Sunrise - Ngorongoro Crater - Lerai Forest Just published in Shutterbug Magazine
If you have ever considered going on a photo safari to Africa, DO IT! At the urging of professional writer/photographer Boyd Norton, my wife and I went on our first in 2001 and just got back from the leading our third a few weeks ago. There are several options available to anyone interested in going, with several being difficult choices to determine without having done it before. Maybe my experience can help.
First and foremost, Africa is a big continent so choosing the right place to go is important for a first timer. The two most popular countries are Kenya and Tanzania, both in East Africa and both blessed with abundant wild life and wild areas to see them. Of the two Tanzania seems to be the safest and most stable for outsiders. In past years it was just the opposite but now Tanzania holds the upper hand for a safe, productive safari. Tanzania is the answer to the first question, WHERE?
There is also another big question, who to go with? There are numerous people offering safaris to Tanzania. Prices are all over the map although none are inexpensive. The most important thing to look for? Is it a PHOTO safari and not just a safari? The word safari is a Swahili word that means “trip”. Add the adjective “photo” and you have the key to the second part of your decision. Make certain that the person you go with is a photographer. Non-photographers have little if any idea how to make you happy as a photographer. If you just want to take snapshots with a P&S or cell phone then it doesn’t make much difference but for stunning images you need the understanding and leadership that only a true professional photographer can bring to the table. Answer to questions two? Go with a professional photographer!
OK, so now we know where we want to go and that it needs to be a pro but how do you pick the right pro? References are probably the best way to find out if the leader is the right person to go with. With a little research you should be able to narrow it down to four or five trips. Once you get the numbers manageable ask for an itinerary. Look at the details. Our days started at 5:30, meeting for breakfast and out at sunrise for the good light. In addition we returned at sunset most days allowing for late day light conditions as well. There are groups who get out at the crack of 9 am and back at 4 pm. Those people are not professional photographers. Ask how many people will be in each vehicle. Any more than four or five will not work. The action usually happens on one side of the vehicle or the other. Five people is pushing the envelope if they are all enthusiasts with long lenses. We had four or five each day and fortunately the fifth person was usually a spouse not interested in shooting much. More than five people and there will be access issues. Ever try to shoot great photos with people bumping into you or constantly moving around in the vehicle? It is difficult if not impossible. We also were shooting out of extended Land Cruisers. There are tour operators using Toyota vans with even greater limitations on shooting spots. Don’t be afraid to ask blunt questions after all you are going to be spending loads of money for the safari, so make sure you get your moneys worth. In addition to getting references on the leader, try to find out if references are available for the tour company in Africa that will be utilized. The best have impressive lists of those who have utilized their services. Chances are there will be some photographers names you recognize from the lists of the top companies.
By now you have probably narrowed the narrowed the choices down to maybe two or three. Beyond this point then maybe it is gut feel or how you feel about the leaders after talking to them. I had a distinct advantage in making the decisions on my first and second trips. I knew the leader personally. In fact I had been a teaching assistant at his workshops for several years. I knew what he could do. I knew the type of leader he would be plus I knew we would get along perfectly. At our workshops we were up and out early every morning. I knew Tanzania would be the same.
Where the trip takes you and where you stay are somewhat important. If this will be your ONLY trip to East Africa there are two must sees: Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. If other areas are offered that could be a bonus but you do not want to cut short your time in these two defining locales.
Accommodations are somewhat important but should not be a trip breaker. The range of lodges in Tanzania is wide but most are good. Some people are put off by the word “camp” anywhere in an itinerary. Don’t let it scare you. We camped in Serengeti for six straight nights both trips. I was almost in tears when we left camp the first time and the second was nearly the same. The camps are not your “Boy Scout” experience. First our tents were virtually sealed up with both zippers and Velcro closures. Second, the tents were huge inside with a dressing area, a queen sized bed and were equipped with small separate enclosures with a chemical toilet in one and a shower in the other.
When to go? Being close to the equator, the weather doesn’t vary much. Basically there are two seasons, the wet season, from about November thru March and the dry season from May through September. I have been there for both seasons. Can’t say that I have a favorite but there is something about the wet season and the nearly two million wildebeest in town for the calving season that is nothing short of amazing. The one drawback the wet season is rain and the toll it takes on the roads and access. During the dry season the drivers have access to areas that can be closed during the wet season so you may not get as close to the action. The obvious answer is DO BOTH! Really, if I had to choose one it would be the wet season with all the baby animals and the thousands of migratory birds in attendance.
Why not to cut corners:
When on Safari you do not want downtime. Tour operators who do not maintain their vehicles are subjecting you to break downs in the middle of no where (I’m not talking about Kansas-Middle-of-no-where). Parts and help are not eminent anywhere in the Serengeti. Flat tires don’t count. The “roads” and “off roads” are tough on tires and flats are not unusual.
Qualified guides/drivers. Our drivers were all trained as diesel mechanics (the vehicles are diesel powered) as well as extremely well versed in the ecology, animals, plants, birds, insects, symbiotic relationships… …well, you name it, we could not stump them.
Total experience is important. We had a private tour of Olduvai Gorge from one of the museum directors, were joined by a Massai leader for dinner at Ngorongoro Crater Serena Lodge plus during our drives in the crater and got a personal invitation to his village. I can’t say enough about the Maasai or in fact the people of Tanzania. They were kind, courteous and very helpful. We tipped very generously, left most of our clothes with our guides when we departed and exchanged email addresses with each of them. Speaking of leaving things, we also took pads of paper, pens, pencils and other school supplies for the children. We also brought along at least one suitcase of medical supplies for an American doctor who has opened a clinic in Karatu ( HYPERLINK "http://www.fameafrica.org" www.fameafrica.org) to help the people of Tanzania. The empty spots in our suitcases were filled with souvenirs we bought our last full day in the country.
I will restate one topic – shooting space. If you are going there to take world class photographs it is impossible to do with people moving around all the time. It is also impossible if every single square inch of shooting space is taken up by those who moved the quickest when the action started. Always ask these important questions, what types of vehicles are used and how many people per vehicle. Our extended Land Cruisers had full open tops with canvas roof that could be easily and quickly rolled back.
Links to our trip:
Jim Griggs - www.selective-focus.com