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Safari guide Henrik Hult.
  Safari Patrol
  About us & contact
  May 2010:
  Insects on board
  March 2010:
  Tour companies to trust?
  January 2010:
  Seeing the migration
  October 2009:
  Are safaris safe?
  July 2009:
  Dress for safari
  May 2009:
  The cradle of mankind
  Mar 2009:
  Future tourism in Kenya
  Jan 2009:
  Big Five or not?
  Nov 2008:
  Kenya after the unrest
  Sep 2008:
  Launch of Safari Patrol
  Jul 2008:
  Bargaining and gifts
  May 2008:
  The long rains
  Mar 2008:
  Professional guides
  Jan 2008:
  Unrest in Kenya
Safari Patrol:
The long rains
May 2008
April and May are the months of 'the long rains', i.e. the main annual rainy season in Kenya and Tanzania. This is the low season when the safari industry leans back, drawing a deep breath after the hectic high season just ended. It's when lodges and camps close for maintenance, and their staff on leave travels to hometowns and families. Hopefully, there will also be rain enough. Just enough.

The weather, mainly meaning the rains, isn't fully predictable. Some safari veterans claim that in the olden days you could set your watch by the coming of the long rains. You can't do that anymore. Well, you can, of course, but you probably shouldn't.

Long rains in April and May
The rule of thumb is that the long rains should begin in late March or early April. This year, they began fairly well on schedule. But last year, in 2007, they began in December, and just went on and on. January and February, which are usually quite dry, were soaking wet that year. Four-wheel drive jeeps got stuck and had to be abandoned in the bush. The lodges in the Lobo area of northern Serengeti were cut off from the rest of the park at times because of flooded roads and river crossings. And the Tarangire River was higher than I've ever seen it before, flooding the bridge and thus making the whole western half of the Tarangire National Park inaccessible.
Professional safari guide Henrik Hult in Serengeti, Tanzania.
Safari guide Henrik Hult
on the impact of rains
A year earlier, in 2006, January and February were as dry as dust. The short rains of November had never come, and by January it was some nine months since the last good rains. In Tanzania, some rare signs of famine were seen in the hospitals, and food prices were skyrocketing. In Kenya, food relief was sent to the northern parts of the country, which are generally drier and much more vulnerable to droughts than southern Kenya and Tanzania.

Looking even further back, the El Niño season 1997/1998 washed roads away, and made Lake Manyara in northern Tanzania rise so much that a huge forested area was flooded and all the trees killed. The dead trunks can still be seen out there in the park.

The migration in Serengeti–Masai Mara
Not only humans, but also the wildlife, are affected by the rains. And this affects you and me, when we travel there to enjoy the wildlife. The migration of the vast herds of wildebeest and zebras in the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem is triggered by rain. When the long rains were exceptionally late some years ago, the herds stayed and stayed in southern Serengeti, and when they finally left, most of them stopped short of Masai Mara in the north, which is where they are normally heading. Safari-goers that had cleverly planned their tours to coincide with the migration in the Mara didn't get to see what they had been hoping for that year.

Not a good time for safaris
Most of us have to plan our tours to Africa well in advance, and cannot wait until last minute to decide whether to go or not, depending on the weather. We have to rely on coarse statistics that tells us how conditions usually are during this or that time of year. And they tell us that April and May are wet enough not to be a very good time for safaris. This is not really because of the animals, because they are out there, but because of ourselves; we don't want to spend our expensive safaris soaking, stuck in mud or trying to spot animals through foggy car windows. Not when we can get much better conditions and sunshine if travelling a month or two later.

A brief rainy season in November, called 'the short rains', is not wet enough to stop me from going into the bush. Most of the rain comes at night, and it's rarely much enough to cause problems. The rest of the year should, statistically, be considered dry season, offering good conditions for safaris.

The above goes for safaris in Kenya and northern Tanzania (the area where for example Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Kilimanjaro are situated). The seasonal patterns in southern Tanzania, where fewer safari-goers go, is slightly different. June to October is a dry season good for safaris, and the rest of the year is a rainy season that you may want to avoid. January and February are usually drier, though, and should be fine for a safari.

The lush and flowering seasons
The good thing about the rains is that they are welcome, much needed by the local farmers and pastoralists, the hydroelectric power plants, and people in general who rely on surface water or groundwater for drinking. The flora and the fauna also need the water. Wet seasons are lush and flowering seasons in the bush. The dry savannas turn green and fresh. Deciduous trees that dropped their leaves during the dry season to conserve water quickly dress in new foliage. Wild flowers and butterflies are seen everywhere. It's a beautiful season in the bush.

The Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania during a wet season.
Wet season landscape in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

The Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania during a dry season.
Dry season landscape.

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Page updated 18 February 2009