In just a few years, wildlife photography has resoundingly shifted from a niche pursuit – practised by a handful of professionals and dedicated aficionados – to an increasingly mainstream context where most of us with a camera, an Instagram account and a couple of safaris under our belt consider ourselves bona fide wildlife photographers.
As is generally the case, South African tour operators and game reserves have been one step ahead in catering to the growing number of us who want to take home our own iconic images from the bush.
Snap-happy amateurs and seasoned veterans alike can now enjoy specialised photographic safaris with expert photographic guides and top-of-the-range equipment and facilities in some of the country’s most photogenic bush destinations.
Here’s our pick of the current offerings.
Pumba’s one of the newer members of an increasingly prestigious list of malaria-free Big Five Reserves in the Eastern Cape. It recently opened Gameston Lodge, offering specialised accommodation for guests taking part in the new Pumba Photo Academy, a four-day workshop run in conjunction with Pangolin Photo Safaris, and aimed at those looking to get to grips with a DSLR camera.
Gameston sits on a hillside on the site of the reserve’s original farmhouse and is now a budding wildlife photographer’s dream home-away-from-home. There’s state-of-the-art Canon equipment available for guests, including 400mm telephoto lenses, plug points galore (always important for all those camera batteries!), a coffee table full of beautiful hardback wildlife photography books and spectacular views across the undulating hills and dense bushveld of the reserve.
On my recent visit there, Peter Delaney was our expert guide for the duration of the workshop. A former winner of the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, he’s a patient and helpful photographic coach, as well as a fountain of bush knowledge.
The reserve itself has abundant game to photograph, including a pride of exceptionally rare white lions. We were lucky enough to have a number of encounters with these fine cats, which put on a good show for the cameras, with lots of big yawns and hard stares.
In the evenings, G&Ts in hand, we’d go over our images from the day and a range of course materials with Delaney and Neale Howarth, who was our guide at Pumba and is an experienced wildlife photographer in his own right.
The exclusive and under-explored Welgevonden is located in the heart of Limpopo’s beautiful Waterberg Region. This malaria-free Big Five reserve is characterised by rugged antediluvian rock formations, plunging valleys, lush green vegetation and more than 2 000 plant species, all of which provide a stunning backdrop for wildlife photography.
The park’s newest and most luxurious lodge, Mhondoro Game Lodge, is a particular hotspot for wildlife photographers, with a new, spacious state-of-the-art hide that can be safely accessed via an underground tunnel from the main lodge area. The hide sits in the middle of a waterhole and affords wonderful low-angle shots of the wildlife that comes to drink here.
Sitting on the raised wooden deck of my enormous suite during a recent stay at Mhondoro, I could spot the animals as they approached the waterhole. I grabbed my camera and hurried down to the hide every now and again, when a good shot presented itself.
A particular highlight was a large bull elephant coming to drink in the soft light of the late afternoon. With various cameras clicking away like machine guns from inside the hide, he decided that the water in the lodge’s infinity pool looked more appealing than the murky waterhole, which made for an even better shot once I’d rushed back upstairs onto the main deck.
Zimanga is the first game reserve in SA to be designed specifically with the interests of wildlife photographers in mind. This pristine reserve in KwaZulu-Natal has five state-of-the-art and luxuriously furnished photographic hides that were conceptualised by award-winning wildlife photographer and hide expert Bence Mate.
Each of Zimanga’s hides offers a unique photographic perspective and is designed with specific wildlife subjects in mind. In May 2016, the reserve unveiled a new overnight hide equipped with a coffee station, toilet facilities and beds.
Zimanga is a favourite hotspot for experienced birders to nerd out with their bazooka lenses – there are over 400 bird species recorded here. But I’ve always been more interested in the reserve’s healthy population of wild dogs, which are a personal favourite. In my experience, leopard and cheetah are good bets here too.
All guests at Zimanga are taken on game drives by specialist photographic guides and there are three accommodation options in the reserve, though day visits are also an option. There’s rustic self-catering at Nkonkoni and four-star luxury at Ghost Mountain Inn, which is used for various photographic workshops, or Doornhoek Homestead, a new offering due to open at the end of August. Doornhoek will also offer guests the opportunity to take part in a new wildlife monitoring experience.
The behemoth Kruger National Park certainly needs no introduction. But the crowds who regularly descend on it and the multiple tarred roads that bisect the public sections of the park have always been a bit of a deterrent for a snobbish purist like me. A five-day Kruger Photo Safari with Wild Eye certainly changes that and gives an entirely different perspective of this African icon.
The base for this delectable photographic safari is the secluded and rustic Camp Shemu, which is reserved exclusively for Wild Eye’s photographic clients. The camp is nestled in a private concession in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains.
Its waterhole, a dam, and the nearby river draw a plethora of big game to the area, including a 30-strong resident pride of lions, while elephants and buffalo are daily visitors to the waterhole. The camp’s spacious rooms face onto this active waterhole, giving clients 24-hour access to spectacular photographic opportunities.
Groups for these Wild Eye safaris are usually restricted to a maximum of four photographers, so everyone always has the time and space to compose their shots and you’ll be taken care of throughout by Wild Eye’s renowned photographic guides.
You’ll pay a pretty penny for this safari, but if you’re feeling flush and you’ve got a real passion for wildlife photography, there’s no better way to experience SA’s most famous park.
JACI’S LODGE, MADIKWE (BY ISHAY GOVENDER-YPMA)
On the border with Botswana, Jaci’s Lodge in Madikwe in North West province, one of the lesser known private game farms in SA, offers specialised guided photography courses. The terrain, known for the Big and Little Five, as well as the rehabilitated African wild dog, promises participants a chance to shoot like the pros with the use of telephoto lenses, a complimentary SD card and even the DSLR camera, if you need it.
I recently booked a tour to try to improve my somewhat shaky safari photography. The custom-built Gimpro door mounts fixed to the side of the vehicle allow you to fasten the camera, adjust the height or swivel the head to compose the perfect shot, all the while steadying the equipment. Unlike a regular safari, you stop frequently. Luckily, participants are usually like-minded amateur and pro photographers and are happy to wait while you click. From birds and bugs to the larger beasts, landscapes and silhouettes as the sun sets while I sipped a G&T, I enjoyed the opportunity to shoot with the pro lenses and zoom in to capture wrinkles, wiry manes and bright-coloured features. In fact, it prompted my decision to buy my own telephoto lens after the trip. Guides like resident photographer Anja Riise take participants through the basics of shutter speed, aperture settings, ISO and hints to compose crisper, more memorable pictures. Expert photographer Andrew Aveley hosts regular tours through the year, as does David Rogers, who specialises in a children’s photographic safari. Jaci’s has built a Terrapin Hide that you crawl into along the dam for a unique vantage point as the animals migrate to the water at sunset. You can hide out here at any time of day and even order a cold beer while you’re snapping away.
Photographic tours range from R550 per person (with your own equipment) with Riise to R1 900 for a morning and evening tour with Aveley. Accommodation rates start at R5 795 for doubles, all inclusive.