Travel

Picking a Safari

by Joe McDonald | October 1, 2008

© Joe McDonaldI travel a lot as a wildlife photographer and to me there’s no place like Africa for the absolute best in wildlife photography. Indeed, Africa gets in your blood, not as a malarial parasite but as a burning obsession, because for most, one visit simply isn’t enough. Most folks, before they’ve even completed their first visit, are already planning on when and how they’ll be able to return. It simply is that good!

Opinions may vary [Editor’s Note: Also see the article “Revisiting Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park,” by Marijn Heuts], but I suspect that most would agree that the best destinations for a photo safari are Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana. I’ve spent quality time in all three countries. Some might argue that the top three list should include South Africa’s Kruger or nearby private reserves, or Namibia’s Etosha, or Uganda’s parks, or other destinations that I’m unfamiliar with. But I think the general consensus would point to the above three. Of these, which is the best country to visit, and, once that question is settled, how then do you pick the best photographic safari for you?

Every country has the Big Five – the elephant, lion, leopard, African Buffalo, and rhino (either black or white), in varying degrees of abundance. Other animals and birds may vary considerably more. For example, it’s difficult to find a Sable Antelope in Kenya (they are at Shimba Hills along the coast), but rather easy to see one in Botswana’s Chobe. Wild dogs are found in all three countries but Botswana is justifiably known as THE place to go if you really want to see them. Interested in the great gnu migration? Forget Botswana, at least for the much sought-after river crossings. For that, you’ll need to go to Kenya through the summer or fall, or Tanzania’s western corridor of the Serengeti in the summer months.

Let’s look at a few things that set these top three destinations apart from each other.

Kenya

With over twenty years of annual, lengthy trips to Kenya, I certainly know it best. And I guess that’s saying something, otherwise, why would I always go back there? Indeed, several years ago I asked a well-known Kenya-based wildlife photographer what country he felt was best for shooting. He laughed, and replied, “Why do you think I settled here?” The BBC Big Cat Diary series is also based out of Kenya for the same reasons, as the Masai Mara Game Reserve provides the most opportunities for those with limited time schedules.

Gnu migration in Africa © Joe McDonald

Gnu Migration

The spectacular wildebeest migration can be seen, at different seasons, in both Kenya and Tanzania. In both countries it is possible to see a river crossing, although the more reliable, and spectacular crossings, usually occur in Kenya.

Kenya sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s said to be too crowded, and there is no question that it is crowded. I think Kenya’s Masai Mara is terribly managed, or perhaps more properly put, completely unmanaged. It seems that developers hoping to cash in on a quick buck from tourism are quite content to eventually kill their golden egg-laying goose. It will be interesting to see how many of the new lodges survive the crunch that occurred this year after the recent presidential election fiascos; tourism dropped by over 50%.

Over-crowding, however, is relative. In Kenya I’ve seen nearly thirty vehicles lined up or encircling a group of lions on several occasions, but that crowd has not affected our photography. Most of the times the vehicles have remained at a respectful distance from the animals and, through the limited angle of view of a telephoto lens, the illusion of pure wilderness still can be achieved. Furthermore, most vehicles, especially on morning game drives, do not stay very long at any one subject, but instead quickly zip off to check off more of the Big Five.

Unfortunately, Park officials are adopting this mentality of simply seeing an animal and moving on. At many Kenya parks the guidelines state that visitors should only spend ten minutes or so at any stop, which reinforces a superficial, amusement park experience. Further, this type of regulation guarantees that vehicles will be wasting valuable fuel while disturbing animals further as they come and go. However, I’ve rarely seen this regulation enforced, although it has happened.

For details of a typical safari in Kenya, please see my trip report.

Tanzania

Tanzania offers a cast of characters that is similar to Kenya’s, but has the potential for a feeling of remoteness and exclusivity that Kenya usually lacks. This is especially true in areas in the vast Serengeti where, on some roadless tracks, one can drive most of the day without seeing another vehicle. However, it is not true in popular destinations like Ngorongoro Crater which is often crowded and where any off-road driving is prohibited without special, difficult-to-get permits.

Malachite kingfisher © Joe McDonald

Malachite Kingfisher

The tiny but beautiful Malachite Kingfisher can be found in all three countries, although this one was photographed in Tanzania’s Tarangeri National Park.

Some of Tanzania’s less popular parks, like the Seleous Game Reserve or Ruaha, are relatively tourist-free, but that may be for a reason. I’ve spent time in both, swatting nasty tsetse flies while searching for hours for any sign of game.

That’s not to say Tanzania isn’t spectacular. It most certainly is, and even a “barren” park or reserve has hidden gems that make a trip there potentially extremely rewarding. In fact, that’s why we went to both the Seleous and Ruaha, as both areas have good wild dog populations and we were hoping to photograph this, the most endangered of Africa’s major predators. FYI, we were not successful on that trip!

Tanzania’s Serengeti is the country’s crown jewel, especially during the gnu-birthing season in late January and early February. I don’t think there is a wildlife spectacle that rivals the experience of being surrounded by thousands of gnus (or wildebeest) as far as the eye can see, and I am literally talking about miles. When the game is in the action is high; predators are abundant, and, it would seem, all other forms of game are too.

While it is possible to feel as if you have the Serengeti to yourself, that feeling is dependent upon your location. Around Seronera, the yellow barked acacia-lined river famous for its leopards, the few tracks are crowded and, around a leopard, they are as bad as anything I’ve seen in Kenya. Still, the wide-open spaces and endless sky and the granite islands called kopjis make the Serengeti special.

Botswana

Botswana prides itself on exclusivity. It offers a quality experience to those who can afford it, for it is the most expensive country of the three. That exclusivity can be an illusion, for outside of some concessions where one camp has exclusive rights the game parks can be almost as crowded as anywhere else. On our recent trip to Botswana I counted twelve vehicles at one time around a lone wild dog; not as bad as Kenya but not what one might expect, either.

African wild dog © Joe McDonald

African Wild Dog

Botswana offers the best chance of seeing and photographing Africa’s most endangered large predator, the African wild dog.

That said, I must admit that Botswana has a special charm and offers some opportunities, and vantage points, not available anywhere else. A low, generally dusty country, Botswana’s light is distinctive, and in the early morning the soft glow of dawn is surprisingly faint. At an equivalent hour in Kenya or Tanzania I’d usually be shooting two or three stops faster than I might here, but it is sweet light.

I think one of the biggest problems with Botswana is the vehicles, which are open-sided and generally setup for several passengers. It’s relatively easy to arrange for a three-person vehicle in Kenya or Tanzania, but in some Botswana camps, it can be almost impossible. For the record, it can be done – we arranged this for our safari, but it is costly. More bothersome is the vehicle layout since using a beanbag is cumbersome or impossible. In contrast, in Kenya and Tanzania one generally has the option of shooting from a window or from a roof hatch. Most folks use the roof hatch, where a beanbag can be secured quite easily for very comfortable shooting. In Botswana’s open vehicles I felt as if I were re-inventing the wheel each time I shot. I was constantly rearranging my tripod for an optimum position, or simply trying to get it into some type of usable form. My experience isn’t unique here, either.

Picking a First-Time Destination

I’m often asked which country is the best, and which one someone new to Africa should go to. My answer is Kenya, because bangs-for-the-bucks it offers the most shooting opportunities and subject variety. Last year, in preparing for my usual Trip Report that I post on our website after each trip, I kept a journal where I recorded the time, subject and sometimes behavioral activity observed, every time I stopped to photograph. Some days I could barely keep up, as we literally stopped every five minutes for one subject or another.

That doesn’t happen as easily anywhere else. Indeed, in Tanzania’s Serengeti I’ve sometimes stopped to photograph a bird that in Kenya I’d just ignore because I was desperate to shoot anything!

That said, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing either Tanzania or Botswana for their first-time experience, and I’d reckon you’ll be hooked just as easily either way. Those returning to Africa for subsequent visits might consider another country, although most of the photographers we see are quite happy returning to Kenya again and again. Mary and I love all three.

Pied kingfisher carrying a fish © Joe McDonald

Pied Kingfisher carrying fish. The pied kingfisher is found everywhere, but on the Chobe River in Botswana I’ve found the birds both abundant and easier to photograph.

Picking a Photo Safari

Once you decide on a country, picking a safari should be much easier. Your first concern must be that you are indeed going on a photographic safari, not a birding safari or a general natural history safari if you intend to make quality pictures. I can tell you horror stories from photographers who have made that mistake!

Next, consider how many photographers there are per vehicle. Ideally it should be one photographer per row, rather than X number of people per vehicle. Certainly shy away from any safari touting “everyone has a window seat,” as that can put you in a vehicle with eight other people! In some parks or camps, or with some outfitters, you might discover that a “three person per vehicle” rule means you are crammed into a vehicle with only two rows, sharing a roof hatch that’s not designed for two serious people with big lenses! That said, I would avoid any vehicle where more than four people could have their own row, as more bodies compound the chance of movement and shaky images.

While you may be tempted to “see it all,” and visit a number of game parks to maximize your variety, I would not recommend it. You’ll find that you’ll spend as much time traveling as shooting, if you’re lucky, and the travel schedule will simply exhaust you. You will be far more successful limiting yourself to a couple of parks where you can spend true quality time instead.

Your mode of transportation between destinations can be important as well. In Kenya and Tanzania, most of the parks are close enough that a half-day’s drive can take you from one to another on a well-planned itinerary. Flying from park to park is certainly more comfortable, but can be costly and problematic in terms of luggage and camera equipment given the weights allowed. If you keep the same driver-guide and he drives while you fly, you might find that you are wasting as much time waiting for your driver and vehicle to catch up to you, as you’d have spent driving and seeing the countryside.

An alternative is to arrange for each camp to provide a driver for you. However, that option can be a problem, as you’ll have less of a chance to develop a relationship with your driver, and instead find that you are just a new face in a sea of constantly changing tourist faces. I’ve encountered this on fly-in camps in Botswana where, at first, our driver-guides went through their usual dialog and time frame based upon the average point-and-shoot tourist. On my first trips to Botswana, years ago, I found this maddening. On our last trip, perhaps due to prepping the guides with pre-game drive talks or improved people skills, we didn’t have the same problems. On the plus side, camp-based guides should know the area better than anyone, which should work to your advantage. In Kenya, however, the vehicles used are often old and second rate, bouncy and open like the Botswana vehicles, where using a beanbag proves difficult.

The number of people on your safari may or may not be important to you. I’ve heard arguments from some who think that a group of thirty or fifty shooters offers wonderful diversity in group dynamics, but I’m not especially convinced. Conversely, a very small group can be a nightmare if you find that you are stuck at dinner or on game drives with someone you simply can’t stand. A group of nine to fifteen, using three to five vehicles, could provide the happiest of medians.

Picking a Tour Leader

The wildlife and the experience of a safari will trump everything else. That said, however, I still think it extremely prudent to consider the tour leader as well. Experience counts here, as your tour guide may be as new to a safari experience as you are, and is using the role of guide merely as a vehicle to make a safari for free. A photographer may be a great shooter but have little knowledge of the wildlife, and again, that counts.

An experienced tour leader should know where the good places are, when the light is best and when it is most likely that game will be there. The leader should know when to hold and when to fold, to quote Kenny Rogers, providing guidance on whether or not to wait for potential action or move on to find something more promising.

Although it’s subtle, an experienced leader may know things he or she wouldn’t even think of mentioning in describing his qualifications. He can recognize an alarm call that announces the presence of a moving leopard, or sense that something is about to happen simply by the vibes of quiet and intensity an animal displays. This is gleaned from field experience, not books or TV specials, and I certainly have seen the latter with some of our participants who confidently and incorrectly predicted what was about to happen because they saw it on Discovery. It often doesn’t work that way.

The Greatest Show on Earth

With all of that said, I will conclude that regardless of how or where you go, you’ll simply love it. We’ve had participants on our trips who, previously, had taken the cheapest, bounciest, most perfunctory safari, or one crammed by gum-snapping tourists more concerned with their next meal than with anything they’re watching. And yet our participants returned again because Africa just gets into their blood.

Lioness on gnu kill at dawn © Joe McDonald

Lioness on gnu kill at dawn. Some of the best predator photography takes place in the Masai Mara of Kenya.

It is the greatest show on Earth. With an increasing population, the specter of fuel shortages, and, with increasing regulations in most parks, the time to go is now. But be warned, for if you go once you’ll simply need to return again, and again, and again…

About the Author

Joe McDonald has been photographing wildlife and nature for over forty years, and has been a full-time professional since 1983. He has been published in every major North American nature publication and is represented by several stock agencies. With his wife Mary Ann, Joe teaches photography and digital workshops from his home in central Pennsylvania. Additionally, he and his wife spend at least 50% of an average year traveling, leading photo tours and safaris for photographers. Joe is a master of electronic flash, and regularly incorporates flash into his high-speed action work. That, and capturing defining moments, such as action or a telling portrait, is his photography specialty. His favorite location for photography is the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, and Joe has had seven BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners from this region. In 2009 this duo completed their 50th mountain gorilla trek in Rwanda. Visit his website at: www.hoothollow.com.

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