Southern Africa is a region of unforgettable sights and unique experiences, where the unexpected becomes expected and wonderment becomes an everyday state of being. There is magic everywhere you look - in the rose blush of a sunrise over the Indian Ocean; in the orchestra of sound that defines nighttime in the African bush; or in the impossible blue of the savannah sky.
Above all, it is a place to immerse oneself in the beauty of Nature, a beauty best showcased by several incredible natural phenomena. In this article, we look at three of the region’s most unique natural events, all of which take place for only a brief snapshot of time each year, and all of which offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience southern Africa at its most magnificent.
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Undoubtedly the most famous of the African continent's natural events, The Great Migration takes place on the plains of Tanzania and Kenya. Every year, over one million wildebeest, zebra and other antelope travel in vast herds throughout the Serengeti/ Maasai Mara ecosystem, stopping along the way to mate, give birth and graze. The movement of the herds depends on the rains, but with a spot of careful planning, you could find yourself at the right time and place for witnessing one of the planet's most mesmerising animal aggregations. In addition to the wildebeest and zebra, the predators that follow in their wake add an incredible sense of drama.
The migration never really stops, and different areas offer the best sightings at different times of the year. Between January and March, heavy rains draw the wildebeest herds to the southern Serengeti in time for calving season. When the rains dry up around the beginning of April, the herds move north in huge columns towards the central and western Serengeti. July is considered the best month for watching the herds cross the Mara and Grumeti Rivers - a spectacular event that inevitably sees heavy crocodile predation. The wildebeest spend September, October and November grazing in the Maasai Mara, before heading south once more to begin the cycle all over again.
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The arrival of the southern hemisphere spring sees the arid desert valleys of South Africa’s Northern Cape province transform seemingly overnight into a spell-bindingly magnificent tapestry of color. The rainbow hues come from a sudden bloom of flowers brought on by the spring rains that typically fall in early August. The natural spectacle showcases more than 3,500 different flower species including the beautiful Namaqualand Daisy, and lasts for just a few short weeks. The are several places from which to witness this floral bounty, with the blooms starting in the north and gradually moving southwards along the Cape Flower Route.
Two of the main spots are located at the beginning and middle of the route respectively. In the north, the blooms appear first in the otherwise barren valleys of Namaqua National Park, creating great swathes of colour that include over 1,000 endemic flower species. Jewel-colored birds and insects arrive to take advantage of the sudden nectar feast, completing the illusion of paradise. A week or two later, the best place to catch the blooms is several hours further south, at Hantam National Botanical Garden. Timings for the flower show are rain-dependent and unpredictable, but the wild beauty of the blooms make the effort of researching in advance worthwhile.
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For marine life enthusiasts, South Africa’s Sardine Run is a must-see event. It involves the migration of billions of sardines, and is comparable to the wildebeest migration in terms of biomass. The mechanics of the Run are little understood, but it is thought that it begins when huge shoals of sardines congregate in the waters of the Cape’s Agulhas Bank to spawn. Thereafter, they begin to migrate northwards along a corridor of cool water that opens along South Africa’s east coast for a few short weeks in late June/ early July. The sardines are kept within the corridor’s narrow confines by their inability to tolerate the warmer water of the adjacent Agulhas Current.
Hemmed in to the coastline, the sardines provide an easy target for the region’s marine predators. The Run attracts warm and cold water species, as well as pelagic visitors from the deep. Whales, sharks and gamefish follow in the wake of the beleaguered fish, while Cape gannets and common dolphin are two of the Run’s most iconic predator species. The best way to experience the Run is from the water, either on snorkel or scuba. Several operators offer front row seats to the chaos, the majority of which run out of Port St Johns. It’s important to remember that Sardine Run action can be difficult to pinpoint, and longer trips offer a higher chance of success.