In the words of the celebrated novelist Isak Dinesen, “There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne—bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.”
While the African safari is a bucket-list adventure for photo enthusiasts and seasoned professionals alike, the myriad exotic options available on the Internet make careful planning of critical importance for the inexperienced safari-goer with trip-of-a-lifetime aspirations.
To aid in this quest, we recently spoke with South African photographer Isak Pretorius, a safari guide specializing in African wildlife and birds. In the following four-part series, Pretorius shares his insights about planning and booking a trip, selecting the right gear, packing for long-haul and small-carrier travel, and offers technical tips for creating photographic trophies destined to occupy a place of honor on your walls.
Above photograph: A cheetah looks out over open plains at Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV; EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; Shutter priority; 1/200 sec. at f/ 9; ISO 100; +2/3 EV
Photographs © Isak Pretorius/The African Photographer
Jill Waterman: For someone who's never traveled to Africa or gone on a safari before, are there best practices to follow when searching for and seeking to book a trip online?
Isak Pretorius: Africa is a big place, so it can be quite overwhelming for somebody who hasn't been to Africa before. Also, these safari locations are very far apart, and it's not always obvious for an outsider to realize that.
Some destinations listed on social media are quite wild, wilderness places, these beautiful open expanses, but others are very tame, like small little fenced game reserves. There’s a big difference in those options. Also, some places don't have all the iconic animals, like Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, where I go often. There is no buffalo, and no rhino, but it's very good for elephant, cheetah, leopard, and lion. Some of the places are very commercialized, with a lot of tourists, and it feels like a sausage machine, whereas other resorts are very exclusive, and you are the only person to enjoy a really big area. When you look at the Internet, and you're trying to book a trip, these elements are not always obvious. The only thing you see are some pictures, and a price, and the price is usually an indication of luxury. And none of these other things are really important to photographers.
As a first step, I think you need to decide: Are you coming on a photo specific safari, or just coming to see the wildlife, and photography is a secondary element to your trip? If the latter is true, I’d suggest contacting your local mainstream travel agent or an agent who specializes in Africa, because they could give you good general advice on where to see good animals.
But if your trip is specifically photo-oriented, the following recommendations become very important.
- Look for a tour operator offering a variety of trips in various countries. If you contact an operator who only has local safaris, he’s not going to give you an objective opinion on places, he’s going to try and sell his local safaris.
- Look at client testimonials on that operator's website, and read the TripAdvisor reports.
- Use social media sites like Facebook and Instagram to follow the operators, and to see photographs posted from the safaris they've run. Find out how many years they’ve been running safaris, and what kind of engagement they get from their safari clientele.
These things can help you judge whether an operator actually runs successful safaris, because there are a huge number of people who advertise photographic safaris, but never actually run them. It's a very competitive business, and everybody thinks that they can do it, but they can’t. So, beyond the question of whether the operator is legit, you need to get a feel for whether they’ve been doing it successfully for a few years.
If you're interested in photography, my last suggestion is to identify and follow a few favorite wildlife photographers, since most of them probably lead photographic safaris. Then you're quite safe that they’ll take you to the best locations on offer for good wildlife.
JW: Are there any red flags an unsuspecting traveler should be aware of?
IP: Beware of the wording “camping” or “mobile” safaris. Although some luxury safari operators do offer high-end camping and mobile safaris that are quite fabulous, a lot of other people offer it, but guests need to understand how basic it really is. It's like a guy taking you around in his truck, and pitching your tent, and feeding you tin foods, but you wouldn’t realize this from the advertising, because you just see the fabulous places he’s going to take you to. Photographers need a few basic luxuries: a bed, hot water, good food, and electricity, so they can be comfortable and focus on the photographic side of things.
Additionally, the itinerary of a good photographic safari usually has three nights minimum at each location, because you really need to understand the area and start identifying opportunities. And this takes a while. You can't do good photography just rushing from location to location every second day. You're going to see the place, but for good pictures you really need to understand what's going on. Say you find a good location with an open field, and beautiful springbok in the afternoon—you’ll want to return there the next day, to plan your sunset shots.
Another consideration is the price. Safari photography in Africa is very expensive, because the places are usually remote, and it's hard to get supplies in. Typically, these are seasonal camps, so the operator needs to make money in a very short space of time. If you find a trip that’s very cheap, you should know there’s something fishy about it.
The last consideration is the size of the group. I would say anything more than 12 people on a safari is a red flag, because you can’t do quality photography, and get personal guidance when you’re in a large group, with everyone fighting for space and attention.
JW: Speaking of costs, are there access fees for certain destinations, like national parks? Do these get factored into an overall travel package?
IP: Yes, the fees can vary quite a bit. In South Africa, for example, Kruger National Park, which is quite an iconic destination, has very low park entry fees, even for foreigners ($30 per person per day, and no vehicle fee). So, if you plan your own safari, where you rent a car and you do everything by yourself, you're not going to be in for a lot of money. And it's fabulous there, with a good network of roads, and it’s easily accessible, and you can make your way around very comfortably.
But, the parks in Tanzania and Kenya, for example, charge exorbitant fees. They charge up to $90 per person per day park entry, then an additional fee per vehicle. So, if you’re doing a self-tour, you're already in for over $100 a day, without accommodation (Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater charges $70 per person and $295 per vehicle PER DAY!). That’s a significant part of a solo traveler’s budget. But, if you do an organized trip in any of these destinations, through an agent or a photographic safari operator, all those park fees are included in the initial fee that you pay.
JW: What are the safari vehicles like? Do they differ between camps or regions?
IP: Most safari vehicles are open at the top, which is lovely because you get to experience nature in all its wonder—the sights, the smells, feel the wind through your hair. You get to really indulge in what it's like out in the bush.
Kenya is the only place where you’ll find some closed vehicles, although they have sliding windows that open on the sides, and a roof hatch you can lift to see out the top. It rains a bit more frequently in Kenya, and they get thunderstorms. So, you can close everything up if you're caught out in the rain. In other places, they usually try and get you undercover, or back to the camp quickly when there's an approaching storm.
For more advice on the topic of African Safaris, jump to our companion articles in this four-part series with Isak Pretorius: Safari Camps and Animal Sightings, Photo Gear & Shooting Tips, and Packing & Travel Tips for International Flights.
To learn more about Isak Pretorius, and the safaris he offers, check out his website The African Photographer, and visit him on Facebook and Instagram, as well.
For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!