Friday, 14 June 2013

Making the right choice on your Photo Safari to Tanzania - Ten tips based on my experience

Africa is unique experience, one that should be experienced by everyone at least once in their life. I am blessed to have the opportunity to take groups to East Africa and watch their faces as they experience the sights and sounds of the Serengeti for the first time.

Watching the facial expressions when we come upon a herd of a few hundred thousand wildebeest, or seeing a family of Cheetah frolicking in the grass is what makes it all worth while for me...

From my last workshop in April of 2013 I am now left with memories that will last a lifetime, not just photos, but I will always remember the look on the face of a friend, Gary Simmons, as we sat in our luxury tent and listened to an elephant stomp and make loud vocalisations like it was on top of us... as if on cue when we started laughing, a large snap and crash occurred. The elephant had knocked over a tree not too far from our room. It was an experience that Gary will always remember... and frankly so will I...

The joy of being on a safari can only be achieved if your tour company and guide(s) are looking after the little things... and that's what I want to address in this blog post. Making sure your guide has thought about the little things to make your experience everything you expected... and, I hope to help you be better prepared.
1) How many people per safari vehicle?
This is a biggie for a photography workshop / tour... You spend significant time in a safari vehicle and this is where you will be taking 80% of your photos from.
Sometimes the amount of people per vehicle is overlooked. The vehicles, if your tour company has extended Land Rovers or Toyotas, has three rows behind the driver with a pop up roof. The ideal situation is 3 people per vehicle so that you have unobstructed views from both sides of the vehicle in your own row.
There is nothing worse than being on the left side of the vehicle and a lion pride is on the right side of the vehicle... and even worse, another body is beside you getting the great shots while you struggle to find room to shoot.
2) How often do you move lodges?
A safari, while a fantastic experience for any photographer, can be a busy trip. Lodges are scattered throughout the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti and the animals will move to follow the migration. Some are stationary, but many follow the migration.
Before you book, check how many times you move. Sometimes it is unsettling if you are constantly moving to different lodges. While its nice to see different areas of the parks, it can be tiring and you can feel like you are living out of a suitcase and always thinking ahead about the next move and not focusing on the sights and sounds you should be enjoying today.
A good tour company and guide will know where the animals are throughout the year and will put you in the right lodges to maximise your time there.
Hey, you may want to see more areas and do not care if you are moving every couple of days, and that's OK... just make sure you are aware.
But keep in mind, a lodge that is 25 miles away from another lodge is not like driving 25 miles in North America. The roads are dirt roads and 25 miles will take you an hour or two with not that many stops to take photos.
3) Transportation to and from Arusha to get to the game viewing.
Check to see how you will be getting to the Crater or the Serengeti. Usually you will drive out from Arusha with a stop in Arusha the fist night, a second stop closer to Ngorongoro Conservation area after a day of game viewing, then a final drive out to the Serengeti the next day.
I have seen some people drive straight from the airport and that can take half a day or more to get out to the Serengeti with straight driving. That is the last thing you want to do after your International flights.
My suggestion is to drive one way, fly the other way. There are a few airports right in the Serengeti that are close to the lodges that you will be staying at.
Check to see how you are driven to and from the game viewing areas.
4) Food and Drinks.
Most companies will accommodate you for any food requirements. My tours can accommodate vegetarians, Muslims and Kosher requirements. Some lodges will have set menus, others will give you options... so enquire before you go to make sure your meals are satisfactory.
Water, this is important. Check that lodges use bottled water for drinking and ask how they get their water for showers. And, what precautions they use to make safe.... I hate to bring up the negatives of being on safari, but be safe, and ask.
I have never gotten sick when I have been in Africa, but when I was travelling there before I lead workshops, I asked the questions before I sent.
5) Your African Guide.
The guides are all generally great. But make sure you are using a credited company that has been through some kind of schooling. You are literally putting your experience into the hands of a stranger. If they are not knowledgeable, sorry, but your trip could be ruined.
I use guides that have been trained, have significant guiding experience and know the little things that will add to your safari experience.
Now that I have found a few guides that have experience taking photographers around I am going to keep using them. They do the little things that make all the difference in the world. Positioning the vehicle so the sun is behind you... driving to the places they know the animals are at so we are there in optimal light and most importantly, know the characteristics of the animals so that they can alert you of any movement that you will want to photograph.
6) Before you travel... will your guide(s) prepare you for your safari.
There are anomalies and lessons that one can only learn by being in the environment. What gear do you really need, how many batteries should you take, how often will you be able to charge, is there Internet and phone coverage. Will they prepare you for what the voltage in Africa and how to safely use your North American or European electronics.
Then there are inoculations and travelling with camera gear... some cases are great for travelling with, and others are great for being there... which is best for you? Your guide or PRO photographer should be preparing you for your travel... why stress, ask the right questions and make sure you are prepared.
In regards to being medically prepared... what shots do you need, when do you get the shots, and how much are they? A tour company and guide will be able to get you this information well in advance of travel so you can have piece of mind.

One anomaly for example... If you fly straight to Tanzania it is not mandatory that you get Yellow Fever shots at the time that I wrote this blog... but if you fly through Kenya, or go to Kenya on your safari before entering Tanzania, you need a Yellow Fever shot... I would hate to see you show up at the border of Tanzania and not have that Yellow Fever shot because you didn't know you needed it.
7) Your PRO photographer guide... are they a shooter or a teacher?
I admit, as a photographer its easy to get carried away and shooting... and yes, even the PRO photographer guide will be taking photos while you are there... but the good pro photographer/teacher will remember why they are there... they are there for you. Without you, they wouldn't be there...
A good workshop will have teaching time in the vehicle and time set aside to do editing teaching. A good PRO photographer will prepare you before and during the workshop to make sure you are ready to get the shots. But they will also take the time during harsh light mid day, or after dinner to go through your images to give you some feedback.
Ask the question before you go... will you get one on one teaching? Will they teach you new styles of shooting that you may have never tried? Ask to see their images from Africa... this is your bucket list trip... you deserve to be lead by the best leader you can afford.

8) How much money do you need to take with you on your safari?
I would take $600 to $750USD with you for a week or week and a half safari. Your meals will be included and when out in the vehicle you should have your refreshments in a cooler, and included in your price. The only things you will have to buy are souvenirs for your family and friends and possibly your alcoholic drinks and soft drinks at the lodges.

But you will also need $50USD or $100USD once you land for a VISA. It will all depend on what country you are coming from . Your VISA payment needs to be in cash... so make sure it is handy when you get to customs in Tanzania.

You will also need lots of $1 bills. That is the standard tip amount and its always good to show up in Tanzania with $20 or $30 in $1 bills. Some lodges have a tip box that you tip before you leave, but some lodges do not have that tip box.

You may not believe in tipping, but that is how the workers really make their money... its up to you, but if you do want to tip, its better to be prepared.

9) Layovers while travelling to and from Africa.
Depending on where you are coming from there are different routes that will get you to Tanzania. You can fly through Amsterdam, London, Istanbul, Paris, Ethiopia and other various cities. From North America the most common routes are through Europe...

Next year for example... I will be headed back to run my next workshop in the Serengeti... I will probably fly through Amsterdam and take a day to go photograph the Tulips in Amsterdam during the April timeframe... for a couple hundred dollars, the experience is worth it while you are there.

Before you book, talk to your travel agent and see what your options are going to, or headed back from Africa.

10) Taking time to enjoy the experience
While we are all going on a photo safari to take photos... do not forget to sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of Africa. Years from now when photos are forgotten, memories will still be there in your mind... Take lots of mental photos and keep those memories with you forever.

11) Price... my workshop is under $5000... as you compare workshops you will see that my price is far better than many other African Photo Safari's out there. I do not place high fees on my workshop and I work with the people on the ground to negotiate excellent accommodation for good prices.

Here are some photos we took on our last safari. Click Here
I also ask that you check out my next photography workshop in Tanzania. That workshop can be found here...