians will be laying low and waiting for summer to arrive. Even in the Okavango Delta, you may not see frogs in peak season.
BIGGEST ADVANTAGES Days are cooler, there is much less humidity and no rain (meaning you may not need a camp or lodge with air conditioning or a swimming pool). The game is much easier to find and there is often a fair amount of predator action as lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas take advantage of zebras, wildebeest and antelope weakened by dwindling grazing. It gets light later so your wake-up calls for the morning drives aren’t as early, allowing you a lie-in.
Some places are unreachable in summer because of the high water levels in the Okavango Delta, so they will only open once the water subsides in winter. Bear in mind though, that water levels fluctuate and may drop so low that water-based activities are not possible.
If you are wanting to a multi-day walking safari, opt for winter. Walking during the cooler days will be less exhausting and there will be much less mud about.
If you want to combine your safari with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, winter is a great time to go. Yes, it will be colder but the shale that makes up the summit is far more stable and easier to climb in cooler weather.
If you want to go to Victoria Falls, go in the early half of peak season while water levels are still high. As the rains dry up, so do the Falls – by October, the Zambian side is often just disappointing rock face.
BIGGEST DISADVANTAGES High season, as across the world, means higher rates. Because peak season coincides with the North American and European summers, demand for accommodation is much higher, meaning you have to make your booking further in advance to ensure your first-choice of lodge or camp (highly sought-after places and events like the Kruger National Park, Okavango Delta and Wildebeest Migration river crossings from the Serengeti into the Masai Mara can be booked out anywhere from six months to a year in advance).
You will generally stay at lodges and camps running at full capacity with game-drive vehicles filled with the maximum number of guests. If you want a more private experience, consider booking at a concession or conservancy.
To see our Top 10 private reserves and conservancies and the advantages they offer, please click here.
The lack of rain means plenty of dust – not great for those with allergies. If you are a keen photographer, take steps to protect your camera from dust or clean it every evening back at camp.
If you want combine your safari with time in Cape Town, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is, Cape Town has a wet winter and a dry summer, meaning it will be cold and wet in the Mother City if you come during safari peak season. The good news is, there is plenty to see and do here, from world-class restaurants and shopping to historic wine estates where you can warm up at a log fire.
Download our free guide to Cape Town to help plan your trip.
LOW OR GREEN SEASON
WEATHER Although it is the ‘rainy season’, the rain is not constant or monsoon-like. Generally, clouds build up during the day, breaking in the late afternoon for spectacular showers. In the evenings you may experience thunderstorms with plenty of lightning.
It will be hot and humid so consider a lodge with air conditioning and a swimming pool (or, even better, a private plunge pool on your room’s deck). The weather is also perfect for using outdoor showers…!
WHAT TO PACK Non-negotiables are sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat or cap. The sun is very intense in summer and a bout of sunstroke will ruin your safari. Cotton shorts and T-shirts in neutral colours (greens, greys and browns) will keep you cool. Flip-flops are useful around camp and remember to pack a bathing costume. One pair of trousers and a long-sleeved shirt are recommended for evenings, when mosquitoes are more active (they will bite skin not covered by clothes, try to avoid black and navy blue, which attract them).
Consult your travel clinic about malaria medication regardless of your destination and inform then if you are intending to go scuba diving at a beach or island destination to ensure they prescribe the correct prophylactic.
WHAT THE ANIMALS ARE DOING What aren’t they doing? Rain is considered a blessing in Africa, and spring and summer see birds, bees, buffalos and bats taking full advantage of the abundance of food and water.
Migratory birds return, frogs and some reptiles re-emerge and, of course, insects hatch from the larval stage. The absolute highlight of low or green season is the birth of babies – foals, calves, puppies, piglets and cubs are all born or venture out from their dens to make sense of this verdant new world around them. Expect wobbly zebras, clumsy giraffes, squeaking jackals and playful warthogs.
There is a serious caveat: predators pick off the weakest first, which could be a baby. Expect heart-wrenching scenes like a massive croc inching towards a baby hippo as its mom positions herself between them, or a pack of wild dogs separating a confused and inexperienced newborn impala from the rest of the herd.
WHAT YOU WON’T SEE Oddly enough, you may not see as many animals even though more are around. This is because the bush springs back to life and thick greenery and vegetation gives them ample hiding places and shade from the sun. The surge in the amount of water available means they can roam much further, secure in the knowledge that they will find something to drink. Waterholes popular in winter may not be as visited in summer.
Don’t despair. Good guides relish the challenge of finding game for their guests and often co-operate with each other about sightings. Working harder to track an elusive rhino or follow the spoor of wild dogs just makes it so much more rewarding when you do find them (conversely, birds are much easier to spot so birders will be in their element).
BIGGEST ADVANTAGES Low season means lower rates, lower visitor numbers, lower vehicle numbers and more choice. You don’t need to book as far in advance and your African Safari Expert may be able to source great deals with top lodges and operators. Sometimes, you may be the only guests at a camp or in a vehicle.
Photographers prefer green season because of the sharper colours, clearer air (there is no dust) and return of colourful birds and the birth of babies. As mentioned, the birding is sensational at this time of year.
BIGGEST DISADVANTAGES It is much hotter, muddier, wetter and more humid than peak season. There are more bugs around and it is more challenging to find game – but so much more satisfying when you do!