WHEN TO GO ON SAFARI
Southern Africa is a welcoming year-round destination; your Safari experience will change with seasonal temperatures and rain. Cooler, long, dry Winter months bring dry and sparser scrubby brown bush, improving visibility for game viewing. Limited water sources increase animal density around them, concentrating prey and predators. The hot, wet Summer, brings rich new vegetation sustaining newborn mammals and the returning migratory species. The bush becomes lush, verdant and spotted with flashes of bright colour. There is a Safari for all seasons in the bush.
SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE AUTUMN, WINTER
MAY - SEPTEMBER
In Safari areas including the Kruger and adjacent countries to the north, Autumn is short and offers relief from the rains before a fairly sudden drop in daytime temperatures from a balmy 29C/85F marking the onset of Winter. Nights become markedly colder, but sub-tropical Southern Africa nevertheless enjoys daytime Winter temperatures that rarely drop below 22C/73F. Whilst mornings feel brisk, you'll be wanting to get up to enjoy the outstanding game viewing at this time of year.
During Winter months vegetation becomes sparse - grasses are low and the trees and bushes shed foliage - so visibility is excellent. Finding animals to observe is easier. Sightings can be much further away and clearer than when the bush is at its thickest.
Winter water is found mainly around rivers and drainage lines, dams, and large perennial waterholes. The National Parks and the Private Reserves also use windmills and boreholes to pump to artificial water sources. Game concentrates in all of these areas and attracts predators in numbers. Wet places are great for sightings in the first and last few hours of the day as everything comes to drink.
|A pan in the semi-arid Etosha National Park illustrates the need for water|
The Tropic of Capricorn cuts mid-way through the Kruger: you are closer here to the Equator than (for example) Cape Town, so daylight is neither as seasonal nor much shorter in length than in Summer. National Park morning and evening Gate times are adjusted by just an hour, with access usually from 06h30 to 17h30 at the Kruger and its Restcamps.
At this time of year you should come equipped with thermals if you are camping - night-time temperatures sometimes get down to 8C (45F) or so - and wrap up warm on your morning and evening drives and walks. We've got a packing list to help get you covered.
In terms of visitor numbers, Winter tends to have less local but more overseas visitors than Summer months, with exceptions for school holidays and long weekends before/after SA National Holidays. Lodges often charge "low-season" Rates between May and the end of July (the so-called "Secret Season" before many Europeans and American come for their annual holidays) and starting again in September (more below).
In the northern bush, the end of Winter is the time of lowest risk for contracting malaria as the mosquitoes have died off or gone into hibernation. Nevertheless, you should take advice from your medical practitioner even for travel at this time of year.
If you are after a Bush and Beach combination, bear in mind that the Cape receives most of its rain in the Winter, along with strong winds (such as the notorious Cape Doctor). Daytime temperatures are around 18C/65F down here; it can be significantly colder with snow on some of the mountain peaks and passes. Mozambique is a better option for a relaxing beach extension to your Safari at this time of year. The South African East Coast is warmed by the Indian Ocean too and May-September are good times for surfing and scuba diving, with the sardine run from May to July off KwaZulu Natal.
Nevetheless there are upsides to this time of year in the Cape including the spectacular flower season in August and September with unique fynbos coming into bloom along with spectacular general flora from the Winelands through the Cedarberg mountains along the West Coast up into Namaqualand. September is also peak time for land-based Whale watching from Hermanus along to False Bay.
THE GREEN SEASON, SPRING, SUMMER
OCTOBER - APRIL
Spring temperatures in the main Safari regions to the north increase to 28C/80F in the third quarter of the year with a short-lived season characterised by hot, dry winds. This is quickly followed by a hot, wet Summer, a welcome respite to the cold and dryness. The distinctive flowers of species like the knobthorn vividly presage the arrival of the first rains in the bush.
Summer days of 40C/100F are not unusual come mid-afternoon, and this time of day often brings short sharp storms. Glowering fronts of cloud march quickly across the horizon delivering thunder, lightning and strong bursts of rain which dissipate in strength as quickly as they started. The bush looks and smells refreshed.
The veldt erupts into life and the colourless brush is transformed. Dry river beds and gullies suddenly course into action and dried-up wallows come back to life. Perennial rivers rise rapidly as water pours down from the Escarpment to the west; floodplains disappear under the inundation (apart from the Delta where you'll have to wait 3 months for it to arrive from Angola!).
Vegetation flourishes and brings nutritious new growth for the browsers and grazers after Winter's lean times. Abundant food and water reward an abundance of newborns - impala delay giving birth until proper rain, and then whole breeding herds produce calves almost simultaneously. This spectacular evolutionary trait swamps the predators' appetites (there is plenty of hunting action) but gives survivors the best chance of survival in their exposed first weeks. Many mammal species deliver offspring at this fertile time.
Migratory birds return from their travels, with the cuckoo traditionally announcing the first day of Spring on its return from Europe with its distinctive call; it will stay in Africa until the days shorten and the temperatures drop again. Many of the 600+ species in residence by this time preen and proudly display colourful breeding plumage. The seasonal migration of game to rivers and other Winter water sources reverses; animals become more widely dispersed across their full ranges.
The first rains have the benefit for photographers of dampening down the particles in the air from the dry season's extensive bushfires, and early Summer is crisp, clear and bright and the bush not yet too thick to obscure your view. There is plenty of predator/prey activity to document.
Usually you'll avoid straying too far from the Lodge if a storm is on the horizon, or just take shelter until it passes. The spectacular skyscapes left behind are a photographer's dream as the sun drops behind gigantic cloud masses. Far less often, slower moving weather fronts set in with lighter rain persisting for an evening or longer.
Like the animals, your days will revolve around the heat and light of the day. Drives are usually conducted in the cooler morning and early evening. These are the best times for sightings as the game is also on the move. Walks are usually in the early hours of the morning. Many trails close seasonally because of the heat. If you are self-driving and plan to be out for large parts of the day, you will need air-conditioning in your vehicle and to be very well-stocked with water. Get-out points in the Kruger itself are relatively few and far between.
South African school Summer holidays including Winter and Christmas are the busiest times of the year. Some facilities get booked a year in advance, so you must plan well in advance to get what you want then. The time after the Christmas peak (schools restart mid January) up until the week before Easter is quiet and the best time if you are after a Summer Safari without hordes of other visitors. A few Lodges discount rates after the festive rush before increasing them for Easter, but sufficient numbers of sun-seekers from the northern hemisphere keep prices above those of low season.
As a reward from reading this far, know that the Spring/Summer "kerb" months of October through to November combine excellent game viewing with low season prices at many Lodges before the festive season Rate increases. But you will get wet if the rains come on time or might find the nights a bit brisk if Summer comes late. October and November can offer exceptional bargains with, for example, some five star destinations in Botswana halving the price of what is essentially the same Safari. International flights around this time, before the festive season gets in to swing, are usually cheaper, quiet and you may well find that you get a row of seats to spread out over, or that you can take up offers and stretch the budget to fly business class. Note that Government Restcamps and some of the Lodges offer fixed year-round Rates only. Park and Reserve entry and conservation fees do not change.
In the peak of Summer it is very hot and wet, and not recommended for camping unless you really know what you are doing. An air-conditioned room in a comfortable Lodge with a swimming pool and a refrigerator is highly recommended as the mercury slides past 40C/100F+ in the heat of the day. Your canvas would not get much chance to cool off, particularly having been closed up for the day to stop unwelcome animal intruders into your tent.
Be warned that Gate quotas are enforced at peak times such as Christmas and Easter and can lead to popular Southern entrances to the Kruger stopping admission of further visitors (both day trippers and those without pre-booked accommodation) relatively early on in the day.
Recognise that many parts of wild subtropical Africa (including the Kruger) are malarial during the rainy season and you must take advice from your medical practitioner for precautions and pills well before you travel.