As a travel destination, South Africa has an immense range of opportunities from wildlife adventures, food and wine, to beautiful beaches and some of the most unspoiled and exceptional landscape in the world. What you want to do will, to some degree, determine the time of the year that you plan your visit. While many choose the summer months for obvious reasons, those in the know would tell you that low-season travel to South Africa is in fact the best time to visit, as the seasons are changing, when the days are crisp and clear, and the country is showcasing some of her best flora and fauna.
The perks of off-peak
The good news is that as the seasons move from autumn into winter (April-June) and winter into spring (August–October) the prices of accommodation, flights and tours drop – sometimes by as much as 40 percent. These times are considered low-season travel to South Africa and winter specials come into play as accommodation establishments tempt prospective travellers with excellent special offers.
South Africa has some of the best and most luxurious safari lodges and camps in Africa, but they do come at a price, so if you are travelling on a budget then an off-peak wildlife adventure puts your safari dreams within your reach. Besides receiving five-star amenities and gourmet cuisine at reasonable rates, there are a few other advantages to planning low-season travel to South Africa.
As autumn leaves fall
The months of April and May are particularly beautiful in South Africa. The days are still warm and sunny while the evenings hold a hint of winter that is crisp, fresh and refreshing. The north-eastern corner of South Africa, where the majority of the big game parks reside, is a summer rainfall area which means they stay open all winter, unlike some of the parks in other parts of Africa that close and become inaccessible during the rainy season.
However, the biggest advantage of visiting a game park at this time of year is the visibility it affords. Green landscapes begin their transformation to autumn hues of gold, orange and yellow, and grasslands become sparser as the vegetation dries up and thins out. Besides being a spectacularly lovely sight, there is also less opportunity for shy and elusive game to hide away among thick scrub or blend in with the long grass of the savannahs. You are guaranteed of seeing wildlife of all kinds and no game drive will disappoint as the animals are compelled to venture further out into less protected areas in search of food and water. In fact, your safari guide may just head straight to a watering hole or river, as water is sparse at this time of year and the animals have no other option but to drink here, the only places left to quench their thirst.
Less water also means less wildlife of the miniature variety. While you should still slap on the insect repellent, there are fewer mosquitoes and other little critters flying around at this time of year.
A major advantage to low-season travel to South Africa is, of course, the lack of other people. Although it is unlikely that you will be the only guests at the lodge, dining areas should be less crowded, and you won’t be passing another game viewing vehicle too often.
Locals generally plan their trips during the longer school holidays of December/January, June/July and the Easter period so if you are averse to crowds or paying top dollar then these times are best avoided.
Where to next?
Photo credit: Diriye Amey
While visitors to South Africa do not expect to find lions roaming the streets, they do expect wildlife and plenty of it. Truth be told it almost seems pointless to visit and not take advantage of the unique animal encounters that the country affords. However, South Africa holds some other gems that are just as spectacular and extraordinary.
Low-season travel to South Africa in August/September can include a marked down safari and a few other rare and wondrous sights.
The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Town is sometimes wild, rather cold and always beautiful. And as winter ends, two kinds of very special guests arrive on the shores. The southern right whale and humpback whale swim in around this time of year to give birth, court and frolic in the shelter of the bays. The southern right whale is a rare and playful creature and can clearly be seen from the land cavorting in the sea. The endangered humpback whale is named for the curious way it bends it back when surfacing and can also be easily spotted from the shore. Watching these gigantic creatures interact and communicate with each other is truly a unique thing to witness.
For the more adventurous, this is also the peak time for shark viewing as the hungry, stealthy hunters arrive in large numbers to feed on fish and seals.
While the beaches may not be ideal for sunbathing at this time of year, they will not be crowded and nothing beats a walk along the cool and misty Cape coastline before retiring to a warm fire and great bottle of wine from a Cape vineyard. Speaking of the Winelands, they can get extremely busy during peak season so if you’re looking for a quiet cellar tour and leisurely tasting then this is a good time of year to do it. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of one of South Africa’s outstanding ports to help keep you warm during the chilly nights.
Flowers for Africa
And finally you have to see the flowers! Namaqualand in the Northern Cape is famous for its brilliant explosion of wildflowers that seem to pop magically up from the semi-desert landscape. While this is a very popular tourist attraction, if you time it right, you will see the beginnings of a wondrous sight as the flowers begin to bloom in August, eventually completely covering the land in a riot of beauty and colour.
Low-season travel to South Africa may come with a few risks, such as a couple of rainy days or some stormy wind but it is just so worth it. The inclement weather rarely lasts very long, and the sun is always sure to shine again. And honestly who can resist seeing some of the most awe-inspiring, naturally beautiful sights on offer anywhere in the world, with attractive rates and top-class accommodation as a bonus.
Where to stay
Thanda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is one of the best lodges to experience in the winter as not only does it offer spectacular game viewing, it’s also much warmer due to the subtropical climate.
Hermanus is great for seeing the whales towards the end of the winter – our favourite is Birkenhead House.
The Cape Winelands does get a little chilly in the winter, but what’s better than sitting in front of a cosy fire at the Mont Rochelle drinking fantastic wine, surrounded by mountains?