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Green season safaris - what, why, when, where and how
Africa’s traditional safari season starts in the southern winter months, just when European and North American holiday makers are taking advantage of their summer breaks. The actual “high season” peak runs from July through to September. Ideal for most…
…a green season safari is perfect for seasoned African travellers
- Summer rains from November through to April in the southern safari hotspots (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia) add significant value to the experience
- East Africa too (particularly Tanzania) has a major flush of action that really deserves attention.
So what’s the “green season” all about?
Summer rains mean abundant floral growth, flourishing bugs, migrant birds in feeding frenzies and breeding plumage, new life to breeding herds (from impala to elephants) and opportunities aplenty for predators of every description. The bush gets thick with a riot of activity from west to east. From deeply wooded riverine valleys to the harsh and arid desert wilderness areas.
Big shifts in weather patterns occur with massive cloud build-ups, dramatic storms, torrential downpours followed by sunshine and hot days. The cyclone season passes off the east coast around February, the annual floods flush all of the large river systems, great catchment areas swell and a fresh cycle of life starts. These summer months are about long days and dramatically changing scenery with shifting light patterns from dawn to dusk as clouds give way to clear and dust-free skies between the rains.
“African rains” are generally “big” – if you’re caught in a good storm you’ll be drenched to the bone in minutes (unlike the average English downpour which could take you a few hours to get properly sodden). Turn up the volume, hit start, close your eyes and smell the rain!
African skies clear soon enough and it could be a day or weeks before the rain returns. Some of the remote outlying areas become inaccessible but those connected by all-weather roads, water and air continue as hives of activity through the year.
You’re not going to find many people about too!
So what’s so good about the green season?
Photographers after wildlife encounters or dramatic landscapes will find long days filled with opportunity. Natural diversity and the abundance of critters will keep wildlife enthusiasts busy whilst guides are challenged with cutting new routes through dense thickets or past swollen streams, puddles and mud patches some of the time.
The game is always about but it’s often tougher to locate so explorations are generally par for the course. Birding is at its very best with residents breeding and northern migrants paying their annual visit to Africa.
The green season is far more unpredictable than the dry months and surprises are to be expected. To cap it all – there’re a fewer people about. So the chances of having great swathes of wilderness to yourself are good….
With fewer visitors about there’s less demand on safari camps too which means that rates are reduced.
Expect to save up from 30-50% off regular daily safari rates!
So when is the best time for green season safaris?
The green seasons in East and southern Africa have some subtle but important differences – consider them separately. (Need some help with orientation? Here’s our safari map.)
Southern Africa – summer rains November to April
In Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, the northern parts of South Africa rains usually start sometime in September in the south heralding the onset of spring and early migrant bird arrivals. Further north, say from Victoria Falls up the proper rains usually start sometime around mid-November after a few weeks’ worth of threatening cloud build-ups. They bring quick relief to the sweltering heat which has been at its annual height in the valleys.
We refer to October and November as the “suicide months” – day time temperatures in the Luangwa and Zambezi valleys for instance head up to the 50 degree C mark with night times sometimes not dropping below 30. The few days after the start of the real rains turn apparently barren bush and harshly burned hillsides into a riot of green, flying ants emerge from termite mounds and within days impala drop calves en masse. The bush bursts into life in the most extraordinary ways!
If ever there was a best time to be making fresh discoveries it has to be during the late October to mid-November early rains in southern Africa.
During the weeks preceding Christmas thunderstorms roll across southern Africa, days are long, occasionally grey but mostly bright, the weather’s warm and heavy rains in the east give way to lighter downpours towards the west. In exceptionally good years even the ephemeral rivers of the stunningly wild and arid Kaokoveld of north-western Namibia will flow on the surface, but it takes a particularly wet year in the west before some of them actually break out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Across in Mozambique and Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands annual floods follow torrential rains as Zambia’s Luangwa adds to the Zambezi spate which flushes out into the Indian Ocean. Most of the rains fall between December and March as the “inter-tropical convergence zone” passes over the region with occasional cyclones and deep tropical storms in the Mozambique Channel.
The Angolan catchment area swells, the Chobe, Barotse and upper Zambezi systems flood but it takes several months for Angolan headwaters via the Kavango River to eventually filter down through the Okavango system before disappearing into the Kalahari sands.
Southern Africa’s deep green or “emerald season” runs from around Christmas into April when the annual rains tail off.
East Africa – short and long rains
- Uganda and Rwanda enjoy a tropical highland climate is generally dry from June to mid-September with “short rains” during October and November and “long rains” in March to May.
- Tanzania and Kenya have “short rains” in November and December followed by a short dry season and then the “long rains” from March to May.
These “short” and “long” rains could just as well be described and “shallow” and “deep” – the former less predictable and lighter, the latter far more pronounced and much heavier. The East African climate is essentially equatorial with warm weather through most of the year, always cooler with increasing altitude.
For gorilla treks, most of which are done at altitude in areas where temperatures are moderate to cool, light showers can take place at any time – the area’s green throughout the year. The annual migration and its movement through the Serengeti eco-system is very heavily influenced by some physical barriers, seasonal rains, fresh grass and the availability of water especially near the permanent sources on the Grumeti and Mara River systems.
The true East African “green season” occurs after the November and December rains. These proper rains have a dramatic effect on the migration. With their onset sometime in mid-November the migration moves rapidly south into the southern Serengeti plains to feed, foal and drop calves from January to early March in a massive gathering – one of the true wonders of the natural world.
Where to go for the “green season”
In Southern Africa
- Victoria Falls remains the primary hub in southern Africa all year round, good accommodation options and loads of local activities with easy access into Zambezi National Park. (Zambezi white-water rafting is ideally done during low water from August to December)
- Hwange National Park is generally quiet out of the traditional high season – you’ll have the pick of the best guides, good access to resident game on the western plains, the woodlands and teak forests in the east. With over 400 bird species in Hwange during the green season it’s an important destination for birders
- Mana Pools is largely off-limits to casual visitors in the height of the green season but accessible on our canoe safaris
- Chobe is an hour’s drive from Victoria Falls and sustains a spectacular gathering of breeding elephant herds
- The Central Kalahari is at its best from December to April when wildlife isn’t dependent on the permanent waters of the delta or Chobe River System
- The Okavango is excellent year round but especially good rates make it even more attractive from during November and January to April
- Zambia’s northern Kafue is inaccessible outside of the dry season but locals, birders and seasoned travellers are double rewarded by reduced rates in a few secret spots
- The Luangwa valley is especially good during November and December with access into some of the best remote camps and it’s a haven from Mfuwe from January to April. Great rates, few people, outstanding birding and good game revealed by the best guides
- Cape Town is at its very best during the warm, clear and calm summer months from January to March when it’s easily combined with other safari spots in South Africa.
In East Africa
Tanzania’s Serengeti is at its very best for wildlife during two spectacular windows:
- During October and November, just as the “short rains” are about to and then start to fall there’s a positive air of expectation, anticipation and distinct unease. The great herds of wildebeest and zebra are challenged by big river crossings before they head south. The northern Serengeti is often filled with scenes of utter and extraordinary chaos during this seasonal cusp
- once the rains have fallen, the southern Serengeti plains and Ngorongoro conservation area are carpeted in sweet short grass and remain home to massive herds as they give birth during January and February.
Birding in Uganda’s diverse habitats sets it well apart from any other single destination in East Africa from October to April.
How to take advantage of this special time in Africa
- Top planning tip: Decide on East OR Southern Africa, avoid trying to combine both in the same trip to make the most of time available. Nairobi is the hub into the Serengeti via Arusha, the alternative routing is via Dar es Salaam. Johannesburg to Victoria Falls or Lusaka into the Luangwa are the standard routes in southern Africa
- For greater diversity and best access to “big game”: focus on the Luangwa, Hwange and the Okavango (in that order)
- For great volumes and massive herd congregations: concentrate on the southern Serengeti including the Ngorongoro Crater area
- For birding: migrant birds are abundant through Africa but the best safari options are found where there’s greatest habitat diversity. Focus on Uganda alone or use Victoria Falls as a hub for easy access to the upper Zambezi, Chobe and Okavango systems in conjunction with Hwange
- For out of the ordinary experiences: consider Kafue, the Central Kalahari or run the lower Zambezi by canoe.
If landscape photography is your buzz then Namibia wins hands down
- For a simple traditional holiday option: focus on South Africa to take advantage of Cape Town’s exceptional summer weather and combine with easy safari options in Kruger National Park.
- “Going beyond the obvious“ – how to plan an extraordinary African safari, for first timers and seasoned travellers
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