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

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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

Kgalagadi-CheetahCub-drinking-at-UrikaruusCamp.jpg

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.

Kgalagadi-Gecko-Kill-KielieKrankieCamp.jpg

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.

Kgalagadi-Lightning-storm-KielieKrankieCamp.jpg

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

Kruger-Martial Eagle-OlifantsCamp.jpg

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.

Kruger-Impala Lily-ShingwedziCamp.jpg

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

Etosha-GEMSBOK-OkaukuejoCamp.jpg

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.

Etosha-Leopard_drinking-HalaliCamp.jpg

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.

Etosha-White-faced-scops-owl_in-HalaliCamp.jpg

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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  • great photos ,I loved the lightning it was very much a wow moment

  • ScottC

    Great article, and the photos are amazing.

    My experience in Africa hasn’t come close to a safari, but the Giraffe preserve in Niger was interesting.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4422983846/

  • I always preferred places like Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. No fences, limited visitors, and walk where you like. Some days could get the adrenalin going! There is nothing to beat sitting around the campfire, listening to the lion roar, and knowing that there is nobody around for a kilometre or two.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimcontract/38181960/

  • Amazing shots and tips! I’ve also wondered how much of a challenge would it be to photography in the wild/safari 🙂

  • Breathtaking shots!

  • Great pictures. I wonder when could I do such a thing like this…

  • Stunning! Every animal photographer should go to Africa to see the real deal and photograph the real mother nature. Too bad not all of us have enough money, heh.

  • Kat

    What time of year did you take the lightning image? It’s gorgeous!

  • Pieter Viljoen

    Lovely shots. For us South Africans our game parks are a real pleasure. As an amateur photographer I love the bush and also make good money from selling my pics. Best country in the whole world. You should save up and try it, but bring a long lens!

  • Alan Cross

    I think the shots exhibit signs of too much post processing – the eagle shot looks like a demo of Bokeh 2 – it just doesn’t look real around the edges.

  • Simply stunning photos…… thanks for sharing.

  • Just returned from SoAfr where we visited Kruger, Hluhluhe and Chobi in Botswana. It was a great tour but not geared specifically for photographers. “Golden light” opportunities were limited. However, served as a great Africa wildlife 101 survey course and now I have a good idea about what to expect. Namibia and Kenya are definitely in my future. Any recommendations for photo safari guides? Some of the advertised photo tours seem a bit overpriced.

  • Al Gillar

    Images presented were awesome. Tips for the camps were great. I would have liked seeing the exif of each photo to get a handle on how you took the shot. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks for all your responses!

    Kat – I took the lightning shot in March. The Kgalagadi has amazing thunderstorms that start in December and end in April.

    Bill – Self-drive is our favorite but if you would prefer a guided photo safari then I would recommend Jim Zuckerman for Namibia and Todd Gustafson or Daryl Balfour for East Africa. You can get their contact details and read more about their photo tours from our interview page http://www.kruger-2-kalahari.com/interviews.html

    Al – the details for each photo were as follows:

    Cheetah drinking – Nikon D3S with 600mm f4 lens at f8. ISO was 6400 as the sun had not yet risen
    Gecko with kill – Nikon D300 with 200mm macro lens at f16 with Nikon R1C1 macro flash and ISO 100
    Lightning storm – Nikon D300 with 18-200mm zoom lens at f11 with ISO 400
    Martial Eagle – Nikon D200 with 600mm f4 lens plus 1.4x tele-converter at f8 with ISO 400
    Impala Lily – Nikon D300 with 200mm macro lens at f11 with fill-flash from camera body and ISO 100
    Gemsbok in Okaukuejo waterhole – Nikon D200 plus 200-400mm f4 zoom at 400mm and f8 with ISO 200
    Leopard drinking – Nikon D3S with 600mm f4 at f4 with no flash. I used a tripod, cable-release and 12800 ISO
    White-faced Scops Owl – Nikon D3S with 600mm f4 lens at f11 plus 1.7x tele-converter and ISO 800

  • Together with every little thing which appears to be developing throughout this particular area, your viewpoints happen to be fairly radical. On the other hand, I beg your pardon, because I do not give credence to your entire theory, all be it exhilarating none the less. It appears to everyone that your commentary are not completely rationalized and in simple fact you are your self not wholly convinced of your assertion. In any case I did appreciate examining it.

  • Best reserves to go to I have found are the Mara in Kenya and GomoGomo in South Africa. The camps are looked after properly by the rangers and there is no racing to find the game although the rangers keep in touch with each other so that you all get a chance to see the action without disturbing the animals. Also it’s always best to gi for at least four days.

Some Older Comments

  • Bruce Campbell November 4, 2011 08:09 pm

    Best reserves to go to I have found are the Mara in Kenya and GomoGomo in South Africa. The camps are looked after properly by the rangers and there is no racing to find the game although the rangers keep in touch with each other so that you all get a chance to see the action without disturbing the animals. Also it's always best to gi for at least four days.

  • Gry pl April 25, 2011 06:08 pm

    Together with every little thing which appears to be developing throughout this particular area, your viewpoints happen to be fairly radical. On the other hand, I beg your pardon, because I do not give credence to your entire theory, all be it exhilarating none the less. It appears to everyone that your commentary are not completely rationalized and in simple fact you are your self not wholly convinced of your assertion. In any case I did appreciate examining it.

  • Mario Fazekas April 25, 2011 03:00 am

    Thanks for all your responses!

    Kat - I took the lightning shot in March. The Kgalagadi has amazing thunderstorms that start in December and end in April.

    Bill - Self-drive is our favorite but if you would prefer a guided photo safari then I would recommend Jim Zuckerman for Namibia and Todd Gustafson or Daryl Balfour for East Africa. You can get their contact details and read more about their photo tours from our interview page http://www.kruger-2-kalahari.com/interviews.html

    Al - the details for each photo were as follows:

    Cheetah drinking - Nikon D3S with 600mm f4 lens at f8. ISO was 6400 as the sun had not yet risen
    Gecko with kill - Nikon D300 with 200mm macro lens at f16 with Nikon R1C1 macro flash and ISO 100
    Lightning storm - Nikon D300 with 18-200mm zoom lens at f11 with ISO 400
    Martial Eagle - Nikon D200 with 600mm f4 lens plus 1.4x tele-converter at f8 with ISO 400
    Impala Lily - Nikon D300 with 200mm macro lens at f11 with fill-flash from camera body and ISO 100
    Gemsbok in Okaukuejo waterhole - Nikon D200 plus 200-400mm f4 zoom at 400mm and f8 with ISO 200
    Leopard drinking - Nikon D3S with 600mm f4 at f4 with no flash. I used a tripod, cable-release and 12800 ISO
    White-faced Scops Owl - Nikon D3S with 600mm f4 lens at f11 plus 1.7x tele-converter and ISO 800

  • Al Gillar April 23, 2011 06:16 am

    Images presented were awesome. Tips for the camps were great. I would have liked seeing the exif of each photo to get a handle on how you took the shot. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bills April 23, 2011 05:04 am

    Just returned from SoAfr where we visited Kruger, Hluhluhe and Chobi in Botswana. It was a great tour but not geared specifically for photographers. "Golden light" opportunities were limited. However, served as a great Africa wildlife 101 survey course and now I have a good idea about what to expect. Namibia and Kenya are definitely in my future. Any recommendations for photo safari guides? Some of the advertised photo tours seem a bit overpriced.

  • Paul April 22, 2011 10:18 pm

    Simply stunning photos...... thanks for sharing.

  • Alan Cross April 22, 2011 04:12 am

    I think the shots exhibit signs of too much post processing - the eagle shot looks like a demo of Bokeh 2 - it just doesn't look real around the edges.

  • Pieter Viljoen April 22, 2011 02:23 am

    Lovely shots. For us South Africans our game parks are a real pleasure. As an amateur photographer I love the bush and also make good money from selling my pics. Best country in the whole world. You should save up and try it, but bring a long lens!

  • Kat April 22, 2011 01:12 am

    What time of year did you take the lightning image? It's gorgeous!

  • Chio-TDP April 20, 2011 12:45 am

    Stunning! Every animal photographer should go to Africa to see the real deal and photograph the real mother nature. Too bad not all of us have enough money, heh.

  • chew April 19, 2011 11:32 am

    Great pictures. I wonder when could I do such a thing like this...

  • The Retired One April 19, 2011 10:49 am

    Breathtaking shots!

  • Kiran @ KiranTarun.com April 19, 2011 08:50 am

    Amazing shots and tips! I've also wondered how much of a challenge would it be to photography in the wild/safari :)

  • Jerry April 19, 2011 03:22 am

    I always preferred places like Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. No fences, limited visitors, and walk where you like. Some days could get the adrenalin going! There is nothing to beat sitting around the campfire, listening to the lion roar, and knowing that there is nobody around for a kilometre or two.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zimcontract/38181960/"

  • ScottC April 19, 2011 02:59 am

    Great article, and the photos are amazing.

    My experience in Africa hasn't come close to a safari, but the Giraffe preserve in Niger was interesting.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4422983846/

  • Robert Heness April 19, 2011 01:39 am

    great photos ,I loved the lightning it was very much a wow moment

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