For my entire life, I’ve been dreaming of the day I would finally travel to Africa to see elephants in the wild and visit my distant relatives. It all began as a kid when my favorite Aunt returned from her year long adventures there and recounted her stories of family and creatures, which held me captivated.
As an adult and a professional photographer, I finally made the leap, pulled the plug and planned the perfect trip to Africa! One of the biggest questions facing my planning (& saving) was whether or not to splurge on a Photographer Safari with a group. Was the expense going to be worth it? Couldn’t I just see animals when I visited my relatives in Zimbabwe? In the end, I decided to just do it and take the last spot in a group of 12 photographers traveling to South Africa. I found out on my birthday that they let me take the very last spot. Here is my story and review…
South Africa Photo Safari at the Bongani Mountain Lodge
Being a single self-employed business owner, budgeting and ‘vacation’ are mere theories available to those with ‘real’ careers. When I began really planning my big African adventure, I gave myself two years to get my expenses in order, streamline my business, save, sell shit and get a housemate. I picked the only time of year that I could get away from my business safely: Spring. As a wedding photographer, the Spring is the easiest time to sneak off to a foreign land. I’m either working remotely with clients on their heirloom wedding album or I’m sending new wedding prospects my availability and price lists. From January through April, I can pretty much work from anywhere.
The best time to visit Africa and see wild animals is in our Fall, which is my absolute busiest time of year. So, that was not going to happen. As a wedding photographer I naturally chose March and April for my big trip and budgeted for a 7 week adventure.
The problem remained: seeing animals.
A photographer friend of mine posted on Facebook that she, her husband, another photographer friend and her sister were all signed up for a photographer’s safari for April. Um, what???!!!!???? Really???!!!!
They were heading to Africa during the exact same timeframe that I was to be there! Crazy! Once I decided to attend their safari and was accepted (it was sold out), I rearranged my plans to accommodate.
I’m glad that I did.
The first dilemma was whether to tack it onto the front or the end of my adventures. If I went at the beginning, I could get the photography and animals “out of the way” and leave the rest of the trip as more flexible, with less expectations. If I tacked it onto the end, then I would already be dialed into the photography of the landscape and knowing what I would want to capture. Also to consider was editing of the images. With so much time off of work, I really really didn’t want to return from seven weeks off and bring even more work to do. So, in the end, I opted to start my trip with the safari.
It was the best choice. It was also the best choice to pay for a proper safari, especially geared towards photographers.
With a specific agenda like photography, the Game Rangers learned very quickly where to position the safari vehicle for the best shot. They also learned that the view from the front to the back of the truck, as well as each side, needed to be considered! Don’t even get me started on all the gear that we brought with us!
In our group, we had 3 trucks that carry up to 10 passengers. Considering all of our photo gear, the ideal number was really 5-6 people. I sat all the way in the ‘back of the bus’, as I was initially told that this was the best place to sit. It turns out that that is the best place to sit in a safari vehicle on the plains. I was in the mountains. The back of the truck wasn’t the best place to sit while riding along really bumpy, rocky mountainous roads. From the first day, my neck started to hurt and I had headaches. Unfortunately, no one else switched seats even once. They all stayed in the same truck and the same spot for the entire week. I was the only one to change trucks. Each time I did, I regretted it. So, I sucked it up and at least reveled in being the only one on the back seat, so I could stand up, lay down or move quickly from side to side of the truck.
African safaris are set up pretty simply. There are two game drives a day, with lunch in between. You rise and shine before sunrise for the first drive and go until lunch. After a short break of about 2-3 hours, you go again before dinner for the sunset ride. The morning ride was always better and I wish I skipped more sunset rides. However, when you are in Africa on a bucket-list adventure, you don’t want to miss anything!!
When I chose to do the photo safari, I assumed it was an actual workshop and that we would have photography tips and image critiques. Nope! We were really all on our own here and that was highly disappointing. For this reason, I do not recommend a photo safari and I’m even more disappointed that I paid extra for the ‘workshop’ part of the trip. It was a total rip off and I left feeling like all we did was pay for the organizers to be able to constantly be on safari to take their own photos. Our organizer was up front and center with the game ranger and always the first to get his photos! SO RUDE! He should always let his customers go first. By the time he was done, the animals would move position or turn their backs to us or whatever. It was infuriating and I regret not saying something while I was there. He also had the biggest lens, so shouldn’t need to be treated with the best view.
It was all about him and he acted very unprofessionally in other ways as well. First, he was always in a pissing contest with the game ranger for who had the most knowledge of the animals and environment. For the first few days, I appreciated his education, however it was immature to always have to ‘one up’ the driver. I know for a fact that this infuriated the ranger as well. No one likes to be micro managed. Another thing that ticked me off was also tied to his ego. One of the other trucks saw a Leopard on the first day and so we wasted about TWO days searching for this elusive leopard. Leopards are very reclusive and hard to spot. The game ranger said they can go weeks without seeing one! So, myself and the others in my truck were disappointed that we spent so much time looking for one…. time we will never get back… time we could have spent with elephants! His deal was that he promises we will see “the big 5″…. which is some list some old white dude decided. None of us really cared. We enjoyed the variety of trees, birds, and again… elephants! Take the temperature of the room, dude!
I’ll leave my review of that specific safari tour there and not go into personality conflicts. There are a million safari tours out there and I just say, do your homework. The group was well organized by his wife and I have nothing but good things to say about her and her ability to stay calm in a crisis and take care of her clients.
All was worth it, as I had many many amazing and life changing experiences with elephants in the wild and I’m so so so grateful for those unique moments.