As the northern hemisphere sinks into the short, cold, dark days of winter, Africa stretches its arms out wide in a warm welcome. December in Africa is when summer gets going and many places are at their best. The climate is mostly hot and sunny while the occasional rains that do fall in the interior cool things down and green’ things up.
Great wildlife migrations are taking place now as fresh grasses begin to cover Africa's rolling plains from the Serengeti to the Kalahari Desert. The herds attract predators in great numbers and safari travellers in December usually enjoy plentiful sightings of big cats in action. Migrant birds arrive to fill the air with colour and song, and Africa’s trees stand in full-leafed glory, casting welcome shade over safari picnics.
Beach holidays are excellent at most Indian Ocean destinations, too, but whether you're planning a safari or a beach vacation (or combination of both), keep in mind that Africa in December is busy. Game viewing is at its peak, beaches at the sunniest, and the traditional Christmas and New Year summer holiday season is in full swing.... altogether making December busy but worth it.
1. Cape Town, Garden Route & KwaZulu-Natal – South Africa
Cape Town was named World's Best City in The Telegraph Travel Awards for 2014. With mountains, vineyards and beaches all within easy reach, the ‘Mother City’ is one of South Africa’s best-loved travel destinations and at her prettiest in December. The weather is hot and Martini-dry, the beaches buzzing and the mood infectiously cheerful.
It’s the same all along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline. The Garden Route, which is an easy drive from Cape Town, is the ideal family holiday destination – think long, white sand beaches, warm waters and golf courses. Further up the coast, the kwaZulu-Natal north coast offers a more tropical beach experience, complemented by big game reserves, wetland parks and coral reefs.
How to do it: Hire a private villa to have a prime position at the best beaches, exclusive use of swimming pools and parking, plus housekeeping and 24-7 security. White Cliffs Penthouse is a 3-bedroom villa overlooking model-perfect Clifton Second Beach while 26 Sunset Avenue is a state-of-the-art 12-sleeper villa set amid granite boulders at Llandudno Beach, Cape Town’s hush-hush hideaway for the rich and famous.
For a December beach holiday with a difference, the South Africa's KwaZulu- Natal beach and safari is an easy paced self-drive journey combining the indulgence of a spa resort with the barefoot-chic of a beach lodge.
2. The Kalahari – Botswana
Travel to the Kalahari Desert in December and you won’t believe your eyes. Green grass covers the once-baked earth and waterholes that were powder-dry a month ago now brim with birds and beasts. December is Green Season in the Kalahari and if you can put up with the odd afternoon thunderstorm or two (you may get no rain at all), make sure you pack plenty of extra camera batteries because the Kalahari’s annual show is taking place.
Thousands of zebras arrive, snorting and whinnying their way to the lush fresh grazing. Springbok herds give birth en masse, covering the landscape in wobbly-legged lambs just as herds of wildebeest and even buffalo arrive. With all this ‘T-bone on the hoof’, the Kalahari in December is a predator’s paradise for lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs and hyenas.
3. The Serengeti – Tanzania
December in the Serengeti and the wildebeest are still heading south to the great plains. There is rain around but usually only in the form of short-lived afternoon showers that are unlikely to affect game viewing. The wildebeest herds offer plentiful targets for the Serengeti’s big cats and you are in for some dramatic game drives.
Temperatures are pleasant – it doesn’t get much above 28°C/82°F – and game viewing is interesting right across Tanzania. Elephant-packed Tarangire National Park, yet to receive its main rains, is worth visiting and Tanzania’s easiest Big 5 destination, the Ngorongoro Crater, is green and lush at this time of year. The Serengeti relatively busy at this time of year making it a good time to combine destinations.
4. East Africa - Off the Beaten Track
Second-time-round safari visitors may want to explore a little further away from East Africa’s more popular destinations. Early rains are turning Tanzania’s Ruaha and Selous reserves green and December is considered a good game-viewing month in both. It’s also one of the best times to visit the Mahale Mountains for chimpanzee trekking and jungle game viewing. Over in Kenya, the Masai Mara is out of Migration season but offers excellent game viewing at low-season prices and pleasantly lower visitor numbers.
5. Safari & Beach
Not much beats Christmas in a hammock under a gently waving palm tree... but choose your beach carefully as the summer rains are starting to fall across the Indian Ocean islands. It’s not day-ruining weather in December but cyclones are not uncommon in January and February - some places are drier than others, so it's alwasy good to check with your African Safari Expert. Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago, for example, receives less rain in December than the Bazaruto islands further south.
If you want to mix game viewing with your beach escape, this is the time to do it. In some cases you can sip coffee at your safari destination in the morning and enjoy a cocktail that evening on a tropical beach.
Africa’s most popular destinations are busy and some summer rains are getting started, but for good deals and more of the place for yourself, there are plenty of places to enjoy a classic game-viewing safari or go off the beaten track. Several destinations are at their most enticing now and across the continent there’s a sense of excitement as the end of the year approaches.