Introduction to what is the best time to visit South Africa
The question: ‘What is the best time to visit South Africa’ or in particular ‘What is the best time to visit Cape Town’, I’m asked a number of times per week. It takes a bit of explanation to answer this question because South Africa is such a big country, about 5 times as big as the UK. So if you’re asking what is the best time to visit South Africa you have to know which areas of South Africa you would like to visit as there are many different climates, seasons, landscapes and micro-climates to take into account.
First of all, the seasons in South Africa are opposite to those in the Northern hemisphere. Roughly said, we have Winter from May – September and Summer November – April.
To give you an example: I live in Cape Town where 2 oceans meet, the cold current from the Atlantic and the warmer current from the Indian Ocean. We also have a mountain called Table Mountain with a mountain range that stretches out all the way to Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern tip of Africa. These things influence the weather in Cape Town big time. There are all kinds of micro-climates around the mountain. It might be sunny where I live in Greenpoint but as soon as I drive south around the mountain, it might rain, a 10 minute drive. This is just to illustrate that you need to plan carefully if you want to know what the best time to visit South Africa is.
To stick to the major tourist attractions and business centres, we can divide the weather in South Africa roughly into 4 areas:
– Johannesburg, the economic centre of Sub-Saharan Africa;
– Cape Town, the tourism hub of South Africa;
– Kruger National Park, the most famous national park for Big 5 safaris, slightly smaller than The Netherlands;
– Garden Route, a nature lover’s paradise on the southern coast line stretching from Mossel Bay to Port Elizabeth.
I will highlight each area so that you can decide for yourself what the best time to travel to South Africa is for you and your family or friends.
The weather in Johannesburg
Johannesburg is situated in Gauteng Province which means ‘Place of Gold’. This is the place where gold and diamonds were discovered by the end of the 19th century, hence the name. This means that Johannesburg is one of the few cities in the world that is not located near a river or by the sea because the mines were the reason to establish the city.
Johannesburg is located in the eastern part of South Africa on the high veld which means that the city is 1.750 m above sea level. Johannesburg has a very dry climate. Winter months, July and August, can be very cold during the night with temperatures a few degrees below zero. The winter days are crisp in the morning and pleasant up to about 25° C during the day. Winter time is also the dry season (unlike Cape Town). Summers in Johannesburg are warm with afternoon rains and thunderstorms which ensures that everything is lush and green. Did you know that Johannesburg is often called one of the biggest man-made urban forests in the world with about 6 million planted trees?
So if you’re visiting Johannesburg for tourism purposes it is a year-round destination with a very pleasant climate. If you’re visiting during winter time, make sure to be prepared to be cold, especially during the night. There’s no central heating or double glazing so people often sleep with electric blankets, hot water bottles, socks and beanies.
How is the weather in Cape Town?
The weather in Cape Town is often compared to the weather in the Mediterranean, warm Summers, cold and wet winters. When people ask me how to prepare for the weather in Cape Town, I always say to wear layers because you can experience 4 seasons in one day. You might need a jacket in the morning and by the afternoon it is very hot. One also has to keep into account the wind when talking about the weather in Cape Town.
The seasons in Cape Town are roughly as follows: July and August are the winter months and this is the rainy season with often very cold and wet days when it pours and pours. On those days you wouldn’t think that we are currently going through a serious drought. It feels as if the Heavens OPEN and just flood everything and yes each year several areas in Cape Town will get flooded. Since houses are not well isolated and none have central heating, we find ourselves often sitting on the couch with a blanket and go to bed early with a hot water bottle because it is too cold to do anything else.
Summer in Cape Town is roughly from December through to February with temperatures sometimes going up to well in the 30° C or even above 40. This usually is the most popular time of the year for tourists to come and visit the city.
March, April and May is Autumn in Cape Town which I feel is the best season to come and enjoy. The temperatures are still very warm but it cools down at night which is very pleasant. So when people ask me what is the best time to visit Cape Town, I usually say March. Not only have most of the tourists left by then, it is a great month with wonderful events, like the Cape Town Cycle Tour and the Cape Town Jazz Festival, happening in Cape Town and the weather is just beautiful. It is also the time for wine harvesting so many reasons to visit Cape Town in March
Spring time in Cape Town is also a beautiful time of the year because it is so nice and crisp. I must say though that over the last few years, there have been quite some cold fronts during this time of the year as well. The temperatures vary between 15 and 30° C often from one day to another so really be prepared to wear those 4 layers of clothing when you’re out and about. In case you’re are botanist, early Spring is the time of the year you will want to visit. The Wild Flowers up the West Coast are usually best during the beginning of September.
What is the best time to visit the Krugerpark in South Africa?
The best time to visit the Krugerpark certainly is Winter time, July and August. I will explain to you why. Winter time is cooler so the animals are more active and they will be easier to spot in action. Winter time in the Krugerpark is also when there are not many leaves on the trees so again it will be easier to spot the animals. Be aware that the best safaris are experienced during the very early morning when it can be very cold especially when you’re sitting on an open safari jeep. Make sure to wear warm clothes. To bring a winter jacket for those mornings is not an exaggeration. You will thank me later. Beanies and gloves can be helpful too. Around 10 am it usually starts to warm up nicely and then you will have the most wonderful weather in the Krugerpark. The Krugerpark is situated in the Lowfeld so you don’t have the icy Johannesburg cold. During the day it can heat up to about 25° C which is super pleasant. Winter is also the dry season in the Krugerpark so not much chance of rain.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Krugerpark in all the different seasons and I can assure you that no matter what time of the year you’re planning a visit to the Krugerpark or any of the surrounding private reserves, it will be quite spectacular so don’t skip it if you can. During Summer when it is warm and when you have the Summer rains, the park is green and lush which is equally beautiful. You enjoy early morning safaris and late afternoon safaris and in between it is so warm, you will just want to relax by a pool or even take a nap in a hammock.
What is the best time to visit the Garden Route?
A visit to Cape Town is often combined with a road trip up the Garden Route. With regards to the weather on the Garden Route, it is very similar to the weather in Cape Town with super nice Summer months, nice Spring and Autumn months and wet and cold Winter days in the Winter months. I specifically explain it like this because, just like Cape Town, even during the Winter months, the Garden Route has a lot of super warm and sunny days but yes there are some very wet days too. You will experience it all.
So when are you planning to visit South Africa?