South Africa Weather, climate and geography
Weather and climate
Best time to visit
Being in the southern hemisphere, South Africa’s seasons are the opposite of European seasons. The climate is seasonal, but the country enjoys at least seven months of sunshine, with temperatures dropping in the winter months of May to August. April and May are the most temperate months. Temperatures above 32°C (90°F) are fairly common in summer, and frequently exceed 38°C (100°F) in the lower Orange River Valley and the Mpumalanga Lowveld. The barren Northern Cape has some of the most extreme temperatures, sometimes cracking 40°C (104°F) in summer and plummeting to below freezing in winter.
It's pleasantly warm and sunny in spring and autumn, and delightfully hot in summer (November-March) with frequent heavy tropical rains and sudden spring and summer hailstorms to cool things down. The thunder and lightning storms over Africa's big skies can be quite spectacular, but are best enjoyed through a window, not out in the open. These tropical storms can be vicious too, often causing flooding and turning urban streets into temporary streams, making driving hazardous. Wait an hour and it will all be over.
Even in winters South Africa’s chill is nothing compared with European standards, with mild frost occasional, and snow a rarity. The rainiest months in Cape Town are May to August, although the weather in Cape Town is generally difficult to predict and can deliver all four seasons in one day.
Christmas can be just too hot for game viewing in the safari parks, and it's also peak season for South African holidaymakers. Cape Town is a magnet for Jo'burgers at Christmas, so best avoided - visit in spring and autumn, when the weather is good and the crowds are smaller. Of the main cities, Durban is the hottest and can get remarkably hot and sticky in the summer. But it’s perfect in winter, where you can still wear shorts in temperatures that the locals consider a bit nippy.
For summer in Africa you’ll need to keep cool, so pack lightweight clothes. In winter you’ll be surprised at how cold it can be in some areas, so bring a jumper or sweatshirt. You will never need a heavy coat or jacket, but a light raincoat can be useful, especially in Cape Town. For a safari bring long sleeves and long trousers, if only to protect against mosquitoes and thorn bushes. The game drives will either start out chilly with an 0600 start and end under the blazing sun, or vice versa, with a hot late afternoon start and a return after sunset, so take a wrap or pullover of some sort.
The Republic of South Africa fills the southern tip of the continent and is lapped by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east, and a swirling mixture of the two at the very tip.
It totally encloses the independent kingdom of Lesotho, and is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland to the north.
A vast, interior plateau has sharp escarpments that rise above the lowland plains. Mountainous regions include the Drakensberg and Magaliesberg.
The west coast is arid, while the south and southeast coasts are semi-arid, with vegetation fringed by sandy beaches and rocky coves. In contrast, the subtropical northeast has lush wetlands and coastal forests. The wildlife viewing areas are scattered throughout the country, with the famous Kruger National Park so vast that it encloses a wide variety of eco-systems.
Of its nine provinces, Gauteng, which houses Johannesburg and Pretoria in the northeast, is the smallest and most densely populated. The Northern Cape is the largest province covering between a third and quarter of the country, but containing only a tiny percentage of the population in this territory of desert and semi-desert wilderness.