South Africa Photo Tour

This is a Photo Tour. The goal of the tour is to get great photos of birds and mammals. Sometimes significant time is spent trying to get a great shot of a single bird/mammal. The size of the trip list is not a priority. If you are only a casual photographer, or are looking for a traditional Birding Tour, check out our other South Africa tours: South Africa: Fairest Cape to Kruger and South Africa: Enigmatic Wildlife.

South Africa is a mega-diversity country. In the southwest, on our pre-tour, we enjoy 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 and Cape Sugarbird. 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.

Day 1: Durban to Zimanga. After a morning arrival at Durban International Airport, we drive into the lowland bushveld near Mkuze Game Reserve, one of the most diverse areas in South Africa. We plan to arrive in Zimanga with enough time to enjoy an afternoon session in the blinds.

Getting photos of Big Cats is a major objective of this photo tour
Getting photos of Big Cats is a major objective of this photo tour (Keith Barnes)

Days 2-4: Zimanga Reserve. This special place is fast earning a reputation as the best place in Africa to photograph birds. There are currently six 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.

Spectacular birds like Lilac-breasted Roller occur in the game parks
Spectacular birds like Lilac-breasted Roller occur in the game parks (Keith Barnes)

There are myriad potential subjects to shoot at the hides, including a bounty of large mammals and hundreds of bird species. Zimanga is home to Cheetahs and sometimes Wild Dogs, and although encounters with these scarce predators are never guaranteed, we stand an excellent chance of not just seeing, but spending quality time with these amazing predators – including on foot! 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, allowing up close and personal sessions with multiple vulture species and scavenging mammals like jackals and hyenas . 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.

A Goliath Heron and a fish-eagle provide a spectacular shot
A Goliath Heron and a fish-eagle provide a spectacular shot (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Zimanga (Mkuze) to Kruger. After another early morning session at a blind or on a safari, 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.

Elephants are often encountered in Kruger NP
Elephants are often encountered in Kruger NP (Keith Barnes)

Days 6 – 9: Kruger NP. Kruger National Park has a fantastic series of camps, many with tame birds and other 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 seen and photographed. While looking for birds and predators 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. Big targets 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 creatures too.

Southern Ground Hornbills are huge,  photogenic birds
Southern Ground Hornbills are huge, photogenic birds (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.

Spotted Hyena
Spotted Hyena (Ken Behrens)

Day 10: 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. For those keen on extensions, we have a 4-day pre-tour to Cape Town and a post-tour Big Cat extension to the exclusive private reserve of Sabi-Sands.

The delightful Malachite Kingfisher
The delightful Malachite Kingfisher (Lisle Gwynn)

Hippos need to be treated with respect!
Hippos need to be treated with respect! (Lisle Gwynn)

White Rhino stands out impressively for photos
White Rhino stands out impressively for photos (Lisle Gwynn)

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CAPE PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

The iconic Table Mountain, in Capetown
The iconic Table Mountain, in Capetown (Ken Behrens)

Days 1-2: The Cape Peninsula. After arrival in Cape Town we begin exploring the unique surroundings of one of Earth’s most spectacular cities. And it is surprisingly wild. The Cape Peninsula, a spectacular 1 km high and 70 km long mass of sandstone mountains, shelters the city that is pummeled by one of the stormiest oceans in the world. We begin right 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.

Cape Sugarbirds feed in spectacular floral blooms in the Cape
Cape Sugarbirds feed in spectacular floral blooms in the Cape (Keith Barnes)

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.

Africa Penguins are easy to photograph on the Cape Extension
Africa Penguins are easy to photograph on the Cape Extension (Ken Behrens)

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 holds 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 several hides are scattered across the reserve, and we will choose the best 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 Bustard, and Gray-winged Francolin.

Neon Malachite Sunbirds can be found in Capetown
Neon Malachite Sunbirds can be found in Capetown (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 4: Cape Town to Durban. After a fantastic introduction to some of the best of Cape Town’s wild environments we transfer to the airport for a domestic flight to Durban, where we start the main tour.

The Western Cape is home to the striking Cape Rockjumper
The Western Cape is home to the striking Cape Rockjumper (Lisle Gwynn)

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BIG CAT SABI SANDS POST-TOUR EXTENSION

Although our chances to see some of Africa’s cats are also very good at Zimanga and 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 cats in Kruger, most notably the most elusive of them all, the striking Leopard.

A Cheetah rests nearby
A Cheetah rests nearby (Keith Barnes)

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 Sands 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.

A curious cub approaches
A curious cub approaches (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 1: Kruger NP to Sabi Sands Game Reserve. We take the short transfer from the government gazette park to the private Sabi Sands 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 some of the most skilled wildlife trackers on Earth, allows for intimate game experiences from the comfort of your open safari vehicle. And the resulting photographic opportunities are simply sensational.

Lions will be a major target for our lenses
Lions will be a major target for our lenses (Lisle Gwynn)

We spend time with our subjects to capture these live action moments
We spend time with our subjects to capture these live action moments (Lisle Gwynn)

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 African Elephant and Cape 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.

Big Cat close ups are likely on the extension in particular
Big Cat close ups are likely on the extension in particular (Keith Barnes)

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 Hippopotamus while lethargic Nile Crocodile 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 Lesser Bushbabies.

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.

Sabi Sands is an excellent place for getting portraits of Cheetahs
Sabi Sands is an excellent place for getting portraits of Cheetahs (Lisle Gwynn)

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

PLEASE NOTE: For the Sabi Sands extension only, a Tropical Birding guide can only accompany the group if the final group size is 4-6 people. 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 as few as two 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, on the Cape pre-tour, days are quite full and so there is not much time for downtime in the middle of the day. However, on the main tour and Sabi Sands extension, pretty much every day will involve some downtime to download photos, perform some post processing, and generally catch up on some rest. Day 5 is mostly a travelling day with a 7 hour drive. 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 or early breakfasts so that we can be in the field at the optimal time for shooting. There will not be a lot of travel and moving between lodging establishments on this tour, and we spend extended periods of time at the lodges we visit, maximizing our photography time. The Sabi Sands big cat 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 us plenty to focus on in those time periods when the light is optimal.

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, or in the back of a safari vehicle. In Zimanga and Kruger we are not allowed to walk without a 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”.

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). Zoom lenses are particularly useful on this tour where you may be going between small finches and giant elephants in a matter of minutes. 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 9 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 3 of the extensions if also taking the extensions; meals from lunch on day 1 (unless you arrive too late) to breakfast on day 10 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 4 of the extensions if also taking the extensions (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 10 if taking only the main tour, if taking the extensions 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 10 (and to days 4 of both extensions if also taking the extensions) in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to birding sites, parks and reserves mentioned in the itinerary; domestic flights from Cape Town – Durban (Day 4 of Cape extension) and Skukuza – Johannesburg (Day 10).

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