I think every nature/wildlife photographer dreams of a photo safari to Africa, and that certainly includes Point and Shoot Nature Photographers. Lions, elephants, giraffes, rhino, hippopotamus, cheetah…and a host of bright African birds: sunbirds, rollers, and bee-eaters…not to mention the big birds, Ostriches and Bustards, Vultures, and Eagles. And just being there, in the presence of so much great wildlife…the Africa of all our dreams.
However, if you have priced an African photo safari lately, you know that it can be a very expensive destination. The safaris themselves are pricey compared to other eco or adventure travel, or even photo tours, and the cost of getting there is high. Airfare is expensive, and it can take as much as 38 hours with layovers on the least expensive flights.
Of course that does not keep me from dreaming or taking a look on-line at the safari booking sites. Recently I found a company, Viva Safaris, in the Greater Kruger National Park area of South Africa (perhaps the most accessible of the African nations), offering what appeared to be real bargains in Kruger Wildlife Safaris. I also found a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg (South African Air), that got me from Portland Maine to Africa in less than 24 hours for just over $1000. The trip total was around $2500 for 11 days (two back to back safari packages at different lodges owned by Viva). That included 2 bushwalks with an armed Ranger, one night Game Drive and several sunrise and sunset Game Drives on Private Reserves in the Greater Kruger Area, and 4 full day Game Drives in Kruger itself.
I did have some doubts. The Lodges and Camps I stayed at are not in Kruger. They are in Private Game Reserves adjacent to Kruger. Balule Game Reserve very large and is unfenced on the Kruger side, so it is, for all practical purposes, part of Kruger National Park. Motlala Game Reserve is smaller, but is also open to the surrounding reserves. However, Balule is about an hour from the nearest Kruger gate and Motlala is only a bit closer, so you do not get early mornings in Kruger itself. Early bushwalks and drives are on the Private Reserves.
Then too, the safari packages they offer are not Photo Safaris per say…they are general wildlife safaris. If you have ever been out with a group of non-photographers when you are trying to photograph, you know there can be some strain there…and the potential for cross purposes is high. Most dedicated Photo Safaris to Africa guarantee you a window or outside seat in the high Game Viewers used in the African Bush (converted transport buses or Land Cruiser type vehicles with high seats and large sliding windows, or no windows at all), which automatically means a small number of people per vehicle. No such guarantee here. Viva offers its low prices based on the simple premise of keeping their rooms and their Game Viewers (the Land Cruiser, open sided type) full at all times. Also the pace of a photo safari can be quite different than the pace of a general wildlife safari. On Wildlife Safari, the goal is to show the customer as many animals as possible. That can mean the quantity of views will generally trump the quality. On a Photo Safari, the goal is to get you good shots of as many animals as possible..but that may mean you see less animals total, and miss some altogether…and that is perfectly fine with most photographers. Quality over quantity.
Finally the Lodges themselves were an unknown. They got generally excellent reviews on Tripadvisor, but, as there always are, there were a few outstanding negative reviews too.
I will reassure you on that point first. The Lodges were fine. Tremisana Lodge on the Balule Game Reserve is comfortable, with nice rooms and a family style atmosphere…including family style meals. Marc’s Treehouse Lodge is more rustic, with a more genuine “bush” feel and reed cabins perched in trees or on stilts high above a flowing river, and is much more like a “camp”…including camp style meals. Perhaps because of that, Marc’s attracts a lot more young people than Tremisana, and that just adds to the camp atmosphere. I enjoyed the experience of both, and the contrast between the two. I have no hesitation in recommending Tremisana to any potential traveler. I would recommend Marc’s Treehouse to those with a desire for a more authentic bush experience, and a good sense of adventure 🙂
As far as my other doubts went, the quality of the night, early and late walks and drives in Balule Game Reserve and the neighboring Tshakudu Reserve, both in the numbers of animals seen, and in the skill of the driver/rangers Viva and Tshakudu employ, more than made up for any lack of mornings in Kruger. At Balule we were able to spotlight elephants, giraffe, and honeybadgers on the night drive, and at Tshakudu we were able to drive up, just after sunset, within 40 feet of a pride of lions at a kill. (Other groups at Balule also saw a lion kill, but I missed it.) The rangers at Tremisana went out of their way (literally) on several occasions to show me birds I might not otherwise have seen or been able to photograph.
And the Viva driver/rangers who take the Game Viewers into Kruger daily did a wonderful job of finding and getting us views of as many animals as possible each trip. Every ranger I road with, and I road with four different ones, was knowledgeable and keen eyed, and I was especially impressed that, even though they are in Kruger every day, driving the same roads, chasing the same animals, they all still obviously enjoyed showing the African Wildlife to their customers. That makes a huge difference in the quality of the experience.
So, no it was not a dedicated photo safari…but I am not sure it made a difference, especially for a first experience of Africa. Perhaps because I was one of the few people each day in the Game Viewer with serious looking camera gear, I generally was voted into an outside seat. On the occasions when I did have a middle seat, it turned out not to be much of a problem. The vehicles are very high, with seats raised considerably above even the normal bed of the Land Cruiser, and I could generally shoot over or around my fellow passengers…and again, since I was obviously serious about my photography, the others generally made a special effort to make sure I got my picture. Several asked if I would send them copies of things that were just beyond the cameras in the cell phones and tablets that most of them were carrying. (I was totally amazed at how many of my fellow safariers came out with only a cell phone for a camera.)
Again, though it was not a photo safari, the driver/rangers are very experienced in positioning their vehicles so that everyone can see the animals…and on the few occasions where my view was blocked or where I saw the potential for a better shot, the driver made every effort to reposition the vehicle so I could get the shot I wanted. I would love to be able to afford a dedicated photo safari, but I am not convinced I would come back with any more keepers than I did from my Viva Wildlife Safari.
I took three cameras with me. The Sony RX10iii, with its 1 inch sensor and 24-600mm zoom, which I intended to use most of the time, the Nikon P900 for when I needed more reach (out to 2000mm equivalent, especially for birds), and the Sony HX90V (a tiny P&S with a 24-720mm equivalent zoom) as a fail-safe backup in case both other cameras broke 🙁 As it turned out, it was just too much trouble to handle more than one camera in the field in Africa, especially in the Game Viewers, so the Nikon and HX90V stayed in my pack most of the time. Except for distant birds, I did not miss the reach of the P900, and even for distant birds, with the shimmer in the heated African air, I am not sure I would have gotten better shots with the 2000mm zoom. I did use the Clear Image Zoom out to 2x on the Sony more than I thought I would. Distant prides of lions, or a Cheetah in the shade of a distant tree just demanded more reach than 600mm, though I could have cropped and gotten the same image scale. Overall I was pleased with the results even for those stretched shots. I also found the Sony’s Anti-motion Blur Mode useful on several occasions when the light levels were low. I got better shots of hyena and the pride of lions at the kill after sunset because that mode was available…and impossible shots of Honeybadger after full dark in the light of only the Game Viewer’s spotlight. Finally, for the landscapes I took, the in-camera HDR on the Sony is just the best!
Today’s modern Point and Shoot superzooms are ideal cameras for Africa, offering you the wide open vistas at 24mm, frame filling shots of larger wildlife at mid-telephoto range (250mm), and the reach to shoot a close-up of an elephants eye or a distant lion or small bird. And you well not find yourself overburdened with gear, or changing lenses in the field.
I took 5000 exposures over 11 days. I have 851 keepers. Lots of lions, more elephants that I really need, a hundred giraffes, most of the antelope species, zebra, wildebeest, rhino, hippo, leopard, cheetah, honeybadger, mongoose, etc.
And though it was not a birding trip, I got to photograph my “most wanted”: two sunbird species, both African rollers, and two bee-eaters…as well as many of the larger birds of the African bush…including a total surprise in a pair of Kori Bustards (the largest flighted bird) that we found walking one morning just after we got to Kruger.
This is a slideshow of 132 of the best or most interesting shots from my keeper set. You can also view the full take, organized by day, (and subject as time allows) on WideEyedInWonder.
I am considering, if there is enough interest, negotiating a bit more photo-centric trip with Viva or one of the other Kruger Safari companies next September. I think, if we could fill a Game Viewer (9 or 10 participants), we might get some special treatment (though not a cost savings as Viva is already about as inexpensive as anyone can be). Let me know via email, if you would be interested.