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South Africa’s Sunny Options – Where Winter Is Not Actually Winter!

April 15, 2014 Destination Global No Comments Email Email

Winter doesn’t have to be about snow and sleet, icy mud and frost-bitten fingers.

Grey skies and watery sunlight for just an hour or two a day may be the image conjured up by northern hemisphere winters, but in South Africa winter is about mild sunny days, clear starry nights – and some of the best opportunities for game viewing. In the same way that what is “cold” to someone who lives in Iceland is different to what someone who lives in the Sahara Desert would consider “cold”, what South Africans call “winter” is by no means the same as “winter” in Europe or North America!

The conventional thinking is to escape the grey northern winter for a holiday in the southern hemisphere summer sunshine, but there are many advantages to turning this thinking on its head and holidaying in the South Africa during May – August instead.

These range from the superb weather to significant discounts of up to 50% and added extras offered by South African destinations in winter – giving tourists added value on top of already favourable exchange rates.

While Britain has just had its coldest March in 50 years, with average temperatures of 2.2°C (35.9°F), mid-winter temperatures in July/August in South Africa hover in the early to mid-twenties (70’s°F).

South Africa is mainly a summer rainfall region, with sunny, dry winters and a year-round average of 8 to 10 hours of sunlight per day, compared to 6.9 in New York and just 3.8 in London.

“Our guests from Europe and America are generally astonished by our sunny winter weather. Their perception of winter is gloomy grey skies, snow, ice, rain, mud and freezing temperatures, and having to be wrapped up in bulky layers of warm clothing – winter in South Africa turns that perception completely on its head,” says Vernon Wait, a co-owner of Lalibela Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. In fact, he jokingly says that if he were President of South Africa, he would ban the use of the word “winter” in it’s entirety!

On the south-eastern coastline of South Africa, the Eastern Cape is a great escape in the so-called winter months of June, July & August – with South Africa’s coastal regions experiencing the warmest winters and mild temperatures at reserves like Lalibela moderated by the ocean less than 20km away.

The province’s nearby major cities of Port Elizabeth and East London average maximums of 21°C (70°F) in their so-called “winter”.

The malaria-free region has most of its rain in summer, and Lalibela head ranger Kelly Pote says this makes for great Big 5 game-viewing opportunities in winter: “The bush is thinned out and less lush, making it easier to see game, and the drier conditions mean the animals congregate around the waterholes, dams and riverside on the reserve.”

The added bonus of winter game viewing is that dawn patrol game drives start a little later and the afternoon drives start and finish a little earlier – when the visitors are just chilly enough to really relish a welcoming fire and warming glass of sherry. Lalibela’s famed outdoor dinners under the stars don’t end in winter, as they’re held in a cosy boma(bush enclosure) around a roaring bonfire.

“We use the term ‘winter’ loosely here. While we do experience crisp mornings, and it can get chilly on some evenings, it’s a vast difference to many of our guests’ experience of northern winters. Obviously the weather can also be unpredictable and so a warm jacket is always advisable,” says Pote.

In addition to the Big 5 and the reserve’s diverse antelope species, cheetah, giraffe and smaller animals, the months of mid-June to October are also prime whale-watching time as southern right whales migrate from the Antarctic to the warm southern coastal waters of South Africa to mate and calve.

“This makes winter an ideal time to put together a holiday taking in the Garden Route, Southern and Eastern Cape coast and Lalibela for prime game-viewing. This itinerary allows an all-round experience of South Africa’s diversity of wildlife, natural scenery and cultural heritage,” says Wait.

He says tourists to South Africa already receive great value on their holiday dollars, pounds and euros thanks to the weakness of the South African currency, the rand, and an added advantage of a winter holiday in the Eastern Cape is that many of the region’s reserves, as Lalibela does, offer special rates in the May to August period.

“It’s a supply & demand thing: because we have capacity in the May to August period, visitors can have 4 nights in Cape Town, 3 nights on the Garden Route and 4 nights at Lalibela (including car hire) all for the same price of 4 nights at Lalibela in our summer! Our reservations office puts various packages together during this time to assist our guests and agents,” says Wait

There’s merit in escaping the northern hemisphere winter for a South African summer holiday in the freezing northern months of November to February, but when the African winter offers mild temperatures, clear starry nights and substantial discounts, a winter safari holiday becomes an even more attractive option.

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