Africa boasts an almost limitless list of places to go, things to see and do. Few are more immediately popular than the bush, where as close as an hour’s drive, or as far as a thousand kilometres, it is possible to get a real feeling of Africa at the most basic level. Or there are any number of five star resorts offering a very upmarket experience, as your pocket permits.
And, there’s the game. Viewing our wildlife can be a lottery – wild Africa has it’s own rules and keeps neither time, nor concern for anyone. It’s entirely possible to visit the world famous Kruger National Park drive for a day and see little more than trees and grass. Yet tomorrow, might bring a lion kill, herds of impala, or an elephant in the road, blocking your way forward. There’s no way to predict what each new day will bring.
As locals, we tend to use the self-drive parks like the Kruger, or sometimes the Pilansberg reserve which is close to Johannesburg/Pretoria. For the overseas visitor, the resorts like Sabi Sabi, or Madikwe are preferable as they offer excellent accommodation and employ purpose-built vehicles for game viewing. Unlike the self-drive parks, these reserves also permit the driver to leave the road and drive through the bush to seek, or make it possible for all guests on the vehicle to see the animals – usually restricted to the so-called “Big 5” ( lion, leopard, rhinoceros (black and white), elephant, and Cape buffalo) in order to ensure a good experience and at the same time restrict damage to the bush.
Those game drives are spectacular, the driver being sufficiently skilled to track and locate a specific animal and get the vehicle within just a few metres, be it a group of lions, elephants, or some of our many species of buck.
This last week, we’ve celebrated a family milestone birthday, which co-incided with our grown up children’s visit to South Africa for friend’s wedding. Our kids were born and grew up here, but neither of their partners had experienced Africa’s bush and so, a four day visit to Madikwe was shoe-horned into their very tight (work leave-restricted) schedule.
Photographically, preparing for the bush is relatively simple.
There isn’t room for a tripod on the vehicle and if you are foolish enough to dismount in order to shoot, you might not come back if there are predators nearby. You’re safe on the vehicle, best stay there and follow your guide’s instructions. In-camera image stabilisation is very useful, but I also carry and use a monopod extensively.
Cameras are a matter of personal choice. I’ve shot with FF Nikons for years, not minding their bulk as the car is doing most of the heavy carrying. More recently, my APS-C Fuji X-Pros have proved excellent workhorses.
Lenses? It’s really important to get a handle on this. Even in the depth of our winter, when rain barely falls for half the year, the bush can be thick and the grass often at eye level. Super long prime lenses are heavy, have a tiny field view and if the animal you’re seeing is more than (about) 50m away, will never look like more than a dot in the distance. If you manage to see it at all.
Zoom lenses offer a much better option. A typical 80-200 zoom is a manageable weight and will ensure that you capture almost everything you’re likely to see. My own 100-400 has proved extremely useful, although it is heavy and a beast when stopped and in the driving seat, trying to shoot out of an open window. It’s OIS is invaluable.
Unless sunrises and sunsets are important to you, don’t bother with a wide angle lens beyond the very useful 35mm (FF), for scenery and general photography. I shoot a lot of both and so, carry Fuji’s 16mm (24mm FF) which is very useful for capturing Africa’s big sky in all its glory.
Spare bodies? If you have one, it’s a good idea to pack it, even if you never take it out of your bag. The bushveldt is usually dry and can be very dusty. Likewise, our rains can sometimes be biblical downpours, albeit short-lived. I carry a 30 litre stuff sack to put camera and lens into when the going gets particularly tough. When not in use, it rolls up into a small sausage shape and lives in my camera bag.
Batteries? Yes. Plenty if you have them. It’s easy to shoot 1000+ frames in a day and tragic if you miss the moment critique because you’re battery has died.
And that’s you pretty much ready for the bush. You’ll need charging cable(s), mains adaptors – in South Africa, we use a unique 15A 3-pin plug and socket, designed to minimise the effect of the frequent lightning that sweeps the country – a decent pair of binoculars, a good sun screen and a hat. Baseball caps are useless as you’ll get the tops of your ears sunburned.
A fleece is also an excellent idea and will also give you something to roll breakables in when packing.
The reserve vehicles all carry rain ponchos and during winter, blankets for guests. Even at 20km/h to 30km/h an open vehicle can be bitterly cold at 06:00 when the temperatures are less than 10 degrees C.
If you have any questions or need some advice, feel free to contact me.
All photographs shot at Madikwe, using Fuji X-Pro1 and X-Pro2 cameras.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.
Was in South Africa at the end of December (2017) spending a week in a private reserve. It was my 8th trip to Africa (most in E. Africa), and second time spending some time in a S. Africa preserve (previously visited Mala Mala). I generally agree that given the type of vehicles used most often in S. Africa, such as the one pictured in the article, a zoom lens makes the most sense. However, I think the suggestion of an 80-200 as the longest lens is off base if you want anything more than mostly environmental type shots (I like such shots, but also want closer views). Even if shooting APS-C format. More often than not you simply are too far from the wildlife for such a lens to give you enough range. A 100-400 (or similar), particularly on a crop-sensor body, makes far more sense. On my last trip I was shooting full frame using a rented Tamron 150-600 G2 (because I knew that using my 500/4 was totally impractical, and it stayed home), and it worked out well. One of the other guests in our vehicle was shooting a Panasonic GH5 (just bought) with a 100-300 lens (or something like that). The size and weight of his kit was much less than what I had for the equivalent focal length range. But, we had relatively poor weather – clouds every day – and I found myself usually shooting at a minimum ISO of 1600, sometimes higher. A faster lens than the Tamron zoom might have allowed a lower ISO, as I assume the GH5 kit did for the other guest, but I don’t know what ISO he decided to use. Given that higher ISO’s are one of the weak points of the micro 4/3’s format, depending on the photographer’s tolerance of image noise, there are trade-offs to consider (as with anything). Note also that while image stabilization is a huge benefit (in lens or in camera, or both), the vehicles used for these safaris are highly subject to movement when anyone in the vehicle moves, and that image stabilization most likely won’t be able to compensate for such movements (unlike smaller movements from handholding when the vehicle is not moving). A monopod can be a help, depending on how many people are in the vehicle. If it is full (all seats taken), use of a monopod will be quite difficult.
My bucket list includes breakfast in one of those parks, where a giraffe leans through the window and licks you on the face. Someone else would have to take the photo! 🙂
Splendid shots, Paul! South Africa is such a trove of photographic treasure, if one knows how to harvest it, that is! Some shots deserve wall space, to be savored again and again. And, judging from your close-ups, you must have been pretty close to some of these not-always-so-kindly-inclined animals. Congrats for all aspects of this work!
Thanks Philippe. Close? Sometimes too close, especially when we got (mock) charged by a black rhino – known for their bad temper and instant on/off aggression. Fortunately, he peeled off about 3m away and disappeared into the bush – I was sitting next to the driver and in his direct line of advance. Just as well as I really didn’t want my bush experience to stretch to two tons of angry rhino.
What a timing, Paul. I just started to look around for safaris in Africa. What I found interesting – and somehow logical – is a website that tells you what you can see where at which time. Because once it’s getting dry in the north, the hordes move southwards. And if you come too late, there’s nothing to see anymore. If you come to early, it’s all too green and you can’t anything. And then you may want to avoid peak season. So you really have to plan this out carefully.
I read that Botswana should be very nice because you can’t travel there by your own, hence it’s quite expensive and therefore still very natural and not many tourists.
Does anyone know the minimum age for these parks? I once read for one reserve that they require a minimum age of 16, but they were specialized on cheetahs. However, the kid needs to stay calm even a elephant bull or rhino is approaching aggressively. On the other hand, I read about special kids tours. But I don’t know what they mean by kid (5 year old or 12, 14 …).