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 a key part of successfully planning your vacation.
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. In addition to the discomfort of occasionally getting wet, rainy season travellers can usually expect high humidity and occasional flooding.
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 of the continent's countries, the rainy season also coincides with the best time of year to see young animals and a greater variety of birds.
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.
Rainy and Dry Seasons, West Africa
Generally, November to April is the dry season in West Africa. 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, travellers 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.
Rainy and Dry Seasons, North Africa
Part of the northern hemisphere, North Africa's seasons are familiar for Western travellers. Although there's no rainy season as such, the time of year with the most rainfall coincides with the North African winter. Between November and March the coastal areas see the most rain, while many inland destinations remain dry due to their proximity to the Sahara Desert.
The summer months (June to September) constitute North Africa's dry season, and are characterised by almost non-existent rainfall and sky-high temperatures. In the Moroccan capital of Marrakech, 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.
Rainy and Dry 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.
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).
Different seasons provide opportunities for witnessing different aspects of East Africa's famous wildebeest migration.
Rainy and Dry 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, however 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.
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, where the beaches are best at this time of year.
Article updated by Jessica Macdonald on August 10th 2016.