Planning your safari.
The climate is getting more unstable and unpredictable so this question gets ever more complex. But, we can work with some broad generalisations. The first thing to understand is that being next to the equator, Tanzania and East Africa’s climate is about whether it’s raining or not, rather than the warmer or colder seasons of Europe and America.
In southern Tanzania if you go on safari between May and November, it will be dry. Really dry by September onwards and still quite green until about July. It can quite easily rain in October, the odd storm, but the season won’t really start to change until December (an amazing thing to see, feel and smell).
In northern Tanzania there are two distinct rainy seasons rather than just one. Dry May to September. Short rains October to December. Then dry again January and February before the heavy rains in March and April.
At the coast, on Zanzibar, Pemba or Mafia, weather patterns are classically tropical, it is warmer and more humid year round. It can rain anytime but the driver of weather here is the wind. The Kaskazi (northern monsoon) blows December to April, bringing the heaviest rain. The Kusi (southern monsoon) blows April to October and is associated with finer weather. It can be pretty constantly windy in June, but you might not notice so much depending on which way your lodge faces.
Roughly the dry season is cooler, warm during the day and cold at night. The wet season is more humid and hot all the time, apart from after it rains when the heat breaks.
What does this mean for game viewing?
On the whole, the dry season is better for game viewing. It’s easier to see animals and they gather more and more near to the remaining water. The wet season is more hard work, mud, long grass, but holds wonderful rewards, incredible birding and an abundance of life unimaginable if you have seen the same landscape in the dry.
It depends where you’re going and there are always trade offs. Wet season in southern Serengeti in the Ndutu woodlands and short grass plains is a big cat bonanza, but it can be wet and grey for days at a time. Game viewing in Ruaha is really pumping in October, but it’s hot as hell and the landscape is at its most brutal, something to consider if you are travelling with younger children or you are uncomfortable in the heat. Wait until November and prices are lower, the landscape is changing but the animals are spreading out…
So what clothes do we need to bring?
Without going into a full wardrobe breakdown, there are two common mistakes I see a lot.
People are always surprised how cold it can be. Especially high on the Serengeti plateau or along the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Hat, fleeces, hot water bottles and steaming coffees cold. Remember that luggage is strictly limited to 15kgs per person. You won’t have space to pack a heavyweight rain jacket, just a light one will do. Be prepared to get wet. It’s important to have an adventurous attitude in the rainy season, it will come in handy when you are stuck in the mud, flying through the rain or caught on the wrong side of the river.
Do not underestimate the heat. That means wearing a good hat to keep the sun off your head and cool, loose fitting clothes to keep it off your skin and stop you overheating. African equator sun is not the same as northern latitude summer sun. Heatstroke is a quick way to ruin a safari and it happens all too often. Come prepared!
The most common question is 'what time of year is best to go on safari?' The answer is there isn't one, it depends on all these factors and more.