For most people an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so if you’re given a professional camera and taught how to use it, the added bonus of capturing stunning pictures of wildlife is something both to impress your friends and remind you of your close encounters with the animals.
I’m in Botswana, with a bunch of amateur photographers, watching from a boat in the Chobe River. I have the big zoom lens of my Canon camera focussed on an old battered Buffalo, busy chomping away by the water. He’s seemingly unaware of the two young lions, perhaps brother and sister, behind him. They’re gradually creeping forward, keeping low in the grass. It can only be a matter of time, but the light is disappearing fast.
I’m staying at the Pangolin Hotel in Kasane nearby, a brand new luxury accommodation, perched on a hill above the river. The guides are all professionals and their captivating wildlife pictures adorn the walls of the hotel. Each guest gets a camera on loan and goes out morning and afternoon on safari. What’s brilliant is that you don’t even have to use the equipment if you don’t want to – you get so close to the animals you can use your phone or any basic point and shoot camera.
I started my photo safari in the Okavango Delta, around 400 miles to the south west from here. Getting there had involved flying from Johannesburg to Maun, then transferring to a smaller 12 seater plane and crossing the Delta to land on a makeshift airstrip near the village of Khwai. It was then a bumpy ride in a bush vehicle to Pangolin’s other lodge.
This really is the middle of nowhere where villagers still risk life and limb, venturing out into the bush, to cut the grasses. They sell them for thatch, earning money to buy school books and uniforms for their children. I bump into two of them as I set out in the late afternoon. They’re on their way home, but sometimes they don’t make it.
This is lion country and I’m whisked off to see a big male and smaller female waking from their afternoon nap. They’re hungry so we watch them stealthily stalking an impala. Unfortunately, night is falling and when it gets too dark to see anything we return to camp. That night my fitful slumber is disturbed by the roaring of lions, braying of hyenas and the chomping of hippos.
Next day, I’m given my camera with its 150-600mm zoom lens and Dan, my instructor takes me through the basics of safari photography. His tells me to never switch off the camera, always give the subject enough room in the frame and remember to leave space for hidden legs of animals in water. His one bush survival tip is “Never panic!”
Later, I’m put to the test when I’m about to enter a hide to observe elephants at a water hole. There’s a solitary bull who I think will make a good shot so I point my camera. He’s not pleased, trumpets loudly and starts to charge and of course I jump straight into the safety of the hide.
Dan is amused. He tells me that it was only a mock charge – if the elephant holds his head high and has his ears forward, there’s nothing to worry about. I prefer watching from safety and the elephants come so close to the hide that the dust thrown up by their huge feet sullies my lens.
My other indispensable companion is Wax, the spotter driver. Over the next few days he tracks leopard and lions in a landscape with no roads and no discernible features. He fords deep rivers and bludgeons through intractable parts of the bush in pursuit of his quarry. Along with the big cats we stumble across a huge herd of around 150 elephants, complete with babies and wait to catch hippos throwing their heads out of water in that classic hippo yawn.
After three glorious days I take a small plane to Kasane, on the Chobe River which has game in abundance. Morning finds hippos munching on grass on the bank, and huge crocs sunning themselves with their jaws wide open. Baboons play by the water and waterbucks come to drink. There’s time to linger, observe all, and also to get those special shots. Afternoon sees large herds of elephants playing in the mud, and a sighting of an elusive leopard in a tree.
There are also game drives through the National Park twice a day. One memorable morning I get to see four of the big five – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants, all close enough to almost touch. In the evening we run across three lionesses with 6 month old cubs, all out to play, just having fun.
In the evening, over dinner, everyone is animated, discussing the day’s events with other groups. If you want expert advice then the tutors will patiently view your pictures in a custom editing room in the hotel and give you useful tips. One further thing that’s important to mention. You don’t have to take up the offer of using their big cameras and there’s no shame in just enjoying the safaris with your naked eye. However if you want to record your sightings for posterity and astound the folks back home, this is an experience second to none
Pangolin Photo Safaris has 7 days on the Chobe River and the Okavango Delta, which includes 3 nights at the Pangolin Chobe Hotel and 3 nights at the Pangolin Khwai Camp, starting at Kasane and finishing in Maun, from $2,850. People need a certain amount of agility to get on and off small boats and climb into safari jeeps but otherwise there’s no age limit.
Airlink flies from Johannesburg to Kasane and Maun.
Ethiopian Airlines flies via Addis Ababa to Johannesburg from Heathrow.