South Africa's summer equates to winter in the northern hemisphere, and vice versa. Beyond that, Africa’s southernmost country is characterized by a wet season and a dry season. The timing and nature of the two seasons, however, varies markedly according to geographic zone (determined by complex combinations of latitude, altitude, and coastal proximity). The moist tropical climate of KwaZulu-Natal Nature Reserve bordering the Indian Ocean, for example, bears little resemblance to rain-parched Namaqua National Park, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, despite their similar latitude.
Thus, the specific weather of summer, autumn, winter, and spring will differ greatly depending upon where you are in the country. The good news is that the country’s range of distinct climatic zones and far-flung nature reserves makes South Africa a world-class safari destination year-round.
Climatic Zones and Best Safari Destinations
Some regions have summer rainfall, with warm days and cooling late afternoon showers. Others have scorching hot summers and cool, wet, and windy winters. Here’s a regional breakdown to help you determine the best safari options for your preferences:
Kruger National Park and Greater Kruger
At the extreme northeast of South Africa, Kruger National Park covers a vast territory as part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, extending into Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Located in a climatic zone known as the Lowveld, this savannah-and-forest biome known as “Greater Kruger” has a semi-arid to humid subtropical climate with pronounced dry and wet seasons.
The winter dry season is June-August, with an agreeable average high temperature of 79°F (26°C), and chilly nights. Summer wet season is October-April, with uncomfortable humidity and temperatures often rising above 100°F (38°C) in the peak months. Dramatic thunderstorms are frequent during this period. September (spring) and May (autumn) are transition months without extremes.
Greater Kruger is a malarial zone, and is considered high-risk in wet season. Consult your physician for appropriate medications.
Best time to visit: Winter dry season is best for game viewing, as animals are forced to gather near permanent water sources. If your main interest is elephants, May-June are prime months in northern Kruger, as the park’s elephant population is boosted by an influx from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. However, winter is also peak season for visitation, and Kruger gets quite crowded. The parks are at their prettiest in summer wet season, when photographers enjoy more dramatic colors and light, but it can be harder to spot animals in the dense foliage. Wet season is also best for birding. Overall, many people consider spring to be best, as vegetation is lush but not too overgrown, migrant birds return, animals still congregate near permanent water sources, newborns abound, and temperatures are still tolerable without the extremes of summer and winter. Autumn and spring are good for witnessing many antelope species in their rut season.
Where to go for a safari: As Kruger National Park—by far South Africa’s biggest and most famous park—draws the greatest share of visitors, it can be exceedingly crowded in the dry season, and during the Christmas/New Year's holidays. Several adjoining private game reserves, such as Sabi Sands and Timbavati, offer a far more fulfilling experience. Visitor numbers are far fewer than in Kruger proper, making for a more personal experience, and you can overnight at unfenced luxury bush camps and lodges. Also, unlike in Kruger National Park, rangers can leave the paved roads to track game far into the bush.
Western Cape and Garden Route
Uniquely for South Africa, the malaria-free Western Cape at the southern tip of the country experiences a temperate maritime Mediterranean climate, with a hot, dry summer and wet, cool winter. The region is at its hottest in February and coolest and rainiest in July, with average daytime temperatures ranging between 57°F (14°C) in winter and 77°F (25°C) in summer.
However, due to the currents of the cold Atlantic (to the west) and warm Indian Ocean (to the east), as well as a convoluted topography, microclimates abound in this region. For example, the Western Cape interior north of the Cederberg Mountains is semi-arid, a dry tropical climate. The perennially green Garden Route running between Swellendam and Plettenberg Bay is a buffer zone between the Western Cape’s maritime Mediterranean climate and the Eastern Cape’s subtropical dry winters and wet summers.
Best time to visit: In general, the Western Cape—with its shrubby fynbos heathland—is best visited between September and May.
Where to go for a safari: Although the Western Cape has several relatively small nature reserves where various antelope can be spotted, you won’t find the Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhinoceros), and a visit to Cape Town and its hinterlands is likely to be as an add-on to a safari elsewhere. Nonetheless, if Western Cape is your only option for a safari, consider Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve or Kagga Kamma Private Game Reserve (in the southern Cederberg Mountains). Along the Garden Route, top draws are the Kammanassie Nature Reserve or Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, both with endangered Cape Mountain Zebra.
The Eastern Cape has a climate Goldilocks would appreciate—neither too hot, nor too cold—with a high level of year-round sunshine and few extremes.
This sub-tropical coastal zone extends for about 500 miles (800 km) east of Knysna and Plettenberg, and lies between the mild Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape and the hot tropical climate of KwaZulu-Natal. In general, this malaria-free zone has mild, dry winters (May-August) with average temperatures during the day from 44-68°F (7-20°C), and wet, humid summers (November-March) with average daytime temperatures ranging from 61-79°F (16-26°C). However, rain is possible year-round. Humidity increases northward towards KwaZulu-Natal and decreases southward towards the Western Cape.
Best time to visit: As with most other game-viewing areas, the winter dry season (May-August) presents the best safari conditions in Eastern Cape, as the foliage cover is greatly reduced, and the animals are forced to utilize fewer water sources.
Where to go for a safari: Eastern Cape is studded with several dozen parks and game reserves boasting an impressive array of animal species: Many are home to the Big Five and are easily navigated on a self-drive safari. The largest concentration of reserves is in the coastal belt around Port Elizabeth. World-famous Addo Elephant Park is the top draw, with its 500-plus elephants and the rest of the Big Five, plus giraffe, zebra, and a full menu of other amazing animals. Other top options range from tiny Bucklands Private Game Reserve to the Shamwari Game Reserve.
Extending along the Indian Ocean shoreline from Eastern Cape province to the Mozambique border, KwaZulu-Natal is the nation’s wettest and most quintessentially tropical province. Some of Africa's most famous national parks and nature reserves are concentrated in northeast KwaZulu-Natal.
The mostly flat coastal plain boasts several major game parks and has a pronounced summer wet season (October–April) and winter dry season (June–August). Summer is horrendously humid and hot (reaching into the nineties Fahrenheit/thirties Celsius). Typically, there are heavy afternoon thunderstorms and often intense week-long downpours in this season. Though it does rain year-round, it does so very sparingly during winter months, when temperatures fall to an agreeable mid-day average of 68°F (20°C).
The Drakensberg Mountains rise inland and have moderate summer temperatures, which rarely climb to 85°F (30°C). Winter days are also relatively mild, but nighttime temperatures often plunge below freezing and there can be quite a bit of snowfall. The national parks and reserves here highlight dramatic geological formations, rather than wildlife.
The extreme north of KwaZulu-Natal is a malarial zone, and is considered high-risk in wet season. Consult your physician for appropriate medications.
Best time to visit: The region is best visited during the cooler dry season (June–August), when rains are minimal and game is massed around permanent water sources. Autumn (April-May) and Spring (September-October) are also good times to visit.
Where to go for a safari: The coastal northern extreme of KwaZulu-Natal boasts an extensive selection of reserves, many with the Big Five. The largest and most diverse is iSimangaliso Wetland Park (plus the adjoining Phinda Private Game Reserve) on the Elephant Coast. A medley of habitats hosts more than 500 bird species, plus black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant, giraffe, Nile crocodile, and South Africa’s largest hippo population. Nearby Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park—the oldest game park in South Africa—also boasts the Big Five and is renowned for its white rhino conservation.
The vast escarpment region inland of Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces is hotter and drier than either, and is characterized by semi-arid conditions.
This semi-desert zone has blindingly hot summers, with temperatures reaching well into the nineties Fahrenheit/thirties Celsius or higher (depending on altitude, some areas can exceed 100°F/40°C). Winter months—June-August—are much cooler, with average daytime temperatures of 61-72°F (16°-22°C). Nights can be very cold at this time, often falling below freezing, and snow can blanket the tallest peaks. Pack accordingly! The dry season is May-September; the rainy season begins in October and lasts through April.
Best time to visit: The May-September winter dry season is best to avoid the heat of summer.
Where to go for a safari: The Karoo has relatively few game parks, which concentrate at its easternmost extreme bordering the Stromberg Mountains of Eastern Cape province. Most famous are the Samara Private Game Reserve and Mountain Zebra National Park. Both are known for their endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, but also expect to see black wildebeest, cheetah, eland, gemsbok, kudu, meerkat, red hartebeest, and vervet monkey. Nearby Tsolwana Game Reserve also boasts giraffe and white rhino, while inland—in the Karoo proper--Oviston Nature Reserve is known for its large population of ostriches.
Highveld and the Waterberg Savannah Biosphere
The Highveld region is a vast high-elevation plateau that covers most of Free State and Gauteng provinces and their margins, and extends north of Eastern Cape province and northeast of the Karoo. Adjacent to the north, and sharing the northern Highveld’s climatic characteristics, is the game-park-rich Waterberg Savannah Biosphere of Limpopo province. The Waterberg tropical savannah and grasslands biosphere experiences dry and wet cycles that span 8 years on average.
The region’s temperate subtropical climate is marked by an October-April summer wet season (the hottest time of the year), with a delightful average temperature of 70°F/21°C (the Waterberg game parks, however, can be somewhat hotter and much more humid). However, most rain falls as afternoon thunderstorms, leaving the rest of the day clear and relatively rain-free. The much cooler dry season (May-September) sees temperatures drop to around 61°F (16°C) in June, and nights can fall below freezing.
Waterberg is a malarial zone, and is considered high-risk in wet season. Consult your physician for appropriate medications.
Best time to visit: As with nearby Kruger, the dry season (May-September) provides the most exceptional game viewing, while birding is best in wet season (October-April).
Where to go for a safari: The Waterberg Biosphere boasts some three dozen game reserves. Among the more popular are: Doorndraai Dam Nature Reserve (key species include African wild cat, giraffe, kudu, leopard, warthog, wildebeest, and zebra), the large Lapalala Game Reserve (with many crocodiles and hippos, and a breeding center for black rhino), and Marakele National Park (where the vast roster of wildlife includes baboons, elephant, rhino, big cats, and a huge concentration of Cape vultures).
Kalahari Basin and the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
The northwest quarter of the country, associated with Northern Cape province, differs greatly from elsewhere in South Africa. Affected by the dry, cold Atlantic current, the vast Kalahari region is marked by a long and uncomfortably hot dry season (May–November) and a relatively warm and dry wet season (December–April), marked by sudden, heavy rainstorms and cold nights. Overall, the year is much drier than it is wet. Though the region is a semi-desert, there is still plenty of game to be seen. The Kalahari region is malaria-free.
Best time to visit: Unlike almost all other areas, the dry season is not the best time to view animals in the Kalahari. Wet season is by far the best. The desert turns green overnight and is splashed with colorful wildflowers. Game such as eland, gemsbok, hartebeest, and wildebeest mass in herds to graze the pastures, drawing out predators like cheetahs, leopards, and lions. With the arrival of dry season, the herds disperse and wildlife viewing is far more difficult and less satisfying.
Where to go for a safari: This region has almost two dozen parks and game reserves. The largest is Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa’s largest private game reserve, boasting 70 mammal species including desert black rhino, cheetah, lion, roan antelope, and sable. Nearby, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is renowned for its large-scale seasonal migration of ungulates (hoofed mammals), and for their predation by cheetah, leopard, and the park’s trademark black-maned lions. Bordering the Karoo, Mokala National Park has no elephants or predators, perhaps resulting in its populations of Cape buffalo, giraffes, black and white rhinos, and antelope that are more approachable than is typical.
Season vs. Price
Safaris are notoriously expensive. However, there are ways to enjoy a bush experience without breaking the bank. It should come as no surprise that prices for flights, lodges, and safaris reflect demand, with the best bargains to be found during South Africa’s wet season months outside of holidays (the parks of the Kalahari are an exception). Rates for most lodges are significantly cheaper off-peak. While, in general, the highest prices are in the midst of winter dry season (June-August), travelers may save money by visiting during the transitional seasons—spring (September-October) or fall (April-May).