During my photographic travels in Africa, I meet a lot of international tourists, most of whom are on the popular traveler circuit of Cape Town and Victoria Falls, followed by a wildlife bush experience, which is generally recommended by a travel agent.
A traveler’s first introduction to Africa is usually an eye-opening and surprising experience, and most new visitors to the continent vow to come back again soon. Others who have previously travelled to Africa are more interested in specific destinations. Regardless of past experience, everyone I meet always agrees that Africa is a large and diverse continent, with so many places to see it would take many lifetimes to experience it all.
Choosing photographic destinations
Consisting of 54 countries, Africa is more than three times larger than the USA. With equatorial glaciers on the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, tropical rainforests, mountains, deserts, white beaches, and endless savannahs—to name but a few options—this vast continent offers exceptional wildlife experiences in every ecosystem and habitat.
It contains many natural wonders that are unique in every season, so a wildlife photographer must prioritize what to see and photograph. Here are a few of my tips for choosing a photographic destination in Africa to suit a wide variety of needs.
If you have never travelled to Africa before, I would recommend starting with a visit to a small or even “touristy” game reserve, where you can see most of the iconic animals in a short time. This will get the urge to see the “big five” out of your system.
Once you’ve got these “record shots” under your belt, the larger and more remote wildernesses are what you want to experience. These are best appreciated when slowing your heart beat to the rhythms of nature—don’t expect to chase sighting after sighting. Exclusivity means not having other safari vehicles around to report sightings, so you’ll have to wait for nature to reveal itself at its own pace. These iconic destinations are where you can really focus on expressing your creativity through stunning photographs. Consider some of the following more accessible destinations.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Located in the heart of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, this oasis is fed by the mighty Okavango River. It is a wildlife paradise, boasting some of the most beautiful woodland islands combined with savannahs among the delta waterways. The comforts of luxury camps and exclusivity of private concessions make this a photographer’s paradise, as well. It is wild and untouched, where you are likely to see predators like lion, leopard, and wild dogs in a beautiful setting. Stunning birdlife, large herds of buffalo, elephant, zebra, and giraffe complete this photogenic destination.
Namib Desert, Namibia
Often described as the most beautiful desert in the world, the sand dunes of the Namib desert in Southern Namibia make this a landscape photographer’s dream. Although cooler temperatures make winter the most popular time to visit, in the heat of summer, (i.e. February and March), the clouds and thunderstorms make this landscape come alive for photographers.
Maasai Mara, Kenya
When 1.5 million wildebeest make their annual migration over the plains of the Maasai Mara and negotiate the crocodile-infested waters of the Mara River, the area earns its description as “the greatest show on earth.” This phenomenon occurs annually from July to October. If you want to escape the hordes of tourists, choose intimate private safari camps located inside the reserve.
Flamingoes of East Africa’s great lakes
More than two million Lesser Flamingoes live on the lakes of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, making their way from lake to lake, in search of food. If one of the lakes experiences a bloom of blue-green algae, conditions might favor a mass congregation in a spectacle of pink. This can occur in any season, and has happened in recent years at Lake Bogoria, Lake Logipi, and Lake Nakuru. These places are relatively remote, so it’s best to get a safari operator to handle your logistics from Nairobi, as well as to identify the location of the majority of the flamingoes.
Bird Island, Seychelles
Tropical islands with unspoiled white beaches and birds with no fear of people are not uncommon along the equator. What makes Bird Island in the Seychelles so special are the two million breeding pairs of Sooty Terns that return from the ocean to nest each May. For a bird photographer, being able to point your lens in any direction to capture a photo of a bird is sensory overload. This tiny island is a protected reserve with only one lodge, making it the perfect destination for a travel partner seeking an exclusive beach holiday.
Research and planning tips
After experiencing any of the abovementioned safaris, I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with Africa and yearned for more. So, for more experienced travelers seeking to venture off the beaten track and explore other hidden gems, here are some research and planning tips that will help you to make good choices.
Don’t try to see too much in too short a time
When your aim is wildlife photography, I recommend staying a minimum of three nights per location, even if it’s your first trip to a new area. Not only does that give you enough time to unpack properly, it balances time-consuming travel days with a full day that can be dedicated to intensive, high-quality photography. Remember, getting one top photograph from a trip is better than a dozen average ones.
Study the logistics of getting to and from your destinations
If you have limited time or budget, it’s important to understand all the travel logistics before booking your trip. Remoteness can be an enticement, but this usually involves either costly private charter flights or long bumpy road transfers.
Choose the right accommodation for your comfort and budget
There is usually a variety of accommodation options in national parks and nature reserves, which range from luxury camps to backpacker-style hostels. The price of an accommodation is a good gauge of quality, but it’s also advisable to check brochure photos and read Trip Advisor reports, so you don’t get any nasty surprises.
Be responsible, but not paranoid, about safety
The media often creates the wrong impression about a country or destination. A recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, had no impact in Southern Africa. In fact, Paris is closer to West Africa than Zambia is, yet people were concerned about travelling there! You should, however, be responsible and choose travel destinations with safety in mind. Solid research and a thorough review of Trip Advisor comments are good starting points. Common sense is essential; for example, avoiding dodgy dark streets at night is a good rule to follow in any locale. Typical destinations for wildlife photography are sparsely populated by humans, which makes diseases like malaria and yellow-fever a low and manageable risk. Good hygiene, insect repellent, and wearing long sleeves at dusk and dawn should further limit your risk.
Get stuck on one place
If you find a favorite African destination, it will be worth visiting over and over again. A first visit to a new destination merely gives you an idea of what to expect. With additional trips, you start to “learn” a place; you get to know what equipment to take with you and what to look for. Only then do you start to make your best photographs.
Each subject has a best place
My last piece of advice is that if you want to photograph something specific, make the most of your safari by knowing the best place.
If, for example, you want to see cheetah hunting gazelle, you’ll find that the guidebooks say this happens almost everywhere in Africa. Yet, I know of only one place with consistently good sightings, and that is on the open plains of the Maasai Mara, in Kenya. The abundant population of cheetah and the open terrain offers a realistic opportunity to photograph this spectacle on your first safari.
Other examples for ultimate photographic destinations include:
• Carmine Bee-eaters nesting on the banks of the Okavango River each September and October
• Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve has the most relaxed breeding herds of elephants in Africa. You can even photograph them up close and at a low angle from a special sunken photographic blind, next to a waterhole.
• Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, close to Mfuwe Lodge, is the most consistent location to find lions hunting buffalo each October.
• One of the most beautiful, secretive, and sought after birds for wildlife photographers is the African Pitta. Each December, they can be observed from the Bushcamp Company’s camps, also in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
Now that you have a little more insight into choosing your next African destination, I hope to meet you somewhere exciting there soon, and chat about seeing all the natural wonders this continent has to offer!