Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

August 2004

Question of the Month

When is the best season to do a Photo Safari in East Africa?

Kenya and Tanzania lie very close to the equator,with the equator actually running through Kenya. This implies that the temperature stays the same, so that it doesn't matter when one would do a safari here. Actually, there are four rough seasons -- alternates of wet and dry. The long dry season begins in May, usually, and runs until late October. The short rainy season runs from late October until early December. The shorter dry season runs from December until March, when the long rainy season begins -- March until May.

While the temperature doesn't vary too much, the hottest season is January, and the coldest is June and July. On our last trip (see our scouting report for Kenya-Tanzania, July 2004), we were truly, absolutely, sometimes uncomfortably cold some mornings. The rim of the Ngorongoro Crater is around 8,000 feet, with the crater floor at 5,600 or so, and the air is always cool. It was cold on many mornings, and comfortably cool for some entire days.

Years ago I used to do summer trips to Kenya and Tanzania. The crowds in Kenya were almost intolerable -- it was truly peak season there, and game-viewing was cheapened. We faced a bit of that in Amboseli on this trip -- 30 vehicles lined up to look at some distant lions, but Tanzania seemed to lack the crowds. Even the crater, which gets the most traffic, wasn't especially obnoxious. The Serengeti was virtually empty in comparision, and we loved it.

Normally we visit Kenya in the fall, beginning, often, in mid-October and continuing until early December. This coincides with the short rainy season, which means that it might rain, or shower, on some afternoons. When we used to do summer trips, we had some of our worse thunderstorms, losing entire game-drives to horrific storms. And that was the dry season! That's rarely been the case in the short rainy season.

Then, in the short rainy season, we're treated to puffy cumulous clouds, great sunsets, and great skies. Sometimes the day stays overcast all day, but that's rare. Instead, mornings are usually bright and clear, and afternoons have clouds -- often great clouds. We rarely lose a game-drive to weather, but when we do, the scenics/skies were worth it. In the summer, as this summer reaffirmed, the skies are generally cloudless, and boring. This was a typical dry season and it was dry in July, and extremely dusty. That's generally not an issue in the short rainy season.

We also do Kenya and Tanzania trips in January and February, which should be the hottest season and should be dry. It generally is. In Kenya the herds are usually gone, and this is the time of starvation for the predators, so the potential for lion/buffalo hunts are possible (as we have had in the past). In Tanzania's Serengeti and Ngorongoro, the gnu herds are in, and it is the birthing season, so one has the potential of seeing truly unforgetable spectacles of millions of animals. The skies are generally clear, but the Serengeti can have some rain during this time so the landscapes are generally good, with clouds. We've made much better scenics in January and February in the Serengeti than we have in the summer.

So, here's my recommendation:

Fall - October to December. Top choice. Short rainy season, so scenic potential with landscapes good. Off-season, so the crowds are down. In the Masai Mara, wildebeest herds may still be in, so river crossings and the migration spectacle is still potentially available. Tanzania - herds are gone, but it is the off-season so crowds are gone, too. Tanzania offers enough without the wildebeest herds so that this is not an issue.

Winter - January to March. Second choice. Dry season in Kenya, short rains still possible in the lower Serengeti. Kenya offers great predator potential during this lean season. Highest temperatures, but that's only in the 90's in the sun; comfortable in the shade. Desert environments like Samburu, Tarangere, Amboseli, Tsavo, may be very hot. Tanzania has the gnu migration and the birthing of the gnus occur in late January and early February.

Spring - March to May/June. Rainy season for both areas. Grass is extremely high. Bird activity in the dry areas may be best. Game viewing in the high grasses can be extremely difficult. Crowds are reduced, and great rates/bargains may be possible. I won't go during this season -- I personally don't think it is worth it.

Summer - June - September. Third choice. Gnu herds may be in the Mara. Dry season, typically with featureless skies and greatest dust potential. Potentially cooler than you'd ever guess for an equatorial country, so be prepared. Summer vacation season for the northern hemisphere insures maximum crowds.

Conclusion: Except for the long rainy season, East Africa -- Kenya, Tanzania-- has a lot to offer. If you can only go in summer, you'll still love it! If you can go during the other seasons, you'll only want to return again and again.

Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

How would you meter these images?

Why should you know Manual Mode? 

 The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

 Who should go Digital,
and when?

 What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

 How long will film be around?

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?
 How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?  

 What is our initial Digital Workflow?

 What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

 Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

 What Film Lab do we use, and why?

 Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?

What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?

 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?  What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?  Which binoculars do we just love to use?

How Easy is Whale Photography?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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