Travel Story Southern and east Africa: when's the best time to go?

Dawn over the Masai Mara.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Whether you'd like to see a cultural festival in Ethiopia, the mass migration of the Serengeti or the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, the seasons will play a major role in deciding the timing of your trip.

Kenya

Geography drives the climate in Kenya. Some of the country is high, often with clear skies and cool climate, and some faces the onshore winds of the Indian Ocean. From November to March, the hot, monsoonal winds from the north-east (the kaskazi) brings in dry air from the Persian Gulf — and a rainy season. The cooler, moister kusi brings the “long rains” in late April, May and early June. But rain tends to be in a downfall for less than an hour, followed by sun and wet land dried in minutes.

January and into February are good for safaris, as the wildlife gathers around waterholes. The big Masai Mara wildebeest and zebra migration is through July and August, as the animals move north across the Serengeti. In September they run into the obstacle of the Mara River and tend to spread out across the northern Serengeti.

Tanzania

Tanzania is 1220km from north to south and just slightly less from east to west, so the climate varies throughout. But the main rainy season is from March to May, with tropical downpours and high humidity. The dry season is from June to October — good months to visit. June and July are the best months to watch the wildebeest migration, as the herds start to move north across the Serengeti towards Kenya.

But here’s a tip — late January and into February is an interesting time as this is when the great herds have headed back south and are carving in the southern Serengeti — a time of hunting for their predators.

There are “short rains” in November and December.

Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Orthodox church’s epiphany festival, Timkat, is on January 19. Ethiopian Christmas is on January 7 (Ethiopians follow the Julian calendar) and Meskel, on September 26 and 27, celebrates the finding of the true cross. Legend says that in the year 326, Queen Helena found the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

These festival dates are probably more important than the weather but Ethiopia is usually best during the dry season from October to March.

The wet season is from March to September — with July and August particularly rainy in some areas.

Rwanda

Without doubt, Rwanda’s drawcard for visitors is the chance to trek and visit its mountain gorillas. This can be done any time of year but the most popular months are from June to September, then December to February, as these are drier. The first rains usually start from late February to May, and the hills can be muddy.

But Rwanda is in the heart of Africa, just south of the equator, at quite high altitude — which gives it a very pleasant tropical highland climate.

Uganda

The mountain gorillas can also be visited in Uganda, of course and, once again, June to September are the popular months.

Overall, the best game viewing in Uganda is during the dry seasons from June to August, then December to February. Primate walks to see both mountain gorillas and chimps are more difficult in the rainy season — by definition, rainforests get very wet. March to May is the peak of the wet season.

Botswana

April and May are good weather months, with clear skies and a green landscape. From June to August, it is warmer in the day and very much peak season for safaris. As the land dries, wildlife compresses around waterholes — this is a good time to see animals.

In September and October and November, it heats up — I was in Botswana last November and there were temperatures to 40C but the big bonus was that by now everything congregates around any available water. But be warned — as soon as it rains, they all very quickly disperse.

Rains generally come between December and March.

Namibia

Namibia is good to visit all year round — it’s pleasant and dry — but April and particularly May are great months, with a crispness in the air and greened landscape. From June to August, it dries and cools, with cold nights, and wildlife gathers around water sources. Namibia gets less rain than the countries to its east, though between December and March there can be some humid days with an afternoon thunderstorm or shower. This is more in the east, not in the Namib Desert, which is one of the planet’s driest regions.

Zimbabwe

By April and May, the rain season has cleared, and the land is green and drying out. By June to July, it’s cold at night, and August and September are good months, as the game starts to gather around water. It’s hotter in October but very good for wildlife safaris. Come November, it’s hot but rain is on the way — and as soon as it comes, the animals will disperse.

Zambia

By April and May the land is drying and night temperatures are dropping, particularly at higher altitudes and in the south. Most safari camps open at the beginning of June which, with July and August, is a good month to visit. It warms up in September and can be hot by October. But the pay-off is good wildlife viewing. The rains come mainly from December to March.

South Africa

In the east, Kruger National Park is the big draw, and the best months to see wildlife are from May to September, when it’s dry. The later it gets through these months, the warmer it is in the mornings for game drives.

In the west, the cape is a different kettle of fish. It has a particular weather pattern, quite different to the rest of the continent. For example, from November to March, it is sunny and dry, and perfect for visiting, while its neighbouring countries are in wet season. East along the coast, the best time for the KwaZulu-Natal region is from April to October. Durban gets warm, dry days and cool nights in June and July.

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