Best game in October

Best game in October

Niki Roberts asks:

Q. We are getting mixed messages about where to see the most animals in October.

A. At any time of the year, in any weather condition, there are more animals seen on an East African safari than on any other safari anywhere else in Africa, including all of southern Africa. As a comparison consider that normally on a two-week safari at the best time of the year for southern Africa game viewing (July – September) you will likely see 10-15 lions. At the best time of year for an East African safari (March – June), you’re likely to see 70-80 lion. Similar comparisons exists for most of the other animals as well.

While that is an absolutely true and definitive statement, the statement that March – June is the best time to see animals in East Africa is a little bit more qualified. This is because — unlike southern Africa which is definitively south of the equator and has absolute climate seasons — East Africa lies astride the equator. This means the seasons are not really very different from one another, and it also means that the weather is much more complicated. This is true around the world at the equator because of the confluence of jet streams wirling around against one another.

Rain patterns are pretty well established, though, and that’s what I base my statement on. The rainiest time in all of East Africa is March – June. That’s why it’s the best time for seeing the most animals. This is when they’re fat and sassy and less stressed, meaning more viewable. It’s also the only time of the year when the great wildebeest migration is all in one place at one time: the southern grassland plains of the Serengeti. So in other words, this is the ONLY time during the year that in one view from a mountain top near Lemuta you have the chance to see between 150-200,000 animals, the maximum a wide-horizon view will allow when they’re packed together.

BUT in the wet season predation is much harder — for obvious reasons — so the number of predators that you’ll see easily is often less than what you’d see in the dry season. In October on a two-week safari in East Africa, the number of lion you’re likely to see can double, to over 100.

I prefer the beauty of the wet season: the gorgeousness of the veld, the abundance of game, the large numbers of babies, the abundance of birds (because all the European migrants have joined the African species to increase the total species count to more than 700)and the general state of the veld: much less dust, for instance. Ironically it also coincides with the “low season” so the rates are the cheapest. Low season doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to travel. This is the low season for most places all over the world — it’s just a time that people don’t travel for some reason.

Finally, you may be interested in why you’re confused! Game viewing in East Africa started in Kenya in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Travel was much more difficult then. The cut tracks in the national parks weren’t very well maintained, and the vehicles were pretty bad — mostly minibuses. Imagine traveling through areas of mud with a poor vehicle! (By the way, rainy season is not like London, but like summer in the Midwest: grand, dramatic afternoon thunderstorms with the rest of the day and night beautifully clear.)

Also fortunate for Kenya, the dry season is featured by about a third of the great migration coming into Kenya’s Mara. So it was absolutely true to say, at least in the 1950s and 1960s, that the best time for game viewing was during our summer and fall, during Kenya’s dry season.

But that changed when vehicles changed and parks got better tracks. Today we mostly use Landrovers which have no problem with a bit of mud. The tracks are better, and northern Tanzania is now developed. In the days when the myth of the best game viewing during dry times developed, there wasn’t even a Tarangire National Park and very few roads at all in the Serengeti!

But of course the Kenyan operators are not going to help you explode this myth! The Kenyan’s rainy season is much shorter than in northern Tanzania; Kenya is a much drier place all year long, and so if you accept — as I’m arguing — that the wet season is better for game viewing than the dry season, then the Kenyans are immediately going to be upset.

But those are the facts!