Knowing what to expect when you touch down in Africa for your safari is paramount in maximising your enjoyment of the experience. You don’t want to pack for tropical conditions only to realise that night time temperatures are close to freezing and you didn’t bring a jacket.
There are significant changes between the heights of summer and winter in the main safari areas, and it’s important that you understand one or two things about these seasonal shifts in order to pack correctly and get the most out of your trip.
We’ll be looking primarily at Southern Africa here (south of the Zambezi River), as conditions change slightly as one shifts further north and east up to east Africa and the great plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara ecosystems.
Summer gets warm. Although temperatures around the 30 degrees Celcius mark (high 80s in Farenheit) are the norm during high summer, this can even spike up to the mid 40s (about 113 F). Light layers are going to be just fine in the wardrobe department.
Having said this, summer is also the southern African rainy season, so temperatures may well get offset by cloudy conditions and the occasional thunderstorm. Things can get chilly after a couple of days of precipitation and no sun. A good rain jacket should be enough to both keep you dry and keep you warm. Most lodges will provide ponchos on drive to keep out most of the moisture should the clouds open.
A common day-time cycle is a hot, clear morning, a cloud build-up in mid-afternoon followed by a brief thunderstorm, and then things clear again into evening. It can be pretty spectacular watching the lightning bursts as evening sets in.
Winter on the other hand is the consistent season.
It is cold at night (sometimes very cold; temperatures just below freezing can be recorded, particularly in the interior of the sub-continent) but with the sunrise the temperature starts rising and the daytime will likely be cloudless, with temperatures in the mid-20s Celcius (mid-70s Farenheit). Shorts and a t-shirt are just fine.
Night skies are clear, and the southern stars are utterly spectacular.
Make sure you have a good jacket and long pants for the night and early morning drives.
With the rain of summer comes a beautiful flush of green; trees that lay dormant in winter come into leaf, and the bush becomes a verdant sea of foliage. Grasses that were previously nothing more than shoots now rocket up, in some places growing higher than the vehicle. Summer is spectacular in terms of the prevalence of life, but thicker vegetation can make wildlife harder to spot.
Having said that, excess foliage tends to push the animals onto the more open paths and roads, so finding the big cats in particular can be a bit more predictable.
Leopards are more likely to be up in trees; out of the itchy grass and with better visibility to look for prey species.
Winter is the open season. Leaves fall off the trees and the grass wilts away until next summer, so visibility increases tremendously. It becomes easier to spot things in the distance (make sure to pack your binoculars).
Since it’s also the dry season, access to water becomes all-important. Waterholes become hotbeds for animal activity and the wildlife tends to congregate near them, whereas in summer things tend to spread out more as there are ephemeral pans all over the place thanks to the rain.
For photographic purposes, the beautiful golden hour tends to last a bit longer in winter, although the surroundings are a bit more drab than they are in summer.
Summer and Winter offer very different wildlife experiences.
During winter, things tend to be active far more during the daylight hours, particularly the big cats. It’s not as hot, so they don’t lose energy as quickly by moving around. The safari focus during this time of year is generally on the bigger game due to heightened activity levels.
The focus on waterholes also plays a part as many of the resident big cats are well aware of the buffet that is likely to come parading past during the day.
Summer on the other hand is about pure variety. The rain has brought all the smaller creatures out from their winter hiding; there are birds everywhere as the migrants have come south to take advantage of the invertebrate boom, animals are giving birth (impalas, wildebeest and warthogs in particular all give birth at a similar time), and life is everywhere you look.
Elephants and rhinos are mud-bathing to keep cool, and the bush is full of a hustle-and-bustle which is an absolute delight to watch.
Big cats tend to go a bit quieter during the day however; the warmer temperature pushes them into the shade, and they will often reserve their hunting for nighttime when it may be cloudy as well, creating pitch black conditions that are perfect for stalking in.
The bottom line is there is no such thing as a “best” season for safari; the wildlife will be there, doing different things at different times.
Weather changes, and can be a bit of a gamble anyway.
It will always be good, so just know what to pack (we can advise you), and understand what it will be like when you get there, and you will have the trip of a lifetime!
Get in touch through email@example.com to find out more about the different safari seasons, and let’s start planning your adventure…