Updated: Mar 27, 2018
When it comes to going on safari, choosing the time of year you go can make a huge difference to the overall experience. Don't get me wrong, anytime of year is a good time to go, however, when making your decision on when to go, you should take the following into account.
Before we get into the main differences between the two seasons, ill just explain when the two season are. The rainy season in Southern Africa is from November-April and the Dry Season is from May-October.
Let us start with the obvious. Rain. As the name suggests, in the rainy season there is a lot of, yes you guessed it, rain. In the dry season, there is not. What does this mean and how does it effect what you see and the over all experience?
With rain comes growth of vegetation, which is why the rainy season is also referred to as the "Green Season" or "Emerald Season". As both of these names suggest, the vegetation is lush and green. This means that there is an abundance of food for herbivores and a time when a number of these species give birth. The impala, for example will give birth at the onset of the rains. Ensuring that the young are born at a time of abundance. It is also a time when a lot of bird species begin to mate and build nests, The Weavers for example can be seen building their beautifully intricate nests, usually on branches overhanging water to offer more protection from predators.
With rain, comes water, obviously. Not only do river levels rise as a result of this, but water holes, ponds and lagoons fill up. This in my opinion, is the biggest difference between the two seasons and one that has the biggest impact on the over all experience. The abundance of water causes all the herbivores to disperse. In the dry season they will all congregate close to a permanent water source, such as a river, making it very easy for predators to find food. As soon as the water holes fill up, the prey species such as impala, puku and buffalo speed out over a much larger area as there is plenty of water and they no longer need to concentrate around one particular water source.
As the majority of herbivores are nomadic this is not a problem as they can move where they like to find water and food in this time of plenty. For the predators however, this is a time of scarcity. Not only have the prey species spread out over much larger distances, making them harder to find. They are also much stronger due to the increase in food available to them making them more difficult to bring down. Why don't the predators just follow the herbivores? Unlike the prey species that are nomadic, predators are generally territorial, meaning that they stick to a specific area. meaning that they have to wait for food to come to them, not a problem in the dry season, but in the rains, this can prove difficult.
From a game viewing point of view however, this means that predators such a lion can generally be found within a certain area. Guides who work in a particular park or reserve will know what animals occupy what areas and will know roughly where to find them. However, it is not that simple. The growth of vegetation makes spotting animals more difficult. Long thick grass and lush bushes make perfect hiding places for predators making it very difficult to spot them. However.......nature helps us out a bit here. Animals will naturally choose the path of least resistance when moving from one place to another. With all the thick vegetation and standing water the path of least resistance is usually the road networks of the parks and reserves. Quite handy really. On my most recent visit to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, we had a number of predator sightings from Lion, Leopard and Wild Dog seen on the various roads of the park.
The dry season in comparison, is as it suggests, dry. The rains have stopped towards the end of April and the land has begun to dry up. As the dry season progresses the water holes begin to dwindle and the prey species that we spread out during the rains, all begin to congregate around permanent water sources, such as rivers or man made water holes.
Due to the concentration of game around the permanent water supplies, the food in the area surrounding them diminishes very quickly. With herds of buffalo, elephant and impala all feeding in one concentrated area the vegetation is quickly reduced. As the dry season progresses there is less and less food for the herbivores and as a result of this, their condition begins to weaken. It is a steady decline from June through to November where the water dries up, the food diminishes, the temperature rises and the condition of the animals that feed on plant matter deteriorates. This is paradise of the carnivores. They know they can just sit and wait for the food to come to them and it is now their turn to feed up and gain strength.
It is during the dry season that you are most likely to see the big cats in action. The vegetation is thin and sparse making spotting them a whole lot easier and the abundance of food all congregating in specific areas means the are able to hunt regularly. Now please don't miss quote me here, I am by no means guaranteeing you will see kills if you go on safari in the dry season, all I am saying is that you stand a much better chance. Seeing kills in the wild are always a rare and special treat for anyone who goes on safari, but by no means a daily occurrence. If you are lucky and plan your trip correctly then you will increase your chances of seeing kills etc. See here on my tips on how to plan your safari. https://www.armstrongsafaris.com/blog/making-sure-your-first-african-safari-is-one-that-will-change-your-life-forever
From a photographic point of view, the end of the dry season is my favourite time of year to go on safari. A lot of wildlife photographers will say the green season is the best time as there is no dust and lots of vibrant green which make for wonderful backgrounds. However, for me, it is the dust and the struggle for life in the height of the dry season that makes it my favourite time of year. It adds a certain atmosphere to your photography and in my humble opinion, there is always more going on to photograph.
Although the dry season does provide a better game viewing experience, this does come at a cost. The dry season is the peak season, so parks and reserves are busier and the prices are at their highest. However, choosing the correct lodge/camp can make a big difference in making sure you avoid congestion and busy areas. As the dry season progresses, the temperatures creep higher and higher and can reach the high 30's even into the low-mid 40's come late October, the temperatures in the rainy season can also climb well into the 30's at times but relief comes with the rain. Due to the lack of rain and the dry earth, dust is also something to take into consideration. Fortunately nothing a cold shower and a dust cover for your camera equipment cant fix. In my opinion, despite the dust, the heat and the increased number of other visitors, if planned correctly, this is the optimum time of year to go, if you want to give yourself the best chance in seeing all the iconic species.
To summerise,I would suggest anyone going on safari for the first time should go in the dry season, between the months of May-October. As it is your first time, you want to give yourself the best possible chance to see everything. If you are fortunate enough to have been on safari a number of times before, i would suggest that you give the rainy season a try. You will get the chance to see your favourite parks and reserves in a completely different light and experience a completely different style of safari.
I hope this is of some help to you. If you have any questions on how, where and when to travel to Africa, please dont hesitate to give me a shout. matt.armstrongsafaris.com
Cheers for now.