Being a Wildlife Photographer in Africa

Destinations: Okavango Delta (Botswana), Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, etc.

There are two main ways to access wilderness areas:

Fly-in with Small Aeroplanes

The outlying wilderness areas can be reached by road (if you can describe them as roads…), but in many cases these are seasonally flooded tracks, and in very poor condition, which the bigger fuel and maintenance trucks tend to destroy after rain, making it impossible by passenger vehicle unless it is a hardy 4×4 driven by an experienced off-road driver!

In these circumstances there is a substantial industry which caters for such shuttles from main hub airports such as Johannesburg / Kruger Mpumalanga International (Western Kruger Park zone) Windhoek (Namibia), Maun (Botswana), Livingstone/Kasane (Zambia), Arusha (Kenya/Tanzania etc)

Consumable supplies fort lodges in outlying areas are usually flown into bush landing strips by small aircraft such as Cessna Caravans, which also double up as personnel carriers.

The runways / air strips are invariably just hardened sand surfaces, which are not always quite flat, and in wet weather, the puddles of water across some of these bush strips force pilots to do a bit of a “hop-scotch” bounce over them when landing and taking off!

Pilots have a very strict policy of communicating with the lodge ground personnel before landing, while the ground personnel do a sweep of the strip to clear it of any animals which can vary from elephants to antelope, and even the big cats which sometime like to commandeer the shade of the rustic shelters for their own comfort. I have even seen a pride of lions take shelter from the sun under the wing of an aircraft parked on the ground, which did present some light entertainment to guests!

But guests should be re-assured that the bush pilots who fly these aircraft are probably some of the finest pilots flying aircraft anywhere in the world today. Due to the nature of the short-hop shuttle service aviation industry that employs them, the bush pilots spend many hours landing and taking off again on these somewhat tricky airstrips, numerous times in a day, so they certainly do get a lot of practice plying their trade!

NOTE: Total luggage (Soft bags only) per person on these flights is usually limited to a maximum of 20 kilos all-up mass. Serious photographers who travel on their own, or groups of photographers with a lot of camera equipment, may share and purchase a spare seat (Up to +/- 100 kilos) as the aircraft payloads carefully controlled and very closely monitored.

Self-Drive

Many of the wilderness areas only offer “lodge type” guests, but there are some wilderness areas which have camping facilities.

In my case I have a very reliable and capable Toyota Land Cruiser 200 Series 4×4 equipped with 2x 52Ltr fridge/freezers, 2x 100 AmpHr deep-cycle auxiliary batteries which are controlled by a C-Teck 250 S battery management system which operates in conjunction with a solar panel mounted permanently to the roof of the vehicle ensuring that the batteries are trickle-charged throughout daylight hours, regardless of being stationary or mobile. The vehicle also is fitted with an Inverter which generates 220 Volt electrical power for charging batteries.

The vehicle is also equipped with an after market front bumper/bull-bar plus a 9,000 Lbs winch, Hankook DynaPro off-road tyres and a twin wheel-rack mounted at the rear with two spare wheels as well as the standard spare wheel supplied with the vehicle.

I pull an Afrispoor – Cheetah (EEZY Camper) trailer which is fitted with a full double bed, twin plated LPG gas stove, 80 Ltr Fridge/Freezer, hot water geyser, hot/cold shower, water pump, 100 Ltr fresh water tank, 2x 6 Kilos LPG gas, 2x 20 Ltr spare diesel jerry cans, 4x setting cutlery, crockery, pots/pans knives etc… water and wine glasses, small bar with oxygenated water/soda and spare for a few bottles of happiness.

The trailer has AC/DC electrical facilities and 2x 140 AmpHr Deep-cycle batteries and 2x Solar panels.

The trailer carries a spare wheel and ALL wheels on the vehicle, trailer and spare wheels are identical and interchangeable.

Driving around Sub-Saharan Africa

(We have camped in all the above-mentioned areas) requires a driver to understand some basic common-sense rules of the road.

  1. Animals always have the right of way.
  2. Never drive after dark on open African roads. Animals are NOT easily seen at night, seek the warmth of a road and tend to stand / lie on the roads, which can be detrimental to anyone’s safety, should you ever hit one!
  3. As one progresses deeper into rural and wilderness areas, the fuel stops become further apart and are NOT always assured of even having fuel to sell. I top up with fuel when we find it so we never get to a fuel stop with a totally empty tank!
  4. I travel with 2x GPS units. One loaded with Trax4Africa which is excellent for off-the-beaten path navigation and the second with “Street Maps” loaded. In addition, when cell phone signal is available (Surprisingly, Sub-Saharan Africa does have generally rather good connectivity….) we tend to also use the “Google Maps” App to check on ourselves.
  5. I do carry my South African Drivers License, but I also travel with 2x International Drivers Licenses (Issued by the AA in South Africa) which are issued for 3 years in all the sub-Saharan countries. In the event that we meet any unscrupulous “police officers”, I can simply ditch the international license without the “officer” trying to hold it for ransom!
  6. Make sure that each licensed driver travelling in the vehicle is in possession of a valid drivers’ license / International Drivers’ license in case you are incapacitated and cannot drive.
  7. INSURANCE: We take out separate TIC travel insurance (NEVER rely on the insurance cover on a credit card. That is invariably limited, and extremely difficult to convince a hospital to accept when it is needed!) which is comprehensive and has a separate “Casualty Evacuation” clause which can airlift you out from remote areas.
  8. Make a travel folder and keep all vehicle documentation in that one folder. You have to carry original vehicle identification, proof of license. *If the vehicle/s are still being financed through a bank, ask your finance bank to provide you with official authority from them to remove that vehicle from SA. * Write the vehicle/s VIN , Engine and registration numbers on the outside for ease of reference.
  9. Police Clearance for vehicles: If the vehicle has had an engine change, be sure to have the proof of change (Old and new engine identification numbers) together with an official SAPS Clearance document signed and stamped by the specific SAPS station which is authorised to issue such Police Clearance.
  10. Always ensure that your Anti-Tetanus inoculations are up to date. They last 10 years, but rather play safe if you are not sure, and have a new one done no less than two weeks before your departure…. In case you have some kind of delayed reaction and get caught on the trip!
  11. Malaria: Can be a problem in some areas. Check with your doctor before departure. We don’t take any precautionary medication as we travel too often and the side effects of the prophylactics can be worse than Malaria! Extended use of prophylactics can also cause liver damage. *Malaria medication is NOT universal and each area has it’s own type of medication specific to that area, so be sure to report where you have been to your doctor in the event of contracting Malaria. ** Never fob off signs of flu or fever! This can deteriorate into Cerebral Malaria which is a killer!
  12. Credit cards are quite freely accepted, however, when crossing out of your country of residence, you should advise your bank of the dates and countries that you will be visiting in order for them to clear your cards for use in those countries. Before you depart from home, ask your bank to clear your card to enable ATM cash withdrawals and that the pin number is working. *If possible travel with a Master Card as well as a separate Visa Card…Some places may decline one or the other.
  13. If you wish to play it safe, you can carry some small denomination US Dollar notes. Never carry larger than US$ 10.00 notes, preferably US$ 1.00 notes. African countries want US Dollar notes and will always give you back change in their currency! Nobody wants Zambian Kwacha or Mozambique Metical!
  14. If you handle, change, or count bank notes, NEVER lick your fingers to get a grip on the notes! Be extra careful of the slick operators who flash notes at you when changing. They WILL trick you, no matter how vigilant you think you are! Rather change money at a bank or hotel (It is not cheap, but cheaper than being ripped off!) in a foreign country, or rather pay by credit card if they accept it.
  15. Before you depart from your home, make PDF copies of ALL your documentation such as your ID document, passports, TIC Insurance cover documentation, all credit cards, drivers licenses, tickets, booking notes, reservations etc. Lodge these with a reliable person who has access to a computer in your home town, and also provide them with a “power of attorney” to act on your behalf when you are travelling. Also make a few sets of hard copies and give each other a set which are kept separately. *We keep a spare set in our vehicle safe.
  16. Notify your insurance company of your trip and ask them to provide you with written confirmation that you have full comprehensive cover in the countries that you will be visiting.
  17. Should you be carrying cameras, laptops and anything which has a serial number, make a written list of all serial numbers of all your equipment. *Some customs border posts could try to get you to pay duties. Carrying this and having it stamped at the border will prove that it is “used” and belongs to you, so you will not have to pay any duties.
  18. When leaving your vehicle, ensure that it is still locked. Once you have locked it with the remote key, walk a little distance and get one of your party to check that the doors are still locked before leaving your vehicle unattended. Remote jamming devices are well known in Africa…
  19. When stopping to purchase fuel at a fueling point, be sure to lock the entire vehicle and just keep the driver’s door open provided you are close to it. This is a favourite place for petty theft by simply opening a door and grabbing something of yours.
  20. If you do leave your possessions inside the vehicle, ensure that they are hidden from view, and do NOT leave the windows slightly open because it may be hot!
  21. Always be respectful, polite and very patient, especially with customs/Immigration Control personnel at the border and police officers who may stop you on the side of the road. Never raise your voice and always try to appear light-hearted and friendly. It will pay dividends.
  22. DO NOT carry firearms, explosives or weapons across the borders! You are probably safer outside South Africa than you are in South Africa.
  23. Acquaint yourself with local rules about transporting fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and some milk products across veterinary boundaries when planning a trip. *Check with various 4×4 Forums who are always willing to offer current information.
  24. Be warned and obey all speed limits! Officers have a habit of being inconspicuous until they catch you speeding! Fines are a great revenue earner in African states and an opportunity to score some quick cash by some unscrupulous “traffic officers” However, we have noticed recently that the traffic officers in Botswana are now equipped with credit card machines which do work!
  25. Remove the main cash from your wallet and hide it in another safe place in your vehicle. Just keep a small amount of money in your wallet in case you are stopped. Prying eyes that see lots of cash get greedy in Africa!
  26. Don’t be tempted to remove your shoes and drive bare foot. Do not drive with open “flip-flops” rather wear a pair of sneakers or a comfortable pair of slip-on shoes… Some “traffic officers use this as an excuse to fine people…
  27. DO NOT talk on a cell phone while driving, in sight of traffic police. You will be fined!
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