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South Africa Trip Summaries and Information

I first wrote this summary following our visit to South Africa in 2010.  Since then we returned in August, 2012 and I led a photo tour in August, 2014.  I have updated the information below to include a couple of the new parks we visited during the second trip.

We originally weren’t planning on visiting South Africa in 2010, but our friends decided they wanted to go and that was all the excuse we needed to hit the road again. And we’re glad we did. Two great weeks of wildlife photography in Kruger National Park and Mala Mala and Elephant Plains game reserves made it one of the highlights of 2010 for us. And of course, we had a fantastic time with friends.

In 2012 we were invited back to join the same friends, but we wanted to try something different, so instead of revisiting Kruger, we ventured west to Mokala National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

In 2014 I returned to lead a private photo tour to Kruger and MalaMala (as well as Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana).  All of the locations lived up to or exceeded expectations.  You may view the 2014 trip photos in the photo archive.

Read on to learn all the trip details, from travel to lodging to the details about the reserves and guides we used.

General Information

There are various routes from the States to Africa these days, from a directly flight between to Atlanta and Johannesburg to flying through Europe to the odd route we took: Seattle – Washington, DC – Senegal – Joburg. It was by far the cheapest route available and a took nearly a full day.

Expect airfare to run between $1200 and $2000.

The first half of our 2010 journey in South Africa took place inside a rental car. Since you can drive yourself around in Kruger, this made the most sense. We opted for a small SUV (e.g., Hyundai Santa Fe), which provided better handling on Kruger’s bumpy roads and a higher vantage point, which was useful for photography. Our friends rented tiny compact cars and hated their performance on Kruger’s dirt roads.

Following our Kruger excursion, we traveled next to the game reserves, where a rental vehicle was not needed. This meant we needed a vehicle we could pick up in one location and drop off in another. Most rental agencies will not allow this, but we found an arrangement that worked through Avis. We were able to pick the car up at the airport in Joburg and leave it at Mala Mala, where they picked it up. This was extremely convenient and meant we didn’t have to pay for an unused car the last week of our trip.

In Mala Mala and Elephant Plains, you are carried about in the reserves’ own Land Rovers. They can and do go just about anywhere. A lack of roads is no obstacle.

Following our Elephant Plains stay, we transferred to Hoedspruit for a short flight back to Joburg, where we caught our flight home. Transfers between the reserves and from EP to Hoesdspruit were arranged by the game reserve staff.

During our 2012 trip we once again rented a small SUV from Avis.  It worked fine in the arid parks (4 wheel drive was not necessary, since it was the dry season).

Both of our trips were in August, which is the equivalent of winter in South Africa.

We still had some hot days, but overall it was very comfortable, even in the open air vehicles at MM and EP. It did become cool during night drives.

We rarely experienced rain on either trip. If you travel in the South African summer/wet season (approximately Dec – March) expect much hotter and more humid conditions.

Southern Africa Photo Tour

Parks and Game Reserves

Mokala National Park

This small and relatively new park is found in the middle of South Africa.  Many locals we spoke to had not even heard of it.  It does not house any major predators (jackals being the largest), and is home to several species of antelope, rhinos and other ungulates.  Nearly all of the animals in Mokala are skittish around vehicles, which made for a more challenging photographic environment.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park


See meerkats in the wild in Kgalagadi.

A fascinating park bisected by the South Africa/Botswana border.  The KTP is located in South Africa’s northwestern corner, which makes it a bear to reach from the more popular areas in the eastern part of the country.  Though we rented a car and drove across country to get there, I would recommend flying to Upington and driving from there instead.

The KTP is on the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert, so it’s a far different environment from Kruger and the Sabi Sands.  It also presents a good opportunity to see different wildlife, including bat-eared foxed and meerkats.  It’s a very good spot for cheetahs, African wild cats, black-maned lions and raptors.

Kruger National Park

Kruger is huge. One could set aside a few weeks to explore the entire park thoroughly. We had six days, which we split between two bases: Skukuza and Satara. Our friends added three days based in Lower Sabie. The park is easily explored on ones own via rental car (see above), and Kruger offers abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. However, wildlife photography is difficult. The number of actual roads to explore is relatively small, meaning there are large stretches of territory for animals to roam in between. You cannot drive off-road in Kruger. Nor can you leave your vehicle, except in a few designated areas. This means that you’re usually stuck shooting from your vehicle, presenting plenty of challenges when seeking out moving subjects.

Kruger highlights include: The Lake Panic hide, great for birds and other wildlife in the morning and late afternoon; Sunset Dam, great for sunsets (of course) and plenty of wildlife; the S100 road, best for cats. Note that Lake Panic is best reached if staying at Skukuza, Sunset Dam for those at Lower Sabie and the S100 for those staying at Satara.

Mala Mala Game Reserve

Operated on private land inside the Sabi Sands Wildtuin, Mala Mala is one of the premier destinations in the world for leopard viewing and photography.  And it does live up to its reputation.  A network of guides keep in constant radio contact, staying up-to-date on the latest wildlife sightings and activity. Due to territorial nature of the wild leopards on the property, MM’s rangers have familiarized themselves with several individual cats (often over 30 leopards at any given time) and their behavior. Mala Mala’s open top Land Rovers offer prime viewing for a limited number of guests at a time, which is great for photography.

During our visits to Mala Mala we have stayed at both Rattray’s Camp and the Main Camp (see Lodging).  The guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and have a keen eye for photography, which gives them a better understanding of our own needs.

If you choose to visit Mala Mala, please contact me first regarding a referral so I can put you in touch with the right people.

Mala Mala is my favorite place in South Africa.  The overall experience (game viewing, lodging, staff and guides) is tremendous.

Lion at Mala Mala

Elephant Plains Game Reserve

Like MM, Elephant Plains is a private game reserve located in the Sabi Sands Wildtuin. The safari experience is somewhat similar to MM’s, but there is an additional tracker riding up front on your vehicle. The terrain at Elephant Plains seems a bit more arid and open, but can still be good for leopard sightings. In 2010 we actually had more opportunities for good leopard photography here than in MM (though in 2012 EP was pretty quiet overall).


Little Bushveld Guesthouse, Pretoria

We stopped here during our cross-country drive in 2012.  It’s difficult to find (especially at night), but located on fenced grounds by a very friendly couple.  If you are staying overnight in the Pretoria area, this is a very good option.


Skukuza Camp, Kruger

Since there were six of us, we stayed at the Waterkant guest house. There were some issues with keys not working, but otherwise it worked well enough, and has a nice view of the open river basin nearby. There’s plenty of wildlife on the camp grounds, including bushbabies at night and fruit bats under the awnings of the outdoor eating areas during the day.

Satara Camp, Kruger

We stayed at the Wells guest house at Satara. Again, accommodation was fine for the most part, aside from the overwhelming smell of new varnish (something past guests appeared to have complained about as well). Lots of birds flitting about in this camp, highlighted by two resident scops owls found huddled against a tree near the reception area.


Rattray’s, Mala Mala

Probably the finest place we’ve ever stayed (even beating out the Migration Camp in the Serengeti), and we only got here thanks to an unexpected upgrade from the Mala Mala staff. Rattray’s defines “luxury safari camping.” Limited to very few guests, each of the bungalows sports a huge bed, office space (including wifi-enabled laptop!), his and her bathrooms, heated floors, a private yard and pool. The food is excellent, the staff friendly, and the guides top-notch. At Rattray’s, safari vehicles are typically limited to only four guests, making for a less-crowded, more comfortable wildlife viewing experience.

In 2012 we returned and stayed at both Rattray’s and the Mala Mala Main Camp.  Though the Main Camp is the less-luxurious option, it’s still incredibly nice.  You can’t go wrong at Mala Mala!

If you choose to visit Mala Mala, please contact me first regarding a referral so I can put you in touch with the right people.


Elephant Plains Game Lodge

We stayed in one of the odd-shaped guest houses here, offering a private balcony with view of the nearby watering hole. While lodging was nice, the food was only okay. The lodge offers most ameneties, including a bar and lounge, gift shop and paid internet terminal.


What We Packed

I went with my usual travel clothing: convertible plants, short-sleeve shirts and some warmer clothes (including hat and gloves) for night drives. Protection against the sun (floppy hat, sunscreen, sunglasses) goes without saying.

We brought insect repellent but didn’t really need it. We also took malaria pills just in case, though our friends managed to survive without.

Clothing was packed in our trusty travel compressor bags to save space.

Recommended Photo Gear

I bought a Think Tank Airport Security bag for this trip. It was great to have, thanks to having both wheels and a backpack option. The security features were also reassuring, and it had room for most of my gear. I did run into one problem with the gate agent in DC not wanting to let me on with it, despite the fact that it fits in the overhead compartment just fine (she also happened to let my friend onboard with the exact same bag moments earlier!).  If you are concerned about getting your roller on board, the Think Tank Airport International may be a safer option.

Since my main goal was to see and photograph wildlife, with a secondary emphasis on landscapes, I had my full complement of gear. Halfway through the trip, I switched from the 100-400 to the 70-200 for better performance in afternoon and evening drives. In Kruger, a 500 or 600mm lens is ideal, but in game reserves where one can drive off-road and get much close to wildlife, a lens such as the Nikon 200-400mm would probably be the ideal option. Unfortunately, I shoot Canon and found myself trading off between the 500 and medium range zooms on separate bodies. This worked out fine in most cases.

I used a beanbag quite often, but a friend also rigged up a small board that could attach to my Wimberley head, providing a platform for my 500mm lens. This could be laid on the dash or door of a vehicle, the railing of a hide and even used in combination with a beanbag for a higher angle. For the game reserves’ open air vehicles, it’s best to bring a monopod or tripod, since there is no support high enough in the back rows. I found it best to sit up front next to the driver, since the passenger door and the dashboard both made for good camera support areas.

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