Should you pay for a Photo Safari?

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.

Carolyn Probert in Africa

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

Bongani Mountain Lodge Safari Group of Photographers

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.

blogger and photographer Heather McKay

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!

Bongani Mountain Lodge safari truck

South Africa safari vehicle

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!!

travel photographer Heather McKay takes photos of Elephants on a photographer’s safari in South Africa at the Bongani Mountain Lodge near Kruger National Park with Idube Photo Safaris

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.

African elephant with her days old baby elephant by photographer on safari

Africa Photo safari with Elephants

The history of the diamond engagement ring and some conflict-free alternatives

A short history of the diamond engagement ring and ways to buy an alternative to a diamond wedding ring so it is more eco-friendly and conflict free

Nothing says “I love You” like war right?? Diamonds have an entire classification called “Blood Diamonds” that were mined to fund insurgency and war. So where do you buy conflict-free diamond alternatives?

Engagement bands began in Ancient Egypt as the circle was used to symbolize a never ending cycle and the space in it as a gateway. Romans believed the ring to be a symbol for ownership rather than love. The meaning has evolved and keeps evolving to this day.

the history of the diamond engagement ring and ways to buy an alternative to a diamond wedding ring so it is more eco friendly and conflict free

Colonialism in America brought a thimble and was given as a sign of eternal companionship. Women would remove the tops of the thimble in order to create a ring. DeBeers made spending a substantial amount of money on the ring popular in the 1900s, typically suggesting that it should be one month’s salary or more. This is where the diamond engagement ring really flourished.

Are you wondering how to begin buying a diamond engagement ring?

Read more here on the American Gem Society’s website. There are the 4 Cs: cut, color, clarity and carat weight.

the history of the diamond engagement ring and ways to buy an alternative to a diamond wedding ring so it is more eco friendly and conflict free

best Ny wedding photographer Heather McKayI’m not actually a fan of diamonds *gasp*. However, my favorite diamond rings are ones with a lot of little diamonds that look shiny and bling filled. If I had to wear a big burly diamond ring, I know I’d just catch it on everything!

Are you interested in a diamond wedding ring? Obviously, there are a million choices online and in stores, since this is the current standard. At 77 Diamonds, no two rings are the same. They host a collection of over 300,000 natural diamonds and bespoke engagement rings, all made to order and hand crafted by highly skilled jewelers. Their website offers a plethora of information about diamond buying and has a build your own tool.

Tiffany wedding rings are full of name brand recognition, however they also offer simple gold bands and more modest rings. For such a high end company, their website sure is terrible!

the history of the diamond engagement ring and ways to buy an alternative to a diamond wedding ring so it is more eco friendly and conflict free

Looking for a guaranteed conflict free diamond ring?  Brilliant Earth provides fine jewelry from ethical, pure sources— jewelry that you can truly be proud to wear. They also sell antique wedding rings, which are perfect for a vintage themed wedding. Green Karat is another great resource for sustainable information and unique ring designs online. They are a Green America approved vendor, just like McKay’s Photography!

Brilliant Earth adds a few more important notes here:  “Just to add something to the part on rings, it’s important to know a few things if you’re going to buy conflict-free rings. First, most jewelers will say that they are selling “conflict-free” diamonds. However, if you want to be certain about it, make sure that your jeweler can trace the diamond back to the mine and provide a written guarantee that the diamond is conflict-free. Second, if you want an eco-friendly wedding ring, consider buying a ring made of recycled gold. Gold mining is an especially dirty process. About 20 tons of mine waste are generated to produce a single gold ring, and gold mining poisons waters supplies with toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury.”

If  you are having a rustic, vintage or sustainably green wedding, my recommendation would be to find a family heirloom or other antique wedding ringThis rustic wedding couple used the Groom’s Grandmother’s wedding ring and then they bought his ring from a local estate jeweler {both pictured below}… or you can go completely alternative and get a tattoo wedding band instead!

the history of the diamond engagement ring and ways to buy an alternative to a diamond wedding ring so it is more eco friendly and conflict free

So what about the Groom’s ring? Platinum, white gold and yellow gold are the most popular choices for men’s wedding bands. Well, there are a plethora of options, all of which are a little more interesting and more sustainable. I’ve seen concrete rings, for those super active Grooms. Titanium is another quality alternative, as well as Steelwood rings, recycled gold, ceramic, palladium, cobalt, tungsten and others.

A quick Facebook poll of my past wedding couples showed Tungsten Carbide as a leader and one Groom has gone through THREE rings in three years: “The 1st was white gold. The 2nd was tungsten carbide. The 3rd is Titanium.” Sheesh!

modern wedding photography and custom wedding rings

Where did you get your ring? What is it made of? Have you lost it yet??

alternative wedding ring materials

Ancestry.com DNA tests come with unexpected results

Recently, I stumbled upon this interesting article from Ancestry.com about how they are aggregating the data they have collected from our DNA tests and it got me thinking about ‘parallax‘ or expectations being different from reality…

What 770,000 Tubes of Saliva Reveal About America

What does the word family mean to you? What makes someone family? Does your DNA and blood make you family. Well, no, obviously. Sometimes friends are more family than our family. Adoption changes that DNA connection to family as well. So what about DNA tests is so fascinating to us and affirming?? More importantly, what does it really reveal about us as people, as a society, a culture or a tribe?

For me personally, my last name of McKay is clearly Irish. Or is it? Every time I’ve ever met a Scotsman, they have told me I’m spelling and pronouncing my surname incorrectly. My response is always “then take better records because my sister cannot find that link in our ancestry!”

What about how I identify myself? Well, I always say that I’m Welsh. And I’m not lying. I’m more Welsh than anything because my maternal Grandfather was born there. Yet, in a patriarchal society like ours, I’m typically described as Irish. Then there is the fact that my maternal Grandmother’s family hails from England. They came over on the second boat after the Mayflower, apparently. So does that make me even more American? Irish-American? Welsh-American? American-English? Ah, ancestry! Where does it end?

Welsh Flag and ancestry
Ancestry.com DNA tests can come with unexpected results

My eldest sister has been tracing our ancestry for the last few decades and i’ve followed along because I do find stories and history fascinating and intriguing. It’s great to know where a weird chin or a single dimple comes from and it is also really cool to meet distant relatives with the same sense of humor or mannerisms. I have a photo of myself with 3 of my second cousins, all living on 3 different continents and we are all the exact same amount over weight. Yet, I barely look like my own siblings. My Mom looks more like two of her cousins than she does her own sister as well.  So, getting DNA tests was of interest to me.

With the Ancestry DNA results, it was fairly interesting to learn that we have ‘trace’ DNA from Finland (our little brother is fascinated with Finland), the Middle East (hello, Iraq!), Spanish and a tiny bit of European Jewish.

So-many-questions. Did we have a relative that was in the Crusades? The Spice Trade?

Map of Ancestry.com DNA tests for a Welsh and Irish American living in NY

Recently, my genealogist sister took advantage of the Ancestry.com DNA tests and it came back with very unexpected results that shocked our immediate and extended family.

Ancestry.com unexpected DNA test results

WHAT????? A FIRST cousin? Really? And this unknown first cousin is in the system?? Wait, they are also using Ancestry.com? Unbelievable.

Now what to do? Does my sister tell anyone? Does the rest of the family know?

Quickly her brain does the math and figures out where this first cousin belongs on the family tree. It wasn’t that hard to jump to the right conclusion. However, the knowledge complicates things for everyone that the new first cousin is even more related to…. our cousins have a new sibling!

Map of Ancestry.com DNA tests for a Welsh and Irish American living in NY

So, be careful what you wish for and the rabbit hole it may lead you down.

Did this particular revelation cause a ruckus?

Not really.

My affected cousins are all adults with their own families and this new first cousin was just happy to fill in the blanks on who his father was. Everyone exchanged emails and phone numbers and got back to their lives.

So what does it mean that he is ‘family’? And what about the very little known tidbit that one of his new siblings isn’t technically his sibling by blood? Well, we grew up with her as our cousin and not him… so we as an extended family are keeping it that way. Just because she isn’t blood by our paternal side, doesn’t mean she isn’t still our ‘cousin’. Just because he is blood on the paternal side doesn’t mean he just jumps right into the cousin role.

What do you think? Have you had this done and received any interesting or disturbing information? Comment below and let us know.

Are you interested in more about the Ancestry scientist’s results that I mentioned above? Here is the article:

What do you do with 770,000 tubes of saliva collected from AncestryDNA customers?

Ancestry scientists have an unusual answer: Create a ground-breaking map of America’s history-based diversity using the genetic data from the analysis of the samples.

This unique map shows this country’s great migrations, the echoes of our pioneer ancestors in our genes today.