In South Africa's Cape provinces, December is consistently hot and dry, with crystal-clear skies—an ideal time for a beach vacation if you don't mind the crowds and frequent winds.
By contrast, December is the wettest month in the north, with frequent afternoon thunderstorms in Johannesburg and Kruger, while Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal coast can be swelteringly humid. The mosquito population also soars with summer rainfall. Away from the ocean, everywhere in the interior is hot, explaining why locals flock to the coast. Daily temperatures average 75°F (24°C) in Cape Town, 77°F (25°C) in Johannesburg, and 90°F (32°C) in Kruger.
Crowds & Costs
Early December is a good time to visit before the peak visitor rush begins. Mid-December to mid-January is South Africa's busiest period as school holidays begin and local vacationers pack the game parks and beaches, and traffic along the Garden Route can be crowded.
Every Capetonian traditionally heads to the beach on December 26, and rates increase accordingly. Accommodation is at a premium, and you'll need to book your hotels, safaris, and excursions well in advance. If you wish to enjoy a safari while avoiding the crowds of Kruger, consider one of the smaller, lesser-known reserves. This can be an excellent time to visit Johannesburg and Pretoria, as many residents head out of town for a holiday.
Where to Go
With much of South Africa sweating in the summer heat, you may want to seek out the coolest spots. On the highveld at 5,800 feet (1,755 m) elevation, Johannesburg will be warm in December, but not overly so. Plus, much of the population has left for the beach, so the city is peaceful—a great time to explore Soweto Township, the Nelson Mandela Museum, and the nearby Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, where underground boardwalks lead past sites where humanoid remains dating back three million years have been unearthed.
Although busy with thirsty visitors, Winelands is irresistibly tempting on a bright summer day. Call well ahead to reserve a pre-ordered picnic to enjoy outdoors as you sip delicious chilled wine. You might even indulge in a decadent three-course Christmas lunch or dinner. And book early if you plan on attending the Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, held in the beautiful Huguenot Monument gardens.
In late December, Kruger—South Africa's most famous safari destination—gets packed with local families taking advantage of the school holidays. Smaller, private reserves such as Phinda Private Game Reserve, Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve, and Gorah Elephant Camp offer a more intimate experience.
Although summer foliage makes animal viewing more difficult, it also adds a vibrant backdrop to wildlife photography. Newborn mammals abound, as do predators on the prowl for runts in the litters. At Phinda and Thanda, you can easily combine a Big Five safari with a beach holiday. Even the nights are warm, so pack light clothing plus lightweight raingear.
What to Do
Birding is sensational in December, especially in the north, as this is the middle of the migratory season, and many of the summer residents sport their breeding plumage. Pack binoculars for better viewing and a telephoto lens and tripod to enhance your photography. A magnet for vagrant water birds, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is a prime destination with more than 530 bird species, from African pygmy geese to flamingoes.
December is also peak nesting season for leatherback and loggerhead turtles along the beaches of iSimangaliso. Combine your birding adventure or a Big Five safari at a nearby private game reserve with nighttime turtle-tracking tours and superb daytime reef diving. And for added adrenalin, slip into a kayak to paddle through the wetlands with the hippos and crocodiles. True, iSimangaliso and the rest of KwaZulu-Natal will be hot and humid, but you have the refreshing cool of the sea to compensate. Book early, however. Accommodation is at a premium in iSimangaliso in December.
Events in December
Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, Franschoek. This annual themed event is a highlight of the social calendar, held in early December on the lush lawns surrounding Franschhoek's iconic Huguenot Monument. Sample the best bubbly from wineries around the area, plus edible treats from Franschhoek's world-class restaurants.
Cape Town Festival of Beer, Cape Town. For sudsters who prefer their bubbles malted, this decade-old event features more than 200 beers from 60 breweries, plus artisanal food trucks and live entertainment.
Durban Jazz Festival, Durban. This one-day alfresco event is held each December 26 and features a line-up of top African jazz performers.
Traveling to South Africa in December? Check out these great itineraries
South Africa Food & Wine Tour: Cape Town, Garden Route, & Johannesburg – 11 Days. Fuel your Table Mountain-sized appetite on this edible education itinerary that includes a lot of fun foodie treats, from oyster tasting to a cast-iron cooking class, washed down with fine regional wines.
10 Days in South Africa: Cape Town, Garden Route, and Safari. Enjoy some of South Africa's most sought-after destinations in Western and Eastern Cape Provinces, including an exceptional safari experience.