Top 10 Africa Wildlife Spectacles & Experiences
Have you ever dreamt of experiencing one, or ALL (because why just limit yourself to one anyway), of Africa’s wildlife spectacles, wilderness phenomena, or extraordinary safari experiences first-hand? Well, there is NO time like the present!
With Africa boasting such a vast, diverse, and down-right magnificent array of once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed, leave-you-utterly-speechless, sweep-you-right-off-your-feet, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, and beyond spectacular wildlife spectacles, phenomena, and great migrations, the only problem you’ll have is deciding which one to tick off your bucket-list first!
Here are our top 10 Africa Wildlife Spectacles & Experiences you absolutely should experience on your trip to Africa.
#1 The Annual Great Wildebeest Migration | Tanzania & Kenya
The Great Wildebeest Migration – Regarded as the ‘Seventh New Wonder of the World’, one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles & natural phenomenon to ever exist in the natural world, as well as declared the ‘The greatest show on earth’ – is undoubtedly one of the top (if not THE top) wildlife spectacles in Africa.
Witnessing The annual Great Migration, also known as the Gnu Migration, Serengeti Migration and Masai Mara Migration, up-close, in action, and first-hand is the chief reasons why so many travelers tourists, globe trotters, and avid nature and wildlife enthusiast venture to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. There are few things that can compare to witnessing one of the greatest and grandest wildlife gatherings and spectacles in its full all-mighty force – It’s an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience to say the least!
The Great Migration is a never-ending movement which includes millions of wildebeest, accompanied by large numbers of zebra, and smaller numbers of Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, and impala circling and venturing across the vast Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya, chasing the rains in a constant search for food, moving from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park into the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya by crossing the great Mara River.
*Interesting Fact: The Mara River crossing of The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the most thrilling and equally daunting endeavors to witness and experience – often referred to as “the greatest show on earth”. The great Mara River is both surrounded by and filled with Africa’s top predators, making it an INCREDIBLY risky journey for all of the wildlife species taking part in the Annual Great Migration. However, despite the great danger that awaits these animals – the Mara River crossing cannot be avoided and is a vital component of the Great Migration cycle / movement.
Nile crocodiles and other predators are patiently waiting for the right moment to strike and make the wildebeest their prey. Not to mention the legendary Serengeti lions – some 3,000 of them – who lie in wait, along with leopards, cheetahs, and countless hungry hyenas all jumping at the bid to get in on the action.
There is absolutely no denying that witnessing and experiencing the Masai Mara / Serengeti Great Migration should be on everyone’s African safari travel bucket-list!
*Interesting fact: Triggered by East Africa’s rains and linked to the annual rainfall patterns and the growth of new grass, the Great Migration of millions of wildebeest is a constant, year-round movement of huge, nomadic herds across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, following an age-old route in search of fresh grazing and fresh water sources.
The Great Migration typically starts in the Southern region of the Serengeti National Park. The ‘start’ of the Great Migration coincides with the prime wildebeest calving season, as thousands of wildebeest calves are born within a couple weeks of each other. Due to the rapid rise in the number of new-born wildebeest, there’s an equally significant increase in the number of predators, such as lions, leopards, and hyenas in the area who are constantly on the hunt for new-born wildlife.
After the calving season in the southern part of Tanzania’s Serengeti near the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, just as the drought starts to set in during the month of May and Tanzania’s dry season approaches, the Great Migration continues on their journey through the Serengeti up and around in a clockwise direction towards the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Following the rains, the vast herds arrive from Tanzania sometime between August and November each year, crossing some of Africa’s most famous rivers. The multitudes of snorting and cavorting animals, the heart-stopping tension of the river crossings and the sinister patience of the predators that follow the herd all combine to form an epic life-and-death saga that plays out beneath Kenya’s vast skies.
*Interesting fact: Guided by survival instinct, each wildebeest (as well as zebra and antelope) will cover approximately 800km to 1000km on its individual journey along age-old migration routes during the annual Great Migration.
**Extra Insight: Best Time: While the entire dry season is regarded as the best time to go to the Masai Mara and witness spectacular up-close game viewing, and unbelievable wildlife spectacles, September and October are deemed the top months to experience the renowned Masai Mara Great Wildebeest Migration in full force together with the highly-acclaimed Great Migration river crossings – A truly remarkable and unforgettable wildlife spectacle and experience in every way.
General Guideline: When to see the Great Wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti National Park & Masai Mara National Reserve
(These guidelines are subject to change as per seasonal rainfall)
|Calving||January to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Intense Big Cat Action||January to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Rutting||January to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Grumeti River Crossings||May to July||Western Serengeti|
|Mara River Crossings||July to September||Northern Serengeti|
|On the Move||October to December||Northern Serengeti and Masai Mara|
*Important Note: The above guidelines are approximate dates and places. The Wildebeest Migration is a year-round, circular journey and the exact timing of the highly sought-after river crossings cannot always be precisely predicted (there are several uncontrollable variables involved that can have a big impact on both the place and timing of the various events, especially the river crossings).
If the Great Migration follows the typical outlined timeline, the two main river crossings – the Grumeti River crossing in Tanzania and the Mara River crossing in Kenya – will generally take place between May and September.
~ To find out more check out our ‘Best time to go to the Masai Mara’ & ‘Best time to go to the Serengeti’ Blogs ~
Wildebeest Fact File:
- There are two species of Gnus, the black and the blue wildebeest. These two species are broken into 5 subspecies which vary in color size and range.
- Male wildebeests are known as the “clowns of the savannah” due to their weird looks and antics in the mating season.
- Claim to fame: Baby wildebeest can walk within minutes of being born.
#2 The Annual Kasanka National Park Bat Migration | Zambia
Best time to see the Annual Kasanka National Park Bat Migration: Late October – mid-December
While The Annual Great Migration of Wildebeest in Tanzania and Kenya may well win both the attention and the fancy name, did you know that, despite popular belief, the largest mammal migration in the world as well as Africa’s largest wildlife migration doesn’t take place on the grass plains and savannas of the Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve – but rather the skies over the Congo and Kasanka National Park in Zambia? We’re talking about The Annual Kasanka National Park Bat Migration!
This means that while Kasanka National Park in northern Zambia may well be one of the smaller and ‘lesser-known’ game reserves in Africa – occupying only about 4000ha²/400km² – it is in no way stopping it from making some NOT-TO-BE-AVOIDED global African wildlife spectacle noise – attracting people from far and wide to see what it’s all about – and let’s not forget, to witness the largest mammal migration in the world!
Every year, from late-October to December, the skies around this tiny African jewel – Kasanka National Park in Zambia – come alive with around 10 million straw-colored fruit bats. These African straw-colored bats are said to migrate from the Congo Basin and arrive from all over central Africa to feed on the fruiting trees of the evergreen swamp forest in Zambia’s Kasanka National Park. This remarkable migration and spectacle tend to coincide with the start of the rains.
The scale of this migration is not only immense, but utterly extraordinary – with bats dispersing and flying about as far as the eye can see! Seeing these millions of straw-colored fruit bats fly out every evening from their roosts to feed is both an exhilarating and spectacular spectacle that has to be seen to be believed!
To maximize your bat safari experience, Kasanka National Park has a few custom-built bat hides where there are two bat-specific viewing times. You can see the bats in the evening when they set out to feed as well as in the morning when they return to roost with up to twice their body weight full of fruit. It is quite something to listen to the sound of branches straining and cracking under the increasing weight and burden of tired and stuffed bats. This truly is the very best and most memorable way to fully immerse yourself in this annual phenomenon.
While the sheer volume of bats is nothing short of jaw-dropping and is bound to render you speechless, the atmosphere surrounding this phenomenon is equally thrilling and captivating. You will see countless huge birds of prey swoop through the skies in an effort to take down as many bats as possible. That’s not all! Several small predators and scavengers can also be found waiting below, ready to pounce on any bats that may fall or become injured during their battle for survival.
*Interesting Fact: Conservationists think that these African straw-colored fruit bats are not only responsible for pollination, but up to 60% of forest seed dispersal. Making this event not only spectacular in every way possible but also ecologically crucial.
Bat Fact File:
- Latin name: Eidolon helvum
- The African Straw-coloured bat is the second largest bat in Africa with a wingspan of almost 1m.
- An estimated 8 million bats make the Kasanka migration the largest mammal migration in the world.
- Claim to fame: The Kasanka bats can eat up to twice their body weight in fruit every night!
#3 Largest Concentration of Elephants in Africa | Chobe National Park | Botswana
Best time to visit Chobe National Park: June – October | Botswana’s Dry Season
Nicknamed ‘The Land of the Gentle Giants’, Botswana’s Chobe National Park is where elephants reign supreme, and the powerful pulse of the great Chobe River breathes life into the endless stretch of unspoiled wilderness that makes up one of Botswana’s most glorious wildlife and safari gems.
Exactly how many elephants reside in Africa’s elephant paradise you ask? Chobe National Park boasts an impressive and exceptional population of African elephants, which is said to exceed 120,000 – Undoubtedly making it one of the top places, if not THE top place, on the planet to witness these remarkable gentle giants of the African bushveld in their natural environment. Its no surprise avid travelers, wildlife enthusiasts, and tourists flock from all across the globe for the opportunity to see these mighty and magnificent mammals and largest member of the African Big 5 in action and to experience breathless face-to-face encounters with these never-ending herds of the largest living land animal on earth.
During Botswana’s dry season, from about June to October, an inconceivable number of these gentle giants can be seen crowding the banks of the Chobe River. So, if you really, REALLY want to see as many wild African elephants as you possibly can on your Chobe safari trip, it’s hard to think of a better destination than the iconic Chobe River at the end of Botswana’s enervating dry season.
Botswana’s virtually rainless winter begins in May and by late August the rest of the park has practically dried out completely; The bone-dry surroundings, due to the extreme lack of rain, means that ponds, streams, puddles, and smaller water sources around the park dry up. This forces animals to essentially congregate around the remaining large water source / sources – AKA the Chobe River – resulting in enormous concentrations of wildlife, including Chobe’s huge herds of elephants, on the riverfront where they can be seen drinking, wallowing, and lazing about, grazing, and, most exciting of it all, taking dust baths – A truly breathtaking sight!
In the heat of September and October, thousands of elephants arrive cheek-by-jowl with enormous buffalo herds, trailed by prides of sleek lions. Game drives and boat cruises take you right into the center of the action, providing you with seriously spectacular up-close sightings and encounters that are bound to leave you gob-smacked and utterly amazed.
**BONUS Wildlife in Chobe National Park: Occupying a great woodland wilderness between the eponymous Chobe River and the fringes of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Chobe National Park is one of Africa’s heavyweight reserves and a sanctuary for some of the continent’s healthiest populations of elephant, buffalo, lion, giraffe, zebra, leopard, jackals, and the widely beloved and endangered African wild dog, to mention merely a few. Chobe is also one of the best places in Africa to witness the most dramatic predator action – its Savuti region is where lions regularly clash with hyenas and powerful prides famously take down Africa’s biggest game like buffalo, giraffe and even elephants.
~ Check out our ‘Chobe National Park: Botswana’s Elephant Paradise’ blog to find out more ~
#4 Flamingo Migration | Rift Valley | Kenya & Tanzania
The lakes of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa are a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Best months to witness the famous Flamingo Migration in East Africa’s Rift Valley: April, May, and June.
Although it may be a relatively short migration, the greater and lesser flamingo migrations see millions of flamingos migrating and moving along the various lakes within the Great Rift Valley between Kenya and Tanzania (with them often migrating as far as Botswana in some instances). While it may not seem as sizeable or significant as some of Africa’s other wildlife migrations, it remains an equally impressive African wildlife and birdlife spectacle.
A complement to the plethora of big game and vast diversity of other wildlife species that reside in this ecologically rich area is its glorious abundance of birdlife. From raptors like eagles and vultures to sparrows, finches, kingfishers, storks, herons, ducks, ostriches, and so much more, birdlife in East Africa comes in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes – its an absolute joy and marvel to see. Not to mention the massing of flamingos on these lakes in Kenya – it is undoubtedly a special kind of wonderful to bear witness to!
*Extra Insight: The secret ingredient to these bright and colorful flamingo aggregations is the food. Greater and lesser flamingos seasonally migrate between lakes in search of the best and most abundant food sources. Carotenoids – the same pigment that gives tomatoes and carrots their respective red and orange hues – turn flamingos coral orange and bright pink. The source of these carotenoids is the algae that thrive in the shallow waters of these alkaline soda lakes.
It goes without saying that East Africa’s Rift Valley lakes is an absolute must-visit destination for any and all avid birders and birding enthusiasts – so if you’re a head-over-heels bird lover at heart, a visit to East Africa’s Rift Valley during its prime birding season should be right at the top of your African safari bucket-list.
Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya is one of its top parks, attractions, and a true bird lover’s paradise. Home to a vast number of bird species, most notably huge flocks of flamingos, with more than a million pink flamingos flocking to its shores. Often called the greatest bird spectacle on earth, the flamingos are undoubtedly one of Kenya’s top attractions. Lake Nakuru is one of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes, and the vast diversity of birds are attracted to the high levels of algae in the water. In addition to millions of flamingos, the beautiful African fish eagle, Verreaux’s eagle, pelicans, cormorants, the Goliath heron, and hammerkops can frequently be spotted around the lake.
Lake Manyara National Park is located in the Arusha Region and Manyara Region of Tanzania. Offering a thrilling wilderness experience and diverse habitats, from its Rift Valley soda lake, forests, and vast grasslands to swamps, dense woodlands and steep mountainsides, Lake Manyara National Park is both a sought-after safari destination and top tourist attraction in Tanzania. As two-thirds of the park is covered by water, it is renowned for attracting a vibrant and abundant bird life, as well as a copious number of flamingos. During Tanzania’s wet season, Lake Manyara is home to more than 400 species of birds, many of them waterfowl or migrants, as well as thousands of flamingos – Providing visitors and birding enthusiasts with truly sensational sightings.
Between the months of September to December, lesser flamingos migrate to Lake Natron in Tanzania to breed. Despite the lake being incredibly alkaline and water temperatures often reaching between 40 to 60 degrees Celsius, making it beyond inhospitable for most plants and animals to both live and survive, believe it or not, this is exactly where flamingos thrive! They depend on this remote lake during their breeding season with up to 75% of the population congregating at the lake in a gloriously flamboyant flurry of pink with some experts calling it ‘the greatest ornithological spectacle on Earth’.
Flamingo Fact File:
- There are only 6 species of flamingos in the world.
- In Africa, you will meet the greater and the lesser flamingos.
- A flock of flamingos is called a flamboyance.
- The pink plastic lawn flamingo was invented in 1957 and today, there are more plastic flamingos in America than real ones.
- Claim to fame: the bright coral, orange, and pink plumage which comes from pigments called carotenoids, which are found in certain food sources.
#5 Witness & Trek Mountain Gorillas | Rwanda & Uganda
The African continent is renowned for its once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings and encounters. However, few are as highly sought-after (or as frequently featured on travelers’ bucket lists) as coming face-to-face with Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat.
Listed as one of Africa’s critically endangered species, there are approximately 1000 mountain gorillas left in the wild. These mountain gorillas can be found in the area known as the Virunga Mountains, and live in:
- Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.
- Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
- Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to nearly half the planet’s remaining mountain gorillas. Carefully protected in the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi, this esteemed National Park is one of only three places in the world where travelers can see these remarkable, rare, and critically endangered mountain gorillas in the wild.
The Virunga Mountains is essentially the point where the boundaries of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) meet. Each country has its own National Park in the Virungas, including the Volcanoes National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Virunga National Park. Of these, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is considered the best option for gorilla trekking.
Gorilla Trekking is an extraordinary bucket-list worthy adventure where you hike, bushwhack, and trek deep into Africa’s Virunga conservation region and Bwindi impenetrable forest in search of rare mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Trekking into their native forests is the only way to see these critically endangered gorillas, as they cannot survive in captivity. Trekking for gorillas in Africa’s emerald rainforests and observing the everyday interactions of these vulnerable primates is arguably one of life’s greatest privileges and most powerful wildlife experiences.
Follow gorilla families as they go about their daily lives. Observe how a mother tenderly feeds her young while being cognisant of the cautious stare from a 200kg (440lbs) silverback as he keeps a protective eye over his troop. Locking eyes with a distant relative is a profound experience that makes spending time with gorillas in Africa an unsurpassable wildlife encounter.
Gorilla trekking is best early in the morning. Typically trackers who know the gorillas well will head off into the jungle at first light to look for their gorilla family. Once they find them, they will radio through to the rangers, who will be waiting for you at the start point – This is when the gorilla trekking adventure begins!
There are a number of different gorilla families you can visit, living in various areas around the Virunga Mountains. In Uganda there are 19 habituated (meaning they are used to humans) gorilla families in Bwindi and 1 in Mgahinga. In Rwanda there are approximately 10 habituated gorilla families.
**Important Note: In order for you to go gorilla trekking in Uganda and/or Rwanda you need to apply for a gorilla trekking permit. These permits can be rather costly. The cost of a gorilla trekking permit various from one country to the next.
Here is a guide outlining where the best places in Africa are to see gorillas in the wild:
|Gorilla Species||Mountain gorillas||Mountain gorillas||Western lowland gorillas|
|Best gorilla trekking destination||Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park||Volcanoes National Park||Odzala-Kokoua National Park|
|Best time to go||All year round, but driest from June to September and December to February||All year round, but driest from June to September and December to February||All year round, but driest from June to September and December to February|
|Trekking time||Up to 5 hours, depending on weather, fitness levels of guests, and proximity of gorilla families||Up to 5 hours, depending on weather, fitness levels of guests, and proximity of gorilla families||Up to 5 hours, depending on weather, fitness levels of guests, and proximity of gorilla families|
|Trekking terrain||Hiking at altitude through thick forested slopes||Hiking at altitude through thick forested slopes||Hiking on ground level through thick rainforest|
|Time allowed with gorillas (excluding trekking time)||1 Hour||1 Hour||1 Hour|
~ Check out our ‘How to go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda & Rwanda’ blog for everything you need to know about Africa’s rare & remarkable Mountain Gorillas as well as the ins, outs, and in-betweens of going Mountain Gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda. ~
#6 Big Cat Sightings | Masai Mara National Reserve | Kenya
Deemed the ‘Home of the Big Cats’ as well as the ‘kingdom of lions’ – as these mighty and magnificent mammals and fierce members of the African Big 5 dominate the grasslands of the reserve – Kenya’s iconic Masai Mara National Reserve is renowned for having the highest concentration of big cats – Not only in Africa, but in the world! Visitors to the famed Masai Mara National Reserve can therefore expect exceptional big cat (lion, leopard, and cheetah) sightings as well as unforgettable encounters with these feline predators.
This alone has made the Masai Mara one of Africa’s most highly sought-after wildlife and safari destinations for avid travelers, tourists, adventurous souls, and eager nature and wildlife enthusiasts around the globe eager to witness these magnificent wildlife species up-close and first-hand.
Cheetahs are particularly well adapted to the region’s flat plains. This makes the Masai Mara National Reserve one of the top reserves to see these extraordinary, somewhat mysterious, agile, and lightning-fast predators in their natural habitat. Cheetahs often seek vantage points on fallen trees, rocks, hills, termite mounds, and even on top of game drive vehicles – yes, you better believe it!
Beyond getting to see these incredible feline predators roaming about, there is nothing that compares to witnessing one of Africa’s top predators and the world’s fastest land animal (the cheetah is capable of reaching speeds greater than 110km per hour in just over three seconds) in full force chasing down its prey – it truly is one of the greatest highlights of any Masai Mara safari!
The Masai Mara National Reserve is also home to several big lion prides, all of which have resided in the area for decades. Female lions are permanent fixtures of each pride, while male lions are deemed ‘more dispensable’ to the pride as they are frequently challenged and (consequently) chased out of the pride they were once in by other male lions eager to take their place. At night, if you listen closely, you may just be lucky enough to hear the deep roaring sound of multiple male lions warning other males to stay away from their territory. It is one extraordinary experience to say the least.
Now that we’ve sufficiently warmed you up – ARE YOU READY FOR THE REAL MASAI MARA BIG CAT PREDATOR ACTION?
The Masai Mara Great Wildebeest Migration season, along with the famous, daring, and daunting Mara River crossing, is when the iconic Masai Mara National Reserve big cats truly come out to play! And play they do – there is absolutely no holding back from any of Africa’s top predators – countless lions, leopards, cheetahs, and even hungry hyenas and thousands of Nile crocodiles all patiently waiting for the right moment to strike and take down their prey in a dramatic display. Many refer to this period as ‘open season’ for Masai Mara’s predators due to the seemingly never-endling stream of migrating prey – we’re talking millions of wildebeest, accompanied by large numbers of zebra, and smaller numbers of Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, and impala – offering the reserve’s prime predators and big cats an endless ‘all-you-can-eat-buffet of prey’. Not to mention the legendary Serengeti lions – some 3,000 of them – who lie in wait, along with leopards, cheetahs, and several hyenas all jumping at the bid to get in on the action. It truly is one of the greatest predator displays in all of Africa, not to mention one of the most brutal and grueling.
~ To find out more about EVERYTHING check out our ‘Best time to go to the Masai Mara’, ‘Top reasons to visit the Masai Mara’, and ‘Best time to go to the Serengeti’ Blogs ~
#7 Zebra Migration| Botswana
Best months to witness the Zebra Migration in Botswana: December – March
Taking place between December to March, the Zebra migrations in Botswana is still somewhat of a relatively new phenomenon to the avid wildlife and safari fundi. In fact, they were undocumented up until 2004 when cattle fences (designed to limit the spread of bovine diseases) were removed. The removal of these fences saw the re-birth, revival, and resumption of Botswana’s Zebra migration, which is also regarded as the second largest land mammal migration in Africa.
This migration is broken into two distinct groups: The Nxai Pan Zebra Migration and the Okavango Delta to Makgadikgadi Pan movement.
In November, after spending the summer months along the banks of the Chobe River, the zebra herds in Chobe National Park begin to move south to the Nxai Pan National Park. The total journey is approximately 250km and is mainly triggered by the rains which fall on the Nxai Pan. These rains result in nutritious grazing, which essentially prompt the zebras to migrate to ‘greener territories. Once there, the zebras will remain in the Nxai Pan Conservation area for approximately three months before heading north again, returning to the Chobe River banks.
The second group of Zebra, this time accompanied by Gnu, migrate for the same reason. These zebras spend the summer months around the Boteti River which flows south from the Okavango Delta. The same rains that trigger the migration of the Chobe zebra to the Nxai Pan trigger the Boteti group to move east towards the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.
To immerse yourself in this African wildlife spectacle and see all of the amazing sightings of this remarkable zebra migration, safari experts suggest that you focus your efforts on either the Nxai Pan or the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in order to witness the incredible, diverse, and equally abundant game, bird life, as well as all of the zebras of course.
Zebra Fact File:
- Equus quagga – The plains Zebra
- Weighs around 400kg
- As social animals, zebras defend each other and can bite and deliver a fearsome kick.
- Eaten by: Lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas and crocodiles
- Claim to fame: at over 500km/310miles, the Zebra migration is the longest of any land mammal in Africa.
- AND, in case you were wondering, Zebras are in fact, black with white stripes.
#8 Southern Right Whales | Hermanus | Cape Town
Best months to see Southern Right Whales in Hermanus & across the Cape Coastline: July – November | August – October (peak Southern Right Whale watching season) | August & September (prime calving season)
Referred to as whale season in Cape Town, winter in the Mother City is the best time of year to see the glorious and giant Southern Right Whales.
Every year, between the southern hemisphere’s winter and spring, countless Southern Right Whales migrate from the cold Antarctic waters to the sheltered shallows of the stunning Western Cape, particularly the waters around Hermanus, Gansbaai, and the Cape shores to mate and calve.
After a year-long gestation period, female Southern Right Whales give birth to a single calf. While the whales sometimes arrive earlier and stay later, the prime / peak whale-watching season takes place between August and October with calving normally taking place in August and September, however, it has been known to happen as early as July in some instances – just their way of keeping all Southern Right Whale lovers on their toes.
This means that between the months of August and October, you can watch and be utterly mesmerized and amazed by these oceanic behemoths and their 1-ton offspring as they navigate their first few months together. It truly is an unforgettable sight and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
These gentle giants spend their days frolicking in the shallows, displaying flukes and flippers, and wowing crowds with the occasional breach. This gives locals and travelers the incredible opportunity to witness these majestic ocean beings in their natural habitat as they thrive in the Cape waters.
While an ocean safari / boat-based whale watching adventure is always worthwhile, especially if you’re looking to see up-close sightings of Southern Right Whales and their calves, Hermanus has arguably the best land-based whale watching in the world – Hermanus is the whale capital of the world after all! Located Only a 90-minute drive from Cape town, the entire town bustles with activity during the whale watching season. Hermanus even has a week-long eco-arts festival in September that attracts people from all over the world.
While the whales sometimes arrive earlier and stay later, the prime whale-watching season peaks between August and October with calving normally taking place in August and September, however, it has been known to happen as early as July in some instances.
Whether you choose to witness these remarkable ocean giants from the shoreline, the perfect ocean view sunset spot or up close and personal on a boat-based whale watching ocean adventure, it promises to be a bucket list worthy experience in every way.
*Tip: Here are some of the top spots & destinations for whale sightings in and around Cape Town:
- Hermanus: Of course we had to mention the whale watching capital itself – the one and only Hermanus – one more time! If you’re looking to experience the REAL deal when it comes to whale watching in the Western Cape, a visit to the whale capital of the world, Hermanus, should definitely be on your Cape Town bucket-list! Not only will visitors be able to enjoy amazing land-based viewing opportunities, with the whales coming within metres of the shoreline at times, Hermanus boasts some great whale-watching viewing terraces at the Old Harbour and Gearings Point. There are also a variety of boat-based whale watching adventures available if you’re looking for something a little more thrilling. If you’re eager to fully immerse yourself in the Hermanus whale experience, be sure to visit this top Western Cape whale spot during the first week of October when the seaside town hosts an annual whale festival.
- False Bay Coastline: A great place to enjoy incredible whale sightings is along the vibrant False Bay coastline, with Simonstown being one of Cape Town’s best whale watching hubs. Opt for the higher vantage points along the False Bay coastline such as Cape Point, Boyes Drive between St James and Kalk Bay, and Clarence Drive between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi Els. During peak whale-watching season, you might even be lucky enough to spot them close-up if you take the train trip from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town.
- Cape Agulhas: Another top whale watching spot in the Western Cape is the Cape Agulhas. Up to 50 pairs of southern right cows and calves have been known to frolic in the ocean waters near the southernmost tip of Africa. If you’re looking to combine your love for the outdoors, hiking and marine life, The Whale Trail, a five-day hike along the cliffs, dunes, and beaches of the Cape Agulhas, gives you a wonderful opportunity to view these mighty mammals and their offspring while ticking an exhilarating experience off your Cape Town bucket-list.
Other great places to enjoy spectacular Southern Right Whale sightings in Cape Town and surrounds:
- De Hoop Nature and Marine Reserve
- Witsand (also known as “The Whale Nursery of South Africa”)
- The Cape West Coast: Lambert’s Bay; Strandfontein; Yzerfontein; Langebaan; Paternoster; Elands Bay; Saldanha Bay; Melkbosstrand & Doringbaai
- Overberg region: Struisbaai; Arniston; Stanford; Betty’s Bay; Gansbaai & De Kelders
- Cape Town: Llandudno & Hout Bay
- Garden Route: Stilbaai; Sedgefield; Nature’s Valley
*Extra Insight: While Hermanus is deemed the capital of the scenic Cape Whale Route, the entire route consists of a 900-kilometre-long stretch of coastline that extends from Strandfontein near Muizenberg to Plettenberg Bay in the Southern Cape. This ultimately gives you ample destinations and opportunities to enjoy incredible and down-right spectacular Southern Right Whale sightings.
Southern Right Whale Fact File:
- Latin name: Eubalaena australis
- Southern Right Whales grow up to 15 meters in length and can way up to 47 tonnes.
- Right whales are curious around humans and have been known to give ‘lifts’ to boats and kayaks on their backs.
- They were called “right whales” because they were the right whale to hunt.
- Claim to Fame: Southern Right Whales’ testicles are the largest in the world, weighing up to 500kg each.
#9 Wildebeest Migration | Liuwa Plains | Zambia
The wildebeest migration to Liuwa Plains in Zambia is possibly one of Africa’s most scarcely known great natural phenomena and wildlife spectacles – and therein lies its power fellow wildlife lovers! While The Annual Great Wildebeest Migration between Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park harbours all the attention, fame, and glory, it also draws enormous crowds, with thousands of people travelling from across the globe to watch this extraordinary wildlife spectacle and glorious natural phenomena unfold. And therein lies the silver lining – This not only spells good news for safari afficionados and avid wildlife enthusiasts as it means fewer crowds and far less people gathering around to catch even the slightest glimpse of the spectacle, but some may argue that the Liuwa Plains Wildebeest Migration offers a more authentic and immersive experience all together.
While it may be somewhat less extravagant than the Masai Mara / Serengeti Great Migration, it will certainly not disappoint. Zambia’s Liuwe Plains Wildebeest Migration sees between 45,000 to 50,000 wildebeest migrate to fresh grazing plains in the remote Liuwa Plains National Park. This makes it the second largest migration of wildebeest in the world.
Following the rains, the wildebeest migration typically reaches the Liuwa Plains between September and November each year. This means that if you’re planning an action-packed safari trip to Zambia, this would without a doubt be the best time to do so, with the month of November offering the best chance of seeing these huge herds of wildebeest grazing in their natural habitat – it truly is a spectacular sight!
*Extra Insight: Zambia’s wildebeest migration, if timed to perfection, would work brilliantly as a compliment to the Annual Bat Migration in Kasanka National Park (Zambia) which also reaches its peak in November (ending in mid-December). This gives visitors, tourists, and nature and wildlife aficionados the incredible opportunity to witness two of Africa’s remarkable wilderness and wildlife spectacles on one single trip.
#10 Sardine Run | South Africa
Best time to see the Sardine Run: May – July
Described as “the largest biomass migration on the planet,” the Sardine Run along South Africa’s east coast showcases the remarkable movement of millions of shimmering sardines from the Eastern Cape coastline to the warmer waters of KwaZulu Natal’s South Coast.
Tracking these tiny fish in the vast ocean poses a significant challenge, given the seasonal fluctuations typical of migrations. Generally, the migration route progresses from south locations such as Port Elizabeth and East London (from early May to June) to Coffee Bay, Port St Johns, and Mboyti (June to July). Rather than actively pursuing the sardine migration, experts advise making a booking to witness this spectacle based on your preferred dates and patiently waiting for the sardines to arrive.
To witness this awe-inspiring phenomenon, one can observe the abundant oceanic life that depends on the sardine migration for sustenance. Sea birds, game fish, sharks, dolphins, and even whales flock to take advantage of this plentiful food source. This means you’ll have the incredible opportunity to witness a variety of South Africa’s marine life.
The true spectacle of the Sardine Run lies in the decimation of a bait ball. A bait ball refers to a sparkling cluster of sardines, separated from the main shoal, that moves in perfect harmony as if it were a single, fluid organism. These bait balls become targets for predators. Dolphins employ bubble-blowing techniques to corral the fish, while sharks attack from below. As the bait ball nears the surface, cape gannets dive from above. Eventually, the sardines become exhausted and disoriented, losing the energy to resist, and the predators seize the opportunity to pick them off until only glimmering scales remain in the water.
Needless to say, the ideal way to witness the Sardine Run is aboard a boat, preferably with the option to enter the water alongside an experienced guide. With an abundance of predatory action, the Sardine Run presents the perfect opportunity to embark on a water-based adventure! This is definitely an adventure for all the avid thrill seekers out there!
#11 Savuti | ‘Predator City’| Chobe National Park | Botswana
Best time to go to Savuti:
July to October: Dramatic peak-season game viewing
December to March: Excellent bird watching and zebra migration
Famously coined Chobe National Park’s ‘Predator City’, the Savuti region of Chobe, set at the remote heart of the park, is deemed as one of the best places in Africa to witness the most dramatic predator action.
The Savuti region of the Chobe National Park is notorious for its brutal clashes between lions and hyenas – in fact the intense and extreme rivalry between the area’s lions and spotted hyenas have made Savuti one of Botswana’s and Chobe’s most famous wildlife and safari attractions. Fights between the two species most often erupt over territory and kills – Some visitors to Savuti have been kept awake at night by the thrilling rumble of a far-off battlefield – so don’t be surprised if you’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of a fierce fight-to-the-death show down.
In addition, Savuti is also widely known as the site where powerful prides famously take down Africa’s biggest game like buffalo, giraffe, and even elephants.
Chobe’s Savuti Marsh is fed by a channel of clear water that attracts large herds and vast concentrations of wildlife – which in turn attracts a large concentration of Africa’s top predators and hunters like lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas. This ‘situation’ becomes particularly more daunting during Botswana’s dry season, and in turn more interesting and thrilling for the park’s lurking predators, as its bone-dry conditions and severe lack of rain forces Chobe’s enormous population of wildlife, including its huge herds of elephants, to congregate around the water source for hydration, ultimately signaling ‘open-season’ for predators on all wildlife species – So get ready to see some brutal clashes and witness Africa’s predators in action as they target, stalk, and take down their intended prey.
Deadly and dramatic in the dry season, hugely rewarding in the green summer months (a zebra migration arrives in time for Christmas), Savuti is undoubtedly a year-round not-to-be-missed African safari destination.
This migration isn’t country or species specific. It’s a migration which takes place across the entire African continent, which definitely makes it noteworthy and worth mentioning.
As the colder winter months arrive in the northern hemisphere, Africa experiences warmer and wetter summer months. This change brings about an incredible abundance of fresh grass, blossoming trees, fruit-bearing trees, as well as increased insect activity. As a result, numerous migratory birds embark on their journey southwards as they set out in search of food, breeding grounds, and nesting sites.
Various bird species embark on this migratory journey from different regions. European rollers and European bee-eaters migrate from northern Europe, Steppe buzzards make the challenging flight from the plains of the Russian Steppe, and Arctic terns make an astonishing voyage from the Antarctic, passing along the southern coastlines of South Africa, all the way to the Arctic. Remarkably, these birds make this round trip twice a year, covering a staggering distance of over 90,000 kilometers. It’s not only a truly extraordinary accomplishment, but a beyond spectacular migratory spectacle.
If you’re a keen birdwatcher, expert and avid birder, or simply a bird lover at heart, witnessing the bird migration season in Africa is without a doubt something that should be at the top of your African safari, wildlife, and birdlife bucket-list. It is an unmissable event!