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Africa’s Safari Seasons

By Craig Boddington

The great gun writer John Wootters loved Africa, but he loved his whitetails, too. Studious sort that he was, John made a science of studying them. Using his South Texas ranch as a laboratory, he logged buck sightings based on wind, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, moon phase and more. Detailed charts suggested clear movement trends, but his summation was simple: Go deer hunting when you can! His data showed enough exceptions that no day afield should be wasted.

Africa is like that. Go when you can!

Africa’s great advantage is long seasons. Some African countries have hunting seasons and some do not. Botswana’s hunting season opens in April and runs into September. Tanzania opens July 1 and runs to the end of the year. Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa can be hunted year-around. However, most areas and some animals have times that are good, better and best.

HOT OR COLD, WET OR DRY

Regardless of actual season — or lack thereof — all African hunting is somewhat controlled by weather. East to west, the Equator runs through Africa from Somalia, through Kenya, the southern tip of Uganda, both Congos, and hits the Atlantic in Gabon. Technically, everything south of the Equator has seasons opposite the Northern Hemisphere, and everything to the north has northern seasons. Within several hundred miles either way the effect is neutral — it’s warm!

South of the Equator, Africa is huge, but it’s less than a third of the continent. The hunting countries of that “lower third” — Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe — host a large majority of all hunting safaris.

So, most African safaris are conducted in the African winter. Across Southern Africa, we tend to think of “peak safari season” as the winter months of June, July and August. For many of us, this coincides nicely with traditional summer vacations and, conveniently, do not conflict with most American hunting seasons. These winter months are great for safaris.

For 25 years I’ve been part of “Your First African Safari” panel at our SCI Conventions. A point I drive home: Don’t underestimate how cold it can be during mornings and evenings! I’ve been snowed on in South Africa, and I’ve seen the water basin freeze solid as far north as Zambia, and at higher elevations in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

In the morning you must “layer up.” I pack a windproof outer layer, hooded jacket, watch cap and gloves. In an open vehicle, it can be brutally cold. As the day warms up, you’ll start shedding. In the evening, the temperature drops like a rock, and you’ll put layers back on.

The good news: Winter days in Southern Africa are usually glorious, sunny and warm under a cloudless sky. This is because African seasons aren’t a matter of winter or summer, hot or cold, but wet or dry. The problem with the rainy season isn’t that you’ll melt, but watercourses may flood and hunting roads may wash out. So, with some exceptions, African safaris are planned in dry months between the rains.

This varies from area to area, and every year is different. In Southern Africa, what they call the “short rains” typically start with periodic showers in November, progressing to the heaviest rains in March and April, tapering off through May. Botswana and Namibia are arid countries, likewise much of South Africa. Namibia and southwestern South Africa could be hunted year-around, but summer months are hot. March and April are warm, cooling off in May and on through the winter, then warming up again in September.

With proximity to the Indian Ocean, Mozambique, northeastern South Africa and Tanzania have more radical rainy seasons, often extending into June, and sometimes impacting trafficability. Just after the rainy season, you can figure the cover will be thickest and visibility the least. Water is plentiful, so most animals are widely scattered. Most African hunting starts when the rains stop or taper off. This can be advantageous with some species but with leaves still on and grass tall, spotting and stalking is difficult. Against this, the game has been undisturbed for months.

As the grass dries, burning is an annual tradition. With moisture still in the soil, fire brings up new green, quickly attracting grazing animals. Burning opens up visibility and, from a rural African’s perspective, makes it easier to avoid dangerous animals; Africans have burned for centuries. Hunting improves after the burning but is difficult in that period after the rains and before the grass is dry enough, depending on what you’re hunting.

Later in the season, sometimes August but certainly by September in Southern Africa, deciduous trees drop their leaves, opening up more visibility. At the same time, ground water starts to dry up. Prey species concentrate around remaining water. This continues, with waterholes and running streams ever scarcer until the rains come again. Most hunting just gets better! The tradeoff: Safaris have been afield for months, so some animals become warier, and it gets hotter.

In Zimbabwe, November is called the “suicide month” because the heat is brutal. Unlike May through September, even October, there’s little relief at night. Everybody is different. I do great in heat but am a sniveling wimp in cold. It depends on where you come from. Hot is one thing to Texans, another to Minnesotans. October in Southern Africa is hot, November is hotter, but the hunting can be fantastic. Some of my most productive safaris were in October and November. Warm, but cover was down and animals on parade.   

NOTABLE EXCEPTIONS

Rains and conditions vary, and there are many areas I know little about. Most of us have finite windows open for travel so, when planning a safari, ask your outfitter and agent about specific conditions at the times you want to go.

There are some areas that I can speak to. Forest hunting is different. Whether Cameroon, CAR, Congo or Liberia, you want rain. Across the forest zone, the heaviest rains usually fall in the summer months (north of the Equator, same as ours). Too much rain and the roads become impassable but, ideally, you want a good shower every few days. After a rain, the forest is relatively cool, the leaf litter quiet, and all tracks are fresh. Most forest animals tend to move just after a rain, like it makes them feel good.

Africa’s forest zone is huge and conditions vary. My Liberian safaris were in March, and we got just about the right amount of rain. Farther east, in southern Cameroon and CAR and northern Congo, March is too early and dry, leaf litter crunching like cornflakes and animals bushed up. May and June are considered the best times for tracking bongo and other forest game. Frequent showers are likely, but not yet too wet. This doesn’t mean you can’t effectively hunt earlier but, when it’s dry, forest hunting is often done from machans, rather than tracking.

To the north, above the forest zone, conditions are quite different. There, hunting focuses on the short, wonderfully pleasant winter months, December through February. This huge swath of Africa includes hunting both north and south of the Sahara: Benin and Burkina Faso; northern Cameroon and CAR; Chad; Morocco and Tunisia; northern Sudan.

March and April are also good for hunting, but after the brief winter it heats up fast. Donna and I had a wonderful safari in Burkina Faso, tons of game, but we went in late March and it was hot. We tracked Donna’s buffalo until midday and it was brutal, 120 degrees Fahrenheit when we headed back to camp. Fortunately, a cool, clean, crystal-clear pool awaited.

I did two hunts in northern CAR, three in northern Cameroon. Two in February, two in March and one in April. Just below the Sahara, it always gets hot at midday, but through February, mornings and evenings are glorious. March is warmer, and April just plain hot.

In that region, Lord Derby’s giant eland is the iconic animal. The horns are wonderful, but what really separates it equally from the common eland is the dramatic black neck collar. This is winter coat only! It’s important to know that, in March and certainly into April, Derby elands shed and lose that wonderful color. My first hunt for them was in April. I didn’t get one, but the bulls I saw were tan, no color. The two I’ve taken were in early March, and both still had full winter colors. If you care about the cape, you don’t want to go too late.

Dominated by Lake Victoria and several major channels of the Nile, rainy seasons are generous in Uganda, her disparate hunting areas seasonally obscured by serious tall grass. I don’t have the answer. My three Uganda safaris have been in February and March, ideal conditions, short grass, lots of game. Friends have hunted later in the year and experienced tough conditions. Uganda has other excellent months but hunting here demands careful planning.

For me, Ethiopia is an enigma. I only hunted there twice, both times in March, focused on mountain nyala in the high country, then the Danakil Desert. Freezing cold at night in the mountains, it’s blistering hot in the below-sea-level Danakil Depression. Ethiopia is open year-around, and she is a huge country, with a wide range of habitat types. Harvest months of April and May are excellent, but I’m told that, with heavy rains, the mountains can have heavy fog in summer months. Fall and winter can be excellent, but it depends on area…and primary quarry.  

MOON PHASE AND RUT

All hunters know that moon phase matters. With most species, daylight activity is reduced when the moon is bright. For much hunting, I try to avoid full moon. With Africa’s long seasons, I have the opportunity to plan around the moon, but I don’t worry about it too much. I do see the effects with warier antelopes like bushbuck, kudu and nyala: Less daylight movement when the moon is bright. But the country and the game are so different that I don’t consult a lunar calendar when planning a safari.

But there is one exception. Of all the African animals I have hunted, I would not plan a sitatunga safari that includes the full moon. Their semi-aquatic habitat is invaded daily by fishermen, so the animals tend toward nocturnal movement. At night, they have the papyrus beds all to themselves. Add a bright moon, and odds of seeing a sitatunga are greatly reduced.

I would also avoid a leopard hunt with full moon in the middle. Radio-collar surveys consistently show that the leopard’s hunting success is greatly diminished when the moon is bright. Although a highly skilled hunter, the leopard has an advanced degree in energy conservation. It knows when the deck is stacked. Unless really hungry, when the moon is bright, leopards don’t hunt much. Thus, your chances of getting a leopard on bait are reduced.

This is not locked in stone. It only takes one hungry leopard — or sitatunga. Go on safari when you can but, given a choice, for these two animals avoid the full moon.

In North America, we pay careful attention to mating seasons: The whitetail rut, bugling season for elk, gobbling time for turkeys. Because of variety, it’s more difficult in Africa. Some species, including the cats, have no defined mating season. However, many herbivores typically rut in the softer period after the rains when food and water are plentiful. This matters with some species. In Southern Africa, kudu rut in June, so this is when more bulls are likely to be seen. June is also a primary rutting period for buffalo. This doesn’t matter with bachelor groups, but June is a time when mature bulls are likely to be seen with a herd or trailing as satellite bulls.

There is a reverse effect. In Southern Africa, warthogs mate in May. Young are born five to six months later. You do not want to hunt leopard after warthogs start dropping their young, which is about October. Again, all you need is one hungry leopard, but it’s much more difficult to get a leopard on bait — and keep him there — when there is too much easy candy in the bush.

ON THE SHOULDER

With any long hunting season, some times are usually better than others. Before air travel went nuts, less desirable dates were called the shoulder of the season. In Africa, this is usually early or late, with peak season somewhere in the middle.

Early, you always have the advantage of long-undisturbed game, but you can expect tall, unburned grass, and some hunting tracks may not have been opened. Heck, if it’s a really wet year, it may still be raining. Game is at its calmest, but is widely scattered because of cover, plentiful food and lots of water.

Late in Africa, it’s going to be hotter. As at the tail end of any hunting season, much of the quota, including some fine animals, have already been taken and are gone. Against this, you have the advantage of the most open bush and best visibility. Open water is at its lowest, so game is most concentrated.

“Early” varies from place to place. Tanzania’s July season opener is “early” there; you can expect long grass. My first Zambia safari, in 1983, was in early May, on the shoulder. I’ve done several early Zambezi Valley hunts. There is always some risk to hunting early or late, but it depends on priorities. Early elephant hunts are often excellent but, with long grass and thick cover, buffalo hunting is usually difficult. In 1983 in Zambia, this is almost unimaginable, but I never got a buffalo. In the Zambezi Valley, we always struggled for buffalo early, just too much cover to get close, but it usually worked out.

Cats, on the other hand, are better hunted early. Prey species are widely scattered, so the predators, especially leopard, have to work extra-hard to make natural kills. You may have to cover more ground to find tracks, but it’s usually easier to get a cat on bait early. When I was doing a lot of filming in the Zambezi Valley, the outfitters concentrated their leopard and lion hunters early in April and May.

Other than increasingly uncomfortable heat, in Africa there is little disadvantage to hunting late. Visibility is at its best; the game at its greatest concentration around remaining water. True, the outfitter will have filled much of his quota. Selection is reduced, but late, as waterholes dry up, is the time when big animals appear that have never been seen before.

There are two special considerations. First, late is usually a tough time for cats. Opposite early, when game is concentrated, it’s easier for predators to make natural kills and more difficult to get them on bait. Also, the hotter it gets, the more quickly baits go off and must be replaced. Toward the end of season, warthogs will surely start dropping young, and then baiting gets extra-tough. Not to say you can’t be successful, but I wouldn’t personally plan a leopard safari past September, and much earlier is better.

Second, at some point in early November the rains will start. A shower brings blessed relief and hurts nothing, but every rainy season is different. You don’t want to be there when the downpours start. Hunting is awesome just before the rains, but there is risk. In mid-November 1984, Geoff Broom and I were in Zambia’s Bangweulu, perched on a termite mound at sunset, overlooking a sitatunga haunt as we watched the storm come in. Torrential rain came with thunder and lightning like I’ve rarely seen. This was not a shower; it was the beginning of the real deal, and that safari was over. Fortunately, we were at the end. I didn’t get a sitatunga, but I did take my best lion, best common eland and a huge buffalo. The safari still stands as the most successful safari I’ve ever done.

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