South Africa Photo Journey

South Africa is a mega-diversity country. In the southwest, it contains habitats found nowhere else in the world, holding a host of endemic species. Among these are sensational birds such as the African Penguin, African Black Oystercatcher, Blue Crane, Cape Rockjumper, Knysna Turaco, and Chorister Robin-chat. In the northeast of the country, South Africa metamorphosizes into bush and savannah vegetation similar to that of East Africa, and species diversity increases dramatically, with hundreds of bird species possible in a day. In addition, this is “safari” country, and holds some of Africa’s most impressive mammals, like leopard, lion, cheetah, wild dog, elephant, hippo, zebra, and giraffe. Our main locality here is the Zimanga private reserve, which is specially designed for photographers. The blinds (hides) here have quickly been recognized as one of Africa’s top localities for bird photography. They attract a host of storks and vultures, spectacular raptors and bee-eaters, hornbills, kingfishers, barbets, sunbirds, starlings, waxbills and bush-shrikes. We conclude the trip in the magical Kruger National Park where we focus on photographing the massive array of mammals present in the park, including all of the “big 5”, as well as many other ungulates. Where else in the world can you photograph penguins one day and lions the next?!


See more South Africa photos on our Flickr site

This tour is completely different from our South Africa birding tour, focusing on photographing a narrower range of subjects rather than trying to rack up as many bird species as possible. While we will be trying to maximize the “number” of photographic experiences, we will also be spending quality time at places such as penguin colonies, bird blinds, or amongst a pride of lions. We will be using a larger vehicle than on a birding trip so that photographers can spread out and have all their equipment at hand, and have enough room to make the most of each photo opportunity. While not designed as a teaching workshop, there will be plenty of opportunities for discussion on lighting, composition, flash, and camera technique. Our goal is to put you in the proper place, at the proper time with the best light possible, to help you capture the magical and mystical world of the African veld and all of its fantastic wildlife.

Days 1-2: The Cape Peninsula. After arrival in Cape Town we begin exploring Western Cape. The Cape Peninsula, a spectacular 1 km high and 70 km long mass of sandstone mountains, shelters the city of Cape Town and is constantly pummeled by one of the stormiest oceans in the world. We begin right in Cape Town, at the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, skirting the slopes of Table Mountain, which holds more species of flowering plants than the whole of the British Isles. Here we will see and photograph Cape Fynbos endemic birds such as Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, and Cape Francolin. The gardens also allow a look at many of the wonderfully sculpted protea flowers, pastel-painted ericas, and chiseled restios that make up much of the Western Cape’s famous flora, offering fabulous macro photography opportunities for those whom are interested.

The national bird, the Blue Crane, in a field of flowers
The national bird, the Blue Crane, in a field of flowers (Ken Behrens)

We next wind along the spectacular Ou Kaapse Weg pass on our way to Kommetjie, where we stop to look for Benguela (the cold-water current of South African and Namibia) endemic seabirds including African Black Oystercatcher, Hartlaub’s Gull, Bank, Crowned and Cape cormorants. The sandy shoreline may also hold Three-banded, Blacksmith and White-fronted Plovers. We continue to follow the scenic coastline via Misty Cliffs and Scarborough to the entrance of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Here there are more Fynbos specials and a few more seabirds from the high cliffs at Cape Point, with the added attractions of game viewing and whale watching. The most striking of the mammals is the endemic Bontebok, but we might also see Chacma Baboon or even Eland. Rounding the peninsula to Simonstown, we stop at Boulder’s Bay to mingle with a large colony of breeding African Penguins. We will photograph them as they rocket out of the water, pose upon the white sand beach, or engage in raucous nesting activities.

If time allows, our final stop is the Strandfontein Sewage Works, a series of settling ponds on the northern shores of False Bay, which support a remarkable variety of waterfowl, including the near-endemic South African Shelduck and Cape Shoveler.

A Cape Rockjumper against the cold south Atlantic
A Cape Rockjumper against the cold south Atlantic (Keith Barnes)

Day 3: The West Coast. Located north of Cape Town, southern Namaqualand is famed for its spring displays of many annual flowers, especially daisies. The arid and rather bleak terrain is sprinkled with a series of wetlands, which in the austral summer hold the greatest densities of shorebirds on the entire eastern Atlantic flyway. In the spectacular Langebaan Lagoon of the West Coast National Park, Palearctic waders abound, while resident shorebirds include African Black Oystercatcher, White-fronted, Three-banded, and Chestnut-banded Plovers. The marshes and sedges are home to African Marsh Harrier as well as skulking marshland specialists. Here we are lucky in that five great hides are scattered across the reserve, and we will choose our hides based on the light and the tide-dependent proximity of the birds. The terrestrial vegetation surrounding the wetlands supports a variety of species that are not easily seen elsewhere. The most absorbing of these are the endemic Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan (Bustard), and Gray-winged Francolin.

Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop (Ken Behrens)

Day 4: Cape Town to Overberg. In the morning we will visit an area near Rooi Els, both to enjoy and perhaps photograph the incredible scenery along Clarens drive, and to find some additional fynbos birds to photograph. En-route to De Hoop, there will be an array of photo opportunities as we traverse the bird-filled wheat fields of the Agulhas coastal plain. Parties of majestic Blue Cranes will be our top target, but we won’t neglect Stanley Bustard, Thick-billed Lark, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, or the stately Secretarybird. In the afternoon, we will visit one of two excellent reserves: Bonbebok National Park or DeHoop Nature Reserve. The natural habitat found in these reserves includes a rugged coastline, pristine beaches and sand dunes, a wide coastal plain holding remnant fragments of the highly threatened lowland Fynbos, and a set of bizarre and unique limestone hills. Some of the special bird species in the area are Pied Starling, Orange-throated Longclaw, Bokmakierie, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Pied Barbet, Black Harrier, African Black Oystercatcher and eight species of canary. Mammals here include the scarce Cape Mountain Zebra, boldly-marked Bontebok, and Eland.

Endemic antelope, like the Bontebok, are easily photographed at some of the national parks in the Cape
Endemic antelope, like the Bontebok, are easily photographed at some of the national parks in the Cape (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: De Hoop to Wilderness. After enjoying another morning in the stunning Overberg, we make our way to the coastal town of Wilderness. Here our accommodation boasts one of the best bird feeder setups in the country. The star of the show is the emerald green Kynsa Turaco, which regularly visits. Its delicate white make-up on the eyes and head make it one of the most bedazzling birds of the region. But the feeders attract a lot more, including Fork-tailed Drongo, Speckled Mousebird, the exquisite Swee and Common waxbills, Forest Canary, Greater Double-collared and Amythest sunbirds, Chorister Robin-Chat, and Terrestrial Brownbul. If we get tired of the feeders, there are some nearby blinds that can be excellent for waterbirds.

They don't come much better than the elegant Knysna Turaco
They don't come much better than the elegant Knysna Turaco (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Wilderness to Zimanga. After a morning session at the feeders, we will head to George and fly to Johannesburg, where we drive into the lowland bushveld near Mkuze Game Reserve, one of the most diverse areas in South Africa. We hope arrive in Zimangi with enough time to enjoy an afternoon session in the blinds.

Days 7-9: Zimanga Reserve. This special place is fast earning a reputation as the best place in Africa to photograph birds. There are currently three hides, with another several in the planning stages. These hides have been designed and built in collaboration with Bence Mate, a former winner of the coveted BBC wildlife photographer of the year award. Bence has previously built hides on his farm in his native Hungary as well as in Costa Rica and South America, but these are his first hides in Africa. Each of the hides is designed for its potential subjects whether large mammals like giraffe or elephant, or the smallest of birds like waxbills and twinspots. The photographers are invisible to their subjects behind specially imported one-way glass so as not to startle the subject with any movements or sounds. Photographers are seated on comfortable chairs that glide effortlessly and quietly across wood laminate flooring. A solar-powered air conditioning unit situated in the roof of the hide controls the temperature and humidity within.  The hides are spacious and soundproofed, with carpet on the walls to muffle the sound. They allow photographers a non-intrusive method of wildlife photography and although the subjects are free-roaming, and hence no sighting is guaranteed, the hides tip the balance heavily in favor of the photographer to get some amazing shots.

Pink-throated Twinspot is one of Zimanga's marquee bird species
Pink-throated Twinspot is one of Zimanga's marquee bird species (Zimanga Game Reserve)

There are myriad subjects to shoot at the hides, including a bounty of large mammals and hundreds of bird species. Zimanga is home to Cheetahs and Wild Dogs, although encounters with these scarce predators is never guaranteed. However, it is the many fabulous bird photos being taken in this place that have caught the attention of photographers worldwide. Keen photographers have an option to spend a night in a hide, to try to get moonlight photographs of drinking animals like elephants, buffalos, giraffes and rhinos. There is also a vulture hide, although that needs to be booked in advance so that lodge staff can put out a carcass for the birds. If you get bored with sitting at the blinds, you can always take in a game drive or two. With so much to see and shoot here, our time in Zimanga is sure to fly by.

Curious Wild Dogs at Zimanga
Curious Wild Dogs at Zimanga (Zimanga Game Reserve)

Day 10: Zimanga (Mkuze) to Kruger. After another early morning session at a blind or on a safari drive, we make the long drive to Kruger National Park, where we spend the next five nights. The legendary wilderness of Kruger National Park, replete with its “big five” mammals, as well as over 500 bird species, will most certainly keep us busily photographing. We will spend the night at Skukuza Camp inside Kruger National Park, with a night drive an optional possibility.

Days 11 – 14: Kruger NP. Kruger National Park has a fantastic series of camps, many with tame birds and other tame wildlife that make for superb photography opportunities. We will visit Skukuza, Satara and possibly another camp, the best camps in the park for photography, with many birds right on their grounds. We are likely to see Woodland, Pied, Giant and Malachite Kingfishers, Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-shrikes, Saddle-billed, Marabou, Yellow-billed and Woolly-necked Storks, Trumpeter, Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills, White-browed Robin-chat, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Scarlet-chested and Marico Sunbirds, Kurrichane Thrush, Village and Lesser Masked Weavers, African Green Pigeon, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Thick-billed Weaver, Blue Waxbill, and many others. The grasslands in this part of Kruger host monstrous birds like Kori Bustard, Secretarybird, and Southern Ground Hornbill. At night, Pearl-spotted, African Scops or Spotted Eagle Owls may be spotted.

While looking for birds and mammals we should also get great opportunities to photograph the many handsome ungulates in this area including Impala, Greater Kudu, Hartebeest, and Waterbuck. With luck, we might find the rare Sable or Roan. Warthogs, Vervet Monkeys and Hippopotamus are also common. A big target will certainly be encounters with the “big five”, Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhinoceros, for which Africa is justly famous. We may also be lucky and run into the much rarer Cheetah or Wild Dog.

Southern Ground Hornbill, a broad-shouldered beast!
Southern Ground Hornbill, a broad-shouldered beast! (Ken Behrens)

Each day we will rise pre-dawn to be out on the roads early, looking for wildlife and taking advantage of the beautiful golden light of the mornings on the African savannah. After our morning game drive looking for wildlife we will come back to camp for lunch and some “free time” where people can opt to bird/photograph around camp, head to a hide or a water hole, or just take a siesta. Each afternoon we will head out for another game drive until dusk when we must return to the camp before the gates close at dark. There are a variety of birding hides around Kruger and several are near the camps where we stay, again providing some fantastic photographic opportunities.

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Day 15: Departure. After a little bit of early morning activity, we will head to Skukuza Airport where we fly back to Johannesburg where the tour concludes.

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OPTIONAL BIG CAT EXTENSION

Although our chances to see some of Africa’s cats are also very good at Kruger NP, the size of the park and sometimes “restricted” mobility means that we cannot always chase after every available opportunity. So it can be possible to miss some of the rarer cats in Kruger, most notably the rarest of them all, the striking Leopard.

Close-ups with Big Cats is what this extension is all about
Close-ups with Big Cats is what this extension is all about (Dubi Shapiro)

However, adjacent to Kruger is the Sabi Sand Game Reserve that is justly famed for its intimate wildlife encounters, and particularly leopard viewing. Home to a host of wildlife, including all of the Big Five, Sabi Sand is part of a conservation area that covers over two million hectares (almost five million acres), an area equivalent to the state of New Jersey and larger than some independent countries.

Day 1: Kruger NP to Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Days 2-3: Sabi Sands. With no boundary fences between the reserve and the Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand benefits from the great diversity of wildlife found in one of the richest wilderness areas on the African continent along with the additional benefits experienced by being on a private game reserve. Daily and nightly game drives led by highly trained trackers allow for intimate game experiences from the comfort of your open safari vehicle.

Action shots of Lions will be one of our targets on the extension
Action shots of Lions will be one of our targets on the extension (Dubi Shapiro)

The Sabi Sand is especially famous for its leopard sightings. Unlike many other areas, where leopards are rarely glimpsed in daylight hours, sightings of these shy animals are not uncommon during the day. The area also supports several resident lion prides, and while the relatively smaller and lighter build of the cheetah generally makes this elegant hunter reluctant to share an area dominated by lion and leopard, a number of them are also regularly spotted in the area. Herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as family groups of white rhino, move throughout the reserve and are regularly encountered on game drives.

Game drives traverse an area of 6 300 hectares (15 700 acres) and strict vehicle limits at each and every sightings in the area ensure the exclusivity of your game viewing and photography experience. Off-road driving ensures that you have the best possible view of any exceptional sighting and rangers are constantly in touch with each other to keep track of animal movements.

Purple-crested Turaco
Purple-crested Turaco (Ken Behrens)

The Sand River flows year-round and is a major source of water for the animals in the reserve. The deep water provides a home for rafts of hippo while lethargic crocodiles lounge along the wide sandy banks. Thick reed beds along the river’s course are home to many species of water birds and weavers, while water monitors slither among the tall grasses, and buffalo and elephant wallow in the cooling mud of the reed beds. The thick band of riverine forest found along the course of the river is the ideal home for shy species such as leopard and bushbuck, as well as tiny bush-babies.

Bird wise we will not have moved away from the very same habitat we have birded previously at Kruger National Park, thus birdlife will be very similar as previously described, although with the significant difference that photographing from open top vehicles is far more comfortable, easier and flexible. Whether we focus on birds or on the ultimate leopard “photo-grab” we shall enjoy the best possible conditions to do so.

Day 4: Departure. we will head back to Johannesburg, where the extension concludes.

PLEASE NOTE: For the Extension only, a Tropical Birding guide can only accompany the group if the final group size is 4-6 people (NOTE: In 2017, due to lodge availability, the maximum group size is limited to 4, but in most years it is 6). For smaller groups, while staying at a high-end lodge in the Sabi Sands region, you will be accompanied by one of their excellent local guides, who is extremely skilled with photo groups, and has years of experience in this field. We have run this section with 2 people in the past, with excellent results and feedback from all the people involved. (If you require a trip report from a trip of this nature please let us know, and we can send this to you).

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since we need to be out at first light, and we also will be using the late evening light where possible. Also, days 1 – 4 are quite full and so there is not much time for downtime in the middle of the day. However from day 4 onwards, pretty much every day will involve some downtime to download photos, perform some post processing, and generally catch up on some rest. Days 4 and 5 each involve about 3-hour drive, and day 6 is mostly a travel day, with a 90-minute flight and 6-hour drive. Day 10 also requires a 6-hour drive, these are the two longest drives of the tour. There will be little walking, and much of the photography is performed from setups, or at blinds (hides), or shot from the back of a vehicle. Most lunches will be sit down affairs, we may take some packed breakfasts, or get early breakfasts so we can be in the field at the optimal time for shooting. There will be a fair amount of travel and moving between lodging establishments on this tour. The extension is relaxing, with two 3.5 hour drives, scheduled in the morning and late afternoon/early evening. However, the crack hot rangers will certainly find you plenty to focus on in those time periods.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. There is virtually nothing strenuous required on this tour. We will probably be sitting a lot of the time, either at blinds or near setups. In Zimanga and Kruger we are not allowed to walk without an armed ranger. We may be allowed to leave the vehicles in Zimanga if you want a special shot, but there is no real requirement to walk.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant to cool in the Western Cape (mostly 44°-70°F, 7°-21°C), and a little drier and warmer in Zimanga and Kruger NP (mostly 50°-73°F, 10°-23°C). Some rain can be expected around Cape Town, but it is likely to be dry and rainless at Zimanga, Kruger, and on the extension.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity, internet and all “mod cons”.

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. We often run it in early June because that is when mammal viewing is at its best and the birds in the east of the country are coming to the water features most regularly. However, just about any time of year can be good, although we might recommend some tweaks to the itinerary if you want to run a custom tour in the spring (September-October) or summer (November-March).

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: This is a truly diverse tour, and we employ many different strategies to get good photos. Sometimes we’ll be walking, and opportunistically approaching or calling in birds; sometimes we’ll be shooting from the vehicle; and sometimes we’ll be in blinds. This is an excellent tour for birds, mammals, and landscapes. There are also good macro opportunities, especially of flowers around Cape Town.

GEAR: Come prepared for anything! Long lenses are sometimes useful, but not essential. Many subjects will be very close or approachable. Tripods may be useful for photography on foot, or from blinds, but generally can’t be used inside of the vehicle (Zimanga, Kruger & extension). Bean bags and other such ways of stabilizing lenses inside of a vehicle are recommended. Light is abundant, and we don’t do a lot of night photography, so a flash is not essential.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and most European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 14 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 3 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from lunch on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 15 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at mealtimes; Tropical Birding/Capturing Nature tour leader from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 15 if taking only the main tour, if taking the extension please request more info from our office regarding guiding arrangements; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on arrival and departure day respectively (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 15 (and to day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to birding sites, parks and reserves mentioned in the itinerary; domestic flights from George – Johannesburg (Day 6) and Skukuza – Johannesburg (Day 15).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.