If you're planning a trip to Africa, the weather is often an important factor. In the northern hemisphere, weather is generally determined according to four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. In many African countries, however, there are only two distinct seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. Each one has its own characteristics, and knowing what they are is key to successfully planning your vacation.
The Best Time to Travel
The best time to travel depends on what you want from your African adventure. In general, the best time to go on safari is during the dry season, when water is scarce and animals are forced to congregate around the few remaining water sources, making them easier to spot. The grass is lower, affording better visibility; and dirt roads are easily navigable, increasing your chances of a successful safari. Traveling in the dry season also means avoiding rainy season inconveniences and discomforts like flooding, high humidity and an abundance of insects (some of which may carry diseases like malaria or sleeping sickness).
However, depending on your destination, the dry season has its own drawbacks, ranging from intense heat to severe drought. Often, the rainy season is the most scenic time to visit Africa's wild places, as it causes flowers to bloom and parched brush to turn green again. In many countries, the rainy season also coincides with the best time of year to see young animals and migrant bird species. Rains are often short and sharp, with plenty of sunshine in between. For those on a budget, accommodation and tours are typically cheaper at this time of year - though some lodges or camps may shut down for the rainy season.
Dry and Rainy Seasons: North Africa
North Africa is part of the northern hemisphere and its seasons follow the same pattern as Europe or North America. Countries like Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have an arid desert climate and as such, don't have a specific rainy season. However, while many inland destinations remain dry year-round due to their proximity to the Sahara Desert, coastal areas see the most rain in winter (November to March). This is a good time for those hoping to visit Egypt's otherwise scorching tombs and monuments, or for taking a camel safari in the Sahara.
The summer months (June to September) constitute North Africa's driest season, and are characterized by almost non-existent rainfall and sky-high temperatures. In the Moroccan capital of Marrakesh, for example, temperatures frequently exceed 104°F/40°C. High altitudes or coastal breezes are required to make the heat bearable, so the beaches or mountains are the best option for summer visitors. A swimming pool or air-conditioning are a must when choosing accommodation.
Dry and Rainy Seasons: East Africa
East Africa's dry season lasts from July to September, when the weather is defined by sunny, rain-free days. This is the best time to visit famous safari destinations like the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara, although optimum game-viewing opportunities make it the most expensive time, too. This is the southern hemisphere winter, and as such weather is cooler than at other times of the year, making for pleasant days and chilly nights. Make sure to pack warm clothing for early morning and nighttime game drives.
Northern Tanzania and Kenya experience two rainy seasons: one major rainy season lasting from April to June, and a more sporadic rainy season lasting from October to December. Safari destinations are greener and less crowded during these periods, while the cost of travel decreases significantly. From April to June especially, visitors should avoid the coast (which is both wet and humid), and the rainforests of Rwanda and Uganda (which experience torrential rain and frequent flooding, making gorilla trekking routes impassable).
Each season provides opportunities for witnessing different aspects of East Africa's famous wildebeest migration.
Dry and Rainy Seasons: Horn of Africa
Weather in the Horn of Africa (including Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti) is characterized by the region's mountainous geography and cannot be easily defined. Most of Ethiopia, for example, is subject to two rainy seasons: a short one that lasts from February to April, and a longer one that lasts from mid-June to mid-September. However, some areas of the country (specifically the Danakil Desert in the northeast) rarely see any rain at all.
Rain in Somalia and Djibouti is limited and irregular, even during East Africa's monsoon season. The exception to this rule is the mountainous region in the northwest of Somalia, where heavy rains can fall during the wettest months (April to May and October to November). The diversity of the weather in the Horn of Africa means that it's best to plan your trip according to local weather patterns.
Dry and Rainy Seasons: Southern Africa
For most of Southern Africa, the dry season coincides with the southern hemisphere winter, which typically lasts from April to October. During this time, rainfall is limited, while the weather is typically sunny and cool. This is the best time to go on safari (although those considering a camping safari should be aware that nights can get cold). Conversely, in South Africa's Western Cape province, winter is actually the wettest season. If you're heading to Cape Town in July or August, you'll need a rain jacket and plenty of layers.
Elsewhere in the region, the rainy season runs from November to March, which is also the hottest and most humid time of year. The rains during this time of year will close down some of the more remote safari camps, however other areas (like Botswana's Okavango Delta) are transformed into a lush birder's paradise. Despite regular brief thunderstorms, November to March remains peak season in South Africa, especially over the Christmas holidays. Beaches are at their best, and also their most crowded.
Dry and Rainy Seasons: West Africa
Generally, the dry season runs from November to April in West African countries like Ghana and Senegal. Although humidity is high throughout the year (especially towards the coast), there are less mosquitoes during the dry season and the majority of unpaved roads remain passable. The dry weather makes this the optimum time to visit for beachgoers; especially as cool ocean breezes help to keep temperatures bearable. However, travelers should be aware of the harmattan, a dry and dusty trade wind that blows in from the Sahara Desert at this time of year.
The southern areas of West Africa have two rainy seasons, one lasting from the end of April to mid-July, and another, shorter one in September and October. In the north where there is less rainfall, there is only one rainy season, which lasts from July to September. Rains are typically brief and heavy, rarely lasting longer than a few hours. This is the best time to visit land-locked countries like Mali (where temperatures can soar as high as 120°F/49°C), as the rains help to make the heat more manageable.
Dry and Rainy Seasons: Central Africa
The climate in Central Africa is variable. In equatorial countries like Gabon, the DRC and the Republic of the Congo, areas on or near the equator are hot and humid all year round, with plenty of rainfall and no distinct dry season. Further away from the equator, the weather is still hot all year round but a short dry season offers some respite from the rain. It occurs from December to February north of the equator, and from June to September south of the equator. During the long rainy season, rain comes in heavy but short afternoon downpours.
Non-equatorial countries in Central Africa have more distinct weather patterns. Northern countries like Cameroon and the Central African Republic are hot all year round, but have a dry season that coincides with the northern hemisphere winter. The rainy season lasts for most of the rest of the year in southern areas but is confined to the summer months in the north. Angola is located south of the equator and as such, the dry season here coincides with the austral winter. The rainy months depend on your location, but start as early as September and finish as late as April.
The southern coastline is desert and has no rainy season.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on November 8th 2018.