17 November 2013

How to plan a Big Cat African photographic safari


The African Big Cats are lion, leopard and cheetah, world famous from the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries series, filmed in the so called marsh in the Masai Mara in Kenya. TV series are a good source to prepare for an African photographic safari, but should not be overestimated. There are more areas with great cat sightings that are not part of TV series.

Do some research on wildlife density and predator density before you choose your
African safari destination. Great areas for cat sightings are the Masai Mara in Kenya, the Sabi Sand (Kruger Park) in South Africa and Moremi in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Another important question is the possibility of off road driving during game drives. It can be crucial to be able to follow the animal for a day to get the pictures you want. But a leopard does not care about roads and moves fast. Off road driving will be necessary to not loose sight of the cat.

If the funds are available choose for a private vehicle. That will give you the freedom to stay out in the bush as long as you want and to stay with an animal or move on when something new comes up. When more people are on the vehicle more opinions and wishes are to be taken in consideration. When doing wildlife photography that can be frustrating, for both sides.

Rather go in winter than in summer, talking about southern African winter and summer. In winter the light is stunning, the grass short and the animals gathering around waterholes. They are easier to find and you will get a better view with less grass between the lens and the face of a lion.

The choice of your safari accommodation should depend on the game drive quality the lodge or camp is providing. Always ask how many guests they have on a vehicle and the off road options. A great adventurous African safari tour for Big Cat photography can be a camping safari with a private driver and 4x4 vehicle. That will provide great freedom of movement and flexibility throughout the days.

However, do your research and prepare yourself for the trip. Don’t have too high expectations, even in outstanding wildlife areas. It is nature and the animals are wild. They have their own agenda. Being part of their world, doing efforts to find them and working sometimes hard to get great images is incredibly rewarding and provides exceptional wildlife experiences.

Happy safari wildlife snapping!

Ute Sonnenberg for

What are starbeds on African safari?


Sleeping under the stars, nicely tucked in a warm and cozy duvet, fresh air to breath, and nothing but the stars above you, that is a night in a starbed.

African safari destinations offer starbeds, mainly at places where the stars are breathtakingly beautiful to see and no lion or leopards around to eat you while sleeping. Great locations are Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert in Namibia and the Mkgadikgadi Pan in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. There are no disturbing lights of settlements, no pollution, the skies are clear and all that together lets the stars shine, that one would like to look at them for the entire night.

There is another location with starbeds on the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya called Loisaba and a few bush lodges in Botswana offer that as well. But in the bush it is only possible with guarding and in areas where is no Big Five wildlife.

It is a magical experience, an unforgettable night under the stars.

Happy star sleeping under the skies of Africa!

Ute Sonnenberg for
Image above by Dana Allen

How to prepare for no electricity on African safari


Pretty much all African safari lodges and camps have electricity, either by power lines, generator or solar power. Some have power sockets only in the main area and not in the tent, but you will have electricity to recharge all your electrical devices and cameras.

However if you decide to do an
African mobile safari, you will need to face a different situation. A mobile camping safari will take you to private and public campsites and many will not have power. That is the moment when it becomes really adventurous and challenging, realizing where electricity comes from, not from a box in the wall, it needs to be generated.

For these kinds of adventures get yourself an inverter. An inverter makes that you can use the battery power of your safari vehicle to recharge your laptop, camera, phone and other devices. But you can only recharge while driving. The devices use too much power and the inverter will stop working when the vehicle’s engine is not running. You need to get your mind around that quickly, otherwise you will end up with no charged camera batteries and laptops. It requires thought through anticipation and planned energy use. It can be useful to have your laptop with you on game drives to upload images and recharge immediately to have a fully charged laptop when back in camp. That can lead to wonderful situations like standing under a tree with a leopard, watching the animal through the open pop up roof while uploading your images from the morning onto your laptop to empty your memory cards and use the rest of the game drive to recharge your computer.

It is a very good survival training for photographers to conquer any situation and still getting the images you want.

The same thoughtful process applies to light sources you want to have when it gets dark. They also need to be recharged while driving and not to forget the fridge you carry on the vehicle to keep your food fresh and eatable.

It is a mind changing experience to be for some time the generator of the electricity you need. It is a consciousness enhancing process you can benefit from in many situations, also back home with a power socket in every corner of the house.

Happy photo safari travelling!

Ute Sonnenberg for

What are the top 10 African safari mistakes?


Howard Hillman is a New York based travel writer. He wrote thousands of pages of travel reviews and now he made the efforts to summarize the top 10 African safari mistakes.

It is quite a read, but can be helpful for your own
African safari holiday planning. Some reflections might also make you smile.

From the blog:

1. Group tours

If you book a group tour on less than a luxury or high-quality one, you risk suffering vehicle mates who incessantly talk, argue, tell bad jokes, irritatingly laugh, whatever.
Crowding - Your vehicle may be crammed. Not only will this be uncomfortable, it will obstruct your panoramic view while seated.

Lower-quality guides - Group tour driver-guides are generally less friendly, accommodating, articulate and knowledgeable than private tour safari guides. They are more likely to recite dull memorized spiels instead of spontaneously tailored commentary.

Undesirable vehicle mates - You risk suffering travellers who, for example, incessantly talk, argue, tell bad jokes, or irritatingly laugh.

2. Cost

Spending too little is a common safari mistake. Your adventure is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you could later regret it if you skimp. When planning your adventure, make the most of it.
Skimping - A safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you could later regret it if you skimp. When planning your safari, make the most of it. While we’ve found that some travelers go beyond their doable budget, most do the opposite.

Rate range - Some travellers have only a hazy idea of safari rates. To give you a rough idea of them, I list below current safari-tour prices. They are the typical per-person-per-day rates based on double occupancy for the high season (and will vary by locale). Low-season prices are about 25% lower.

For packaged bare basic camping safaris, plan on US$150 to US$200.
For packaged mid-range lodge or camping safaris, count on US$250 to US$400.
For packaged luxury lodges and camps, expect a US$450 to US$650 charge.
For a private tour safari for two people, increase the packaged tour prices by 25 to 33% – and for a foursome, by 10 to 20%.

What’s included - Learn ahead of time exactly what’s included before you book. Normally, these are covered by the rate:
- Accommodations
- Meals
- Game drives
- Park fees
- Lodge/camp transfers

And these normally are not:
- Tips
- Laundry
- Alcohol
- Phone calls
- International airfare

Different safari operators have different inclusion and exclusion policies. Always check first.

3. Timing

During the middle of the day, many mammals take shelter in the bushes and tall grasses. Early morning and late afternoon are the best game-viewing times.
Best & worst - Early morning and late afternoon are the best game-viewing times. During the middle of the day, many mammals are hard to spot because they take shelter in the bushes and tall grasses.

Late sleepers & pool lovers – Safari-goers who sleep late and head off late on their morning game drives literally miss a lot of what they paid a lot to see. The same is true for those who return early from their afternoon game drives to take a dip in the lodge’s swimming pool.

Animal behavior – Although a full moon is romantic, its brightness can alter both the predator’s and prey’s normal behavior. This makes it more difficult to spot wildlife on night drives.

Going on an ill-paced safari tour -Too much, too little - Some tours cram in too much (or offer too little) game viewing in a given number of days. Analyze the itinerary.

Not going on a safari if you have only several days to spare - Better to see than not at all – A long safari is obviously better than a short one. But it is also true that a short one is better than no safari. If you are on a business trip in, for instance, Dar es Salaam and have several days to spare for a safari, go for it. You may never have the opportunity again.

4. Vehicle type

A tour in a minivan may make you feel like a sardine in a can – and your ride will be bumpy and your view, obscured.

Going on a safari in a minivan instead of in a four-wheel-drive safari vehicle: Minivan tours – One will save you money. However, you’ll feel like a sardine in a can – and your field of vision will be noticeably obscured.

Jarring ride – Moreover, a safari normally requires many several-hour-long rides down bumpy, rutted dirt roads. This will prove quite uncomfortable to passengers because while the suspension systems of Land Rovers and Land Cruisers are built to handle the jolting bounces, those of minivans are not.

Incongruous experience - Being on safari in a minivan does not create an “Out of Africa” feeling.

Driving your own vehicle on a safari or renting one: Penny wise, pound foolish – What you save in money usually does not compensate for the downsides:

Your lack of expertise – A knowledgeable guide or guide-driver is essential for getting the most out of your trip. He knows from years of experience where to find the rare animals. He teaches you insider insights. Without him, you would likely see, learn and experience comparatively little.

Misplaced focus - Your attention will be focused mainly on driving, not on looking for wildlife or catching up on your safari guidebook.

Wrong turns – You could get lost.

Emergency repairs – You could have a mechanical breakdown in the middle of nowhere.

Vehicle damage – Car damage caused by terribly bumpy, rutted roads could be costly.

5. Guides and drivers

People who drive their own vehicles miss out. Much of their attention is focused on driving, not on looking for wildlife.

Automatically blaming your guide for not spotting all the major animals - Some wildlife is not easy to spot – Wildlife doesn’t appear on cue. If the trained and sharp eyes of a nearby predator are unable to spot a camouflaged animal or bird, then how can we expect the less endowed eyes of your guide (even with binoculars) to do so?

Animal count - Don’t judge your guide just on how many different animals and birds he spotted. Wildlife is not confined in a zoo (on safari you are the one in the cage – the vehicle).

Under tipping your guide and driver

The need to tip app – Most safari guides and drivers receive meager wages. They depend on tips for their livelihood.

Tipping guidelines – Seasoned travellers tip their safari guides (or guide-drivers) approximately $7 to $20 per day per person, depending on their guides’ overall performances and the size of their parties. Tip the driver about $5 to $10 per day. If you are on a packaged tour, ask the tour operator for its recommendation.

Not considering the possibility of having a guide-driver instead of a guide and driver: Benefits either way – There are strong benefits in paying extra to have a separate guide and driver instead of a single guide-driver.

However, if there will be only 2 to 4 people in your vehicle, be at least aware of the several benefits in using a solo guide-driver:

Use of front passenger seat – The guide occupies the seat next to the driver. This is a choice place for viewing as you drive through the game reserves. If you have a combined driver-guide, you can alternate the use of that front seat with your vehicle mates.

Knowledge level – True, a guide specialist is usually (but not always) more apt to be more knowledgeable than a driver-guide. However, the difference in his knowledge may be valuable to only someone interested in learning academic details.

Cost – You will save money, sometimes a substantial amount.

6. Health and safety

Some visitors forget to pack eye drops. Carry them, particularly if you wear contact lenses. Air carries fine-particle dust.

Worrying that lions will jump into your vehicle

It’s extremely unlikely - You are more likely to be in an automobile accident back home than being attacked by a lion. Unless a lion’s traditional food (game) is scarce, it will seldom seek human meat, for various reasons, including the following:

Odor - We humans smell awful to lions – so do the gas fumes of your safari vehicle.

We’re not a menu priority - The flesh of safari animals like eland, wildebeests and wart hogs is considerably meatier and more abundant than that of humans in safari parks. It’s also tastier.

Provocation - In rare cases when a lion does attack humans in a game reserve, it is almost always because the beast was provoked or cornered.

Exception to the rule – Over the last few decades in Tanzania, lions have ended the lives of over 500 villagers, herders and farmers outside the animal-rich safari reserves. The primary reason is that the population of the animals such as eland and zebras that lions traditionally eat is quite low (due to hunting by the natives) in those human-inhabited areas. Hungry, the lions attack humans and their cattle.

Ignoring warnings

Be escorted at night – If you are instructed to call the main lodge for an employee to escort you between your cottage or tent and main lodge building at night, do it. Sometimes unescorted guests are knocked down, trampled, or at least severely frightened by elephants and other wild animals that pass through the grounds in the dark.

Stay in your vehicle - Don’t get out of your private vehicle if the reserve forbids it. You don’t know what might be lurking in the bushes.

Not bringing sunglasses, sunscreen, eyedrops and mosquito repellent: Sunglasses and sunscreen – You will be out on game drives for hours at a time – and the bare safari earth intensely reflects the sun’s rays. Protect your eyes (by wearing sunglasses that effectively block ultraviolet rays) and sunscreen (SPF rating of 15 or higher).

Eye drops – Pack them, particularly if you wear contact lenses. The safari air carries fine-particle dust.

Malaria medication – Take it. Normally, for it to be effective, you need to start the preventive medication a week or two before your arrival.

Mosquito repellant - Mosquitoes are the chief source of malaria (and dengue fever), so use a good repellent, one containing the ingredient DEET. For further protection, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts from after 3 p.m. and before 10 a.m.

Bush dinner germs

Sanitizer gel - In bush dinners and sundowners, you are in a wild setting, usually far from your lodge or camp. There will be no faucets for washing your hands – and not every event sets up a small table with soap, bowl and hot-water pitcher. So always carry a small bottle of hand-sanitizer gel.

7. Tents

Some travelers book a budget tent campsite out of a romantic notion that it would be adventuresome. If you don’t sleep well, you will doze during game drives.

Confusing the “tented camp ” with the “campsite” category

Different definitions - “Campsite” accommodations are spartan while “Tented camps” have at least a moderate level of comfort – and some are luxurious.

Staying in a basic campsite for the wrong reason

Undesirable featuress – A typical basic campsite has many drawbacks: Small, cramped tents (some with little or no standing room). Uncomfortable cots and chairs. Cold showers. Foul outhouses.

The only option for some – Such sacrifices make sense to those who truly cannot afford to spend a little more for better accommodations – it’s better to go on a basic campsite safari than none at all.

Nonsensical for others – Sadly, some people who can afford more choose a basic campsite tour out of a misguided romantic notion. They think it would be fun to “rough it”. They end up being heavy-eyed and tired during their long daily game drives, which are the underlying reason they flew thousands of miles to go on a safari.

Not realizing that tented camps can be luxurious

Mid-market tented camps – They are a world apart from a basic campsite. They are clean and comfortable – and the staff does all the chores (seldom so in basic tent camps).

Luxury tented camps - The tents are designer furnished, the service polished and professional, and the food well above par.

Being unfamiliar with walking safari camps

A memorable happening - A walking safari is one of my favorite safari experiences – and you will probably relish one, too. Consider:

You’re in the wild - As the name suggests, you hike in the wilderness populated with lions, elephants, and more. However, these outings are safer than they might seem.

Quality camping - Although you sleep in a traditional safari-style tent, they are large – and the bed is big and comfortable. Service and guide quality are luxury level.

Nightly encounter with nature - You smell the wilderness and hear the wildlife sounds at night in your tent. And sometimes passing four-legged visitors brush against your tent, magnifying the safari experience.

8. Booking

Many visitors select safari booking websites carelessly. While most websites are reliable and trustworthy, some go in and out of business, leaving customers in the lurch.

Booking without first vetting

Don’t take a risk - Never book with a budget-safari category operator or agent without first thoroughly checking it out. Incompetent and unscrupulous operators outnumber the reputable ones in that category. Book with the wrong one and you could possibly:

- Face departure delays, sometimes measured in days
- Have an inept or uncaring guide
- Ride in a crowded, run-down safari vehicle that breaks down in the middle of nowhere
- Camp out under conditions worse than promised
- Pay for extras that are normally part of a safari tour price
- Lose your investment

In contrast, virtually all high-end operators are reliable and trustworthy. The same is true for most (but not all) mid-range operators.

Best bets – It’s generally safest to book your safari tour through your local travel agent or directly with the safari operator via its website.

Safari-booking websites – Hundreds of safari-booking websites exist. Be aware that while most are reliable and trustworthy, some go in and out of business, leaving customers in the lurch. Select with care.

Deal with the best – The best safari operators are usually the most successful. Because they have healthy revenues, they can afford new vehicles, good maintenance and competent guides. Financially struggling firms are more apt to use old, ill-maintained vehicles and hire rookie guides who learn their trade literally at your expense.

Booking after you arrive

The cost of waiting – I recommend you book your safari before arriving in a safari country – and if you are going on a high-season safari, do it months ahead of time. If you don’t pre-book and the vehicles and driver-guides of all the reliable operators are fully booked (it happens), you may have to hang around town (no fun) for several days or more waiting for a tour opening. Or, in desperation, you end up booking with a disreputable outfit.

9. Clothing

Some people nowadays wear the cliche big-game-hunter safari outfit. Those who do get deserved smirks from the rest.

Wearing white, dark, blue, striking, or camouflage clothing

Fine-dust air - The safari plains are dusty. White or dark clothing quickly shows the accumulated fine dust in the air that settles on your clothes. Khaki is the best color because it is dust hued.

Avoid blue - Blue attracts the tsetse fly. Its bite is painful and could inflict dengue fever, a form of sleeping sickness.

Don’t alarm the animals - Large, asymmetrical patterned clothes can distress animals.

Shun camouflage clothes – You could be arrested in some countries for donning camouflage clothing if you are not a member of the military.

Dressing up “Hollywood safari” style

What not to wear – If you already bought a “safari wardrobe”, you might not like what I’m going to say. Nowadays, very few safari-goers wear the cliched big-game-hunter safari outfit. Those who do get deserved smirks from the rest.

What to wear – Today’s safari dress code is comfortable, everyday clothing – the kind you would wear to a casual country-club barbecue.

Not dressing for the climate

Seasons are reversed – Unlike in the northern hemisphere, June, July and August are the coldest months in the southern hemisphere.

Climate difference – The climates of Kenya and Tanzania are significantly different than South Africa’s because of geography. Kenya and Tanzania are on or near the equator while South Africa is on the southern tip of Africa.

Kenya and Tanzania – The Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Masai Mara game reserves can be chilly at night. The land rises as high as 2200 meters (over a mile) above sea level. Pack a light sweater and jacket as part of your safari clothing wardrobe.

South Africa – It will be even chillier at night in the cold months in the Kruger National Park. Dress in layers. You may need gloves and a hat in addition to a thick sweater, especially for the late evening and early morning

10. Cameras

Many visitors shoot photos when their vehicle is idling. Unless their camera or lens has a quality image stabilizer, their photos won’t be sharp. It’s best to wait until the driver turns off the engine.

Blowing safari photo ops by being unaware of these fundamentals

Best hours - Safari shots taken in the early morning and late afternoon hours usually produce the best photos of the animals and landscapes. Mid-day photos often lack vivid colors and needed contrast.

Avoid camera shake – For sharp photos, don’t shoot when your vehicle is moving on a rough road or terrain. And unless you have a good image stabilizer, don’t expect crisp photos even when the vehicle is starting or idling.

Avoid telephoto shake – You can also prevent fuzzy photos by not using a telephoto lens in greater magnification than your practiced skill in holding the camera steadily.

Camera cleanliness – Keep your camera and lens sealed when not in use – and bring a lens cleaning kit. Fine dust is normal on a safari and could cause your camera’s circuitry or mechanics to malfunction.

Know your camera – Pre-test a new camera and master its basic features before the trip. It’s too late for this education on a safari.

Memory – Take enough digital memory. My rule of thumb for safaris: Estimate how many shots you think you will take. Then, double that number – likely you’ll need it. Locally bought memory for your camera is costly and sometimes unavailable or defective.

Batteries – Bring backup batteries for your camera. And bring a battery charger and adapter that is compatible with the local current and electrical outlets.

With courtesy from travel writer
Howard Hillman.

Happy safari travel!

Ute Sonnenberg for

Can elderly and disabled people go on African safari?


African safari holidays are active holidays and can be exhausting. People with spine and neck problems should be careful as the game drives are on rough and bumpy roads. That might not be a good thing to do with such a condition. In any case, for people who are on a medical treatment it is strongly recommended to consult the physician.

In general elderly and disabled people can go on
African safari, as long as their physician does not advice otherwise. There are steps that make the getting in and out of the game vehicle easier and many lodges have wheelchairs to make the getting around in the lodge easier as well. There is always help as one is not alone and if necessary, staff can be booked for help.

But check in advance what help is available at the lodges and camps you want to book. Rather book flight transfers than road transfers. You will also be sure that the lodge has an airstrip in case of an emergency.

Luckily the amazing safari adventures are available also for people with health limitations and it gives them access to a strong healing source, the African bush with its amazing wildlife.

Happy safari going!

Ute Sonnenberg for

How are bathrooms on African safari?


This is not a silly question. The sanitary facilities on African safari holidays can be a major concern. It is essential to feel comfortable and the picture one might have from Africa can be worrying. But there is no reason to worry.

The standards of the bathrooms of
African safari accommodations are similar to western world standards and they vary depending on the accommodation class, just like anywhere else. The 5 star safari lodge has usually huge bathrooms with bathtubs, shower, outdoor shower, basins, flush toilets and lots of space. With a lower star rating the bathrooms get smaller and more essential, but they still have a shower and flush toilets.

Campsites will also be all right, but get some more information beforehand when you want to stay on public campsites. Their standards can vary quite a lot. It also matters in which African country your are and where in that country. But that affects rather the camping quality than the lodges and hotels. If you have doubts ask people who have been there or check on Tripadvisor.

There are also bathrooms that are always and everywhere the same, the big ones, the bush. They might be used while being on a game drive and going back to the lodge is not an option.

However you feel about the topic, don’t be shy and ask if you have questions. There is nothing silly about it.

Happy African safari holiday travelling!

Ute Sonnenberg for

Where can I go on self-drive African safari?


Finding your perfect African safari depends on many questions and one of them is the way of getting around. You can choose between fly-in safaris, road transfers and self-drive safaris. The latter is most likely the most adventurous and should be considered carefully.

South Africa and Namibia are the easiest countries for a self-drive
African safari. They have a good road infrastructure and self-drive in the parks is also well to do even for first time Africa visitors.

Botswana is already a bit different. While you can drive with a normal car in South Africa and Namibia, in Botswana you will need a 4x4 vehicle. Be prepared to get stuck at least once, as you drive through water and sand. Listen well to the instructions when you pickup the vehicle and take a GPS with you. Do not go alone when you are inexperienced, go rather as a group.

Self-drive in East Africa should only be done by experienced African safari travellers. The road infrastructure is not that developed as in Southern Africa, you will encounter road blocks and other obstacles while going to the nature reserves. In the reserves like for example the Masai Mara, navigation can be very difficult. A GPS will not help, because the Masai Mara has so many roads and they are not mapped on the system. Also for security reasons self-drive in Eastern Africa is not recommended for inexperienced travellers. Don’t get too brave.

If you are insecure about what you should do, talk to people with experience and they will help you making a decision that will allow you having a wonderful African safari holiday.

Happy wildlife safari holiday snapping!

Ute Sonnenberg for