Category Archives: Safari Travel Tips

Be prepared for your safari with information about what to bring (and not bring) and information about your destination.

Preparing for Safari: Communications while on Safari

Communication while in South Africa

Photo Safari Guests in South Africa
Guests getting a good angle photographing a crocodile

Cell Phone

Our tree house lodge enjoys comparatively great cell phone coverage from two local carriers: Vodaphone and MTN. The signal is usually 2G while in Johannesburg you may get 3G.

Manage your expectations:  Outside of Johannesburg, the coverage will be spotty and vary by time of day or weather. There will be many dead spots such as the whole of Kruger Park.  There will be times when you will not be able to connect, perhaps for most of the day. 

Make sure you contact your phone carrier to get a global plan before travel and follow instructions about setting for roaming etc on your phone. Not all phones are capable of picking up signals outside of the US and Canada so please check this too.

South Africa Networks are GSM networks.  Many cell phones are using CMDA networks; their carriers are Verizon, Sprint, and US Cellular.  A smaller number of service providers are on the GSM standard: Tmobile and At&T.

An advantage of a GSM network is that changing carriers is as easy as buying a new SIM card for their device.  This makes them great for international travelers.  If you phone GSM or operates on both networks, you can get a local or international SIMM card with pay as you go service.

Check that your phone is compatible with the networks in Africa – almost all of which operates GSM digital networks running at a frequency of 900mhz and some 3G networks.

A few phones sold in North America operate on both networks.

You may also have to “unlock” your phone to be able to switch cards

Options

  • Check that you phone will be able to work in South Africa, then sign up for your carrier’s international plan
  • Get a local SIMM card for your phone with a pay as you go program.  This can be done in South Africa, but will probably be easier done before travel.
  • Rent a “global phone”  from your carrier
  • Rent/Buy a “global phone from a provider such as www.Cellhire.com  They have phones for around $50 and SImm cards starting at $9.00
a WIFI device for travel
A wifi device loaded with a data SIMM card will connect to phone signals in your destination country

Internet and Data

Manage your expectations:  South Africa is not the land of free WiFi, great coverage, and high speed internet.  You will be time-warped back to dial up type speeds, outages, and pay per use – if it is even available. 

The best solution for internet access it through a smart phone or wireless device that works through the phone signals.

Just as with the Global Phones discussed above,  you can rent or buy a WiFi device (sometimes called MiFi)  equipped with a SIMM and data plan.   With the device you can connect your laptop, tablet, or phone to a signal and send / receive data.

Cell Hire rentals and sells WiFi devices.  I have used this option before with great success.  Cell Hire

On our safaris, the tree house lodge does not offer wifi, but the other two lodges we visit have internet available for a fee.

Options

  • Enjoy being unplugged with the knowledge that if someone really needs you, they will be able to get a message to through us.
  • Be mostly plugged, but check in a few times through your pay per use Global plan or if we find an internet cafe or connection.
  • Get a WiFi device with local SIMM card and data bundle

 

Learn about our Photo Safaris on our Africa Wild Safaris Website

 

 

 

 

 

Planning Your Safari: Travel Insurance

Travel Insurance is an Important Addition to Your Safari Plan

Please Consider Travel Insurance

Because of a recent incident I want to stress the importance of travel insurance. Twice in less than a year we have had 4 guests on two different trips  cancel very close to there travel dates.  None had travel insurance.

Because of the way things work in Africa,  all of our group’s safari expenses are booked and paid for well in advance and refunds and credits are not offered by our contractors, so when the trip approaches it is impossible for us to refund money.    Many safari companies require guests to have coverage. Africa Wild Safaris does not make it mandatory at this time, but please understand that we will not be able to refund any money. Some money might be refunded if  we can replace you , but it is most likely not going to be the full amount you paid.

Get Trip Cancellation, Curtailment, and Medical Coverage

Travel insurance with a cancellation coverage is really import.  One of the guests had a near fatal heart attack 1 week before travel and in the other case the spouse died.  While these seem extreme bad luck, more likely cancellation reasons could be a car accident, illness of parent or family member, house break in, work emergencies, surgery, or court appearance.  When looking at policies please check cancellation reasons carefully. Also good to have is the usual trip interruption (cancelled flight), lost luggage, and the less likely illness on the trip so great it requires evacuation.

See Details about our Safaris on the Africa Wild Safaris Website

Trip Cancellation and Curtailment

This incorporates cover against trip interruption or travel delay, loss or theft of luggage, or if you must cancel.

Medical Expenses

Typically this incorporates cover for medical expenses, transport to medical facilities expenses for travel partners, evacuation.  Most also come with an assistance hotline support.  They may also work with your medical insurance for follow up care once you are home or if you have coverage while overseas.

Travel insurance offered by credit cards may not be comprehensive so check the policy fine print.

These websites might help you get educated and give a start to finding a good company and comparing their products

http://travel-insurance-review.toptenreviews.com/

http://www.travelinsurance.com/

New Tree House Complete at Tree House Safari Lodge

We are very proud to announce a new addition to  Bona Ntaba Tree House Lodge.  Our 4th tree house is complete and ready for guests.

tree house deck with chairs
Perfect for sundowners or a morning tea
tree house bathroom
The ensuite bathroom with tub and outside shower with a view
tree house lantern
Classic safari style and African design is used throughout

The new tree house has spectacular views of the mountains  with comfortable hand-made wooden deck chairs for watching the sunset with a drink in hand.  Soak in the spa tub or catch more views from the outside shower.  The thatched roof and wood floors give you a sense of adventure with ample protection from weather all the while catching a nice cooling breeze.

Our safari guests will enjoy several nights on our Nature Conservancy in the tree houses where they will enjoy game viewing and game drives during the day, roaming plains game species while they relax at the tree houses, and delicious meals in our boma under the stars.  After dinner we enjoy listening and spotting for night creatures at the watering hole just off our deck and pool.

inside tree house
Comfortable mattresses in single or king for after a busy day

Most guests say they miss Bona Ntaba and its food once we move on to the Sabi reserve .

While not hosting one of our photo safaris, the lodge hosts independent travelers, mostly South Africans,  who like to self cater their meals (do their own cooking).  For them, we are making a special private experience with an outdoor kitchen  and braai area added to the new tree house.

view from the Tree house lodge
The view over the bushveld on our private Nature Reserve

 

Which is the Best Season to Visit South Africa on Safari? May vs September

Which is the Best Season to Visit South Africa on Safari?

Since we host safaris in both April/May and September/October   we get asked frequently which is the best choice for a photo and wildlife safari .  The short answer is that they are both great times to visit South Africa and see wildlife.  Given this, there are differences which I will point out.  (please note:  This information is specific to the Kruger region of South Africa and does not at all describe conditions in other African countries) 

Learn about our Safaris at AfricaWildSafaris.net

Weather

Dry season starts in May and ends in October so both the April/May and September/Oct safari sessions are going to be dry and most often with no rain at all.

May begins the South African autumn while September is a warm and dry spring month that grows to summer temperatures by early October.  The seasonal “rains” start in mid October

Daytime temperatures are very comfortable for both safaris with guests wearing tshirts and shorts. There may even be a few hot days.

Night time temperatures are very warm and mild in September/Oct. Low and overnight temperatures are more variable in the April/May/June season as cold fronts are possible.

In both seasons: After warm afternoons, the evening temperature stays comfortable for dining outside with the additions of just a light jacket or top.

Mornings before 9am will be the coldest periods. But the sun quickly warms everything. Days are almost always clear.

Average daytime or high temperatures in both seasons are 70 – 88’F (20 -30’C)

Overnight and morning temperatures in September will only get down to a low of 55’F (15 C’)  on the coldest days.  April tends to be the same

In May temperatures will get down to  the low 50’s F (10 – 13’C) during a cold spell , but more typically are around 55’F (15’C)

May 1st
May 1st
Oct 2nd
Oct 2nd
May 4th
May 4th
Sept 27th
Sept 27th
Guests on morning game drive , late September
Guests on morning game drive , late September

Animal Behavior

The wildlife in South Africa is present all year around as there is not much migration.  The variety of species is large in our area and stays consistent through the year. In Kruger there is some movement of wildlife herds toward water sources and any remaining grazing, the the habitat is such that food is readily available in most every habitat so large migration is not necessary.

The peak of dry season: September/October will find animals congregating around watering holes which makes for some varied and exciting encounters. You can almost park at a water source and have the animals come to you.  Wildlife is not active in the mid to late afternoon except at watering holes.

In April/May the food is still plentiful but grass is starting to die off but the wildlife is still active and easy to find since food is everywhere.  Animals and especially grazers are in good condition this time of year.

Some animals enter mating season in May such as impala. The large herds and politics of the activity makes for interesting wildlife observation.

Many animals have babies all through the year. Some herd animals do not give birth until the rains start in October/November.

May 7th
May 7th
Oct 7th
Oct 7th
Oct 2nd
Oct 2nd
May 11th
May 11th

Changes in Surroundings

April is when the rain and high summer temperatures cease so the grass begins to die down (or gets eaten down). The green color of the landscape begins to yellow and some trees show a bit of color as the leaves fall in late May.  As the grass falls flat in May it becomes easier to spot the wildlife.

Insects only thrive in moist weather so as soon as the rain stops in early April, they disappear. A cool night here and there also spells their demise. We have very little problems with bugs, flys, and mosquitos in both the April/May and Sept/Oct sessions.

When you arrive in September, the trees are bare or in bud and there is hardly any grass to speak of so it is very easy to see wildlife. Dust is more of a presence in this season.  Your photos will have more muted tones in the background since much of the landscape and foliage is straw colored.

may 19th
may 19th
Oct 4th
Oct 4th
May 9th
May 9th
April 20th
April 20th
Oct 11th
Oct 11th

Travel

If you plan to catch the whale season down in Cape Town, they are present from June – November.  This is the same season as the visiting great white sharks to the Simons Town Seal Island area.  A safari in May with an extension to Cape Town works in both seasons.

Lodges  and parks tend to be busier in the August – January season.

 

May 9th
May 9th
May 7th
May 7th

Really,  you can not go wrong with either season: it is what works best for your schedule. The wildlife will be great either way. We have repeat guests who have come in both seasons and do not favor one or the other : I enjoy them both equally.

Join us for a safari and found out for yourself.

 

Preparing for Your Safari

GS_1020191_141022I have many informational posts here on my blog to help guests prepare for their South African Photo Safari

Choosing the Right Safari

Which is the best season to visit South Africa on Safari?

Is a photo Safari for Me?

Preparing for your Safari

Communications while on Safari

Travel Insurance

Currency and Tipping

 

Packing

Safari Clothing: Dress for Success and Comfort

Equipment

My Favorite Lens for South Africa Photo Safari: Canon 70 – 200mm

Discussion of Safari Camera Support Systems

A Monopod: The right Camera Support for your Safari

Binoculars for on Safari

The Cinebags Lens Smuggler Bag

Using a UB Filter as Lens Protection

The Impact Super Clamp

The Better Beamer Flash Extender

GS_1010811_140921

See our Current Safari Schedule

My Favorite Lens for a South African Photo Safari: my Canon 70 – 200 mm f2.8

While on safari I like to keep my equipment streamlined and light.  Over many years photographing in South Africa, my Canon 70 – 200mm f2.8 has taken the bulk of my wildlife images.

Cinebags on safari
One of my camera bags ready for safari
Lenses for South Africa Safari
My 70 – 200mm lens at work

My next Group Photo Safaris

The 70 – 200 is one of the most poplar lenses on the market. It offers great quality at a good price.  In South Africa the wildlife tends to be closer and many of the subjects will be in range of this lens.  I also add a +1.4x or +2.0x teleconverter.  My 2nd camera body is rigged with a 300mm lens to get those large herds and distance shots in Kruger National Park.   Birding would be the only reason I would consider packing a longer lens.  In fact, if I had to choose just one lens for a safari, it would be my 70 – 200.

I also love working with this lens because of its reasonable weight (1.7 lbs) which together with my medium weight 5D MK3 allows me to hand hold if I need to.  In safari vehicles I a monopod as support.

I have combed through my collection of safari photos and pulled out this range of photos all taken with my beloved Canon 70 – 200mm

 

leopard tail
Detail of a leopard tail
elephant
Mature elephant breaks apart a stick to get tasty bits
zebra fight
zebra fight
leopard in a tree
A leopard bounds up a tree shaking loose leaves
Giraffe in south Africa
Giraffe with typical South African Savannah in the background
Lion photography
lion cub plays in the afternoon light
hyena cubs
Hyena cubs
lion cubs
Lion cubs play while mother and aunt watch
lions
female lions greet each other
lion in the grass
Juvenile lion makes for a nice textured image
white rhino
Baby white rhino with mother
cheetah cubs in south Africa
Cheetah cubs
Kudu
Greater Kudu feeding
Canon 70 - 200 for safari
Elephants in Kruger
Cheetah photo safari
a cheetah turns its back to us in typical cat fashion, but gives a short glance back
safari lens recommendation
Young elephant and mother enjoying the water
Impala
Fleeing impala

When is the Best Time to go on Safari in South Africa

Preparing for Safari: Local Currency and Tips

(please note some of this information pertains only to my safaris and safaris in South Africa) Learn about our safaris on the Africa Wild Safaris Website

zar-10-south-african-rands-2

Local Currency

You will need some South African Rand to use for tipping, shopping, and some snacks and meals.

The best place to get Rand is at the airport in JFK or ATL.  You will have time while waiting for your flight and their rates are good

You can also exchange in Johannesburg Airport  (2nd level above arrivals).  There are several exchanges there to choose from. Be warned that you credit card may trigger an alert with a transaction for a large – ish amount coming from a foreign country.  I believe they will also accept cash, but I have never tried this.

You can also get Rand from your local bank, but you will have to order it a few weeks in advance. The rates are not as good as an airport exchange bureau.

Best to have currency in your pocket before getting on the plane so you can get right to the enjoyment. 

It is best to get small denomination bills to use for tipping and buying without requiring a large amount of change.

Stores, guides, restaurants, etc will not take US dollars and most will not have the capacity to do an exchange at the point of transaction.  (even in Mexico this is not the way to go)

 

Not many places are equipped or safe for credit card use. The nice shops at Joburg airport and Kruger are best for credit cards. Some of the lodges will take credit cards for the bar tab, internet, or things from their shop.  Most everywhere else will need cash – mostly because processing systems are old fashioned by our standards and internet service is not reliable. 

Currency Exchange Rate Tool

Gratuity

Gratuity/Tipping is the custom in South Africa. It is not mandatory, but the vast majority of people you will meet will put their heart and effort into making it a fantastic experience for you and will be deserving of a thanks.

You may wish to tip the drivers on the game drives, guides, and lodge staff. We can give more detailed recommendations in person, but you should plan to bring about $250 USD worth in Rand in 10’s 20’s, 50s is most useful.

A rough guide (expressed per safari guest) for an experience you enjoyed :

Single Game Drive  R50  shared between the guide and driver

Tour guide, narrator, zipline guide  R40

Driver for transfers:  R80

Lodge staff:  shared between the cleaning, serving, and catering  R80 – R100 per day

Most places will take a common collection, but if you had a special experience with an individual you can give them extra in person.

Staff also enjoy gratuity in the form of things you leave behind for them: clothing, shoes, books, flashlight, etc.

 

 

Safari Camera Support Systems Recommendations

camera support on safari

 

Our safari guests often ask me for a recommendation on how to support long lens in safari vehicles. The options out there range from simple to complicated and from cheap to outrageously expensive Over the years I have tested many methods, some worked and other didn’t. I like multitasking products that are simple, effective, and easy to travel with -inexpensive doesn’t hurt either.  A few basic support items in my travel bag can be used singly or in combination to support my camera while allowing for necessary tracking.

My Photo Safaris

Safari vehicles are usually custom made and no two are likely to be constructed the same. On the typical safari you will be in many different vehicles and one system may not work for all of them: the more complicated the system the more likely it will not work in all vehicles.  Most support systems are bean bag supports, tripod or monopod with heads allowing pivot and movement, or a combination of tripod/monopod rigs and various clamps to secure it to a spot in the vehicle.

Bean bags – These come in many shapes and sizes with some made for specific lenses and vehicle situations. When empty, they are easy to travel with. Upon arrival at your destination, stop by a local grocery store buy a bag of rice or beans, put the fill into a zipper plastic bag then into the bean bag, and you are ready to go.  In a pinch you can use sand. When you are finished shooting, donate the beans or rice to a local family.  Also Birdseed works quite well and the birds get a happy meal after your travels.

I like bean bags because they provide a significant amount of vibration isolation compared to a hard mount and can be used in multiple situations not just safari vehicles.  Beanbags work best in pop-top vans (the photographer is standing in this type) or open-roof vehicles that would be found in Kenya and Tanzania. For the standard open safari vehicle they do not work so well due to the lack of doors, window frames, or other resting point. Usually you will get just a pipe-type arm rest or seatback to attach to; nothing to obscure the view of the animal, but not enough surface for a beanbag to function.

Tripods – Usually a photographer’s best friend, they unfortunately do not work so well in safari vehicles. They are difficult to set up and keep secure among the vehicle seats and passengers. Tripods are not recommended in vehicles because they take up precious space.

Monopods – A good monopod will be  lightweight, compact, and easy to travel with.  I have found them indispensable when shooting wildlife from a safari vehicle.   They carry the majority of the weight of long lens to save your arms and provide stabilization.   Combined with a ball head the monopod can be very versatile in capturing images on safari allowing you to swivel and adjust. The single leg pivot point makes it easy to turn and shoot out the opposite side of the vehicle with minimal body shifting and rearrangement of equipment. It is comfortable  and safe to hold the camera on the monopod while the vehicle is in motion.  I found that monopods work very well in the game drive vehicles in Botswana and South Africa.

If there is a down side to monopods it is that they are not secured to the vehicle.  Really Right Stuff (www.reallyrightstuff.com) has designed a clamp system specifically to clamp the monopods to a support in the vehicle. I have not tested out yet and am not sure about loosing all the mobility advantages of a monopod  by clamping it to the vehicle.

safari-camera-clamp-1

I have been experimenting with my own camera / lens mount system for safari vehicles.  My goal was to create one with a secure mounting system that was affordable, stable on a vehicle, and all its components could be multitaskers used in other photography settings.  I sourced out 3 components from different manufactures then MacGyvered then together.  The combined system came to about $155 USD before shipping costs.

My system starts with The Impact Super Clamp. This is a lightweight, inexpensive clamp that is easily attached to a strobe unit or ballhead. It can then be attached onto a pipe, table, stand, game drive vehicle seat back, or anything stationary. This thing is so handy; it is a must for your camera bag arsenal. At $20 it is a solid product that outperforms more expensive versions.

It can clamp onto an object ½ in to 21/8 in diameter and has a weight capacity of 33lb (15kg)

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/371927-REG/Impact_KCP_700B26_Super_Clamp_with_Standard.html

The second component is a Mini Gimbal Mount Sidekick for Large Telephoto Lenses that I procured on Ebay from India for $110.00 USD.

http://www.thecinecity.com

To attach the super clamp and the Mini Gimbal Mount together I used a Manfrotto 208HEX Head Mounting Plate with Hex Stud – 3/8″ Thread

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/307472-REG/Manfrotto_208HEX_208HEX_Head_Mounting_Plate.html    $20.51 USD

I still like to have the freedom of the camera on the monopod but the clamp rig will give me a more stable option.  With this system I can have the clamp set up on the safari vehicle ready to go then quickly switch from a monopod  rig to the full support clamped rig for a longer distance and stationary subject such as a lion on a kill.  So far I have had good success with the Frankenstein clamp rig and it works in most safari vehicles.  Unless you know your safari vehicles well it is best to choose support systems that are simple and offer options.  My best advice is still a nice ball mount attached to a good monopod.

safari-camera-clamp-2

What is the Best Season to go on Safari in South Africa?

See our Current Safari Schedule

New Tree House added to our Lodge

Photoshop: Using the Shadows/Highlights Command to Improve and Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Monopod: the Right Camera Support for your Safari

Choosing a support for your camera equipment to use while on safari is important especially if you are bringing large lenses of 300mm – 600mm image stabilization or not.

Over the years I have learned to streamline and keep my photography equipment light and versatile for use on my safari photography workshops in South Africa. For many years I used an aluminum monopod and a homemade mount. It had seen too many safaris and needed to retire. I replaced it with a new monopod  system.

The system is composed of

Really Right Stuff Monopod Head MH-01 and a quick detachable plate for my Canon 5D’s

Gitzo carbon fibre GM2541

monopods

 

The light weight and durability of these products were top criteria for me.  The plate on top is quick and easy to release so I can transition to handheld instantly.  The whole thing is less than 900 grams

I own a nice ball head that will fit on this monopod,  but I can get a great range of movement and angles just by twisting the monopod in my hands. By the way I also prefer a lighter camera without a bunch of bells and whistles that are impossible to use out in the field while the elephants are charging and the light is changing.

Tip:  When shopping for a monopod make sure it will be able to fold short enough to use from a seated position (not too tall)

Support Options for Safaris

For Southern Africa including South Africa and Botswana, the monopod is my best recommendation.  Bean bags work really well in Eastern Africa where the safari vehicles are either enclosed with windows or of the popup roof variety. Some photographers even use mounts that secure a Wimberly head to the window.

These solutions are not at all useful in South Africa where the vehicles are mostly open Land Rovers with no sides and in some places fitted with canvas roofs (required in Kruger National Park). The open vehicles are much more exciting to ride in and afford more unrestricted view as well as allowing riders to see well without standing.

 

safari-monopod-setup

The vehicles do not have room for tripods, so monopods or handheld are the way to go.  With a monopod your camera is supported and you are still able to move about, swivel the camera, and it is pretty easy to adjust the height. With the right mount ranging from a simple swivel with a tightening screw to a fancy ball head, you will be able to move and lock into any position.  Monopods are also handy for when you are on foot and are easy and fairly light to carry or strap to a pack when not in use.

My nice tripod and gimbal head will still travel with me for star photography and interior shots of the lodge

 

see our Current Safari Schedule

In your Safari Bag – do not forget Binoculars

Even with a full bag of long lenses and other camera equipment,  binoculars are still a great thing to have with you on safari

Why Use Binoculars if I have a Camera

I find many benefits to having binoculars with me on safari

I use my binoculars for finding animals as they are easier to maneuver than my rig and they are great for spotting birds and animals hidden in the grass.  Often my camera is clamped down so the freedom of movement of the binoculars is just what I need.  Once I find something with the binoculars and the action begins, then I can get my camera set properly and aimed in the right spot.

During breaks in action, I like to use the binoculars to check the surrounding area and trees for other creatures.  I like to stay on the animal with binoculars watching for signs of some photographable action such as signals the cat is about to stand up.  It is also fun to be the first to notice the hyena sneaking up.

Since you bag is already full with cameras, make your binocular choice one that is worth the weight and space in your bag: A 10 x 42 powered set will be a useful strength with a 10 x 36 pair a nice alternative.

Choosing Binoculars

In general, the higher the power of the binoculars, the narrower the field of view, the less light is taken in by the lenses, and the harder it will be to hold and get a stable image.

This is why 10 x 42 is a good size: anything smaller and your image will be too dark at dusk and dawn lighting and any larger would mean too much weight.

When faced with a choice, go for the widest field of view.

Lens coatings for reflection, anti scratching, and water resistance are essential as is water and fog proofing, good eye piece design, lens caps, and balance in your hands.

Binoculars with Image Stabilization are great for people who can not hold weight steady.

Quality

Like lenses, quality matters.  It will be reflected in the price of the product as well.

There really is a difference between cheap sets and higher priced sets. The differences will be in quality of glass and the quality or absence of the essential lenses coatings that lead to better image.

I have a pair of Nikon Monarch Binoculars.

Nikon Binocular 10 x 42 Monarch 5

671383

I like these because they are compact and not too heavy.  The multicoated lenses give a beautifully sharp image.

 

 

I bought mine from B&H Photo Video    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/910864-REG/nikon_7577_10x42_monarch_5.html

A Great Resource for Choosing Binoculars

This site contains reviews and rankings for hundreds of models compares them for different activities ; from sports to birding

http://www.bestbinocularsreviews.com/