The wet season doesn’t necessarily mean taking a rain check on a safari, says Joanna Booth
Rain in the UK tends to mean chilly, grey days of interminable drizzle, so it’s little wonder we’re so worried about wet weather hitting our holidays. However, it’s a rather different beast in sub-Saharan Africa and, while there are drawbacks that clients need to be made aware of, there are also benefits to taking a safari during the so-called Green Season.
When the rains come, dormant vegetation springs into verdant life, turning the bush from ochre to green, and in some areas flowers bloom. Herbivores calve to take advantage of the abundant grazing, so there are hordes of cute baby animals – and the enhanced predator activity that goes hand in hand with this.
It’s the best time for birding enthusiasts too, as it’s nesting season and migrant species visit from Europe. And accommodation rates and visitor numbers usually drop, giving clients a more exclusive experience at a lower price.
However, there are cons to go with the pros. Temperatures rise, with some areas becoming uncomfortably hot. Longer grasses and plentiful water can make spotting game more of a challenge, as animals don’t necessarily need to congregate at watering holes.
And, while there won’t be days of driving rain – it tends to come in short, sharp bursts, and there can be dramatic thunder and lightning too – humidity is higher, and there are more insects around. It’s also worth noting that in some low-lying areas roads and even camps can close, so it’s imperative to research itineraries particularly carefully.
In many areas, a safari in Green Season can be a wonderful experience, so long as you’ve briefed clients in advance about what to expect. And remind them above all that the weather is unpredictable, so rain may fall when it’s not expected – and vice versa.
Varying a little by destination, the rainy season tends to hit Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia from October or November and lasts until March or April.
In Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe accommodation rates can drop by as much as a third, and – in already low-volume destinations – it becomes even less crowded. In Botswana, thousands of flamingos descend on the Makgadikgadi Pans, and visitors who head to the Zambia/Zimbabwe border in March and April will see the spectacle that is Victoria Falls in full flow.
In the Kalahari, which stretches over Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, clients can see the desert burst into flower. However, this area does become very hot. In Zambia’s South Luangwa, river flooding can cause road closures, with game drives becoming boat rides instead.
In Namibia, prices tend to fluctuate less, and game viewing is often just one part of a wider, more landscape-focused itinerary. Rainy season visitors can see the desert in bloom, though December to February does get very hot and humid, and more striking photographs of the red and orange sand dunes of Sossusvlei can be taken at times without cloud.
However, Visions of Africa’s Lucy Cook says any negative effects have little influence on the market. “Namibia is so popular right now it is hard to get clients into their first choice accommodation.”
Kenya and Tanzania have not one but two periods of rainfall. The ‘long rains’, which tend to last between March and May in Tanzania and from April to early June in Kenya, are followed by ‘short rains’ which sometimes hit both destinations in November and December, though the latter are less predictable. Proximity to the equator means temperatures don’t vary much.
Altitude makes the most difference, both to temperatures and when it comes to the effects of the rain. For example, in Tanzania, the elevated Ngorongoro Crater is green year round, whereas the low-lying Selous transforms from brown veld to a dense green bush. Here, the long rains can render roads impassable and some camps close in April and May.
Game is still relatively easy to spot on the open plains of the Serengeti and the Mara despite higher grasses and more abundant water, but roads can be muddy and slippy so clients should be prepared for a bumpier ride. However, clients can benefit from lower prices (sometimes saving up to 20%), and value-added offers. There’s also far less traffic.
“During peak season, you can find up to 100 vehicles at a single sighting in a very busy area,” says &Beyond’s Ryan Powell. “In the Green Season it’s quieter, which translates into exclusivity, both at lodges and on game drives.”
South Africa’s climate is a little different to its neighbours’, so there isn’t really a Green Season in the same way. Kruger and the other northern parks and game reserves do receive rains over the December to March period, like neighbouring Botswana and Zambia, making the parks greener, the grasses taller and game spotting more challenging due to the extra water. But the fact that this period is one of the best times to visit Cape Town means there is no low-season cost saving – this hotter, wetter season is actually more expensive.
Claire Farley of 2by2 Holidays says: “You pay a premium of 10-20% because it is when most people visit South Africa. “In Kruger you get the best prices between May and August, when it’s their dry season and the game viewing is actually at its best. Strange but true!”
The Eastern Cape game reserves have different climate patterns, with rains from June to August. Weather can be unpredictable during this period and, rather than temperatures rising as they do in the northern parks, it can become chilly and windy, so recommend that clients pack warm gear as well as waterproofs. The upside of visiting at this time comes in the form of savings of 15-25% on prices, and the chance to see humpback and southern right whales off the coast.
Ask an expert
Dawn Parr, Botswana Tourism
“When temperatures rise, activities are planned for early morning and late afternoon. Yet a storm in the Kalahari is an amazing sight to see!”
Anil Sofat, Somak
“The Green Season, especially April and May, is a good time of year for large groups who can’t afford to travel in high season.”
Ryan Powell, &Beyond
“Flying safaris get trickier at this time of year. Charter companies have to be smart about their routeings and mud can close some airstrips.”
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