What I Learned on African Safaris

Photo of a Cheetah Cub. A large percentage of cheetah cubs don’t make adulthood. They can be taken by lion and even eagles. Nikon D500, 1/1250 seconds, f/5.6, ISO1000 750mm © Donna Brok
Cheetah Cub. A large percentage of cheetah cubs don’t make adulthood. They can be taken by lion and even eagles. Nikon D500, 1/1250 seconds, f/5.6, ISO1000 750mm © Donna Brok

By Donna Brok

Going on safari in Africa is on many photographers’ bucket list. It is an unforgettable experience, and very different from other photo tours or workshops you might have attended. What should you expect? What do you need to know? Here are a few of the key things I learned on photography trips in South Africa and Botswana.

You will see things that literally astound you. Just sit back for the adventure of a lifetime. Take my word for it, you may want to stay longer or not even want to board the plane for home. You might even feel a kinship, after all, it is the Cradle of Civilization. If you go once, you will be going again and again, as it is a life altering experience. I plan to be back in Africa this October, assuming pandemic travel restrictions are lifted.

At any moment

While you might be driving for hours and hours and seeing little, all of a sudden, a slow start explodes into a cacophony of activity. You will be so close to lions and elephants, leopards and cheetah. It will seem so unreal that these are truly wild, dangerous animals. Some animals will be hidden in trees, others deep in rocks or grass.

Don’t worry about where you’ll sit on the safari vehicle, as each row of seats has its advantages. Some of my best shots were from the rear of the vehicle. I couldn’t hear anyone in front of me, but I sat next to the guide. He also has the water and snacks. More importantly, you will see animals before others do. I spotted cheetahs on a kill, and we made a fast U-turn to get some shots.

Photo of baby zebra. Zebra foals have a 50% mortality rate, victims of lions, wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas. Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm Pf, 1/800 second, f/5.6, ISO 800 © Donna Brok
Zebra foals have a 50% mortality rate, victims of lions, wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas. Nikon D850, Nikkor 500mm Pf, 1/800 second, f/5.6, ISO 800 © Donna Brok

Some things to consider

Be prepared for both hot and cold temperatures. You might be attacked by pesky flies and the ride will be rough and bouncy, so hang on tight. At times, the ride will take longer than you want, and it can be a tougher ride than you anticipate. Sometimes you won’t see much, other times you’ll see a lot. Just when you think you’ve seen the most amazing sight of the trip, you go around a bend and see something even better. I had many moments like that with pictures to prove it.

You will change your mind about animals you once feared or disliked. I never realized how tightly hyenas bond with their kin.

You will feel joy, happiness, sadness, and every emotion in between. You will see beauty and cuteness all around you. Many people who go on safari want to see an animal kill, but others find it very sad and emotional. Be prepared for a raw experience. Many times it is the young animals taken down on the kill and that can be very heart wrenching.

When you see something, ask the guide to stop the vehicle. They are there to provide you with a great experience.

At the beginning of your first safari, you may find yourself taking hundreds of photos of animals from great distances, not realizing how close you are eventually going to get. And you’ll shoot dozens shots of the more common animals, like zebra and impala but, as the week goes on, you notice them less and less. By the end of your trip you have become like a hunter with your camera, looking for more elusive animals. Always have extra memory cards and spare batteries with you.

Photo of a young elephant learning to use its trunk. We are the biggest threat to elephants, but calves can also be taken down by very brave lions. It is dangerous for lions in a herd of elephants. Nikon D500, 750mm, 1/2000 second, f/5.6 ISO 1000 © Donna Brok
A young elephant is learning to use its trunk. We are the biggest threat to elephants, but calves can also be taken down by very brave lions. It is dangerous for lions in a herd of elephants. Nikon D500, 750mm, 1/2000 second, f/5.6 ISO 1000 © Donna Brok

Big Five

The Big Five animals: the African lions, the African leopard, the black rhinoceros, the African elephant, and the Cape buffalo. We did not see Cape buffalo or rhinos in Botswana, but did in South Africa. In South Africa, the animals were often too far away. That is not a bad thing because you sit and marvel. You take in the beauty of place, the sounds of the bush, with the hot sun on your skin. You will feel life like never before.

Juvenile eland often fall victim to predators. the bull in a group of Eland will bark to alert other elands of the danger. 1/4000 f5.6 ISO 800 D500 750mm © Donna Brok
Juvenile eland often fall victim to predators. the bull in a group of Eland will bark to alert other elands of the danger. 1/4000 f5.6 ISO 800 D500 750mm © Donna Brok

Seasons

Generally, it’s best to go during the dry season as water is scarce and the animals usually gather at water holes. Dirt roads are also easier to navigate at this time of year. This is why you can expect to see the animals you hope to see. The dry season is considered the peak season for safaris, and likely will cost more than the off months. If you go in November, that is the birthing season. We just missed that by a few days.

You came to Africa to look for the animals. You must go on all the drives to make the most of that long flight? I got sick on my Malaria meds, but you should take them depending on where and when you will be in the countries where they may have the mosquitoes.

Photo of a young baboon. The primary predator of baboons are humans, who eat them as bush meat, but cheetahs and leopards also prey on them. Nikon D500, 750mm, 1/800 second, f/5.6, ISO 220, © Donna Brok
Young Baboon. The primary predator of baboons are humans, who eat them as bush meat, but cheetahs and leopards also prey on them. Nikon D500, 750mm, 1/800 second, f/5.6, ISO 220, © Donna Brok

Planning, packing light and being prepared

Be sure to be prepared with sunglasses and sunscreen, and long sleeves and pants. You’re likely going to be in full-sun, and especially on malaria medicine, you may be more prone to burning.

Bring less clothes than you think you will need. You can easily wear the same clothes a few days in a row. Your clothes can be laundered for a minimal fee. Dragging luggage around just isn’t any fun, and taking your camera gear will be the bulk of the weight.

I started planning 6 months out. I did a lot of research and asked a lot of experienced people. They helped with the photo gear to take, how I packed it for a flight, medicines to be sure and have in case of need. They were helpful sources for things I should know about the place, how to deal with insects, and other essentials. If you think you will figure everything out successfully on your own, you likely won’t. Ask people that go all the time.

This time back in Africa, I will pack lighter, and take far less clothing. I will change my meds to an hour before bedtime rather than before the drive. Things you learn by experience.