According to British journalist and African wildlife safari expert Brian Jackman, "Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all."
In our second installment of this four-part series, South African photographer Isak Pretorius offers recommendations for top safari camps and discusses the types of wildlife that visitors will likely discover and be able to photograph.
Above photograph: A lioness drinks through the green grass at Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. This award-winning photo has been exhibited in London’s Natural History Museum, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, among many other locations. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/400 sec. at f/4; ISO 1600; 0 EV
Jill Waterman: What are the most popular areas for photographing African wildlife in your region?
Isak Pretorius: For a first-time safari visitor who wants to see all the big five animals in a short space of time, I think the Sabi Sands, in South Africa, is by far the best option. Mala Mala and Londolozi are two of the best-known lodges in the Sabi Sands. These are both quite high end, but you can see all the iconic African animals and the beautiful bush in two game drives. It's a good start, just to check those animals off the list. Once you've experienced that, you've got a good sense of what’s out there.
In my opinion, there are three top iconic, must see wildlife destinations in Africa: the Masai Mara in Kenya, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. South Luangwa is one of my favorite places, there's nothing that can beat that national park. It's very wild and remote, and a bit of a connoisseur’s destination, where you can appreciate the remoteness and the wildness of what Africa can offer once you've seen all these other places.
Photographs © Isak Pretorius/The African Photographer
JW: You mentioned the top five animals. What are they?
IP: Elephant, Rhino, Leopard, Lion, and Buffalo. They’re called the Big Five. It used to be the top five animals to hunt, back in the 1800s, but now it's become a game viewer’s list. And you can probably add Cheetah, and Wild Dogs, to make it seven, because those two animals are also significant. This is also ironic, because most people’s favorite animals to see are Zebra and Giraffe, which are not included in the big five.
JW: Are Zebra and Giraffe less common to see in the wild, or are any of the top five animals less common than others?
IP: Zebra and Giraffe are very common, and you find them pretty much everywhere. Elephant and Buffalo are also relatively common. Lion is somewhat common, although their numbers have declined. With the current poaching problem, Rhino is very rare to see in the wild. And Leopard is really one of the most special animals to see because of its beauty, and its elusive nature. So, that's probably the hardest animal to find.
JW: Are there specific locations that would be of interest to fans of landscape photography?
IP: Namibia has beautiful sand dunes, and deserts. Most people find it to be the most beautiful desert in the world, and for a landscape photographer, it’s like going to another planet. And, apart from the beautiful sand dunes, Namibia has the world’s second-largest canyon after the Grand Canyon; it’s called the Fish River Canyon. There is also a ghost town, an old diamond mining town with dilapidated structures, and old doors and everything full of sand, which is fabulous for landscape. The skies are amazingly clear, so there's no better place for night photography, with stars and the Milky Way.
Namibia also has animals, and places to see the big five. But for landscape, definitely Namibia. And in South Africa we've got the Drakensberg mountain range, which is also very popular with landscape photographers, but that involves a lot of walking. For the best views of the Drakensberg you've got to be a good hiker, and go on backpacking outings for two or three nights.
JW: You're very involved in avian photography. Are there certain locations best for photographing birds, or would you find birds in all the wildlife locations you’ve mentioned?
IP: All the photographic destinations have good birding, but there are specific spots that are especially fantastic for bird photography, like the Chobe River in northern Botswana, and the Okavango River in Botswana. This is the best place to photograph the African Fish Eagle, the African Skimmer and Bee Eaters. If you’re bird photographer, I would recommend places like the Okavango Delta or South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, particularly in the summer months, when all the migrant birds are back, because then there are more birds. All the birds are nesting, and trying to feed chicks, so there’s a lot of activity. But generally speaking, there’s a base location for each specific species, so it depends on exactly what you're after. If it’s Vultures, then the Drakensberg is good, if it’s Bee Eaters, I’d recommend the Chobe and Okavango Rivers. If you’re after Lilac Breasted Rollers, which is the most photographed bird in Africa, you can pretty much find them everywhere. Birds are plentiful in Kruger Park, Okavango, throughout Botswana, and Namibia, so it just depends on what you’re after.
JW: You mentioned a seasonal aspect for wildlife photography. Is there an ideal month for photography in different sites based on weather conditions?
IP: Winter, which is June to September in southern Africa, is generally the most popular time to visit Africa. That means there's no rain, and the temperatures are quite moderate, but it's also dry. The animals typically congregate around the waterholes, and the grass is relatively short, so you can see quite far. And that coincides with the basic travel season for Europe and America, because it’s your summer holidays. This is usually when we struggle to get into any of these places, because it's always fully booked. But October is also very good. It's very hot, but there is a lot of predator action because the animals are a bit weaker. It’s the end of the dry season, so the animals are very thirsty, and they're all congregated around the water, and predators like lion or leopard don't have to work very hard to find a meal. November is also good. It's the start of the rains, so there are very few tourists, because it's the changing of the season. If you get lucky and have dry conditions it will be fabulous, because the parks are relatively empty and quiet.
The summer months, December to April, is the rainy season and, in my opinion, this is a little bit of a secret because all the agents will tell you, “No, don't go during the rainy season, because you could get rained out.” But it’s a fantastic time, and my favorite time, because the bush is beautifully green, and all these migrant birds are around, and all the animals have babies. It feels like there's a lot of energy in the field. There are fewer tourists, because everybody thinks you’ve got to stay away from the rain. But the truth is, even though it does rain, the rain is typically just in the form of afternoon thunderstorms. It comes quickly, it goes quickly, and then the bush is beautiful. It makes for dramatic skies, and your pictures look very colorful, which basically means that you have something special.
For more advice on the topic of African Safaris, jump to our companion articles in this four-part series with Isak Pretorius: Planning & Booking Tips, 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!
Hi Ralph, glad to hear you like this story series. I would assume it's possible to do Milky Way photography in some of the camps, especially in Namibia, which is known for their star-filled skies, but Isak is probably best suited to answer this question in full detail. Feel free to drop him a line at the Website mentioned above, and tell him we sent you ... Thanks for your question, and for reading the Explora blog!
Great series. While at camp, is it possible to do Milky Way photography also?