Africa - the dream of a lifetime but how do you plan for an extended photo safari?
I recently returned from a two month photo safari in South Africa, truly a trip of a lifetime and want to share many of the things I learned in the planning, execution, and photography of this adventure. This is part one of a multi-part series of posts about South Africa and its photographic treasures.
The goals of my trip were a little different than most visitors to Africa. Most of my friends visited many parks and camps, saw little of the country outside of the national parks, and all complained about not enough time to really see the parks. I proposed to solve these issues by spending a full two months in South Africa and almost one of these months in the amazing Kruger National Park - not with rushed three hour guided tours but on my own time schedule and itinerary. I wanted to maximize time with the wildlife and keep costs reasonable.
To accomplish these goals we planned months in advance (but not long enough in advance to stay where we wanted every night of the trip.) Suggestion: make your reservations 10-11 months before you plan to travel. Things get booked quickly in the South African National Parks and most take reservations 11-12 months in advance. South Africa has many public holidays and the locals fill the lodging and campsites for many days around every holiday, so check the local calendar and be sure you have lodging over the busy holidays.
Choosing travel dates can be difficult. The wet season (September to April) is green and lush but the dry season (May to August) concentrates the wildlife near rivers and water holes. The South African summer (December to February) can be unbearably hot (especially in the north) but the winter (June to August) can be crowded with tourists. I visited from mid-March to mid-May (early fall and the beginning of the dry season) and found the weather near perfect and the number of visitors very tolerable. Suggestion: Consider your goals carefully when choosing travel dates.
Your air flights will set your beginning and ending dates and you can work out lodging and transportation from there. There are few direct flights covering the 9,000 miles from the US to South Africa. If you cannot get a direct flight your options are to fly via Europe on any of several major airlines or to fly through the Middle East via the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. If your travel will take you only to Kruger National Park, your South African destination will be Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. If you plan to see the parks along the south coast, you might want to start your visit in the beautiful city of Cape Town. In either city you will probably want to spend your first and last nights near the airport. The duration of travel from the US to South Africa will be between 19 hours (for a direct flight) and more than 35 hours if you change flights in Europe or the Middle East.
After your travel dates are chosen you will want to plan a general itinerary for your in-country travels. Driving is easy in South Africa once you master the right-hand steering and driving on the left side of the road. Rental cars are inexpensive and the highways are excellent with great signage. A good map and perhaps a phone GPS will help your arrive efficiently at your day's destination. When planning your itinerary remember that there are many national parks and public lands in South Africa and you won't want to miss any in the vicinity of your travels. South Africa is a large country, roughly twice the size of Texas, so be sure to break up your travel in manageable distances - there is a lot to see. Almost all lodging outside of the major cities will be in small guest houses or Bed & Breakfast homes. These are often very nice and readily available at a reasonable cost. Note: Personal travel is safe. easy, and rewarding in South Africa.
A few things to consider before you leave concern health, finances, and communication. Part of South Africa is in the tropics (north of the Tropic of Capricorn) and can pose some health risks for travelers. It is best to check with a travel medicine physician before you leave and obtain appropriate vaccinations. You will also want malaria prophylaxis when in the tropics and, perhaps, some antibiotics for respiratory or gastrointestinal maladies. You will need insect repellent with a high concentration of DEET (surprisingly this is hard to find in South Africa.)
Travel expenses are best handled with a no fee "travel" credit card. Chip-enabled cards are accepted almost everywhere and can be used for everything from an ice cream cone to a week's lodging. A small amount of local currency (Rand; ZAR) is needed for tips and for highway toll booths. The current exchange rate is about 13 ZAR/dollar and almost everything goes on the plastic. Finally, you might want to check with your cell phone provider for an international calling option while in South Africa. You need a GSM phone and will find voice and text charges reasonable. Data charges may be very high and while Wifi is readily available in the B&Bs and restaurants, it is not available in the national parks so plan ahead.
One very important item to purchase before your trip is a SANPark "Wild Card." The South Africa National Parks organization, SANPark, will send you a personalized card good for family admission to all South African national parks and their affiliate parks. If you plan to be in multiple parks or any park for more than about two weeks this card is a good deal. It covers admission and daily conservation fees and will save you considerably over daily fees. The card is available from SANPark but it takes about 4-6 weeks to arrive in the US so order early!
Pack lightly for your trip. Dress in South Africa is casual and, outside of Cape Town, conservative. Shorts and sandals work most places and joggers are nice for hiking when it is allowed. You will need long pants, long sleeved shirts, and a light jacket for early morning activities. A hooded Gortex rain jacket is also advised. In the south during the winter season, you will need another layer as it gets quite cool and windy. Suggestion: the less you have to carry in your luggage, the happier you will be.
You won't need as much photography gear as you might think. I took a lot and used very little. You will want (at least) two camera bodies, a moderate zoom (24-70mm), a telephoto zoom, lots and lots of high-capacity memory cards, extra batteries and charger(s), lens cleaning gear, sensor cleaning gear, and a reasonably dust-resistant pack. I took wide angles, a macro, a short tele, some prime lenses, a cable release/intervalometer, and a tripod - I used none of these in 2 months - probably could have, but didn't. Almost 90% of my shots were with a 100-400mm zoom on a crop sensor body.
You will need a laptop, external hard drive(s), chargers, and a card reader. It is wise to download and back up your camera's memory cards every day. At times this was difficult at a campsite but it was reassuring to know I had 3 copies of every image. Suggestion: Back up your images daily and keep your original memory cards until your return home.
Don't forget battery chargers, adapters, and cables for your electronic gear. You will also need an electrical adapter for 240VAC/50Hz power using a unique South African 3 round-prong plug. Some B&Bs will also use a European-style 2 round prong plug but these are rare in the parks. Note: The usual 3-prong European-style plug does not work in South Africa.
We were able to pack everything into our two soft-luggage checked bags. We carried a day pack with personal items and my camera bag on the plane. Be sure to check with the Transportation Safety Administration about laptops and cameras on your return flight to the US. Since we flew through Qatar, my laptop and camera bodies had to be checked. I carried one hard drive with copies of all images and my Lightroom catalog but the camera bag was checked. I had Qatar Airlines sign an inventory with replacement costs and they very carefully sealed the camera bag, wrapped it in plastic, sealed the plastic, and labeled it to be hand delivered in customs on my return to Dallas. They did as promised and there was no damage but I was not a happy traveler.
Those are some general thoughts to consider before leaving on your extended photo safari. In future posts I will discuss more detailed things to consider while on your trip and the realities of an extended photography safari.