Botswana essentially has two seasons: a hot, wetter summer and a cooler, dry winter, with no real transition period between them. The presence or absence of water largely governs the wildlife-viewing experience, and determines the peak and off-peak safari seasons – but you’re still left with a range of choices when determining the best time to visit Botswana on safari.
The consensus is that the best time to visit Botswana on safari is during the extended Southern African winter, from May to October, but the truth is slightly more nuanced than that. The winter months feature cool mornings (bring a hat, scarf and gloves!) and pleasantly warm days. Rainfall is almost unheard of, and you’ll barely see a bug.
What you will see, however, is incredible wildlife, with the movements of the herds (and the predators which depend on them) largely governed by the ebb and flow of water across the vast spaces of northern Botswana.
The Okavango Delta, Savute and Linyanti regions undergo a miraculous transformation as the last of the previous summer’s rain dries up, and the first floodwaters trickle in via rivers from Angola: an incredible act of synchronicity. The influx brings new impetus – channels overspill their banks, and floodplains become shallow lakes.
Aquatic species gain space, while others find their movements more restricted. This leads to phenomenal concentrations of game, while the sudden profusion of water facilitates the boat and mokoro excursions that aren’t possible in summer.
The Chobe Floodplains in contrast begin to dry out, leaving the Chobe River as the only reliable source of water in the area. Elephant herds move in, making a boat cruise here an unmissable experience.
However, the best time to visit the Central Kalahari, further south, is during the summer months, from November to April, when the rain has a transformative effect on the parched landscape. There’s no doubt that you’ll find the greening of the desert – and the plentiful game the lush vegetation attracts – simply breathtaking.
Similarly, the Makgadikgadi Pans are at their finest in summer too, when the rains recreate to an extent the vast prehistoric inland seas they once were. As Sua Pan becomes a shallow lake, flamingos flock to it in a rush of pink and begin the ritual of breeding.
The abundance of water also attracts the annual Makgadikgadi and Nxai zebra migrations. The Makgadikgadi fills with zebra coming down from the Okavango, while Chobe’s zebra make a beeline for Nxai, with both migrations trailing opportunistic predators in their wakes.
Naturally, availability can be tight in the most popular lodges during their peak seasons, and their rates may reflect this.
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Botswana’s hot, sporadically wet summer period, from November to April, is a less popular (but more affordable) time to visit the Okavango Delta, Savute and Linyanti areas. However, those in the know don’t mind that the ‘green season’ has sometimes been overlooked.
It’s arguably the most beautiful time to visit, with dramatic electric storms and an emerald flush of new plant growth. Migratory birds arrive en masse, and many animals give birth. You’ll potentially get to see more predator action, although this can sometimes be tough to watch.
As the flood waters recede, the game moves out onto the still-moist floodplains to make the most of the lush grazing. Small pans in the mopane woodlands fill with rainwater, causing elephant in particular to disperse.
This phenomenon is also apparent on the Chobe Floodplains, which begin to fill as the rains commence. The birding is first rate, and of course all that rainwater has to go somewhere – add on time in Zimbabwe or Zambia to see Victoria Falls at their most dramatic.
The summer rains are unlikely to trouble you (even if getting stuck on a game drive is a rite of passage) and luxury lodges are great places to cool off. The period immediately before the rains is the hottest and driest of the year, making the surviving waterholes true wildlife magnets – although of course it’s impossible to predict exactly when the rains will start.
When it comes to the Central Kalahari and Makgadikgadi Pans however, you’ll get the best bang for your buck during the drier winter months. In this period they lose their remaining rainwater, ushering in a challenging few months for the creatures of these arid regions. Mornings and nights are cold, but the displays of stars and the fact that all the key historical and landscape highlights are accessible is a great trade-off.