First-timers always ask, “When is the best time to go?” to East Africa. There’s no easy answer, but there are many wrong answers!
I got a lovely email this morning from Amy who is planning her safari honeymoon. Honeymoons are a large part of any tourism business, and according to lovecarnival.com, more and more couples are not going on the honeymoon right after the wedding, but rather waiting until “just the right time.”
Honeymooners also spend more on their trip than the average tourist, and more than they will spend on future trips in their near future. So honeymooners, especially, want to get it all right. So there’s no better person for me to answer, “When’s the best time to go,” than the soon-to-be-married Amy!
So I haven’t answer, yet… I loathe this question, but Amy has motivated me. It’s time to try. But beware, this isn’t going to be easy.
First of all, “best” reflects an incredible personal bias. “Best of what?” Best animal viewing? Best weather? Amy understandably wants to end her trip on a beautiful East African beach, so that helps immensely in giving her an answer. She obviously doesn’t want to celebrate her marriage on a beach when it’s storming. East Africa doesn’t have hurricanes, but it has pretty awful coastal storms from about the end of April – the middle of August. So for Amy, at least, no summer trip.
But then “best of what” next? I’m continually amazed at all the bad advice posted on sites like TripAdvisor. For a safari, it seems that whenever anyone goes is the “best” time. Well, it obviously was for them, and that’s the point.
There’s virtually not a time in the year when people aren’t on safari, and virtually all of them are having a great time. And that’s because a safari is so dynamic and exciting, no matter when it occurs.
Cop out. Well, sort of, but I’ve lived there. I’ve spent my life there. What if I asked you, “When’s the best time to visit your home town?” I suppose we all have our preferences, but then we start to think about a bit more carefully.
Yes, it’s 20 below outside my window in January, but my gosh how beautiful it is! And if you like snow – well, we have skiing, skating, snowboarding, and it’s the best time of the year to see bald eagles! Then, again, right now in the fullness of summer, the forests are outstanding, the hike along the river trail…..
So you see, it’s simply not easy to answer. But there are many wrong answers:
Don’t trust any advice from someone who’s been only once or twice. They’re probably very earnest, but they just don’t have the experience. They might be very worthwhile in directing you to an expert, but they aren’t the expert.
Don’t read travel brochures. All they want to do is sell you something.
Beware about magazine and newspaper articles. They used to be very unbiased and good, but in today’s media crunch, they’re more often infocommercials than real information.
Guide books can be very useful, but make sure they’re current. A Lonely Planet guidebook can lose value in just a few years. This is as true about the weather (with global warming) as about the best lodge (decaying with time).
My personally favorite time to go on safari is March and April. That’s when I schedule my migration safaris, and when I’ve most enjoyed guiding for the last nearly 40 years. And here’s my bias:
1) It’s the wet season in northern Tanzania, and that makes it the most beautiful time of the year. Quite apart from wild animals, the landscapes are at their most spectacular.
2) It’s the only time of the year when the entire wildebeest migration is concentrated in a single area: the southern grassland plains of the Serengeti. This is the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth.
3) It’s a low season! Yes, that’s right! So there are fewer people and prices are lower.
But I’ll be quick to qualify my bias. In April many of the better camps and lodges close, because there just isn’t enough business. Keep in mind this has nothing to do with game viewing or weather or anything else except that April and May worldwide are the months with the fewest travelers.
So someone insisting on “optimum comfort and style” every single night should not join my April safaris.
I think the best game viewing occurs in March and April, but this is mostly true just for the great plains where there aren’t any trees! A lot of East Africa is bush, and during March and April game viewing in the bush can be challenging. The forests are full and dense, and the animals are dispersed, because food and water is available, everywhere. At the height of the dry season (October) a 12-day safari normally finds between 60-70 lion. During the wet season (April and May) it’s usually only half that.
So someone whose “best time” means “seeing the most lions”, then I’d advise traveling in October.
What about babies? The most animal babies occur in February and March.
Temperature? Hottest times in January and February; coldest times in July.
Rain? Forget about this. It absolutely doesn’t matter if it’s raining or not.
Snakes? Best time during the rains, in … oops.
Birds? Best time is when the largest numbers of migrants can be found: January – March.
Elephants? During the dry season: June – October.
Prices? Cheapest March – June; most expensive around holidays and July & August. This is as true for on the ground services as for your airline tickets.
So now that I’ve totally confused you, let’s make it simple. My favorite time is March and April, but it may not be your favorite time, for all the reasons above.. and many more.
The best way to get a straight answer is to ask a straight question. Make sure before asking you know, like Amy, some important things that you want or are expecting. Then, the answer will be easier, too!