So, you want to go to Africa on Safari?
The dream of every wildlife photographer is to visit the most iconic locations around the globe to witness and photograph the beauty and majesty of the animal and birdlife in their native environments. The locations are legendary, the Antarctic for the march of the penguins, the Pantanal of Brazil to track jaguars, the tiger reserves of Northern India, the Katmai peninsula to photograph the brown bears of Alaska as they gorge themselves on spawning salmon and so on. But if you were to only pick one place to visit, a land of mystery and mythology, the savannas of East Africa would be the choice.
A photo safari to East Africa should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list. There is no place on earth where the number of wild animals, living in their natural habitats of Kenya and Tanzania, are so abundant. I lived and photographed in Alaska for 14 years, and I thought I would never see a more beautiful place, or a place so teeming with life. And then one day as I was driving from Fairbanks to Anchorage in the middle of winter, a frost riddled hiker emerged from the snow banks of Denali and asked me for a ride. It was 30 degrees below zero outside and I could not fathom how a human being could be casually hiking down a highway 100 miles from the nearest town without an apparent care in the world. My passenger turned out to be a very famous Japanese wildlife photographer, who tragically is no longer with us. To pass the time on the trip to Anchorage, we swapped stories of the amazing places we had visited and photographed. He had seemingly been everywhere. But he said one thing that I have never forgotten about his sojourns. “Alaska” he said “is magnificent, but your best photographic day in Alaska will be your worst day of capturing images in Africa”. Of course, I did not believe him, and at that point in my life, I was not consumed with visiting the Dark Continent on safari as I am today. But my interest was definitely piqued.
In 1998, I paid an exorbitant sum to go on a photo safari to the Masai Mara in Kenya with the company owned by Joseph Van Os. It was a 13-day trip. We flew to Nairobi and on to the Masai Mara in puddle jumper prop planes, and we landed in the Mara mid-day in late August. As my tiny plane circled the dirt runway, I saw local Masai warriors frantically herding the zebras and the giraffes off the path so that we could safely land. That sight alone blew my mind and lit a fuse that led to an intense love affair for Africa, a love that has never left me. The next morning, before sunrise, we drove in our Land Cruisers out onto the savanna amidst the impenetrable fog shrouding the grasslands. I was grumbling, as we had seen no game on the drive from our camp. I was riding with Van Os and he gave me the look, which seemed to say, “…be quiet and just watch…”. Five minutes later the sun broke the horizon and before me lay a beautiful marsh filled with over 500 elephants. They were back lit by the rising sun and the golden rays created halos around their glowing white tusks. I was so stunned that I almost forgot to start shooting. From that first morning on, I have longed to go back to Africa every single day.
I have now journeyed to East Africa and South Africa over 20 times. I have gone on every conceivable type of photo trip. I have traveled with a group of 4 friends; I have gone solo with one guide for five weeks; and I have gone on budget trips where we used “4-wheel drive” mini vans. I do not believe for one second that these vans actually have four-wheel drive, as I think the owners just stencil “4-wheel drive” on their vans and off they go. I have now led over 15 safaris myself, taking friends and clients in groups ranging from 6 people to almost 40 travelers. During the past two decades I have made every possible mistake on my safaris. But I have learned.
I will now share what I know: In the spirit of forthrightness, I must say that David LaNeve (owner of the photography school – The California Center for the Digital Arts) and I are leading a wonderful 10/15-day safari to Kenya this upcoming summer. Obviously, I hope you join in as this safari will be run based upon what I have learned over the past 20 years. We are going at the height of the Great Migration and we are visiting the four top game parks in Kenya – Amboseli, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, and the trip culminates with a 5 day stay at a gorgeous tented camp in the Masai Mara, which literally resides in the middle of the migration.
What I have learned:
- African safaris are expensive, so most photographers only go once in their lives. Hence, Kenya is the best place to go. The diversity of the wildlife and the number of animals cannot be matched any place else in Africa. The infrastructure in Kenya is excellent so road travel is not too arduous. Most of the game parks in Kenya are open savanna ecosystems which makes game viewing and photography easy and rewarding. Kenya is the best option because it clearly offers the “most bang for the buck”. My second choice would be Tanzania, as the Serengeti plain is spectacular. But in Tanzania the animals are driven from the parks by the searing heat of the summer months and the droughts that ensue. Also, Tanzania’s infrastructure can not compete with Kenya’s. Farther afield, South Africa has beautiful national parks and private reserves but in South Africa you will miss the cultural interactions with the local people, the game is less diversified and the land is not nearly as open as in Kenya. If you go back to Africa many times you will ultimately want to consider going to Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and even Namibia. But the costs and the time it takes to travel to these more remote locations will often double and even triple your safari costs.
- Vehicles – do not go on safari in a minivan. You will blow tires, get stuck in the mud and often times will have to stop a mile from the lions as your driver will be unwilling to drive closer. You will hate it. They are slow, unreliable and most important, they can’t get to the animals. Only choose a safari company that guarantees the use of Land Cruisers and Range Rovers that have been specially modified for safaris.
- Clients in the vehicle – budget safari companies will often cram 9 passengers into a vehicle. If you brought a long lens, be prepared for law suits as you pivot with your lens and crush the face of the passenger next to you. And you better be lucky, because if the lion is on the right side of your vehicle and you are on the left – well, hope your fellow passengers are relatives of St. Francis so that they share with you. On my trips I only allow 3 clients per vehicle and I only use Land Cruisers that are build for 9 passengers. This way everyone has their own seat and can shoot off the roof or out the windows on either side of the vehicle.
- Your safari guides – the guides make or break your trip. A good guide can find the big cats, the wildebeest crossing the river, the fish eagle in the fever acacia tree. But great guides are in demand and most guides are poorly trained, not too motivated and may speak English ineffectively. Again, you will hate that experience. I hand pick my guides based upon my 20+ trips to Kenya. All the guides I use are themselves photographers so they understand the light and the need to seek the animals and are willing to drive all day to make sure you capture wonderful images.
- Hours per day actually in the field – the typical safari company takes clients on two game drives a day. The morning game drive starts at 6:15 am and concludes in time for a late breakfast at 9 am. Then you will sit in camp until 4 pm awaiting your afternoon game drive. I mean you just spent thousands of dollars to travel 12 thousand miles to Africa and now you are spending 7 or 8 hours of good sunlight sitting in the lodge? Whatever. On my safaris we come back at 11 am and go out again at 3 pm. And if the wildlife is plentiful and we are kicking photographic butt, we stay out all day. We will bring out picnic breakfasts and lunches so that we can travel with the hunting lions for example. My motto is, “…rest when you get home, and take 12,000 pictures on safari…”.
- Location, location, location – as I have said Kenya, for a first, second and maybe even your third safari is the place to go. What is the downside of Kenya? Well it is no mystery that Kenya is the finest safari location in the world, hence it can be crowded. But you will see and photograph lions, cheetahs, leopards, rhinos, etc. and you will get great images. But before you finalize your safari, research the location of your camps. Often budget safari companies place their camps outside of the game reserves or the national parks and consequently you may have to drive over an hour to get to the park and the animals. This means you will never photograph the game at sunrise or at sunset as you will always be on the road. This for me is unacceptable. Pay more and stay in a prime camp amidst the animals.
- Cost of a safari – again traveling in Africa is not cheap but please do not scrimp. Save money on your trip to Yellowstone and stay in a tent there, but in Africa, pay for a great vehicle, guide, camp and experience. A budget safari can cost just over $2,000 to $3,000 for 8-10 days but you will have to check yourself into an anger management rehab center when you get home, as you will have instigated several fights with fellow clients and you will probably have malaria as well. Mid-range safaris cost about 4-5 thousand dollars for 10 days. They are fine, but research the lodges and their locations carefully. High mid-range safaris will cost between 6 and 8 thousand dollars for 10 days. These safaris will offer you everything you need. It will be a quality experience. If you are related to Bill Gates and money is no object you can easily spend well over $1000 dollars a day while on safari. These companies will stay in camps where you have outside bath tubs amidst the trees and you will get champagne for breakfast. Is it worth it? No. However, I was once treated to a mini safari where I stayed in a $1000 per day tented camp and I was lucky enough to witness another very beautiful client sitting in her out door tub when a baboon climbed into the tub with her. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture any usable images of the ensuing naked chaos.
So, there you have it. If you want the very best at a moderately low price, come with David LaNeve and me this summer to Kenya. It will be the best trip of your lives; this I can assure you!
– Jeff Sink