Early Safari Planning Tip: Things to consider

Trust me, You will relax much more on a well planned trip.

1. Do you want your trip to be dedicated to photography or a vacation mixed with photography?

This is a particularly big decision if you are traveling with others who are not dedicated to photography.  For me, if traveling with others, I can be up at sunrise, shoot the golden hours and often be home just as others are ready for breakfast.  The afternoons are a bigger problem as the prime shooting hours are also the prime hours for other activities and/or supper.

The ‘problem’ I have when traveling with an intense photography group is different.  On safari, I love to be up before sunrise and shoot until 10 a.m. or so and head back into the bush around 3 p.m. and shoot until the light of day is gone.  Unfortunately for me, the more intense workshops and photographers want to do this, but may want a mid-day workshop and then an afternoon ‘best of’ review of everyone’s shots from the day.  I would prefer a mid-day rest and an evening of fine food, drink and light conversation.  This is especially true if my trip into the bush is going to be 7 to 10 days – that’s a lot of intense shooting.

2. Do you mind heading out of the country out of season?

In the southern Africa bush, tourist season is the most expensive for traveling and the lodges are more full of tourist.  June through September is winter and the water is scarce, making for great game density near rivers and water holes.  Further, one doesn’t have to worry about rain and mosquitoes are virtually non-existent.

If you are willing to go in the ‘off season’, prices, including airfares are lower.  On the downside, the bush is greener and more dense.  To offset this issue, you may want to consider alternate safari locations such as the Kalahari or other more arid choices.  Depending on your location, you may only have to deal with more humidity or a few additional rainy days.  On the plus side, bird viewing in the off season is said to be spectacular.  Another big plus will be the sky.  In winter, you will typically wake to a cloudless sky and you will also see a beautiful cloudless sunset. In the off season, you will likely see impressive cloud formations at the ends of the day that may lead to some very memorable photographs. Also, fewer tourist means you have more of the location to yourself.

Skies like this make an out of prime season trip memorable - photo copyright: P. B. Eleazer

3. Do you want to travel alone or in a group?

Sometimes group fares can be more reasonable than for an individual. While traveling in a group may provide better rates and additional safety, the disadvantages include sightseeing according to the entire group, and less alone time.  If you are primarily going for photography, I would avoid any group travel where the entire group goal is not photography.  In particular related to safari trips, group travel often means three people to a bench on game drives.  This will really restrict shooting angles as well as what lens options you can take.  Image even two to a row and you want to swap back and forth between a 500mm lens and a small lens – the logistics just don’t work.

4. Do you want to photograph wildlife, landscapes or people?

On the surface, you may think this question silly.  Of course you want to photograph wildlife if you are going to Botswana, but with some locations, that will be all you shoot.  At other locations, you will have a better chance to also shoot interesting landscapes and perhaps portraits of the peoples of Botswana.  These latter shots are also ‘once in a lifetime’ chances for the occasional traveler, so please consider them as you choose your safari plan.

5. Do you want a posh experience or a clean bed?

This is another topic where my choice varies from the classic ‘tour group’ offering.  I want a clean bed.  I plan to use my room for a mid-day snooze and to collapse in at night, dead tired and having imbibed a few drinks. If you gave me a luxury room, I would not be taking advantage of it.  I do want a quality meal.  But quality to me means tasty with reasonable portions.  It does not mean I must have linen and high grade silver tea service.  What does it mean to you?  If you break down the daily cost of many safari packages, a lot of the cost is related to the level of lodging and meal service.  The cost of guide and vehicle often pale in comparison, so make sure you shop this subject. Quality and prices cover a wide range.

6. Do you want to drive or be driven?

I’ve been fortunate to have great friends in southern Africa.  With their experience on the trip with me, I am quite comfortable renting/hiring a Toyota HiLux (US equivalent is the Tacoma) pick-up and driving myself.  I like setting my own schedule and controlling how long I shoot each site.

For others, the game drive preference is to be driven. This can have advantages.  First, you don’t have to worry about getting stuck or lost.  Perhaps more important, the drivers are often/usually guides with lots of experience spotting game.  Additionally, guides typically have radios and can quickly learn of sitings other guides have found.

The down sides are minimized if you are driving with a group exclusively doing photography. Here is a list of downsides to watch out for:

a) how many people to a vehicle?  Pretty important if you want a camera bag open next to you and if you want a good shooting angle.

b) control of timing – the more people, the less voice you will have on how long to sit at a specific location before others are ready to ‘move on’.  Further, guides usually have scheduled to depart the lodge at a specific time and to return at a specific time.  This may limit your ability to be in the bush early or to shoot the last light of sunset.

c) you may not be alone – since the guides/drivers utilize radio, this means several trucks will often converge on a particular spotting.  There is not much worse for your photography than 3 or 4 vehicles surrounding brush with a lion underneath.

While I note these as drawbacks to the driver/guide option, please be aware that if you book with groups going specifically with photography you can probably minimize the issues.  Make sure you check references of others who have traveled on prior photo safaris.

A good driver and guide may increase your chances of catching a shot like this. Photo copyright P. B. Eleazer

7. Do you want to cover an entire country or make your hub one particular lodge?

For my trips to Chobe, I typically stay at one lodge, but explore other parts of the park at different times of the week.  By doing this, I gain a good sense of what animals can be located at different times and where I need to be to catch the appropriate light.

Would I like to see more of the country? yes – and I will, but I only want to see a small portion each trip.  I have looked at many itineraries for Botswana travel that have one spending a day in Linyanti, a day in Moremi, a day in Chobe, a day at Vic Falls, etc.  This may be for you if you plan one and only one trip to Botswana, but by doing this, you will probably not get a sense of the people or the true rhythm of the region.

1 comment for “Early Safari Planning Tip: Things to consider

  1. Dave Conroy
    May 2, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Really valuable article this one. It pretty much answers the first questions people need ask of themselves before they decide what type of safari and budget to go for.

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