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A Southern African Photo Safari With a Difference – From Inside the Rest Camps!

A Guest Post by Mario Fazekas.

When you think of an ‘African safari’ you most probably picture a Land Cruiser thundering across the savanna chasing after the ‘big-five’ animals.

We mainly do self-drive safaris but we have also been on about a dozen guided game drives – the rides are generally bumpy, many safari guides drive fast (as they want to be the first to get to the leopard sighting so that they get the prime spot), the people in front have to contend with the wind chill while people sitting further back get a dust bath. If it’s winter the temperatures can be very cold and in summer you have to keep an eye out for the rain as most safari vehicles are open vehicles.

Not only do you have to endure this but your photo equipment also has to survive the dust, heat, knocks and rain!

The parks are now getting crowded with a lot of ‘speedsters’ racing around scaring the animals away so driving around isn’t fun like it used to be, hence our safari tactics have now changed and we spend most of our time photographing from within the rest camps.

It doesn’t matter what type of nature photographer you are, whether you are into wildlife, macro, landscape or birds you can get superb photographs from inside the camps, and even from the comfort and privacy of your own bungalow, by waiting for the animals to come to you!

You can obviously photograph from any of the rest camps in any of the African game parks but we will provide some hints for the three biggest and most famous Southern African national parks:

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa

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The park is situated in the Kalahari desert and there are three mains camps, namely Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata Mata. You are able to photograph small mammals, insects and birds in all of them and in addition, Nossob and Mata Mata have a hide overlooking a floodlit waterhole where you may see lions, leopards and cheetahs drinking by day and night. Both hides face east so the best time to photograph from them is in the afternoons when the sun will be behind you.

The wilderness camps are, however, our favorite camps but you cannot walk around these camps as they are unfenced! Each of these small camps has its own private waterhole and we have photographed birds (especially raptors like owls, hawks and eagles) and many of the rare mammals (leopard, caracal, porcupine and brown hyenas) and common mammals (lions, cheetahs, gemsbok etc.) drinking here. In addition, you are visited by the insects and reptiles during the summer months at your cabin – you don’t have to go out looking for them. We have photographed scorpions, lizards and many insects by day and night at the wilderness camps.

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The waterholes are up to 100 meters away so if you have only a short focal length lens stay at Urikaruus as the waterhole is just 50 meters from the cabins – a 300mm lens with 1.4 tele-converter should suffice. If you stay at one of the other camps such as Gharagab, Grootkolk Kieliekrankie, Kalahari Tented camp or Bitterpan you will need a bit more reach as the waterholes are between 75 – 100 meters away so a 400, 500 or 600 mm lens would be best. The waterholes are not floodlit so remember to take your own spotlight with.

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If you are a landscape photographer these camps won’t disappoint, particularly Kieliekrankie and Gharagab as they are situated high up on sand dunes and they provide grand views over the dunes providing great landscape and panorama potential, especially when there are storms brewing. Photographing star trails is easy here because the park is so far away from civilization you don’t have to contend with lights and pollution.

Kruger National Park in South Africa

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If you are looking for the ‘Big-5’ animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) or the ‘Super-seven’ (the big-five plus cheetah and wild dogs) , the Kruger is the place to visit! The park has 13 main camps, 5 bushveld camps and 2 small bush lodges (not including all the private lodges).

Photography inside the camps is great – we have photographed vervet monkeys, baboons, squirrels, mongoose by day and genet, civet, bush babies and many of the ‘Elusive-eleven’ (secretive and nocturnal mammals) at night from the comfort of our bungalows – so bring your spotlights with! All the bushveld camps have bird-hides in the camps overlooking rivers or waterholes

Birding is good through the year but the winter months (July – October) tend to be the most rewarding for mammals while the summer months (December – March) are great for macros with millions of wild flowers popping up. There are also millions of insects, many of which come to your bungalow at night because they are attracted to the lights.

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We have also photographed the ‘big-five’ from inside the camps – camps like Olifants, Lower Sabie and Skukuza provide good vantage points to see the animals coming down to the rivers to drink and hunt. The one year we photographed a lioness chasing an impala into the Olifants river from our bungalow.

Some camps provide excellent scenery potential as they are situated high on a hill, like Olifants or because they are next to a river such as Skukuza, Shimuwini and Lower Sabie camps. Some camps provide better star trail photography opportunities than others. Crocodile Bridge and Berg en Dal are too close to civilization as you have lights from nearby towns as well as pollution from the sugar factory spoiling the photographs.

Etosha National Park in Namibia

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The winter months (from June – October) are the very best for game viewing and wildlife photography in Etosha as the animals are drawn to the waterholes like moths to a flame.

Each of the three main camps (Namutoni, Halali and Okaukuejo) has its own waterhole that can be viewed from inside the camps. Okaukuejo waterhole is arguably the best waterhole in Africa during the winter months! There is a constant procession of animals day and night! The Moringa waterhole (in Halali camp) is superb by night and if you want to see a leopard this is the place to be! The Namutoni waterhole is not that popular with animals but the camp itself has many birds and mammals to photograph.

The camp waterholes are about 50 meters away from the viewing area so you don’t need a super telephoto lens. We do use our 600mm lens for the smaller animals such as African Wild Cat but for elephants, giraffe and rhinos we use either our 80-400 or 200-400 zoom lenses. The camp waterholes are floodlit so you don’t need to bring a spotlight.

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The three main camps have a lot of trees and bush for you to explore, while Halali has a walk that goes up the hill within the camp – an excellent spot to look for insects and wild-flowers, especially in summer and spring.

Even though summer and spring are obviously the best times for insects we have had the odd insect surprises in winter. Insects are very hardy creatures and even in winter the days in Africa can get warm, thus encouraging the insects to come out for awhile.

Birding is best during summer when the pan fills with water and the flamingoes and other water birds flock in by their thousands. Don’t write birding off in winter as there are still many raptors and other small birds in the camps and at the waterholes.

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The views from the Moringa waterhole in Halali camp and Okaukuejo waterholes also make for good landscape photographs. When the sun sets you have a good opportunity to get silhouettes of giraffe at the Okaukuejo waterhole.

Fort Namutoni makes for a very effective landscape photograph as do the views from on top of the fort and from the top of the Okaukuejo tower. Star trails are very effective from Etosha as it is also far away from civilization.

Suggested Photo Gear

For all three parks we suggest you bring your tripod with either a ball-head or gimbal head (If you will be doing a self-drive then add a beanbag to your list) plus your flashgun, and filters. The filters, such as polarizer and ND-Grads, are for landscapes but the polarizer will also be used for photographing mammals at the Etosha waterholes to compensate for the bright white backgrounds produced by the salt pan.

If we are photographing in the park camps the biggest lens we use is our Nikon 18-200 or 200mm macro and sometimes the 80-400mm. If we are photographing animals outside the camps, like at the Okaukuejo waterhole in Etosha or from our tent in Lower Sabie camp in the Kruger, then we tend to use the 600mm f4 or the 200-400mm zoom lens.

So next time you go on your southern African photo safari, don’t join the mob that rushes out the camp gates at opening time each morning – stay in camp and let the animals come to you!

Mario Fazekas is a nature photographer living in South Africa. He has been photographing African wildlife for over 16 years. He, and his wife Jennifer, have won photographic contests and have had their images published. For more information on photographing in the Southern African parks of Kruger, Kgalagadi, Pilanesberg and Etosha, please visit their website at www.kruger-2-kalahari.com

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