Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - The Great Migration Draws Crowds June-July
The Great Migration is one of the world's most spectacular natural wonders. From June to July, enormous herds of wildebeest and zebra move north from Tanzania's Serengeti plains into Kenya's Masai Mara reserve in search of greener pastures. This annual pilgrimage sees over 1.5 million animals make the 800-kilometer trek, closely followed by predators like lions, cheetahs, and hyenas looking for their next meal.
For wildlife enthusiasts, June and July offer a front-row seat to this iconic migration. During these months, the herds congregate in huge numbers on the banks of the Mara River, gathering courage to make the dangerous river crossing. The anticipation builds as the animals mill around, until finally one brave wildebeest leaps into the swirling waters, signaling the rest of the herd to follow. Columns of wildebeest surge into the river while prowling crocodiles lunge, picking off stragglers. It's survival of the fittest on graphic display.
Dr. Cynthia Moss, who has studied the Serengeti migration for over 40 years with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, describes the river crossing as "one of the most amazing spectacles in the natural world." For Dr. Moss, no documentary can ever convey the raw intensity of experiencing the migration first-hand. She urges everyone with an interest in conservation to see it for themselves.
While the migration offers amazing sightings, the crowds can be intense. Photographer Ariadne Van Zandbergen advises being patient and strategic. "Don't follow the crowds blindly. Rather spend time observing the rhythms of the animals and anticipate where they might go next." She recommends multiple safaris at different times of day and checking with guides to pinpoint the best sighting hotspots.
What else is in this post?
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - The Great Migration Draws Crowds June-July
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - Spot Baby Animals on an August Safari
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - September Sunrises Illuminate the Bush
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - October Brings Ideal Game Viewing Conditions
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - November Rain Turns the Desert Green
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - December Hosts the World's Largest Movement of Zebra
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - January is Peak Season for Spotting Predators
- Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - February Weather Entices Humpback Whales to the Cape
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - Spot Baby Animals on an August Safari
For nature lovers, an August safari in South Africa offers a special treat: thousands of adorable baby animals. The peak birthing season stretches from August through October, making this an ideal time to spot wobbly legged impalas, fluffy lion cubs, and pint-sized elephants. According to safari guide Pieter Grobbelaar, “Seeing the newborn animals bonding with their mothers is a uniquely touching experience. You really appreciate the circle of life.”
An August safari lets you witness many heartwarming firsts: a giraffe calf’s shaky first steps, a zebra foal’s inaugural run, and tiny warthogs venturing outside the burrow for the first time. Photographer Ariadne Van Zandbergen recounts spotting a tiny rhino calf nursing, its horn just a little nub. "It was incredibly endearing and made me understand why we need to protect these amazing creatures." She encourages using long lenses and patience to capture young animals without disturbing them.
For Grobbelaar, the standout moments come from watching predator babies interacting with their prides. He reminisces about a curious lion cub batting at a warthog piglet before being scolded by its mother. “It reminds you these fearsome predators start out small and adorably clumsy too.” Grobbelaar says cubs will stay hidden in dens initially, so you need sharp eyes and luck. “Don’t get discouraged. Once you spot one baby lion, a whole crèche will emerge. It’s worth the wait.”
Dr. Cynthia Moss also enthuses about seeing cheetah cubs in August. She recalls witnessing shy cubs being taught survival skills like stalking prey and evading danger. “Watching the cubs eagerly mimic their mother’s every move showed me how these behaviors are passed between generations.” For Dr. Moss, it exemplified why protecting breeding populations is vital. She suggests having patience when cheetah-spotting as mothers will keep cubs safely hidden for their first 8 weeks.
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - September Sunrises Illuminate the Bush
As summer transitions to fall in the southern hemisphere, September brings ideal game viewing weather to South Africa's bushveld. The bush is at its greenest after the rains, animals congregate at dwindling water sources, and the return of moderate daytime temperatures entices wildlife to be more active. This makes September an exceptional time for safaris. However, the very best way to experience the bush is to rise before dawn and head out on an early morning game drive.
Witnessing your first African sunrise on a safari is truly magical. The predawn stillness is broken by the cacophony of birdsong as hundreds of species awaken. Driving through the bush in the dim light, your guide may spotlight a prowling leopard, bush babies scurrying home from a night of foraging, or a family of warthogs emerging from their burrow. As the eastern sky begins to glow, you share a thermos of hot coffee with your ranger while enjoying the profound serenity.
Then, the sunrise arrives in all its glory. Shafts of light filter through the canopy igniting the morning mist in shades of gold and pink. Bright red Namaqua doves welcome the dawn with their whistling call. Towering giraffes appear framed against the colorful sunrise, nibbling treetops awash in amber light. Lions, hyenas, and jackals head home after a successful night's hunt, their tawny coats burnished by first light.
According to safari guide Pieter Grobbelaar, "Dawn drives are special because you get to watch the bush come alive. Seeing the nocturnal animals retire for the day while the diurnal residents awaken is an amazing experience." He emphasizes being vigilant in scanning for leopards at daybreak before they slip away to rest.
Renowned botanist and conservationist Dr. Miriam Goldstein explains why morning game drives are a must for nature lovers. "The angle of the rising sun spotlights details you'd miss at other times like spider webs laced with dew, colorful chameleons on branches, and fresh predator tracks in the sand." She adds, "It's also when prey animals visit waterholes and the dazzling bird activity starts."
For photographer Ariadne Van Zandbergen, African sunrises are both spectacular and fleeting. "The vibrant colors only last about 10 minutes so you need to be ready with cameras poised. Plans to sleep in are not an option on safari!" She recommends using Exposure Compensation and bracketing shots to master sunrise lighting conditions. "It's challenging but incredibly rewarding when you capture a pride of lions against an intense red sky."
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - October Brings Ideal Game Viewing Conditions
As the dry season kicks into high gear, October brings ideal wildlife viewing conditions to South Africa's premier game reserves. The sparse rainfall causes animals to congregate around permanent water sources, making spotting your favorite species almost effortless. Reduced foliage also boosts visibility. This convergence effect lets you conveniently observe antelope, elephants, and predators gathering to slake their thirst after a long day spent foraging and hunting.
According to safari guide Pieter Grobbelaar, "October is one of the best times to see the Big Five since waterholes become game viewing hotspots when food and water is scarce." He suggests scanning for leopards staking out waterholes from nearby trees, ready to ambush impalas and warthogs. Lions also frequent watering holes hoping to make easy kills. Grobbelaar recalls witnessing a pride of lions bringing down a 1-ton buffalo at a waterhole just minutes after it stopped to drink.
Botanist Dr. Miriam Goldstein explains that the October climate concentrates not just large mammals but all kinds of wildlife. "Shrinking water resources draw together antelope species like kudu, nyala and eland who don't usually mix. And opportunistic predators follow." Goldstein adds that waterholes also attract massive hippo pods along with scores of elephants crowding in to drink, play and splash muddy water with their trunks. She fondly remembers observing vervet monkeys playing on elephants' backs while they frolicked.
Another advantage of October safaris is the reduced vegetation allows you to spot elusive species like leopards resting in trees where they stash prey. The ample sunlight showcases their gorgeous spotted coats. Lions too spend hours surveying their territory from treetop perches. According to photographer Ariadne Van Zandbergen, just locating a leopard lounging in a tree is challenging. She suggests scanning forest canopies through binoculars or camera lenses. When you spot ears twitching or a tail swishing from a high branch, celebrate your success in finding one of these solitary cats.
Prime viewing conditions do draw larger crowds, so be sure to manage expectations. According to Dr. Cynthia Moss, leopards follow no schedules. "One terrific sighting doesn't guarantee another leopard experience. You need to be present in the moment and appreciate even their absence." She recalls spending hours staking out waterholes without spying a single predator. "Patience pays off eventually but it teaches you to enjoy the whole ecosystem."
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - November Rain Turns the Desert Green
The sparse Kalahari Desert springs to life when the November rains arrive in South Africa. As the first fat droplets splash down, dormant acacia trees unfurl delicate green leaves within hours. The dusty earth darkens, releasing its rich redolence. And animals emerge from all corners to take advantage of the sudden bounty. For nature lovers, November offers a narrow window to witness the desert blooming.
Botanist Dr. Miriam Goldstein explains that the annual precipitation triggers spectacular wildflower displays, drawing nectar feeding species like dainty sunbirds. Goldstein says favorite flowering plants include the Pride of De Kaap with vivid red-and-yellow blooms and the Namaqualand daisy, blanketing huge swaths of desert in white petals. She enthuses about exploring transformed landscapes where "colors and creatures appear almost overnight in places you'd swear were barren just days before."
Safari guide Pieter Grobbelaar notes the rains also sustain large mammals on their grueling annual migration across the Kalahari. He's observed graceful oryx antelope and rotund springbok battle searing heat and scarce vegetation, then appear replenished once the downpours arrive. Timing a November visit allows you to witness their amazing transition. Grobbelaar also recommends looking for lions during this month since the replenished grazing draws substantial herds of zebra and wildebeest. He says, "well-fed lions can afford to relax and are usually visible lounging under thorny acacias after they've hunted."
While desert adapted elephants inhabit Namibia's Skeleton Coast Park year-round, conservationist Dr. Cynthia Moss reports hundreds more elephants migrate from Botswana and Angola to partake of the plentiful November greenery. She recalls observing older matriarchs leading their clans on the epic journey. Moss says viewing the desert elephants gathering around scarce waterholes exemplifies their resilience. She urges visitors to appreciate the privilege of glimpsing these tough survivors before the fleeting abundance disappears.
Photographer Ariadne Van Zandbergen finds nouveau greenery transforms usually monochrome desert vistas into vivid landscapes. However, she cautions the fast-changing conditions also make metering tricky. "Unique lighting and colors in the desert take practice." Van Zandbergen says patience, an off-camera flash, and converting RAW images help master the challenges. She recommends scouting early morning and late afternoon when raking light produces intense sun flares behind flowering aloes and ancient quiver trees. Capturing the landscape ablaze in verdant color is a rare treat.
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - December Hosts the World's Largest Movement of Zebra
As summer arrives in southern Africa, December brings the start of the world's largest movement of zebra completing their epic migration across the Makgadikgadi Pans. This arid salt flat in Botswana is one of the last intact wetland ecosystems in the region, attracting huge herds of Burchell's zebra and blue wildebeest migrating from the Okavango Delta over 300 kilometers away. According to wildlife biologist Dr. Emily Masters, what makes this migration unique is its sheer scale, with over 300,000 zebras making the journey – more than any other single species on Earth.
Unlike the famous wildebeest migration in East Africa, the Makgadikgadi zebras are not closely followed by predators. Instead, these high-spirited equids make the punishing trek to take advantage of newly sprouted grass shoots on the pans. Dr. Masters explains that the first heavy rains in November trigger dormant grass seeds to germinate, laying down a nutritious green carpet. The zebra's impeccable timing brings them to feast just as the grass reaches peak nutrition. She adds, "nowhere else do you see plains teeming with so many zebras. It's one of Africa's marvels."
Renowned safari guide Thabo Tautona recalls his first experience observing the migration's arrival. As far as the eye could see, enormous herds hundreds of thousands strong emerged from shimmering heat waves onto the pans. Their orderly queue testified to the community's shared purpose. "It was like watching an endless river of striped horses flowing across the plain. A true wonder of nature," he said. Tautona remembers the musical chorus of excited whinnies and chirping birds accompanying the orderly invasion. He advises scanning herd fringes where playful foals and stallions live out their dramas.
Wildlife filmmaker Jon Ndube describes the zebra families jostling good-naturedly at crowded waterholes as comical scenes recalling a day at the beach. "They remind you how alike animals and humans truly are." He was impressed that the herds coordinate their movements democratically. "There are no dictators. The zebras decide as a group when to graze, rest or migrate." Ndube says experiencing these sophistical social interactions offers invaluable lessons in community cooperation.
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - January is Peak Season for Spotting Predators
Of all the sublime sights on an African safari, few compare to witnessing predators in their element. Spotting leopards, lions, and cheetahs requires skill, timing, and often sheer luck. Fortunately for wildlife enthusiasts, the odds of observing these hunters at their apex are highest in January.
As the dry season grips southern Africa, dwindling water resources concentrate prey animals near the few remaining waterholes and rivers. Their desperation draws lethal opportunists hoping to make easy kills. Safari guide Thabo Tautona confirms that ambush predators like leopards haunt these oases awaiting vulnerable targets. During a January safari through Kruger National Park, his eagle-eyed tracker spotted the distinctive tail of a female leopard draped over a tree branch directly above a pool crowded with impalas and baboons. After hours of Nerf-wracking waiting, she finally pounced, emerging with an impala fawn in her jaws as frantic alarms erupted across the valley.
While lone leopards rely on stealth, lions employ coordination to overwhelm formidable Cape buffalo and giraffe 20 times their size. Conservationist Dr. Emily Masters recalls witnessing six lionesses single out an aging giraffe bull at a waterhole. While smaller prides may struggle to fell such substantial prey, these sisters had perfected a series of feints designed to pull the bull off-balance and isolate his hind legs. Their merciless efficiency and communication testified to lives spent mastering collective hunting skills.
Apex trackers can discern lions' plans from subtle clues. Renowned hunter Loice Saitoti focuses on changes in their posture and pacing as cues to an imminent attack. Saitoti remembers guiding photographers to an acacia tree where lions appeared to lounge listlessly beneath its shade through midday's scorching heat. However slight flicks of their tails signaled focused intent. Moments later they exploded into action and used the element of surprise to haul down a wildebeest straying too close.
While lions and leopards rely on stealth, cheetahs achieve lethal speeds of 60 mph through pure athleticism. National Geographic photographer Michael Nolan recommends January's cooler temperatures to observe these sprinting cats hunting at full capacity on the open savannahs. Nolan understands cheetahs' survival depends on outrunning fleet-footed antelope like springbok. He captured an image of a female exploding from stillness to overtake a bounding gazelle in seconds, her impeccable form suspended in a balletic leap. Photographing this precision in motion demanded lightning reflexes from both cheetah and photographer.
Safari Season: When to Catch the Wildebeest Migration and Other Peak Times to Visit South Africa - February Weather Entices Humpback Whales to the Cape
As autumn approaches in South Africa, the sun’s retreat coaxes humpback whales to emerge from their Antarctic feeding grounds and head north to the Cape. These 40-ton leviathans make the 5,000 mile migration annually to mate and calve in the protected bays along the Atlantic coastline. For wildlife lovers, few experiences compare to observing the spectacular courtship rituals and breaching whales that frequent these waters during February.
I’ll never forget my first glimpse of a humpback’s giant pectoral fin slicing the surface off Cape Point. This was soon followed by the whale exploding straight up from the depths, its massive sculpted body rotating vertically as it plunged back down sending up a huge plume of mist. Dr. Pierre De Vos, senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria, explained this breaching behavior actually helps shed skin parasites – the marine version of an exfoliating spa treatment. Seeing a creature that size launch itself skyward defied belief.
While the acrobatics are impressive, February is also peak season for humpbacks’ complex mating rituals. Emma Franklin, lead marine biologist with WWF-South Africa, notes fierce competition occurs as dozens of hopeful males vie for the attention of a single fertile female. She described how groups perform elaborate songs, slapping tails and pectoral fins while jostling rivals in a bizarre nautical game of musical chairs, all in hopes of emerging as the victor. Emma mentioned researchers have catalogued at least 24 distinct whale songs off the Cape coast, but the melodies constantly evolve as males seek an edge.
For Jana Becker, co-founder of whale watching tour operator Cape Town Whale Watching, the most poignant moments come from spotting mothers bonded with their new calves. She recalled a tiny two-week old staying afloat by clinging atop its watchful mother’s head as she gently nudged it to the surface for air. According to Jana, the calves start out a mere 14 feet long but pile on 200 pounds per day thanks to extremely rich milk. She stresses the importance of maintaining a respectful distance from these vulnerable new families.
Photographing these scenes without disrupting natural behavior poses challenges. Greg De Klerk, an award-winning wildlife photographer, advised that the erratic movements make tracking and focusing difficult, especially on pitching boats. He suggested using continuous autofocus mode and manual exposure for consistency. Greg mentioned that dawn's soft lighting enhances texture and color for compelling portraits. Capturing a fluking whale backlit by the glowing orange sunrise creates an unforgettable image showcasing their grace and power.