I’m back from a trip to South Africa. A country with such amazing rich diversity, both cultural and natural! Almost every day we witnessed different landscapes and different peoples, proving the old slogan “a world in one country” quite right.
The differences in social and economic status, however, are often very big. Hence, one day you can be the guest in a welcoming, but poor Xhosa village somewhere on the wild coast. The next day you imagine yourself somewhere in the British countryside, while you are in fact in the middle of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Despite the poor living conditions of a big part of the population, it is easy to travel around in this country with the majority of infrastructure, facilities, and hospitality quite good. Although violent crime against tourists can and does happen, don’t let all the negative news influence your brain, just act and travel sensibly. I very much enjoyed my visit, the warm hospitality of all its people, the landscapes and wildlife. My wife and I were privileged to have the opportunity to travel for a month from Cape Town all the way to Johannesburg, mainly following the coast and with some short detours into the Little Karoo and Drakensberg. Photography wise it was a very productive trip, great to be able to focus on your craft for a longer period of time.
I have lots of stories to share, but for now, I will stick with some observations on wildlife photography. I also made my personal top five of animal encounters (in no specific order), involving short reviews on some of the services we used. I wrote this mainly for the sake of other future travelers. I planned our trip mainly with the help of travel books and online trip reports, so why not add to what’s out there?
Thoughts on wildlife photography:
I wanted to share some experiences in wildlife photography in South Africa, even though they are described before and much better elsewhere.
We traveled in South Africa at the end of the dry season, between the 16th of September and the 15th of October. We choose this time frame for a number of reasons: mainly because it is spring this time of the year with a big chance on blooming flowers and migratory whales. It is also outside of any public holidays and in the low season. Finally, precipitation is less, making it easier to spot wildlife at waterholes or simply due to lack of vegetation. This choice proved to be a good one because we enjoyed seeing large numbers of wildlife during our trip.
Sunset and sunrise are a matter of minutes. This means that the light you have to work with gets hard very fast. It is not much you can do about that, except cherishing the hour just after six am and before six pm when most national parks and rest camps close their gates. For the rest of the day, it is mostly about fine-tuning the exposure and white balance. Also when it is very warm the hot air is literally shimmering, making it more difficult to take a sharp picture from a subject that is further away from you.
The amount of subjects is incredible, whether it landscapes, wildlife or people. I mainly focused on wildlife. Not because I wanted to do justice to the name of my website, but for more practical reasons. I was driving the full 6358 km of our road trip, so I mainly had my 400mm telephoto lens up and ready. Also, there is just so much to see. Since it was my first visit to southern Africa I almost automatically zoomed in on everything that crawled, ran, or flew by. Biologists… Anyway, when you do change lenses, don’t freak out about dust. In online forums, I often read about almost paranoid approaches to preventing dust creeping into your lens or onto your sensor. If you use a sheltered place to change your lenses, like the inside of your car (and not while sitting on top of a sand dune, like in the Hoop Nature Reserve) you’re good to go. I brought a rocket blower with me, which worked just fine.
My best purchase for this trip was definitely my beanbag. It proved very valuable while photographing from our car, giving me that little bit extra stability and hence sharp pictures. I filled it with about 4 kg of rice which made it an inexpensive accessory.
For wildlife, I mainly used my Canon 400mm lens and noticed I was often too close to the subject in question in order to take an overall shot of the animal. Especially when in your vehicle you can approach animals extremely close. A tele zoom lens, like the 70-200mm, should be sufficient as well.
Top 5 animal encounters:
In short… wildlife is everywhere and easy to see on your own. We especially enjoyed Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve and iSimangaliso Wetland Park. However, we used the services of several companies to take our wildlife experience one notch farther:
1) Meerkat adventures
Definitely one of the highlights of our trip! While visiting Oudtshoorn we booked with Devey Glinister of Meerkat Adventures. He habituated a family of meerkats (Suricata suricatta), making it possible to see them waking up just three or four meters away. They are still wild mind you, and they go about their business without as much as looking at their visitors. You meet before sunrise and drive to the location. After enjoying some coffee or tea you walk to the burrow they used for the night. Devey is quite a colorful character and has lots of fun stories and in-depth details about meerkat life to share with you. After going through their morning rituals they run off foraging, with occasionally the sentry’s head sticking out over the vegetation. We wanted to do this tour just to make sure we saw some meerkats since they are normally hard to spot. We eventually did come across some foraging meerkats – including a pup – in Addo Elephant National Parks, but that encounter lasted just a minute. Devey stories, the meerkats, and a beautiful sunrise make this worth your money. We were also lucky to be there when all the wildflowers where blooming – even the inhabitants of Oudtshoorn didn’t see such abundance for a while.
2) Marine dynamics
Gansbaai is famous for its great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), due to the proximity of Geyser Rock, home to around 60.000 brown fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus). You wouldn’t believe the stench this colony gives off! There are many operators out there who offer cage diving experiences. I ended up choosing Marine Dynamics, operating from Klein Baai, because of their knowledgeable staff (several marine biologists on board) and their honest interest in white sharks. They are not just another commercial company; they actually perform research and try to increase awareness of great white conservation. We enjoyed a great morning with them and were lucky to see 12 great whites coming to take a peek.
3) Shakabarker tours
We spend one night in St. Lucia in order to pay a visit to – at least a very modest part of – the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Of all the national parks we visited (Table Mountain National Park, Bontebok NP, De Hoop Nature Reserve, Garden Route NP, Addo Elephant NP, Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, and Kruger NP) we liked this one the most. Because of the variety in ecosystems, the diversity of wildlife is simply stunning. We booked a so-called Night Drive / Chameleon Safari with Kian Barker of Shakabarker Tours. This witty and funny biologist gave us a great night excursion through the wetland park, where we indeed saw chameleon (see the photo on this very webpage), but also bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus), side-striped jackal (Canis adustus), African dwarf kingfisher (Ceyx lecontei) and much more. We also got a lesson in ecology and astrology, making him a great all known naturalist and storyteller. Highly recommended!
4) Daniell cheetah breeding farm
Daniell Cheetah Breeding is close to Addo Elephant National Park, so you can combine a late afternoon visit with exploring Addo Elephant National Park during the day. Daniell cheetah is all about contributing to the conservation status of cheetah’s (Acinonyx jabatus). Which is not such a bad idea, considering their dwindling range. Sure, these are captive animals, but where else can you come face to face with these magnificent creatures? We were supposed to go for a stroll with Zintle – ‘the beautiful one’ in Zulu. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals on the entire planet, so I was prepared to get dragged all over the place. Zintle however, felt more like basking in the late afternoon sunlight and keeping a sharp eye out for possible furry prey. None appeared, so she was satisfied with us petting her chin, resulting in approving purring sounds. (check out my profile pic at the ‘about page’ to get an impression of how it was like). Maxie and her colleague really took the time to explain us about cheetah life, making it a memorable experience. Fun fact: Daniell cheetah project also provided two cheetahs’s for the 2005 film Duma.
5) Gomo gomo game lodge
So you traveled all the way to Kruger National Park to have the best wildlife experience of your life, but end up stuck in a small traffic jam instead in order to see lion, leopard, and other animals? Ok, I admit I’m exaggerating, but it can be annoying. Try this experiment for example: stop your car somewhere to look randomly at the landscape and count the number of cars stopping behind you desperate not to miss out at possible wildlife. While you in the meantime just wanted to pick your nose 😉 Kruger is huge, has a lot to offer, we had awesome wildlife encounters there and is definitely a must when visiting South Africa, but try a private reserve as well. Gomo Gomo Game Lodge is one of the more affordable private reserves, with great wildlife, knowledgeable rangers, comfortable accommodation, and great food. Gomo Gomo is located close to Orpen Gate and is part of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, which in turn is part of Greater Kruger National Park. Meaning you will see the same wildlife as in Kruger, but with no traffic jams what so ever. The rangers Danie and Iwan where great fun and we were glad to have met them. Some of the best encounters involved mating lions (Panthera leo), several leopards (Panthera pardus), a bushbaby (unknown species) prancing around and a flat tire during a night drive 😉