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My Magical Southern African Photography Safari: A Trip Report


Oct 18th, 2015, 07:33 PM
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My Magical Southern African Photography Safari: A Trip Report

This is going to be a very short trip report and then I'll be happy to answer any questions about the camps that I know the answers to. (link to images at the bottom of this post if you want to go directly to the images : )

First of all, I have to thank so many of you, namely christabir, cw, KathBC and KayeN for your invaluable advice about Southern Africa and Mala Mala Camp and Mashatu Camp specifically. Other than Morocco and Egypt, I had never been anywhere in Africa and I was not expecting to fall in love. And fall in love I did. You said I would, and I did.

The start: I traveled non stop business class from Atlanta to JNB and it could not have been a better flight. I had a great seat (thanks to Flyer Talk recommendation), excellent food, friendly flight attendants, and I slept for over ten hours of the 16.5 hour flight. Upon arrival I stayed at the JNB Intercontinental which is literally steps outside the arrival door. It's a lovely hotel with all the amenities you would expect in an Intercontinental. I had dinner with my photography guide and the owner of the tour company--it was a nice arrival. The next morning, we took a short shuttle to the Federal Air terminal and boarded the 9 AM flight to Mala Mala. Mala Mala has it's own runway so you are picked up by a ranger and five minutes later, you are at the camp.

I was on private safari with a South African wildlife photography guide who traveled with me. My photography guide started his career a ranger at Mala Mala, so between him and the our dedicated ranger, Dave, they certainly knew their way around the reserve. Our ranger was also a photographer, so it was a great fit. I had great opportunities for images and since I had my own land rover, I could spend as much or little time as I wanted with animals. One morning, we got out of the land rover, lay in the grass, and just hung out with zebras and impala for hours. I had never taken even one image of an animal before, so I had a steep learning curve, but all was great and I had a terrific instructor.

Mala Mala camp was fantastic. I had a huge room that was close enough to registration so that I had Internet in my room. The ranger told me that the following week they were doing a major upgrade on the internet, so maybe all the rooms will have it now. Food was plentiful, hot and good. It was certainly not gourmet, but tasty and satisfying. I found the tone and friendliness of the camp perfect. The decor was understated and the bathrooms a bit dated, but fine. Most importantly, I had great photo opportunities--even just sitting for coffee on the deck and having five lions walk by. One afternoon, three of the big five were on the lawn or river bed directly in front of the deck. I saw a leopard every day which was great as well as lots of babies-- lion cubs, baby giraffes, and tons of elephant babies. It was cool and overcast, but overcast is great for photography. It only rained one morning. The game drive was cancelled that morning, but it was day three and was actually a welcomed break. The three of us spent the morning going over images and selecting our favorites. It was fun. The camp also arranged a lecture and video on the wild dogs that had been on the reserve for months. The sun came out at noon, so the afternoon drive was on. The camp was pretty full. People were friendly and you eat in the bomba at night as a group with your ranger and my guide, so it was perfect for me. For those who were wondering about any changes in the camp since the sale, there seems to be no change at all. And, cristabir, I think it was you who asked, they do still walk you to your rooms at night--a strict camp rule. The place had lions within feet of the deck every day when I was there and elephants and leopards walking through the camp as well--there was no way I was walking by myself to my room anyway--that's just stupid.

Oh, a note about luggage weight. As you know before the trip, I was obsessing about luggage weight. I was careful to stay within my 20kg limit total which meant I had to be very careful with clothes since my camera equipment, computer etc weighed 13kg. Didn't leave a lot of weight for clothes, but I figured it out. Turns out the only place that anything was weighed was getting on the airplane at JNB and Federal air and they only weighed the baggage going in the baggage compartment, not carryon. After that no one weighed anything. However, they could have weighed the luggage and I really didn't need any more than I brought. It was a good experience for me as I over pack all the time and rarely wear more than half of what I take with me. I wore everything I brought with me, and even had an outfit for dinner. I had black skinny pants and a black tunic with different lightweight shawls and necklaces with wedge sandals. It was nice to have a non-safari outfit to put on for dinner after showering. I sent out laundry every day. Side note: I didn't send out underwear (aka "smalls") as things dried so quickly, but there were check boxes at both camps for "underwear" and "socks" on the laundry list, so maybe things have changed as they seem to do all laundry now.

There is a direct flight between Mala Mala and Mashatu with a stop in Polokwane for South Africa exit immigration. There were only four of us on a ten passenger airplane so everything went quite quickly. We arrived at Limpopo Valley Airport, were checked in by immigration, picked up by our ranger "Fish" and were at Mashatu 25 minutes later. I love the cottages at Mashatu. They are so much nicer and more chic than Mala Mala. The bathrooms are fabulous. I have to say that I really likes Mala Mala, but I loved Mashatu. Every day at Mashatu, you feel you are coming home to family. they are so warm and friendly and welcoming. There were only a few of us at the camp for the first two days of my stay so it was practically private. Unfortunately (for me, not the animals) there had been an unusual rainy period a few days before our arrival so there was water everywhere and the Photo Hides were pretty silent. That being said, we had great animal sitings and I really did love Mashatu. A fun an great feature was the food. OMG, it was delicious. The head of food and beverage, whose name is Steve, was just brought over from Mombo Camp six months ago. Seriously gourmet--so much better than Mala Mala camp. Far above my expectations and I'm a "foodie". Lamb curry like you'd get in Delhi. Squash soup that was both delicate and insanely flavorful. Beef wellington, venison, amazing vegetables. Afternoon tea is almost beyond description.

It was cool and overcast most of the time that I was at mashatu as well, but that was fine with me. I hate heat and overcast can be great light for images. Oh, and the land rovers are Mashatu are far superior in comfort to those at Mala Mala.

There is now a twice a week non stop flight between Limpopo Valley Airport and JNB. A gorgeous twin engine airplane with fantastic staff. Our flight was at 1PM which was so great. We had a terrific morning game drive, a leisurely breakfast and had plenty of time to pack up and get to the airport without any rush We arrive at JNB in 90 minutes--right at the man airport I had a 7PM flight back to Atlanta which left right on time and was back in my home in Boston in less than 19 hours.

The things that I would suggest in addition to sports bras and other wonderful tips that I received before my trip, are to bring lubricating eyedrops and have them with you at all times. The wind and dust in your eyes all day is really hard on your eyes. Also a neck gator that protects your neck from sun and can be pulled over your face for dust, or used to pull back your hair--it's sort of an "all in one" useful item. Lastly a close hat to wear in the morning or anytime there isn't sun. My Tilley hat is great in the sun, but in a windy vehicle, when you don't need the brim, but need something to keep your hair from blowing into a big knot, a close-type hat is great. I brought a cotton version like kids on the street wear today. Lastly, ladies, bring Moroccan Argan oil for your hair. I could not believe what a dry mess my hair was--no amount of hair conditioner made any difference--you need oil in addition to that. I have nice hair, but I felt like I just had a haystack on my head. I went out and bought some this week to have in my travel pack so I don't forget next time.

OK, that's about it for my quick trip report. It was a fantastic, amazing, rewarding trip. I loved every minute of it.

I came back with around 4000 images (don't worry, I've edited : ) . I'm still going through them. I love everyone and getting them down to 130 was hard, but I did

So, below is a link to 130 of some of my favorites from my safari. I hope you enjoy them. The images are on Facebook, but this is a **public link that anyone can see**, even if you do not have a Facebook account.

Images: A Magical Southern African Safari:

BostonHarbor is offline  
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Oct 19th, 2015, 06:55 PM
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Great trip report and great images! I also love the MalaMala/Mashatu combo. Thanks for sharing!
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Oct 19th, 2015, 07:13 PM
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So glad you had such a great trip. Nothing we could have said prepares you for how wonderful it is. Where are you going next?!

I will get to the photos, but I want time to enjoy them. I just wanted to let you know I've been looking forward to your tr - not many people get the opportunity you did with a personal (and fantastic) photography guide.

I have not had the dust issues you had - the area is experiencing a drought similar to California and it's terrible. I hope the residents and animals are getting by ok. I wish for rain every day. The water has lots of minerals in it (hard water, Boston has much softer water) so that on top of the dry conditions could create those problems. I used mayonnaise when we lived in LA for a few months and have heard olive oil works in a pinch. I have always used one of those clamshell clips to hold my hair back. Just relieved that no one cares about style out in the bush!

Mala Mala is famous for its wildlife and Mashatu, in my opinion, is just a special reserve. Mombo is famous for its food - quite nice they "stole their chef! We chose a rustic camp, Shindzela, in part because their chef made great local cuisine - sho got stolen right before our visit! It was ok - she trained her apprentice very well. It was our first true S African food experience (and they only have solar, so no oven!) and it was great.

I absolutely love Batswana people. I don't know what it is about them, but they are just the nicest, warmest I've ever met. Maybe that's part of why Mashatu is so special.

I will get to the photos soon. Baseball is taking up too much of my time and sleep!

When are you going back?
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Oct 19th, 2015, 07:43 PM
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Hi Christabir, I'm going back in late September 2016, this time to the Masai mara, again on a private (possibly two of us) safari. It will be with a professional photographer again. I really had a simply wonderful time getting so close to the animals and being able to just sit and savor them--not just take pictures. I have to say that my animal sightings at Mashatu were not secondary to those at Mala Mala. When you see some of my Mashatu Lion interactions with jackals and hyenas, you will understand how happy I was at Mashatu. Seriously, the Botswanan people are the dearest, most sincere people I have ever met. I just loved them.

The food at Mashatu is beyond amazing now. I know one doesn't go on safari for the food, but every night it was such an amazing surprise. You know when something is both delicate, yet supremely flavorful and perfectly balanced? Well, when that happens you know you have a great chef. Like your experience at Shindzela; you don't go for the food, but it is a delightful surprise when it is special.

I'm so happy with my photographs from this trip. Some are among the best I have ever taken and 50,000 images in, that's saying something : ) Mike Dexter, my South African pro photographer was the nicest young guy you would ever want to meet. And, because he had been a ranger at both Mala Mala and Mashatu, it was like arriving home with the prodigal son. The staff were running to the land rover upon our arrival. (Mike is the one who installed the photo hides at Mashatu. I have some wonderful hide stories : )

In my images, I tried to capture personality in every shot, even among the hyenas. I hope you agree. Because we could spend all the time we wanted, I could get 20, 30, or 50shots of the same animal (s), just waiting for the right expression or gaze. I know that sounds crazy, but it was fun. Lying in a field with zebras and impala walking around us like we were one of them? Well, it doesn't get much better.

Enjoy your baseball. Boston was out before the season even started, so my baseball interest has waned until the world series. Good luck to your team : )
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Oct 19th, 2015, 07:56 PM
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Oh, Christabir, last thing. I was able to do a night of star photography with a gorgeous Baobab tree in the foreground. You will see them at the end of my photo album. Our ranger, Fish, who has been at Mashatu for 35 years said that he had never seen such a clear night in his life. It was breathtaking. There were so many stars, it was almost impossible to make out the constellations. I think when you see my images, you will agree it was a special night. And, upon your suggestion, as we waited in the pitch black for the 30 minute camera exposure to complete, we toasted the bush with Amarula and Gin & Tonic sundowners as we listened to the sound of the bush. Pretty amazing.
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Oct 21st, 2015, 09:14 PM
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Hey BH you brought back some wonderful images from your first safari! Sounds like you really had an amazing time! The baobab at sunset I think is my fav and your star photgraphy ain't too shabby either!

Were Mr & Mrs Rattray around MalaMala at meal time? Wondering if they spend as much time at the lodge anymore.

Good tip on including eye drops in your packing list. I wear contact lenses so the dust & wind are not my friends and while sunglasses provide protection during the day, the early morning and evening drives were brutal, especially when racing to a sighting. Then, on a rack of sunglasses in a tourist shop in London I found a pair of cheap glasses with plain clear lenses that work perfectly on drives when not wearing sunglasses.

Try a tent on your next safari - there's nothing better than having just some canvas between you and what might be roaming outside.
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Oct 22nd, 2015, 08:46 AM
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Sounds wonderful. When exactly were you there?
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Oct 22nd, 2015, 12:40 PM
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Hi Boston Harbor,

I just found your report and will go to your photos in the next day or two. We all knew that you'd love it! I've wanted to go to Mashatu ever since I first read about it. You have reinforced that. I think they have a tented camp too, but my memory may be failing me.

We went to Londolozi, next door to Mala Mala, so I'm thinking we should combine Mashatu with somewhere different--though the area is chock full of animals. Just not sure.

Anyway, thanks so much for the report. It sounds like such a special trip focusing on your photography. And eye drops are a great idea, though we traveled in early September and I didn't need any, I did last year when we were in the Caribbean. It's the wind for me. It must have been much drier when you were there.
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Oct 22nd, 2015, 04:09 PM
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Samcat, I was on Safari from the end of August to Sept. 10 2015 It was an incredible experience. As I mentioned in my report, I was a bit reticent to go on safari. But, I do a lot of photography and I figured I needed to go on a safari to get that off the list. I did not expect to fall in love. And, fall in love I did. Geez what is it about Africa? It's so seductive. I'm going back in Sept 2016 for the Masai Mara migration.

KathyBC, the elder Rattrays were not at Main camp when I was there, though the son and daughter in law were. And, FYI, the Masai Mara trip I'm booking is at Entim Camp ( http://www.entim-mara.com) , which is tented and far more rustic than either Mashatu or Mala Mala. . In September, the entire camp is reserved by C4 photo safaris for tours with only two people per vehicle. So, it's right up my alley.

cw, I loved Mashatu. It has a very special vibe. And, yes, they have a tented camp as well as the main camp. I think the wind is what got my eyes. My eyes watered so much it was crazy. After a couple days, I got more used to it and it was fine. KathBC;s suggestion of taking along a pair of clear glasses is a great one. I would have loved those. Live and learn : ) It was a special trip. I hope you enjoy my images. I was thinking of all of my advisors as I took them : )
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Oct 22nd, 2015, 08:37 PM
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Thanks for sharing and whetting my appetite. I enjoyed your report, and your photos really bring the animals to life. Counting down the days to my own first trip to the continent.
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Oct 24th, 2015, 03:15 AM
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Wow, those are some of the most amazing photos! You really captured the personality of these gorgeous creatures wonderfully! I can't even begin to identify which are my favorites, as there are so many -- tho I can see why you love the giraffe looking at the bird (so sweet!).

What an amazing journey you had and it's inspiring me to consider a trip to the region.

Do you plan to publish those photos? They really are book-worthy!
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Oct 24th, 2015, 06:13 AM
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Hi Projoi, Thank you for your nice words. I was very fortunate to be able to spend almost limitless time with the animals. It was such a honor to be among these magnificent animals. I do publish some of my images.

You really should consider a trip. This was my first ever and my camps were quite lux. I'm heading back in September for the migration in Masai Mara, and will be in a tented camp. It's all about the photography to me. When I say i head no idea I would fall in love with Africa and it was only a box on my "must do" list, I'm being truthful. Until you are there you don't realize that the majesty of the animals and Africa itself will be almost overwhelming. The night I took that image of the milky way is one that will stay with me forever--I had chills down to my toes. As many here warned me before I went. It's an addictive habit--Africa. : )

You should go to Southern Africa. You won't ever regret it.
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Oct 24th, 2015, 02:39 PM
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Hi BostonHarbor! I'm still traveling and not spending much time on Fodors, but happened to catch this. Will save the photos for when I get home in Nov, but so glad you had such a great trip. Have been wondering about moving South Africa up the places to visit list, but still too many places.
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Oct 25th, 2015, 12:25 PM
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Thanks for the report, Patricia. We have been to Masai Mara and hope that your next trip is as satisfying as this southern Africa trip was for you. I did click on the FB link above and was pleased to see some images that I missed. You have far more patience (and I think that is the key) for great photography than I do.
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Oct 27th, 2015, 12:49 PM
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Holy crap, BH! Your photos are incredible!!

Although they are all gorgeous, and you captured beautiful expressions, I love ellies and zebra. The night sky photos are spectacular.

If you ever decide to go back to S Africa, look into Djuma. You can rent the whole place for R14,000 per night for as many or few people as you want, have a private ranger and vehicle. It sounds perfect for you. If you'd like to do a small group photo outing, Tembe does it well. It's in KZN, south of Mozambique. I'm hoping to send my husband someday.

Your trip to East Africa sounds perfect. It's really a weird thing how we fall in love with Africa isn't it? It just grabs you and doesn't let go. You captured it beautifully. Thanks for sharing - and I think we all enjoyed helping you with your planning. It was fun. Excellent result. We warned you, though...
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Oct 28th, 2015, 04:54 AM
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Ah shucks, chrisabir, thank you. I love capturing emotions in my images and my guide and I just stayed with a group of animals until they calmed down and we became part of the landscape. I think the reason the zebra ones came out so well is that, for most of them, I was lying in the grass and the zebras became fascinated by the two of us and kept coming around and inquisitively looking at us. It was insanely wonderful.

I just looked up Djuma. That looks fabulous. OMG, you are so right. You did warn me. I had planned only safari to check off the box, but I ended up booking another trip before I left the continent. It is indeed addictive. I simply fell in love....
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Nov 2nd, 2015, 11:08 PM
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Like everyone else I loved your images, particularly the zebra and the leopard. I think they really speak to the experience you had. It's hard to describe to people how moving it can be to see these iconic animals in the wild, and that the veldt itself is so inspiring, the horizon, the possibility, the night sky, iIt all adds up to something beyond our urban experience.

I haven't been in southern Africa for 15 years but having spent several years living in Namibia and Zimbabwe I can understand exactly why you would be so taken, particularly when there's such a confluence with your love of photography.

Thanks for posting.
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Nov 3rd, 2015, 06:54 AM
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Wow, finally got home and took a look at the photos. Great job, BH! I especially loved the cubs and the Kudu.
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Nov 5th, 2015, 12:22 PM
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Did you get any wild dog pictures? They are my favorite, especially the pups and all the social interaction. I got the best at Madikwe, but I hear the group was killed off by rabies. Anyone know if they are back or best place to view? I did see some in Savute
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Nov 8th, 2015, 03:58 AM
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Hi BostonHarbor
Had forgotten about this trip so haven't been here for a while. Pleased you had a great trip! Fish was also my ranger when I went there, with Aaron his tracker in those days. Mashatu gameviewing to me, was always a bit distant, the exception being ele! Have rarely seen better consistent ele gameviewing than at Mashatu.
Thinking I should know Mike Dexter, but cannot think of him at the moment. The animals at MM as a rule, especially the cats, are amazingly relaxed as the rangers should all follow strict rules in their viewing, which makes it better for you and clients in the future. Some nice photos! Don't suppose you remember the lion prides or the leopards you saw at MM? Wondering if you saw any of the "lesser" animals like honey badgers, pangolin, wild cat etc.
Have never had an issue with my eyes and wind, though of course in an open vehicle anything is possible.
It is an extremely addictive country, have been going since 2000 and go twice a year and for a long time, I only went to MM, often for 4 to 5 weeks and I think I only missed one gamedrive and that was only because it was so wet, no-one went out!
I actually thought the son was no longer involved and the daughter and her husband were there now, but could be wrong.

Kind regards
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