The best time for an African safari is when the animals are easy to find and in dense numbers. Deciding when to go on safari depends on what country you would like to visit and when you are able to plan your trip. Seasons differ in East and Southern Africa so you can really plan a great safari for almost every month of the year, if you are flexible about where you want to go to.
Below you'll find a country specific guide for the absolute best time to plan a safari. A month by month guide for the best country to visit for a safari is also included. The last part of this article is for if you're looking for animal specific safaris, like a gorilla or a chimpanzee safari.
The best time to go on safari in Kenya and experience a huge density and diversity of wildlife is when the annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gnu descend on the Mara plains with predators close behind. The best time to see this wildlife spectacle is from July to October. Other parks in Kenya are also excellent and the best time to visit these would be during the dry seasons -- January through March and July through October.
With the scarcity of water during the dry seasons, the animals tend to gather in more concentrated numbers around permanent water holes, rivers, and lakes, so they are easier to find. The vegetation is also less lush which simply means that viewing animals from a distance is easier. More tips on viewing animals while on safari...
If you want to see the Great Migration unfold, head to Tanzania's northern parks; the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. The best time to witness the migration is probably February - March when the wildebeest and zebra have their young. Not only can you enjoy seeing baby animals, but the predators are at the highest number too. Because the herds also concentrate in the south of the Serengeti, it's easy to plan your wildlife viewing in that area and find a safari company that offers lodging there. For more details see my Tanzania Safari Planner.
June to November is Tanzania's dry season and is the best time to visit all the parks (and you can always hop over to Kenya's Masai Mara to witness the Great Migration during this time). Tanzania's Southern Parks are perfect to visit during this time since the animals tend to congregate around permanent water and it isn't so hot and humid.
All of Tanzania's parks suffer from the rains which generally fall from March to May in the North, and from November to May in the South and West. Roads get washed out and given the sheer size of Tanzania's parks, the animals tend to spread out, and this makes wildlife viewing less satisfying (if you're looking for sheer numbers of animals).
If you want to add a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro to your safari, the best time to hike is January - March and September - October.
Uganda has some very good National Parks which are best visited from December - March or June - September when it is predominantly dry. Most people who choose Uganda as a safari destination go to see the Mountain Gorillas. Although rain is likely all year round, the rainy seasons make the trek up to the gorillas particularly difficult, so avoid the months of March-April and October-November.
The best time to enjoy Zambia's wildlife is from September through mid-November which is the end of the dry season. Elephants abound and large herds of buffalo, impala, zebra, and others congregate in the Lower Zambezi Valley. April to September is also a good time to go, but beyond these months many parks in Zambia all but shut down due to impassable roads. In November, there's a smaller version of the Great Migration where 30,000 wildebeest gather in Zambia's Liuwa Plain National Park, that's not witnessed by many, but worth trying to plan a trip around.
July to October is the best time to go to Zimbabwe's excellent wildlife parks, especially Hwange, the largest game reserve in the country.
White water rafting on the Zambezi is best from August to December when the water is low and the rapids are fast.
The Victoria Falls are at their most impressive in March and April after the rainy season. You may have difficulty seeing all of the falls due to massive amounts of spray it can be quite torrential.
June through September is the best time to go on safari in Botswana. There is little chance of rain and the weather is still nice and warm during the day. Huge herds congregate around the Okavango Delta during this time, making a trip in a mokoro (traditional canoe) extremely rewarding.
Botswana is one of Africa's most expensive safari destinations because many of the parks are inaccessible by road and you have to charter a small plane to get there. If you have your heart set on Botswana's excellent parks, but can't quite afford them, check out some of the shoulder season deals in April, May, and October.
Etosha National Park is Namibia's prime safari destination and the best time to visit is from May to September. This is Namibia's dry season (despite being mostly desert, there are still seasons in Namibia!) and animals congregate around the water holes making viewing easier.
Many birders come to Namibia, and the best time to visit is during the summer months from December to March, but be prepared for some very hot and humid weather.
The prime safari areas in South Africa around Kruger National Park are best visited from June through September when the weather is cooler and dry. But South Africa's wildlife parks have better infrastructure than most parks in Africa, so rains don't necessarily mean the roads will be washed out. There are also many excellent game parks in South Africa's Eastern Cape region which experience less rain during the winter months than in the north of the country.
When to go on a safari sometimes depends on when you can actually take a vacation. If you're looking for the best safari experience and don't mind what country you go to, this is a useful guide for you. It's a month by month account of the best animal viewing opportunities in Africa.
If you have a destination in mind and want to know what the best time to go on safari is, take a look at the first part of the article. If you have specific animals in mind that you would like to see, like gorillas, chimpanzees or whales, see the article's conclusion for the best times to go on animal specific safaris.
January is prime safari time in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The weather is usually dry and the animals will congregate in dense numbers around permanent water supplies. The migrating wildebeest, zebra, and gnu can be found in Tanzania's northern parks during this time of year particularly in the southern Ndutu and Salei plains.
February is one of the best months to go on safari in Tanzania's northern parks because thousands of wildebeest are usually born around this time. Most of the wildebeest give birth within the same three week period. If you like baby animals, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are all perfect this time of year. Southern Tanzania can get quite hot and humid this time of year, so stick to the northern parks if you think the weather will bother you.
East Africa is still the place to be in early March if you're looking for the best safari experience in Africa. Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are still in their dry season and the density and diversity of animals can't be matched elsewhere this month. If you're visiting Uganda and want to see the Gorillas you should avoid March.
April is a good month for those looking for discounted safaris because the rains usually start in East Africa and are on their way out in Southern Africa. Rains bring plentiful water and the animals tend to disperse making them harder to find while on safari. Vegetation begins to get very lush which can obstruct your views of the animals. And perhaps most importantly, the dirt roads in national parks can get washed out and become impassable.
You can still enjoy an excellent safari in Tanzania without the crowds, especially in the northern parks. Southern Africa is coming into its own in April with cooler, drier weather. Botswana and Namibia are good bets for April.
The Victoria Falls (Zambia/Zimbabwe) are at their most spectacular in April with the start of the heavy rains. They are easily combinable with a visit to any Southern African safari destination.
In May, the best country to go on safari is probably Zambia. Zambia offers a truly wild African safari (and the best walking safaris) and there aren't too many months when the parks can operate at full tilt, so you have to take advantage of it when you can. The rest of Southern Africa is good as well though as the dry season is well on its way.
If you have your heart set on an East African safari, May isn't the best time to go, but you'll still see a lot of animals, especially in Tanzania. Make sure the camps and lodges you wish to go to are open. You should be able to get some nice discounts.
Southern Africa is heading into its best safari period by June. South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia enjoy their high season this time of year. Be prepared for some chilly nights and bring a jacket for the early morning drives.
July - September
Take your pick of destination from July to September. Every major safari destination is primed for business. Kenya's Masai Mara lays out the green carpet for millions of migrating wildebeest. This is the time for those spectacular river crossings with the crocodiles lying in wait for feeble wildebeest to stumble into their watering jaws. Southern African parks are dry and packed with diversity which you can enjoy from your lodge bar overlooking a waterhole.
Since this is also when the northern hemisphere takes their summer vacation, parks can get crowded and booked up well in advance. If you're looking for a budget safari, try a different season.
Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania are the best places for a safari in October. The small rainy season has usually not arrived yet and the months of dry weather makes game viewing very rewarding.
While Southern Africa begins its rainy season with significant heat and humidity, Zambia is still a good destination for a safari because of a unique wildlife event that takes place in Liuwa Plain National Park. A smaller version of the great east African migration takes place, and for safari aficionados, this can be very exciting to witness. Unfortunately, the rest of Zambia's parks during this time aren't at their peak, but game viewing is still fair.
If you're a birder, Botswana's Okavango Delta begins to fill up with migrating birds this month, starting their breeding season (which lasts until March).
East Africa reigns once again as the best safari destination if you'd like to spend Christmas in the bush. Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda enjoy some dry weather and excellent game viewing.
When to go on safari is sometimes determined by what animals you would like to see. The best time to go on safari to see a wide diversity of animals is covered in the first part in this article. But if you would like to plan your safari around seeing gorillas, chimpanzees, birds or whales, it's important to time your trip perfectly.
Gorillas are actually a year-round attraction since their habitat has been reduced so significantly, they couldn't roam far even if they wanted to. However, tracking gorillas is hard at the best of times and during the rainy season, the steep paths and mud can make it almost impossible to manage. Very heavy rain also makes it more difficult to take good photos, and since you only have an hour with the gorillas, it would be a shame not to get a good snapshot or two. The main rainy seasons in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC are from March to April and October to November.
Chimpanzee safaris can be found in Western Tanzania and Uganda. Like gorilla safaris, they can take place year-round but the rainy season makes walking in the forests a little tougher and the photo opportunities aren't as good as in the dry season (July - October and December). However, the rain also means the chimpanzees don't have to roam too far to find water and they are easier to locate (February-June, November-mid December).
South Africa offers some of the world's best whale watching especially if you don't fancy going out on a boat, but would like to see them from the shore. The best time to watch whales is from June to November when the Cape coast comes alive with hundreds of southern-right whales. You can also see humpbacks, Bryde's whales, and orcas.
The best time to see birds in Southern Africa is between November and March. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi are all excellent destinations for birders and many birding safaris are available.
In East Africa, the best time to go birding is January - March. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia are all popular birding destinations.
West Africa also offers a huge and exciting variety of birds, the best time to visit Cameroon, the Gambia and other destinations is during the European winter from November to March.