Most overseas visitors think of South Africa as a land drenched in perennial sunshine. However, with a total landmass of over 470,900 square miles/ 1.2 million square kilometers, South Africa's weather is not so easily summarized. It is a land of arid desert and lush tropical coasts, of temperate woodland and snow-capped mountains. Depending on when you travel and where you go, it is possible to encounter almost every different kind of weather extreme.
Universal Truths of South Africa's Weather
Although generalizing South Africa's weather is difficult, there are a few absolutes that apply throughout the country. There are four distinct seasons - summer, fall, winter and spring (unlike Africa's equatorial countries, where the year is split into rainy and dry seasons). Summer lasts from November to January, while winter lasts from June to August. For most of the country, the rains usually coincide with the summer months - although the Western Cape (including Cape Town) is an exception to this rule.
South Africa sees average summer highs of around 82°F/ 28°C, and average winter highs of around 64°F/ 18°C. Of course, these averages change dramatically from region to region. Generally speaking, temperatures at the coast are more consistent throughout the year, while the arid and/ or mountainous areas of the interior see the greatest fluctuation in seasonal temperatures.
Regardless of when or where you travel in South Africa, it's a good idea to pack for all occasions. Even in the Kalahari Desert, nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing.
Cape Town Weather
Located in the far south of the country in the Western Cape, Cape Town has a temperate climate similar to that of Europe or North America.
Summers are warm and generally dry, and in recent years, the city has been plagued by drought. Winters in Cape Town can be downright cold, and the majority of the city's rain falls at this time. The shoulder seasons are often the most pleasant. Thanks to the existence of the frigid Benguela current, the waters around Cape Town are always chilly. The climate for most of the Garden Route is similar to that of Cape Town.
Situated in the northeast province of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban enjoys a tropical climate and weather that remains warm all year round. In the summer, temperatures can be sweltering and the humidity level is high. The rains come with the higher temperatures, and usually take the form of short, sharp thunderstorms in the late afternoon. Winters are mild, sunny and typically dry. Again, the most pleasant time of year to visit is usually in spring or fall.
Durban's shores are washed by the Indian Ocean. The sea is positively warm in summer and refreshingly cool in winter.
Johannesburg is located in Gauteng province in the northern interior. Summers here are generally hot and humid and coincide with the rainy season. Like Durban, Johannesburg sees its fair share of spectacular thunderstorms. Winters in Johannesburg are moderate, with dry, sunny days and chilly nights. If you're visiting the Kruger National Park, the temperature chart below will give you a good idea of what you can expect in terms of weather.
The Drakensberg Mountains Weather
Like Durban, the Drakensberg Mountains are located in KwaZulu-Natal. However, their increased elevation means that even in the height of summer, they offer a respite from the sweaty temperatures of the coast. Rainfall can be significant here during the summer months, but for the most part, the thunderstorms are interspersed with perfect weather. Winters are dry and warm during the day, although nights are often freezing at higher elevations and snow is common. April and May are the best months for trekking in the Drakensberg.
The Karoo Weather
The Karoo is a vast region of semi-desert wilderness that covers some 154,440 square miles/ 400,000 square kilometers and spans three provinces in the center of South Africa. Summers in the Karoo are hot, and the region's limited annual rainfall occurs at this time. Around the lower Orange River area, temperatures frequently exceed 104°F/ 40°C. In winter, the weather in the Karoo is dry and mild. The best time to visit is between May and September when the days are warm and sunny. However, be aware that nighttime temperatures can drop dramatically, so you'll need to pack extra layers.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald.