How to choose a great photographic safari lodge
Having spent upwards of 30 years as a photojournalist, lodge critic, photographic guide and tour operator specialising in Africa’s wild places, David Rogers has learned which lodges tick the right boxes for photographers – and those which do not. “It’s not so much about the brass tap and rim-flow pool,” he says. “Photographers often spend hours in the field to get the right shot and for them the quality of the game viewing and the standard of the guiding leaves the most lasting impressions.”
The lodge’s geographical location
First time photographers wishing to get shots of big herds of game should head for East Africa, which has the widest skies and biggest concentrations of game you can ever hope to photograph. If seeing all of the Big Five is a priority then safari lodges in South Africa’s Sabi Sand are sure to produce, while wilderness, abundant birds, waterways and fantastic game are sure to be found in the Okavango, Lower Zambezi, and South Luangwa national parks. These are just some of the great destinations on offer – I have not even touched on the deserts of Namibia or the misty mountains of the Virgungas – in Africa we are spoiled, and it’s not so much where to go but how many times and when.
When to visit Africa
The peak season for predator and general game viewing in Southern Africa are the months from May to October when it’s dry and animals are more concentrated around water. However, this is not always the case: in some areas such as the Kalahari and the Serengeti the game movements are triggered by rain and this means that the rainy season is best. I strongly suggest visiting the Mara and the Serengeti out of season. You may not get a photo of wildebeest swimming across the Mara but you can expect great lions, wonderful resident game, kgood prices and far fewer people. Those who visit safari parks during the rainy season will find that that they are lush and green and the landscapes are beautiful. This is also the time when you will see many young animals and also summer migrant birds. Every season has its ups and downs in terms of heat, dust, people, prices and predators.
A safari far from the crowds
Most really wild experiences are now to be had outside of national parks in private concessions where vehicles and visitor numbers are limited. Private concessions are not only more exclusive, but they often offer activities such as game walks, night drives and off-road driving which is often not permitted inside the national parks’ boundaries. Sometimes, such as in the Mara, you might be prepared to queue up with up to 200 other vehicles for the privilege of seeing a crossing (I know that I am) but how wonderful it is to be able to retreat back at a private concession in the evening for some more exclusive game viewing and then the chance to be on foot and sip a gin and tonic while watching a golden sun set?
Safari lodges for nature photographers
I think that every photographer wants to get low angles of animals and this is only really an option if you are allowed to be on foot. Areas such as Luangwa Valley and Mana Pools specialise in walking safaris. Mana Pools is one of the only places in Africa where guests are allowed to walk around freely – even without a guide. It’s also fantastic visiting a safari lodge where you can see animals from the camp or which has a photographic hide. This way you can keep photographing wildlife through the day. If an aerial perspective is important then consider the options of private helicopter and microlight flights which are an option at certain lodges in Africa.
The size of the concession
Whichever private reserve you are visiting, find out the size of the concession and the number of safari lodges and game viewing vehicles that are operating there. If you visit a very small and relatively crowded concession you could end up in a line for sightings and have very short windows of opportunity before being asked to make way for another vehicle. These highly managed game viewing experiences are the norm in much of the Sabi Sand where you have a great chance of seeing the Big Five in less than 24 hours. Some of the finest private concessions are found in Botswana and here you can find thousands of hectares, which are being traversed by only a few vehicles.
The proximity to game viewing
It’s critical to establish how far your safari lodge is from the game viewing areas or destination you are visiting. Having to drive for an hour or two each day to reach the game is tiring, time consuming and also means you will miss out the sweet light and the chance of seeing predators which are mostly nocturnal or crepuscular. Also, there is no point heading to a place like Sossusvlei in Namibia and being based outside the national park – those inside the park are able to have access to the dunes and the best light an hour before those on the outside of the park.
The lodge’s additional facilities and services
Some lodges provide photographic hiring services, printing facilities and the vehicles have beanbags and great camera supports, while others don’t. The frills are not that important. Most importantly, find out about the safari vehicles at the camp. Do they have good supports or should you bring a monopod for stability. Is it possible to hire a private vehicle? Are charging plug points in the rooms or in public areas and what plugs do they support? If you are charging in public areas, mark your names on batteries and chargers so they don’t get mixed up and take a few extra batteries just in case. For my photographic workshops I like public areas (preferably quite dark) which I can set aside for the group to sit together, analyse shots and share ideas. If they have an HD projector, that is a huge bonus.
Style of lodge and facilities
In my experience, it’s much easier to build a beautiful lodge that it is to build a happy one. I love staying in small safari camps where you feel at home. As far as a good canvas tent, I am happy as long as it has a loo on the back, there is a place to plug in my camera gear and view my pictures, there is great food and happy staff. I love taking photographs of lodges and appreciate warm light, wonderful décor and fine food. The balance between comfort and the true bush experience is a very real one. I would far rather sacrifice brass taps for great and authentic service.
Personal service and attention
Service is everything. For me it’s absolutely fantastic to return to safari lodges where you see the same wonderful faces year after year. The laughter, the welcome, the flexibility this is what photographers cherish – and for me the South Luangwa guides and staff take first, second and third prize in this department. The experience that you will have in the lodge often starts at the top of an organisation and for this reason owner run camps are often worth considering. I have done a great deal of work with Classic Safari Camps of Africa and these owner run and managed tented safari camps are all excellent. As small camps grow into corporations it’s sad to note that a lot of the magic of the experience found in smaller camps can start to fizzle out. Generally smaller safari camps are more expensive — but not always. Groups of photographers might find that they can book out a villa in the bush and have their own private game vehicle and guide for the same price as staying in a larger lodge. This will mean that they have much more flexibility. Great food, wine, and meeting new people is all a part of being on safari. It’s great to meet other travellers, but it’s more important that there is the option for private dining so that your group can be flexible about meal times. There is also nothing worse for me after a long day of shooting than very long drawn-out dinners.
The safari guides and specialist guides
You’re going to spend up to 8 hours a day with your guide (even longer sometimes!) Will he or she be a great guide, a careful driver, a great companion and also be tuned into the very real needs as a photographer? Will he anticipate animal behaviour and also have ideas for great shots of landscapes, flowers, birds, insects and everything in between. Will they give you useful tips about camera settings and other photographic opportunities? There are one or two safari guides I can think of that do tick all of these boxes but the only way to guarantee their service is to pay for them as a specialist guide. A specialist photographic guide will move from camp to camp with a group making sure that there is continuity of the experience. They will ensure that the vehicles leave on time in the morning, that everyone rotates positions, makes friends and also that there are opportunities for great nature photography. At sightings they will give suggestions of camera settings, lenses and other consideration. Whether or not your guide takes images themselves is a moot point. Sometimes its alarming if the guide seems to be after their own images to the detriment of the group. As a photographic guide, I take images as my settings and composition are of interest to the group at the time and also when we share images each evening. I am, however, careful that my hunger for images (and I am hungry for images) is less important than those of the group. Guests get first choice of where to sit in the vehicle. My role is as a photographic guide, friend and facilitator and to make sure that everyone gets lots of great shots and has lots of fun.
Travelling in photo groups
Aside from the benefit of having a guide, the best thing about travelling with a photo group is that they all have the same interest so early wake ups and long days in the field are fairly easy to negotiate. Photographic groups are also likely to get better attention and photographic guiding than individual travellers. It’s also cost effective to have a vehicle with 4 or 5 people rather than paying for your own private vehicle. While photographers learn from me as a photo guide they also learn from others in the group. Everyone has a different way of seeing the world and it’s always wonderful to see the variety of images that individuals can create from a particular sighting. Photographers are often competitive and it’s an important role of the guide to help facilitate harmonious relationships.
The cost of booking a safari lodge
It saves a lot of time putting a budget to your trip before booking. Prices for staying in game lodges range from $200 to $2000 a night — but it does not stop there. You also need to consider the cost of transport to the lodge, visas, tips, drinks, park fees, laundry and other inclusions and exclusions. It is possible to visit camps at times when they are less busy and get off season rates but make sure that you are aware that off season rates are often lower because the game viewing may not be quite so productive. If you book within 60 days (or less) of travel you can often get excellent rates and specials. Often camps offer discounts if you spend more than 4 nights in one place. Sometimes you can also get good deals if you book an itinerary within a family of camps.
Planning your safari itinerary
Every safari camp – even the likes of Mombo and Mala Mala – has its highs and lows in terms of viewing and no matter which camp you visit you may or may not get the sort of National Geographic sightings that you wish for. You can do your research by asking your camp for a sightings report showing activities at any particular time of year, but make sure that you stay at least three and preferably four nights at every lodge you visit. When I visit the Mara or Ndutu areas for the migration then 6 nights is a minimum. Also don’t forget that if you do stay for 6 or more nights at a lodge (or within a family of lodges) there are usually very good discounts to be enjoyed. When making and booking itineraries carefully consider the nature of the diversity of the areas that you are visiting as well as the types of species that you are likely to encounter and the experiences that they offer.
Booking online – the pros and cons
There is a growing trend to book accommodation online, directly with companies. This does not necessarily result in savings or any advantage. Most credible lodges will not pass on their net rates without forever losing agent support and industry credibility, and agents are often aware of long-stay offers and special reduced rates that consumers will not even know about. A good photographic agent will know the names of specialist guides who can lead photographic trips. They will be far more likely to help you with cancellation issues or if things go wrong. Over the years I have had to deal with unfortunate cancellations due to death, injury and other unforeseen incidents and in every case except one have been able to reschedule the trip for the client without any financial losses. By using an agent you will not pay extra and you will be able to get a wealth of experience that can make your trip a real success.