Q&A: A Safari Expert Tells You What to Expect

by  Melanie Scharler | Oct 30, 2013
Traveler on a safari
Traveler on a safari / Zephyr18/iStock

Lots of travelers have a safari somewhere on their bucket lists. Gerry van der Walt, safari and photography expert, and co-founder of Wild Eye Photo Safaris, offers some tips and advice for planning and enjoying your Africa trip of a lifetime.

Melanie Scharler: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How long has Wild Eye been offering photographic safaris? What inspired you to launch the company?

Gerry van der Walt: My two partners and I started Wild Eye about three years ago with the idea of refreshing the photographic safari. The photographic safari industry was perceived as a boys’ club with professional photographers and big lenses. We wanted to change that perception, welcoming photographers of all levels, and making a photographic safari not just about taking photos, but the experience of learning about nature and the environment, while meeting new people. We created a business offering photographic safaris, workshops, photography courses and equipment rental.

M: Let’s start with the absolute basics. What are the best times to go on safari?

GV: In Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the best time to see the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, leopard, rhino and buffalo) is in the winter months from May-August. During this time, there is very little rain, so many of the animals tend to congregate at or around the watering holes to drink.

If you are a bird watcher, the rainy season from September-March is the best time to visit the southern parts of Africa. The rainy season is also a good time to capture photos of dramatic cloud-filled skies and beautiful African sunsets. You still stand a good chance of seeing animals, but the game viewing might be a bit more difficult because the bush is a lot more lush and green, which gives predators more places to hide.

If you are traveling to Kenya, one of the most interesting times to go is from July to October, when you can witness the migration of hundreds of thousands of zebra and wildebeest traveling across the plains and through the Mara River. During that time you also stand a very good chance of seeing Big Five game such as lion, elephant, and buffalo. The open plains also contain numerous other species such as topi, impala, giraffe, and hyena.

M: Lots of travelers can feel a bit intimidated when it comes to planning a safari trip. They worry they might get sick, or run into a complicated political situation. Do you have any advice to help people stay safe and healthy?

GV: If you are planning a safari specifically to see wildlife, I would suggest minimizing your time in the major cities. Your tour operator and ground handler will be able to advise you on the best logistics in order to get you to your destination from the international airport. From both a safety and convenience point of view, it just makes sense to get to your final destination as quickly as possible. That being said, spending time in a city like Johannesburg and Cape Town does have its own unique highlights; but speak to your safari operator to get all the necessary information.

Most safari camps will have either a night guard or, as is the case in Kenya, two armed rangers in the evenings for protection. The chances of bumping into wildlife around your camp are pretty small, but you need to keep in mind that you are still in the wild.

Depending on your destination, you might need to be inoculated for yellow fever. If you travel to Central or East Africa, you will need to present a certificate proving that you’ve been inoculated in order to leave the country after your safari. This certificate is easy to get, and it’s valid for ten years. Also, make sure to check the malaria status of your destination, as you might need to take malaria medication. Your safari company will be able to help you through this process.

M: Is there a chance that people could get sick from the food or water?

GV: It’s best to only drink bottled water and be careful about drinks containing ice, as the water in Africa could upset your stomach – not because it is “bad,” but because your stomach just isn’t used to it. Generally speaking, make sure water is from a purified source. I have never experienced a foreigner getting sick from food at any of the lodges I’ve worked with, but should you feel the need, you have full right to request to see the kitchen area where your food is prepared. Food forms a very big part of a safari experience and will normally be of a good standard.

M: What kinds of cuisine should guests expect?

GV: The lodges tend to serve universal cuisine mixed with local cuisine options. In South Africa, local offerings include venison such as impala or kudu with other exotic options such as crocodile sometimes appearing on the menu. In Kenya, the Maasai offer the unique experience of watching them prepare a meal such as goat being prepared over an open fire, and then eating it with the locals in the wilderness. A fantastic experience! Lodges will always offer options for vegetarians or people who do not feel overly adventurous.

M: Do you need a special camera to take great photos on a safari?

GV: I would suggest investing in a DSLR camera where you have the ability to change lenses as the situations change, and capture shots in different lighting conditions. For instance, you will need a big focal lens to zoom in on wildlife which is further away or to create those intimate portraits we all like to see. A DLSR also allows you to take great shots from dusk to dawn, as they’re generally better under low light conditions. At Wild Eye, we rent cameras and lenses so our guests don’t need to travel with large, expensive camera equipment. We do have guests, however, who take photos from their iPads, so all types of cameras are of course welcome.

M: Do you have any insider tips for safari travel? Any special must-sees that are off the beaten path?

GV: I would suggest smaller parks in Kenya such as Samburu Reserve and Amboseli National Park, which are just as scenic as the larger parks, but attract fewer tourists because of their size. In Samburu, which is located on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, you can view the Samburu Five (Grevy’s zebra, Somali ostrich, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk and biesa oryx); and in Amboseli, large herds of free roaming elephants.

Also, safari lodges in Zimbabwe tend to be less touristy, as many people do not venture to that area due to the country’s political climate. However, we offer a safari package four times a year where you land in the capital and transfer out to the camp site at Mana Pools National Park, so the political situation doesn’t come into play at all, and you will be able to focus just on your safari experience.

M: What should I make sure to pack for a safari trip, besides a camera?

GV: Dress in layers as the weather changes throughout the day – so long- and short-sleeve t-shirts, a good sweater and jacket. Find a rain jacket that can be easily rolled up and toted, gloves for when it gets cold, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, small binoculars; as well as hiking boots for the excursions and flip flops for around the lodge.

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