Peak Season Safaris – What You Need to Know
Anyone planning an African safari can be forgiven for equating ‘peak season’ with ‘the most expensive season’. And while there’s no getting around the fact that you’ll be paying the year’s top price for a lodge or a safari in peak season, it’s worth considering why.
After all, there are plenty of amazing wildlife events that take place outside of ‘peak season’. It’s the rains that trigger the mass movement of wildebeest into the Serengeti for example, and it’s during the low season – the wet but cheerfully-named Green Season – that you’ll witness Botswana’s zebra migration and Tanzania’s wildebeest migration.
But there’s a different price to pay for these low season events: it’s a hot, rainy and often malarial time of year – acceptable risks for the seasoned safari traveller but perhaps not for families with children and travellers who want to take those risks out of their experience.
That’s why peak season safaris make sense if the whole experience is considered. And you’ll find the most nuanced safari seasons in southern Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – where you’ll also find shoulder season as well as the low season. Here, peak season is best thought of as a combination of the best wildlife viewing with the most comfortable climate and the lowest risk of malaria. Here’s why:
THE BEST WILDLIFE VIEWING
Peak season is also synonymous with ‘dry season’ which further translates as the best time to see animals. Dry-season vegetation is sparse and low, making wildlife easier to see, and the arid conditions drive animals in great numbers at water sources such as Botswana’s Chobe River, Namibia’s Etosha Pan and Zambia’s Lower Zambezi.
And peak season usually means the best time for the full range of safari activities. The low, dry vegetation favours guided walking safaris in Zimbabwe and Zambia, while in Botswana the Kalahari Desert’s vast Makgadikgadi Pans can be explored on quad bike and camped out on under the stars. Paradoxically, the Okavango Delta is in full flood during the first half of peak season, enabling you to enjoy all the water-based activities under clear blue skies – boating, canoeing and fishing.
The paradox continues at Victoria Falls: the local rains have gone but the Zambezi River’s floodwaters have arrived and the result is Victoria Falls looking magnificent in the early peak season – June and July. Water levels then drop rapidly and the Zambezi River becomes accessible to white-water rafting and canoeing as July turns into August.
THE BEST WEATHER IN PEAK SEASON
You’ll also enjoy much cooler temperatures during the June through August peak season. And sometimes it’s really cool – close to freezing in the early morning at most safari destinations. But cold nights also mean roaring log fires and the hearty atmosphere of the enclosed boma – a traditional open-air eating and socialising area. And anyway, peak-season weather during the day is mild to warm, enabling you to use the swimming pool at your lodge and sit down to lunch outdoors.
Such clear weather provides the perfect backdrop for a number of starbeds and sleep-out experiences that can be enjoyed across southern Africa. The views of the starry cosmos are quite phenomenal in the inky darkness of the African night; you’ll only need a mosquito net for cover on your grandly appointed sleeping platform, but you do need the guarantee of dry peak season weather.
And if you don’t like it too cold, then peak season – in southern Africa at least – has a twist in its tail. The last two peak season months of September and October can be fiercely hot – both during the day and at night – but the wildlife viewing reaches a new intensity; go if you can handle the heat, it’s when places like Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are at their most rewarding for animal sightings.
THE SAFEST CONDITIONS
If peak season also means a cool and dry climate, then it’s obvious that this is the safest time to travel in order to avoid malaria and other rainy-season related diseases. Malaria, as it happens, is generally a low risk across southern Africa – see here for more details – but safari peak season – in other words, the coldest and driest time of year – is when you put yourself at the very bottom end of the risk scale. Malarial mosquitos are mostly dormant at this time and the lack of other insects – flies for example – also makes for a more enjoyable safari.
It also means easier travelling conditions when on safari – whether by light plane or by 4X4. Skies are clear and less turbulent than in the rainy season while roads are dry and there’s little to no risk of game drives and other activities ruined – or endangered – by a rainstorm.
ANY DRAWBACKS TO PEAK SEASON?
Peak season is peak season – it’s when most people travel on safari so booking your preferred accommodation needs to be made well in advance – up to 12 months in some cases. And some of the best destinations – Botswana’s Chobe River or South Africa’s Kruger Park for example – are very busy over much of peak season, especially over school holidays.
You can largely avoid this by making a long-term booking and getting our advice about the places to stay that deliver the peak season experience but not the peak season crowds.