Off-Season and Offbeat: Southern Africa

The ultimate guide to exploring Southern Africa on a budget

Many destinations are seasonal, and for good reason. Tropical beach paradise in the Caribbean during hurricane season, anyone? The challenge is to discover a destination where off-season rates contribute to a more affordable trip without compromising experiences that show the best that the destination has to offer. This brings into sharp focus one of the most diverse and dramatic regions in the world, Southern Africa. The period from November to April is considered low season, when discounted rates for safari lodges, airfares, and activities abound.

From the very tip of the African continent we consider South Africa, a country no longer looked at through an historical prism; then onto Zimbabwe, newly resurgent and home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls. Botswana’s low-impact tourism model is markedly more affordable at this time of year, and in Namibia there is an explosion of new life across its rich landscapes as summer rains arrive.

South Africa in the off season yields three very special advantages. First, the so-called shoulder season months of November and April can be the best months of the year to view wildlife in the Bushveld. In November, the rains have not yet thickened the bush to a verdant green and so it’s easy to spot animals; lodge occupancies are lower than June-August and temperatures have warmed considerably. Second, whale watching is in its prime in the seaside hamlet of Hermanus, 90 minutes east of Cape Town. Generally, it is not even necessary to leave land to experience the Southern right whales, who have come to the warm bay to give birth, as they frolic and breach a short distance offshore. Finally, there is Rocktail Bay, a remote and pristine marine conservation area close to the Mozambican border. This time of year, the endangered leatherback and loggerhead turtles nest along the beaches, and time spent with resident guides conducting research work is truly humbling.

Tasting tip: Of course, when the safaris and wildlife viewing are done, South Africa is home to Franschhoek and Stellenbosch which boast stunning views and award-winning wineries well worth a few days visit. Stop into La Motte Winery, Ken Forrester, and the Waterford Estate to start.

Zimbabwe is in the early phase of a tourism renaissance; the discerning traveler will be rewarded for visiting before it becomes rediscovered and the value proposition is no more. This is even more pronounced in the off season. While the country might be preferred by some travelers during the winter months of June to August, wildlife is as abundant in later summer/spring, in April. The real kicker here is that this is also the best time of year to experience Victoria Falls, as the mighty Zambezi is in full flood. The spectacle of millions of gallons of water cascading 300 feet into the depths of the gorge along the fall’s full length of a mile simply dwarfs Niagara Falls by comparison.

Tasting tip: Enjoy a sundowner with a chilled glass of Mosi, a Zambian beer, or have dinner at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge’s Makuwa-Kuwa restaurant.

 

When safari tourism started to really gain popularity in Southern Africa in the 1970s, the government of Botswana swiftly realized that they had a gem in the Okavango Delta. The world’s largest inland delta has a unique ecology, teeming with wildlife. It is fragile and level-heads in the top echelons of the tourism infrastructure deemed a low-impact, low-footprint tourism model to be the best way to sustain this natural beauty. It has been successful, but this has come at a cost — high-price tourism. Not so in the off season, when some of the best lodges discount prices steeply and, if you pick your time of year, not only do you not compromise on your wildlife viewing experience, you can enhance it. Specifically the mid- to late-November period.

The Kalahari Desert to the south of the Delta is termed "the green desert" at this time of year. Summer rains give rise to a blanket of succulent plains grasses across the desert, in turn attracting large concentrations of plains game in search of sustenance, and who subsequently give birth to their young. Predators are not far behind, and this is the best time of year to view interaction between cheetahs, leopards, lions, and their prey in the region. Moving north into the Delta is just as rewarding, as the birdlife is magnificent and both indigenous and migratory.

Tasting tip: Have an alfresco cocktail at Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp in the Okavango Delta, take a sundowner along the “hippo highways,” and stroll through the market in the Delta to find some of the best local dishes.

The sense of one-ness you feel and the level of introspection are further ameliorated in Namibia in the off season — the sense of isolation can be complete. Warmer temperatures allow for roof-deck sleeping under the stars and viewing the spectacular desert night skies, or get the opposite perspective from a hot air balloon. There will be fewer travelers and less expensive accommodations and activities as you explore the highest sand dunes in the world.

Tasting tip: Enjoy friendly, communal dining at the Ongava Tented Camp with four-course dinners, afternoon tea, or an evening cocktail by the pool.

If you are not confined by school calendars or other obligations, wild Africa at a reasonable cost awaits. Simply pick your spots and refine your timing accordingly.

(All photos courtesy of Darren Humphries.)

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