The African Safari, Part 4: Packing and Travel Tips from Isak Pretorius


As Ernest Hemingway noted in the book, True at First Light, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

In this final installment of a four-part series, South African photographer Isak Pretorius discusses packing and travel tips for long-haul flights and small-carrier junkets, to help you travel stress free and be fully prepared for intrepid adventure.

Above photograph: Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one of the purest wilderness areas left in Africa, and a wildlife paradise. Photo safaris start with a thrill during your flight to a remote camp, where wildlife is often visible from the air, even before your first game drive. Canon EOS-1D X; EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens; Shutter priority; 1/1250 sec. at f/8; ISO 2000; +1 EV

Jill Waterman: What kind of clothing and personal supplies should you bring on safari?

Isak Pretorius: I recommend bringing comfortable clothing. You don't have to look like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, or like Dr. Livingston, to travel to Africa. I always wear flip flops on safaris, because you're going to be sitting in a vehicle. Just don't bring bright colors; simple khaki colors are best. And always bring a hat, because the sun is relentless. You should also be prepared for cold weather, even in the summer. Although the temperatures are very nice in winter, it can be very chilly on an open vehicle when you're driving out in the morning before sunrise. If you're coming in winter, bring gloves, a scarf, and a beanie, and in summer also bring a warm jacket. The game drive vehicles do have ponchos, in case you get caught in the rain; however, it’s still good to be prepared, because it can get very cold on an open vehicle if you're driving back to camp after a thunderstorm, completely exposed to the elements.

Photographs © Isak Pretorius/The African Photographer

Elephant crossing wet road in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Rain can create beautifully unique photos, and safari vehicles stock ponchos to protect you and your gear.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF500mmf/4L IS II USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/640 sec. at f/4; ISO 320; 0 EV

You should also pack sunscreen, because you’re coming to a place with lots of sunlight. Bug repellent is also important, and unfortunately Deet is the only thing that really works. It's not very ecologically friendly, but all the other items, like citronella oil, don’t work at all. Wet wipes or hand sanitizer is helpful, because everybody wants to shake your hand to welcome you, and although most people are very hygienic, you might be sensitive to little things. So, make sure your hands are clean before you have a meal or touch something you’re going to eat. Finally, make sure to bring enough vitamins, and to rehydrate often, because people often get sick if they get dehydrated. They get so overwhelmed with what they see that they forget to drink enough water, and the days can be quite hot and long. If you feel a bit dehydrated, it’s easy to fix this yourself.

JW: When packing for flights, do you have recommendations of what to pack in carry-on bags and what can/should be packed in checked baggage?

IP: That's a very interesting subject. I would say no valuables in checked luggage, and even the airline tells you that, because nobody's going to cover expensive equipment lost when it was placed into checked luggage. But, after saying that, I often do pack certain gear in my checked bags, because I run out of space in my camera bag. So, I wrap things like my wide-angle lens in clothes and put it in my checked luggage, and touch wood, I've never lost anything. Yet, what I do recommend for checked luggage is to have hard cases with snap closures, and not zippers. There are thousands of YouTube videos that show how to open a zipped bag, even if it's got a lock on it. But cases with locking snap closures are much more secure.

Pretorius photographed this lioness and cub with a heavy 400mm f/2.8 lens just outside Mfuwe Lodge, in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/640 sec. at f/2.8; ISO 1600; 0 EV

Also, if you’ll be traveling on small planes, such as a 16-seater Cessna Caravan, or a smaller six-seater aircraft, the safari company will tell you to only bring soft bags, which get squashed into the undercarriage, so it’s a bit of a predicament. In this case, I recommend you try and organize your trip so to spend one night at a hotel to get over your jet lag as you arrive on the continent, and then finish your trip in the same hotel, even if it's just for one night. With this arrangement, you can bring your hard case from America as checked-in luggage, with a soft case inside, and then leave your hard case at the hotel. After arriving in Africa, use the soft bag for your safari, and then pack everything into your hard case again at the end of your trip.

JW: What about carry-on baggage limits? This seems to be an increasing issue with long-haul international flights.

IP: It is, and some airlines are stricter than others. I've been fortunate. In Africa, the rules are somewhat lenient, and even though they might say the maximum is seven kg, if you show them your camera gear, they usually let you on. But if you are over the seven kg limit and denied entry, there are a few things you can do. One is to fly business class, that always helps.

The other option, which is stress free and 100% legit, is to wear a photographer vest, and put all your small but heavy things, such as batteries, into the jacket to check in, because that doesn't count towards your carry-on. You can even hang a camera and lens around your neck as you check in, that also doesn't count towards your checked luggage. In fact, anything that you can hold on your body without physically holding it in your hands doesn’t count. So, if you know you're a bit overweight and they are very strict, put your camera around your neck, and fill up your jacket pockets, check in, and as soon as you're through security, pack everything back into your camera bag.

When photographing these Chacma Baboons in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve, Pretorius used his long lens for close-up detail, a medium zoom for groups, and a wide angle for environmental shots.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF600mmf/4L IS USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/320 sec. at f/4; ISO 3200; 0 EV

JW: What about in organized caravans? Are the weight restrictions any more extreme than on a small flight?

IP: Yes, they are. It’s a bit bizarre in a way, because some of these very expensive luxury camps fly you in with small airplanes, and they give you a total luggage allowance of, say, 20 kilos, which is just enough for your clothes and your toiletries. So, the best thing is to contact the camp in advance, and explain that you're a photographer, and you’ll be coming with lots of gear, so they can be prepared. They might come back and say, “Okay, you can buy an extra seat on the plane, or we understand that you're a photographer and we can allow you an extra 15 kilos.” But, it’s too risky to show up without them knowing, because they need to plan the flights, and those small aircraft are very sensitive to weight for safety reasons. If they know in advance, they should try and help you make it work. And if you're coming on a photographic safari as a group, the operator usually books extra seats on the plane, so they can allow the guests 20 to 25 kilograms of extra luggage.

JW: But whatever the situation, it’s worth asking the group contact about the luggage allowance?

IP: Yes, I think it's very important. Every time I travel, I make sure to know exactly what the rules are, and if there’s not sufficient allowance, I try and sort it out ahead of time, either by asking the company organizing the trip, or the specific camp that has arranged the flights for us.

JW: What about written documentation of photo gear, is that important?

IP: There have only been two times in 10 years of travel when I’ve been told to fill out a customs form with all my gear and serial numbers. That said, it would be advisable to list all your main cameras, lenses, and laptop in an excel spreadsheet along with an estimated value, and serial number, then make a print out and get it stamped by your local customs office before you leave home. Then if you get pulled over, which is very unlikely, you’ve got proof, so you’ll be totally fine.

A Woodland Kingfisher at its nest in South Africa’s Kruger National Park during early summer. To get your creative gears flowing, and to pack the right gear, learn about the wildlife you might see before booking your safari.

Canon EOS-1D Mark II N; EF600mmf/4LIS USM +1.4x lens; Aperture priority; 1/160 sec. at f/8; ISO 800; -2/3 EV

JW: Do you have any final thoughts about preparing for a trip to Africa, to make the most of the experience?

IP: I’d suggest doing research on the places you'll be going so you know what to expect, and what kind of pictures you're likely to be taking, even if you just look at Google Images.

And when planning your itinerary, always allow enough buffer time between flights so you don't get stressed, because things might go wrong. African airports can be chaotic at times, so it’s always best to check in early, and don’t leave anything to the last minute. Also, flights can get delayed, or maybe they can't find your hotel reservation in the system, and it takes an hour to get it sorted. It's good to be mentally prepared for those kinds of issues, because then you'll stay calm and relaxed. You should know that everything will work out in the end, because the African people are very friendly, and will always help solve any problems you may have.

For more advice on the topic of African Safaris, jump to our companion articles in this four-part series with Isak Pretorius: Planning & Booking TipsSafari Camps & Animal Sightings, and Photo Gear & Shooting Tips.

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!