It sounds like a dream when you think about it: landscapes unrivalled in their diversity, deliciously warm weather, a blistering sunburn or two, and of course herds of majestic animals roaming freely around you. The African safari is part of everyone’s wildest fantasies. But when is the best time to go?
This is a question we get asked a lot by our audience, and the most straightforward answer is to say between June and October. Those months are characterised by Africa’s dry season when rainfall is scarce and animals start to migrate in search of new water sources.
But the real answer depends on what you want your experience to be. Are you after the adrenaline-filled adventure of a lifetime? Do you want to see baby animals popping into existence all over the savannah? Or maybe you have a passion for birds and marine life? The beautiful thing about Africa is that it’s massive and has adventures bursting from the seams!
Go With the Flow: Catch Animal Migrations
Animals are just like us for real: utterly obsessed with social holidays! Migration is a seasonal expedition for animals, normally in search of new food or water sources as the ecosystems around them change. The fan favourite journey is of course the Great Migration, the biggest and most populous mass movement in Sub-Saharan Africa. For how complex and iconic it is, it deserves its own category, so instead, how about turning your focus to the skies and the seas?
- Sardine Run, August, South Africa: If you visit anywhere between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal you might just find a shimmering streak of deeper blue running along the shore. This is the Sardine Run, a 7km shoal of tiny fish all banded together through the power of friendship. But it doesn’t include just fish, a whole spectacle surrounds this event as birds and dolphins flock for a sneaky bite. Killer whales aren’t an uncommon sighting either!
- Fruit Bat Migration, November, Zambia: This kooky operation is a whole 90 day swamp take-over in Kasanka National Park. Straw-coloured fruit bats flit in and out of the canopies in a visual and audio festival. As the sky darkens when the bats emerge, the quagmire is shrouded in frenzied chattering. The Zambian bat migration is a fully immersive peek into animal life, and best taken at the end of the year around November.
The Miracle of Life: Witness ALL the Babies
Is there anything sweeter than watching a new-born gazelle find its legs and kick about in its first rush of freedom? We didn’t think so. There’s nothing more special than witnessing the birth of innocent creatures lucky enough to call your holiday destination their homes. Wanna be part of the circle of life? Here are the best times to travel.
- Elephants, January, Botswana: The Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana is home to many elephant breeding herds. Elephants mate all year round, though most commonly in January, which is the best time to spot some tiny trunks. Fun fact, did you know elephant pregnancies are carried over 2 years? Wow! Couldn’t be me.
- Wildebeest, February, Tanzania: This is calving season for the native wildebeest’s of the Serengeti. 500,000 babies are welcomed to the world and to the herd before the annual family trip to Maasai Mara. February is a wonderful time to catch a wildebeest’s first stumbles as it warms up for a life of pure bliss.
- Turtles, Year Round, Mozambique: We’ve all seen the viral videos of sea turtles hatching and it’s almost unreal how cute they are!! Beaches all around host this ceremony for you to watch them emerge IRL. Loggerhead and leatherback turtles can be seen army-crawling to their ocean homes all YEAR ROUND (yes!!) on tranquil Vamizi Island just off of Mozambique.
Image source:Hu Chen @ Unsplash
Land of the Giants: Meet some really big boys
Feeling in an existential mood? If you really want to reckon with the puniness of human existence, maybe seeking out some of the world’s largest mammals is exactly what you need. Elephants are synonymous with Africa, they wander with heavy thuds through the savannahs, but let’s not forget the biggest mammals of the sea, whales! These bad boys can be spotted splashing around various coasts and make for quite the show. For a trip packed with jumbo-sized fun, both of these behemoths can be found in South Africa!
- Elephants, May, Addo: Hop on a game drive through Addo’s enchanting National Elephant Park, along South Africa’s beautiful Garden Route and admire the regal elegance of these giants. Psst, this ride is available year round with Contiki’s super special Garden Route tour – book yours now before they’re all gone!
- Whales, July, Knysna: July is prime whale watching time and the Ocean Odyssey tour in Knysna will take you around the Indian Ocean in search of the illusory humpback whale. Enjoy the peaceful lull of the waves as whales enjoy their natural playground and allow you to exist in that silence. This is one of those moments when you and nature can really get in sync.
Call of the Wild: Keep Active
Can you hear it? It’s shouting your name, demanding that you give in. Feel your lungs rattling with adrenaline, there’s something wild inside you begging to be released. Luckily these destinations have come up with just the perfect adventure safari cocktail.
- Water Safari, June, Okavango Delta: Want to tell a great story at your next brunch? Set it in the glittering Okavango Delta marshlands! This UNESCO world heritage site is home to some rare and endangered species such as the cheetah and the black rhino, which makes for a very special story indeed. Water levels fluctuate throughout the year, but June to August are when the delta is at its fullest. Guides will take you across in mokoros, specialty dug-out canoes, in search of hippos and crocodiles crowding the depths.
- Horseback Safari, July, Botswana: Galloping through the savannah, at one with your stead, chasing the horizon. Can you imagine? All this and more is possible at the Mashatu Game Reserve where they offer an ace-high horseback safari. Follow in the (very large) footsteps of elephants, down routes they razed themselves, and observe big cats and wild dogs prowling through the lands they rule over. Mashatu offers this experience year round with July being the peak, and October to December bringing the rain for an even more rugged feel.
- Yoga, August, Uganda: Picture this, you’re on a yoga retreat, the golden sun is caressing your skin, you’re taking deep breaths of fresh air, it’s crisp, your body is relaxed, life is good. Then the howling of a chimpanzee brings you out of your trance and there you are, in the middle of the vibrant Ugandan rainforest. Join the Namaste Yoga Safari for a boost in your physical and mental health. Complete with hiking, meditation, and contact with our cousins the apes, this package is offered three times a year, with August being the most prolific time.
Image source:Colin Watts @ Unsplash
Head in the Clouds: Spot some birds
Not all safaris have to be about catching a glimpse of the elusive big 5, instead turn your head upwards, the African sky is endless and so very blue. You’ll find some friends there too.
- Flamingos, April, Botswana: The Makgadikgadi Salt Pan is perhaps one of the dreamiest places on earth and I’ll tell you why. It’s the most prolific breeding ground for both the lesser and greater flamingo, the only 2 flamingo species native to Africa. Hues of pink tint the watery reflections in the sand for a magnificent viewing of la vie en rose. They can be caught between November and April, but what better way to celebrate the arrival of spring than with a celebration of colour?
- Birdwatching, September, Ghana: Birdwatching sounds like one of those really boring old people hobbies, and sure maybe it is if you’re stalking the pigeons in London, but in Ghana? No, no, no. At Kakum National Park you’ll be taken on a canopy walkway to make encounters with the likes of the Copper Tailed Glossy Starling, the Black and Yellow Casqued Hornbill, and even Sharpe’s Apalis (I have no idea what these are, let me know when you go and find out)! Other rare earth-bound creatures can be spotted here like pangolins and leopards.
Great Migration Fanatic: Witness Africa’s Main Attraction
The Great Migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya is synonymous with African safari as it comprises two of the world’s biggest animal migrations: wildebeests between parks, and tourists shadowing closely behind. Contrary to popular belief this journey doesn’t occur once a year, rather it takes place over the course of the year as herds follow the food and water sources with the changing of the weather. There isn’t a single right time to travel to see this as events will be happening all year, and if you want you can tag along for the full ride!
- December to March, Ngorongoro Crater: Baby boom season of the year, this is a great time to observe new-borns as they learn the ropes. Wildebeests, zebras, antelopes and other herd animals will be grazing peacefully and building up their strength – this is the calm before the storm.
- April to May, Lake Victoria: This season marks the start of the dry season which just means that food sources are running low. Herds will be starting their trek up north to Maasai Mara, and beautiful Lake Victoria is the first stop on this path. With the movement of the herds, predators like lions and hyenas will be hot on their trail, which gives you double the beasts to see!
- End of May to June, Grumeti River: As the rivers continue to dry up, the herds follow the Grumeti River to the west. This is a treacherous pilgrimage as predators stalk them from behind and the only available water sources become crocodile infested waters. This jaunt is a true testament to the force of the animal kingdom.
- July, Maasai Mara: Finally, after months of arduous walking the herds land in their destination, and you may as well meet them there. It’s peaceful grazing for the time being, though watch out cuz’ the cats are still on the prowl and always hungry.
- August to September, Big River Crossing: August is when Maasai Mara park reaches the height of its traffic. Up to 1.2 million wildebeest and 300,000 zebras (amongst other species) will gather here and cross the Mara and Talek rivers, the debut of the voyage back to Serengeti. It’s best to catch this during August but prepare to be patient as it’s a waiting game.
- October to November, Journey Back: End of the year marks the end of the journey and back to Tanzania the herds and their hunters return. The Great Migration is a true odyssey and no matter which phase of it you catch you’re sure to be in for a treat.
Image source:Valerie Rossi @ Unsplash
Brothers from another Genome: Walk with the Apes
We loooove social travel because it’s always great to meet like-minded people that you wouldn’t normally have the occasion to. In that spirit, how about making connections with a group you have more in common with than you know? We’re talking about primates, those playful critters that populate the flourishing rainforests of West and East Africa, and there are so many spots to see them!
- Gorillas, July, Rwanda: An exceptional journey awaits you here. Wading through freshly exhaled mist and making a path through sprawling greenery, Gorilla trekking in Nyungwe National Park rainforest is a stunning adventure culminating in a face to face with the imposing gorilla, king of the jungle. July is Rwanda’s dry season, however no rain-free days can be guaranteed as gorillas like to inhabit wet environments.
- Chimpanzees, December, Ivory Coast: Discover all the indigenous species tucked away in Tai National Park. Here you’ll be able to spot the closest of our primate cousins, the chimpanzee, as well as many other curious sorts like the pygmy hippo, leopards, and flying squirrels gliding from branch to branch. November to December is when the warm season starts here, which also means heavy rainfall, but this is a great time to travel to avoid crowds and have a more intimate experience.
Boundless Beauty: Get all your Insta pics
Generally the first image to pop to mind when the word safari comes up is a big open plain dotted with baobabs and bushwillows, giraffes munching on some leaves, and prides of lions chilling in the shade. And this is true for most popular safari trips. But Africa is such a huge continent and so diverse within, you’d be amazed at what you can find! If a more unique trip sounds good (you don’t want to be just like everyone else) then consider one of these destinations.
- Jungle, May, Madagascar: While part of the African-continent, Madagascar has been left to its own devices basically since Pangea split (aaaaages ago). Because of that, the island has become its truest and freakiest self and is home to over 200,000 species of fauna and flora. It is one of the world’s most biodiverse places and truly a breath-taking gem to behold.
- Desert, March, Namibia: We’ve been talking about dry season a lot so far, but let’s take it back to the true meaning of dry: hot, arid, dusty. The desert! And more specifically, the Namib dune desert in Namibia. Not for the faint of heart or the easily sunburnt, this destination is home to some really cool reptile communities and arachnids. So long as you’re not afraid of the creepy crawlies and happy to camp out amongst them, you can also make encounters with desert horses and their weirdo friends the gemsbok.
That’s basically the low-down on safari destinations, the most comprehensive list you’ll find for all kinds of travellers with all kinds of interests. Enjoy your next safari adventure and think of us when you go.