Africa Journey

Going to South Africa I had no idea what to expect. Therefore, like any good travel planner, I researched blogs, websites and forums to determine what I might need to have with me on an African safari. I need to clarify that although I was going to South Africa, I wasn't going on "safari" like many people would imagine it to be. I was traveling with friends from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park (one of the largest national park systems within Africa) to stay at one of the camps in the park and explore the area. What I didn't realize before I left was how that exploring was going to take place. 

As you might imagine, being in South Africa in a national park known for the "Big Five" (elephant, leopard, lion, rhino and buffalo) but also almost every other African creature you would imagine, the rules within the national park are quite strict and the hours for entry and exit within the park are limited to daylight hours. We had reservations at one of the largest, most modern facilities within the park - Skukuza. It offered modern facilities, restaurants, grocery, banking and various different housing options. The stay was quite comfortable and allowed for a nice respite between early morning drives and evening drives. Drive is a key word for planning gear options for photography, one I wish I would have paid more attention to during the packing process. Here's how a normal day went down. We woke up at 4:30am, packed the car and waited for the gates to open at 5:30 am. This self-guided adventure allows vehicles to drive throughout the park roads to explore the various ecological areas for game spotting. The rules are quite strict, for obvious reasons - stay on the roads, obey the speed limit, do not leave your car for any reason, do not feed the animals, and the like. Doing this by yourself is quite daunting initially so it helps to have some knowledge of animal behavior - particularly for elephants and hippos. The animals are plentiful, if you know where to look. Like any natural environment, your game spotting prowess is matched by the animals natural camouflage. So every moment is hit or miss. Traveling in your own car at Kruger is limited to 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily because after 6 p.m. the animal behavior changes and the danger increases.

During the evenings, the park offers guided safari trips in vehicles made to navigate the park areas in the evening - raised observation area, spotlights and heavy duty tires - to allow for easier spotting of some of the more nocturnal animals.

So, back to photography. I brought with me the following gear:

  • Nikon D90 and D7000 bodies
  • Nikon 28-300 3.5/5.6
  • Nikon 40mm Macro 2.8
  • Sigma 150-500 5/6.3
  • Nikon SB-800 speedlight
  • small tripod (table mount)
  • monopod
  • "Bush Bag" stabilizer (purchased in Africa)
  • misc filters, etc
I wasn't sure what to expect upon packing so this was a great start and honestly a good choice. I could have done without the Nikon 40mm for Kruger but got some great use out of it during other parts of the trip. The one piece I was strongly encouraged to get and the one piece that I used once and realized I couldn't really use was the monopod. I'm sure it will come in handy later but being in a vehicle with very little room for positioning plus a floor-level vibration, the monopod does not allow for the steadying of a lens like the Sigma as expected. Prior to driving up to Kruger, I purchased an item called a "Bush Bag" from a local camera shop in Johannesburg. This nifty item is similar to a travel pillow but shaped to fit over car windows and is filled with bean bag material and a strap to hold your lens down. This ingenious little tool was invaluable during the daily car rides and the night safaris. It created a very stable place for the lens of the 150-500 to sit yet allowed for easy movement to get the shot. I initially thought it was worthless though.
I thought the Bush Bag was worthless initially, and then I thought the 150-500 was miscalibrated, then I thought my D7000 was behaving badly. Every photo was out of focus even when the focus would "lock." I lost some great pictures that morning. Luckily I had two photographer friends with me in the vehicle and we went through a series of troubleshooting tests to figure out what the issue was. Come to find out, every lens I put on the D7000 had a polarizer filter on it. Before you ask, no, the brands weren't consistent so I can't narrow it down to one brand. For some reason, and it continues with the D7000, if the lens being used has a filter on it (and specifically a polarizer), the photo lacks sharpness and focus. Once the filter is removed - tack sharp.
Luckily that was solved early in the trip and the rest was just focusing on the animal and your surroundings. Shooting African animals in the wild takes quick reflexes and learning to be always aware of your surroundings - both in front of the lens and behind. Here are some personal things I learned about the experience:
  • Elephants are like people. Being matriarchal (female leadership), males often vie for attention and sometimes get in the way of the female protecting her young. When you come across elephants in the wild, there's usually not just one and before you start taking photos, be aware of how many are there and what sex. The "teen-agers" cause the most trouble and are the ones that tend to get upset when you're a bit too close to them. Be ready to move the car at a moments notice. Luckily they tend to show their aggression before charging. 
  • Monkeys - whether baboons or vervet monkeys (the common species within Kruger) - are inquisitive and pesky. They'll investigate your car, your campsite and anything accessible to them. The vervets are easily shoo'd away. The baboons are not. Monkeys are often considered pests within the camp.
  • Impala are common. The excitement of seeing an impala wears off within a few moments.
  • Never get between a hippo and their water. They are very territorial. Although vegetarians, they'll chomp something in half and leave them for the hyenas if their path to the water is blocked.
  • Watch the bush. One of my photos is of three young male lions walking down the road. As I was leaning out the vehicle to get the shot, two more came out of the bush within a meter of me. Luckily he clearly didn't have any interest in me at the time or I could have been easily injured.
  • Buffalo are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Just stay away.
  • Even though you've just driven down the same road, within moments the viewing can change and you can see things you didn't see moments before.
  • Hyenas are ugly.
  • Be patient with animals in the road, they can lead you to new sightings and great photos.