Safari Photography | How to go on a Self-drive wildlife safari in South Africa

This series of videos was inspired by a comment
left on my YouTube channel by a fellow named James Childress who is heading out to Tanzania
on safari for the first time in about a month. Now James said in passing to me that there
wasn’t that much information available for people coming to Africa on safari on what
might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and who want to maximize the return on that investment.
So that’s what these videos are about. They’re about helping you get the most out of your
safari in Africa and hopefully get great photographs. I think the first thing that I’d like to say
about coming to Africa on safari is, well, one, good choice! But two, it’s a very large
and diverse continent. There’s a lot going on here. So, it really helps if you try and
do a little bit of research about the specifics of the particular areas that you’ll be visiting
on your trip and if you come to Africa armed with that research the chances are you are
going to be armed with the right camera equipment, the right mentality, the right idea of the
kind of photographs that you might achieve and therefore get great results.
Now, I live in South Africa. South Africa is a great country to come and visit. It’s
great because it’s got wonderful wildlife, wonderful national parks. It’s got amazing
landscapes, fantastic cities, and vibrant people and it’s very diverse and quite large.
So when you come to South Africa the other thing that’s great about it is the road network.
It’s got good roads, it’s got good infrastructure. You can come here, safely rent a vehicle and
drive off on your merry way without too much worry and that means you can go to places
like the world-famous Kruger National Park in a normal two-wheel drive vehicle and get
great photographs. You don’t need a massive 4×4. You don’t need to with a safari outfit.
You can just go on your own , save a bit of money but you can also get great pictures
doing it that way. Self-drive safaris yield great results because what you can do that
you can’t do in a normal safari vehicle is you can wait. You can sit and wait next to
that wildlife sighting all day if you want. And you go back the following day particularly
if it’s something like a lion kill where the lion’s going to be there for a few days. That
benefit cannot be overemphasized because if you are in a safari vehicle with a safari
outfit with a bunch of other people who might not be that interested in the particular bird
of the particular scenery or the particular animal that you’re photographing it’s going
to be very difficult for you and very frustrating for you if you are continually be made to
drive off to some other sighting. Or worse, to drive off to go and have a cup of coffee
or lunch. Lunch, as always, is for wimps especially when you are a wildlife photographer. Stick
with that sighting. I can’t emphasize it enough. Wait there and you will get great pictures.
South Africa is a fantastic starter country when you are coming on safari and the reason
for that is it’s easy to book accommodation online, it’s easy to book rental vehicles,
it’s even easy to book rental camera equipment. Which can be quite an important detail if
you don’t want to carry vast telephoto lenses in your overhead locker on your way out to
South Africa. If you want to book into the national parks it’s really easy too. Just
head over to the South African National Parks website and you can book your accommodation
there in parks all over South Africa. If you are flying into Johannesburg, it’s a four
and a half-hour drive through good toll roads down to the Kruger National Park and the landscapes
are very scenic on the way. There’s lots to do and see and you may even want to stay the
night somewhere on the way down because it’s a beautiful beautiful country. Alternatively,
if you don’t have the time, you can actually book a flight from the airport in Johannesburg
straight into Kruger airport and actually rent your car there as well. So what about
camera gear? Now, camera gear is very region-specific and it’s also animal-specific. So if you are
looking to come to South Africa, then the chances are you are going to be photographing
large mammals, birds all the way down to insects and things like that. So you could potentially
need a range of lenses. Now I like to self-drive with a long lens around at least 400mm. Four
hundred’s a good length for somewhere like Kruger ‘cos the bush is quite close and the
animals further into the bush and further away, you can’t actually see to photograph
a lot of the time anyway. Especially, in the summer months. So 400mm is a nice length especially
a zoom if you can get one of these 150-600 zooms or a 100-400mm zoom. That’s a great
lens to take on safari in that sort of tighter bush situation in Kruger. If you are traveling
west instead out to the Kgalagadi. It’s a more remote region. More difficult region
to get to from the major metropolitan centres because it’s a long drive. About a 9 or a
10-hour drive. But when you are out there the bush is not close. It’s Kalahari sand
dunes and the animals can be quite distant and you’re not allowed to drive off-road closer
to these animals. So there is a great place for using a longer lens. Perhaps a crop body
as well. So you could use a 600mm there. You could even put a 1.4 teleconverter on that
lens and still, you’d be OK for focal length. Typically when I travel there I’m using a
100-400mm for my video. I often tack a 1.4 teleconverter in that and a crop body sensor.
And I’ll use that for birds and video. And then I’ll use my large lens, my 400mm f2.8
for wider scenes and I might put a 2x teleconverter on that. So I’ve got 800mm on a full-frame
body in that part of the world. So you can see how lens choice and gear choice might
change depending on what you are photographing and where you are photographing. It’s important
to do your research. So what can you expect when you turn up at one of these safari parks.
These national parks in South Africa. Well. Generally, you’ve got a gate, an entry point
which you have to go through and pay some fees at. These will depend on what country
you are from. If you are a local they are much less than if you are a foreigner and
it’s a good way for this country, which is cash strapped, to earn a little bit of revenue
from tourism. Then once you have passed the entrance gate you can drive into the National
Park and make your way to one of the camps. And there are camps dotted all over these
parks and a lot of them, the parks that is, are very large. The Kruger Park is 22,000
square kilometres. Slightly bigger than Israel. So you might have to drive a little distance
to get to where you are staying. So it’s important when you book, to make sure that you’ve got
time after arrival to get from the gate to the camp you are staying at. And it’s important
to realize that there is a park speed limit for the safety of yourselves and the animals.
So a 200km trip might not sound too bad. A couple of hours at normal speeds but it’s
four to five hours in the park. So make sure when you are booking that you just take into
account the journey times between the gate and the camps. The camps themselves are really
nice. They’ve usually got a small shop. Slightly more expensive than a normal retail shop in
South Africa but the prices are not bad. You can buy things like curios there, you can
also buy things like meat to braai, charcoal, firelighters, even plugs, and accessories.
Sometimes, even cards for your camera batteries. That kind of thing. And generally, all the
food you need while you are in camp. The other thing is a lot of these camps now have camp
restaurants as well. So, not all of them but a lot of them do. So you have a choice, you
can actually just go and have a meal at the restaurant instead of cooking yourself but
part of the fun of of being on safari, it’s not just about photography, quite often it’s
about the ambience and enjoying that sort of bush feeling of being able to cook your
own meat n a fire. The accommodation in the camps, particularly in Kruger is generall
of a goodish level. The crucial thing there is in the heat of summer it really helps to
have a bit of airconditioning. It gets really hot and muggy. In the wintertime it’s not
necessary, there’s extra blankets in the cupboards and you’ll get nice and snug in those warm
beds before getting out into the cold in the morning to go off during the day and photograph.
So the set up is usually in what we call a Rondawel which is a round sort of hut or chalet
and there will be anything from 2 beds all the way up to 5 or more beds if you’ve got
children. And you can book those online. Some of the units have kitchen facilities. Some
just have braai or BBQ facilities and some of them have fridges, some of them don’t have
fridges so just be careful to read the descriptions of these camps when you book. So what about
animals and where to photograph them? Let’s take Kruger as an example shall we? As we’ve
been talking about it a lot. It’s a long thin park with Mozambique ranging up the east side
and Greater Kruger, other safari destinations running up the west side. It’s about 400km
long and about anything from 60-100km wide. And the bulk of the places that people visit
tend to be in the southern third of Kruger National Park. It’s got a reputation for very
good game and I wouldn’t dispute that, it has got very good game. There’s a slightly
higher density of camps there. There’s generally more people and tourists there but it’s still
easy to get lost. Lost, figuratively, lost in the bush, not lost actually in that region.
You can go for a while without seeing anyone else and you can have a sighting all to yourself
quite a lot of the time even in busy periods. However, once you start driving further north
you’ll find that the traffic thins out. The roud network gets a little bit less. You’ll
go longer distances between camps, you’ll see fewer people and if you go all the way
to the North, you’ll get much less people on your daily game drive. It’s a much more
lonely experience. So, that I think is important factor. If you are like me and you quite like
being alone out there in the middle of nowhere. You like that feeling, then head north. The
game in the north is harder to generally to see. It’s a lot more about birds. There’s
more birds species up in the north of Kruger than the south but still, there’s a good 400
species seen in Kruger which is quite a large number when you consider that the count for
South Africa is in the 900’s. It’s almost half. Now, the game, the game that you see
in the south of the park. You tend to see things like Elephants. There’s a lot of elephants
in the park particularly furher north and in the middle. Buffalo, there’s thousands
but they tend to be prevalent in big herds in the sort of middleish to north area. In
the south of the park you’ll see, you’ll see giraffe and that kind of animal all over.
There’s lions all over particularly you’ll see them on the main roads if you are not
very good at spotting game. Keep and eye out, ask other people on the main roads what they’ve
seen and they might be able to direct you to big cats or areas where they’ve seen things
like leopards. You never know when you are going to come across a big carnivore. They
just pop out out of nowhere. So just keep your eyes peeled when you are driving those
long stretches. It’s hard. It’s hard to stay awake, particularly if you are on your own.
It’s very hard to scan from one side to the other of the car in the bush and see everything.
If you want to see a lot of game there’s two modes to doing that. You can either drive
extremely slowly, I’m talking 10km an hour. Particularly if you are on your own to look
under each bush and just get a good view. You will still miss a lot of it but you might
see a lot more that if you had driven fast up that road. I see people driving way too
fast to actually see the animals all the time. The other way to do it is to actually drive
reasonably quickly to where you are going and hope that you run in to something like
a lion or a large mammal on the way and that someone else has stopped there to give you
sight of it. So, you’ll see this car stopped in the road. Pull up gently and slowly near
the car and have a look and see what they are looking at. When you get to a sighting
though, please just turn your engine off. Don’t sit there on idle. It’s extremely irritating
to people who are waiting and watching animals, particularly anyone who is filming and that
sound ruins the film. So just be courteous, turn the car off when you are at the sighting
and then start it up and drive on your way after that. The other thing that I’d advise
you to do is actually pull over to the side of the road that the animal is on and this
will prevent people driving between you and sighting and risk disturbing the animal. Also,
try and stop a little bit further back from the animal and then just angle the car slightly
so you can look out the drivers window towards the sighting. That way if you are not too
close to it, it won’t turn its back on you and start to munch its way and wander into
the bush. That kind of thing is really not good for photography and the animal gives
you what’s called and ‘AHV’ an Arsehole View. It’s not a good thing. So stop a little bit
further back, and the car, let the animal carry on with what it’s doing without being
disturbed and then when you need to go, just drive slowly past it. They don’t mind you
driving past what they don’t like is when you come up alongside them and then stop and
turn the engine off. Quite often what that does is it makes them want to move away from
you. Well it feels like I’ve been rambling for hours and I actually didn’t make any notes
for this video it’s straight outta my head so I apologise if some of the advice is a
little bit haphazard but hopefully it’ll help you on your trip and I’ll see you, next time!

7 Replies to “Safari Photography | How to go on a Self-drive wildlife safari in South Africa”

  1. Wooohoo 1st…a new upload from a master of his craft…. Would love to get to your neck of the woods but Australia is sooooo far away and sooo much yet to see in my own country but I can dream……

  2. Many thanks for this, Will. Another excellent video and especially useful as we're off to Skukuza next month. Would be cool to bump into you.

  3. Look at that, I’m famous! Thanks for the info. I’m still struggling on what gear to take, other than that, I’m all set. So looking forward to this trip, it can’t get here soon enough. I’m sure I’ll continue to research until I land in Africa!

  4. Excellent feedback Will, great information especially since you have been to most of the places. The amount of people I have come across who prepare poorly for trips is quite frequent, what about you?
    I look forward to the next vlog as always. As a suggestion it might be worthwhile telling us about the books or fieldguides you use when you prepare for a trip and maybe recommend some websites.
    See you out there!

  5. Thank you for this. I'm coming from the states to Botswana and South Africa in two months, and this will help, as all you videos do. I had been wondering about the possibility/feasability of renting a car to do a drive out to Rietvlei based on your video of that park. It seems more doable now. Thanks again. 🙂 Paula

  6. So many superb tips and fantastic advice, Will! I was in Namibia for three weeks in December renting a overland Hilux, and trying to see as much as possible. Both wildlife and landscapes. Saw a Lioness with four small cubs during sunset hour in Etosha which was a massive highlight. Stayed with them for a long as we could. Got some nice photos of a Cheetah with a kill in Erindi. Saw Leopard with two cubs, many many Elephants, Bat-eared foxes with pups, white and black Rhinos and the list goes on. Everything was self drive.

    Would also mention that its smart to travel with other people that have an interest in photography and wildlife. If one is not traveling alone. Also smart to have rest days. That you don't do very much, because constantly looking for wildlife, and trying to be creative and make photos will eventually take its toll. It doesn't matter how beautiful the location is after a while. So to get the best out of your trip and photography, take some time to charge both your own and your cameras batteries.

  7. Nicely done, Will! I hope you're having fun out there, spring is about to begin here and we're all excited to see the end of winter.

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