It’s the smells that linger. The light and elusive scent of a nocturnal water lily or the pungent punch of fresh dung. The day after morning rains that bring a damp coolness to the air, or soothing whiffs of wild sage when the heat of the day subsides. The African bush during the wet summer season, which runs approximately from November to March in the south of the continent, stimulates all the senses, but especially the sense of smell. It’s a radically different experience from visiting during the arid heights of winter, in July or August perhaps.
Most industry players tout its appeal pragmatically: cost. Renamed “green season”, it is much cheaper to visit during this period thanks to the ever-present threat of rain. It may be true that the skies will probably rumble at times, but it’s a mistake to think of a rainy season safari as a stingy choice or lesser experience. Instead, it’s time for safari-goers to sneak onto the mainland, a time whose appeal only seasoned insiders recognize. During the green season, visitors can experience a version of the bush that bucket-listers, ticking off this once-in-a-lifetime trip in July, will never.
“The rainy season is the best time to be in the bush,” says Alexander Mavros, scion of Zimbabwe’s jeweler dynasty who now rules a luxury safari outfit of the same name, “If this is not your only trip to Africa, you should come now. It’s a time of rejuvenation that makes you appreciate it more, when nature has that joyful energy.
He is right. In the bush, the green season is celebration, the dry season despair. If the dry season during the Nordic summer were a movie, it would be a bloody Tarantino-style party: the land is hostile with little food and water is scarce. The animals are desperate: hungry and thirsty, they are ready for anything, predators ready to kill brutally. Meanwhile, the African bush in the rainy season would be a romantic comedy directed by Richard Curtis—love in fact in the veld. Now the bush is teeming with babies, born just when food is most plentiful. There are young antelopes, of course, but also zebras – the foals are hidden among the herd, as their legs reach adult length soon after birth, allowing them to stand behind an adult or two, unobserved. . Young lion cubs are plentiful and baby elephants huddle close to their mothers, who bristle preemptively at the sound of a jeep.
In areas where water safaris are possible, levels will be helpfully high, as in Botswana‘s Okavango Delta, where visitors can ditch noisy, bumpy four-by-fours and scull across the surface in mekoros, a rubber dinghy. form of boat used for fishing here, or perhaps cover longer distances in motorboats. In the dry season, the water that remains is largely lifeless, as the lilies that bloom in the water like weeds are quickly gobbled up by elephants, a tasty snack when the bush offers little. But in the wet season, large areas such as the basin near the camp of Douma Tau in Linyanti are covered in flowers, like nature’s confetti – half of the lilies open during the day, the others bloom at sunset. Mavros says the lush greenery now reminds visitors that there’s more to a safari than just spotting the Big Five. Think insects, flowers, plants and birds – again, they flock here in greater numbers during the local summer.
Of course, this lush greenery makes it easier for animals to camouflage themselves, but conversely, they can be easier to track. Lions and leopards, like any domestic cat, are wary of water and tend to avoid wet grass, which softens their claws. Instead, they will prowl along dirt paths, leaving new footprints as they do. Nightly rains clean these paths, like an eraser, so you can be sure the cats were nearby recently too. “The bush is thicker, but what you see makes you appreciate the animals more,” adds Mavros, also noting that the clouds of dust that shroud the jeeps when they stop in the winter are not either no longer a problem after morning rains.
When the sky opens up, as they may do once or twice a day for brief torrential downpours, these cats take shelter as best they can. Lions huddled almost nervously in a group against the torrential rain on the Matetsi Reserve in Zimbabwe shows a surprisingly different side to top predators. It is worth heading to the world wonderland attraction of Zimbabwe, Victoria Fallsalso during the rainy season: the cataracts are the most thunderous and overflowing, and so you are more likely to spot a small rainbow forming around them when the sun goes down.
Mavros says nothing beats the sky during the rainy season. “These beautiful cumulonimbus clouds turn purple and black, and all hell breaks loose. And juxtaposed against that brilliant blue sky, such a tapestry of colors,” he says. Overlooking the horizons of the Okavango Delta, from the terrace of a lodge like Best of the Best Xigera Winnerthese clouds act like a bush television, roaring loudly in the distance and flashing with lightning, weird science-style, because they spit the rain.
The green season isn’t for everyone, of course, but it’s far from just the choice of budget-conscious visitors. “You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, be open to new experiences,” notes Mavros, “But the rainy season is when you know who the ultimate power is: mother nature.”