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Micro 4/3 on a self-drive safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa
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I love southern Africa. Note I said southern Africa, not South Africa. Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa. These four countries have offered me countless wonderful experiences. From early morning game drives in the bush to diving with manta rays and whale sharks. I particularly enjoy the opportunity to do self-drive safaris, which allow me as a photographer to go where I want (within reason) and stay at a particular location as long as I want. I am not tied to the needs of several other people on a safari truck who, in my experience, are only interested in predator sightings. Self-driving also represents fantastic value for money. A decision was made to organise a trip to the Kruger National Park, in South Africa.
Our first safari was 9 nights in Kruger in 2010, which followed 10 days in Mozambique. We have been fortunate enough to spend multiple weeks on safari in other southern African parks, during which time we realised that we never did Kruger justice the first time we went. For starters, we visited 6 different camps in 9 nights, trying to see as much as possible. This was a mistake. To create better photographs, it is better to cultivate an understanding of the area you are in. Not just the geography but also the habitats and animal behaviours. This is something I learned through my underwater photography where, over the course of a trip, I may dive on the same site 5 or 6 times, or even more in the case of a house reef.
Firstly, in 2017 I cleared out my Nikon DSLR kit and moved to the Olympus M4/3 system. So M4/3 is what I shoot for everything except my underwater photography.
Secondly, having a camera with up to 60 FPS is useful in some very specific situations I knew I would be in during the trip. Couple this with the new M.Zuiko DIGITAL ED 100-400mm F5.0-6.3 IS, which has a 35mm equivalent range of 200-800mm in a lens weighing around 1.1 kg without the tripod adapter, I was set for just about anything the typical safari could present me with.
We flew direct from London Heathrow to Johannesburg with British Airways, which takes about 12 hours overnight. Using the Avios I had built up, along with the American Express 2-4-1 voucher, we were in business class, which cost about £1300 plus 100,000 Avios for both of us. If you are UK based, then I highly recommend the British Airways American Express Premium Plus card. The primary benefit of this is that with £10,000 spend, you receive a 2-4-1 voucher for use on British Airways reward flights. This allows you to travel with a companion for the same amount of Avios as a solo traveller, or if you are travelling solo then the reward flight costs you half of the Avios it normally would. We have used the 2-4-1 in the past to get to Costa Rica, Bangkok, and short-haul destinations. As with many credit cards, sign-up bonuses are available.
One of the benefits of using BA is their very generous hand luggage allowance. Your cabin bag can weigh 23 kg, and your personal item, which must be small enough to fit under the seat in front, can also weigh 23 kg! As such, I can easily travel with hand luggage only, which means no messing about waiting for bags when I arrive, and no chance of the bag or contents going missing, be that through theft or incompetence.
The BA flights from London land either early morning or mid-morning. Both of these leave ample time to collect a hire car and drive to the southern camps in the park. The hire car had a toll pass on the screen, so I didn’t have to pay at the toll booths along the route. Typically people use the N4, which is well maintained and has regular fuel stations which do food and snacks to keep you going. The drive will take between 4 and 6 hours, depending on traffic. In terms of a hire car, you do not need a massive 4×4. The roads in the park are either tar or reasonably well-maintained gravel. On our first Kruger trip, we had a Hyundai Getz, the smallest car I have ever used. I do find that an SUV/4×4/pick-up is useful as it gives you some extra height, particularly useful in the wet season when the vegetation is thick.
There are multiple different types of accommodation in the park, ranging from campsites through to 5* all-inclusive lodges costing upwards of £1000/night. We typically use the bungalows or cottages that can be booked on the South African National Parks site. There are different levels of bungalows, some do not have kitchen facilities, and some have shared ablutions. I always choose something that is self-contained with a bathroom and kitchen. These run from around £65 to £110/night, per bungalow, so if there is more than one person they represent good value. Most of the main rest camps have a restaurant, and all have shops. There are also smaller satellite camps and bushveld camps, where the facilities are much reduced, but you get more of a bush feel.
Accommodation, particularly in the popular camps (especially Lower Sabie) tends to be booked up very quickly. If booking reasonably late, as we were, having decided to go only three months before, then you have to be flexible on where you stay and for how long. It’s always worth keeping an eye on the booking site, as availability can open up. It certainly did for me, giving me 5 nights in Lower Sabie at the end of the trip.
As mentioned earlier, on our first trip to Kruger we spread ourselves too thin. So, for this trip, we were to stay in 4 camps, for a minimum of 3 nights per camp.
Located in the south-west of the park, this camp is near the Malelane gate, and just about the closest to Johannesburg. As we were on the mid-morning arrival, I chose this camp as it would be the quickest to get to. It’s a camp we have never been to before and is situated in an area filled with koppies (small hills in a generally flat area). 4 nights here, which gives me 3 days of game viewing, as I did not anticipate doing much other than a brief drive when we arrived, given the long flight and long drive.
Located about 1/3 of the way up the park, on the west side, Orpen is another new camp for us. The habitat here is more open than at Berg-en-Dal, and the camp also has resident honey badgers, which we were keen to see. This camp also served a purpose, as the nearest large town is Hoedspruit. If you do stay here, do note there is no restaurant, but the accommodation we were in had a kitchen, and they all have a braai (BBQ).
Done as a day trip from Orpen, the photographic tour looked to be a fantastic opportunity to capture images of several native species of snake, in a controlled environment. This is where the 60 FPS capability of my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk III should come to the fore.
Having previously stayed here, the habitat is that of mopane trees and veld, the area is quite open, which gives rise to large herds of herbivores. With large herds of herbivores, there are also predators. The bird life here is also particularly good.
This is probably the most popular camp in the park, and the accommodations are often booked out well in advance. This region of the park is one of the most game-rich areas in Kruger and allegedly has the greatest density of leopards in the park. We were here for 5 nights to hopefully take advantage of the game numbers.
Despite how good a plan is, nature has a way of throwing a spanner in the works. Just before the trip, Kruger experienced the worst flooding it had seen since 2002. This meant a lot of the gravel roads in the south of the park were closed for part of my time there. I did not find this overly affected what I saw. However, it did mean sightings became very congested, particularly predators. The benefits of the gravel roads are that you often have sightings to yourself, as there is just more room to spread out.
Despite being mostly restricted to the tar roads, we had some fantastic sightings. Some of these were found while on guided game drives, many were found just driving around, using the sightings boards found at all camps and rest stops. Compared to our first time in Kruger, I feel we had a much better experience with game sightings. We saw a lot of cats this time, although no cheetah, which was the only cat we saw previously.
However, the accommodations were, on the whole, disappointing. There seems to be a total lack of maintenance, so many things were broken or inoperative, like the cooker or the air-con. The service in some of the camp restaurants was abysmal. It just felt like the staff didn’t want to be there.
One of the main benefits of staying inside the park is being able to squeeze the maximum amount of viewing time out of a trip. You can be out of the gate as soon as it opens and be in a game-rich area. However, I am not much of an early riser, and even when leaving camp at 0800 rather than 0600, I never really felt like I missed out on any sightings. The 0400 starts for the guided game walks were hard work!
The ongoing load shedding (power cuts) was not an issue, as all camps have backup generators. However I was prepared for this as everything could be charged in the vehicle; all the battery chargers were USB powered, and I had a 12V to 240V adaptor for the laptop, which I never used once.
I think, on balance, that the next time we return to Kruger we will stay in a resort just outside the park. There is a more extensive range of accommodation, and it just seems to be better value and better maintained. It does add a layer of faff, having to sign in and out each day, but that’s a trade-off I am willing to accept.
Switching to M4/3 has made packing much easier. I am able to bring 2 bodies, the important lenses, spare batteries and memory cards, plus a laptop in my small cabin bag. My main cabin bag held the chargers, cables, flash, tripod, and clothing.
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My primary camera, fitted with the Olympus HLD-9 Power Battery Grip to double the battery capacity. I used a pair of 64 GB Lexar 1667x cards for the UHS-II slot, swapping them out at the end of the day after downloading the contents. The UHS-I slot held a 256 GB Lexar 800x card. During a lull in shooting, the images from the 64 GB card were copied to the 256 GB, creating a backup. The 256 GB was never taken out of the camera. Following a change of ownership for Olympus, these have now been superseded by the OM SYSTEM OM-1, although the E-M1 is still available at Amazon.
If you are flying thousands of miles and spending thousands of pounds on a trip where the primary aim is capturing epic photographs, then you need a backup camera! Having 2 cameras also brings the benefit of being able to have them set up with 2 different lenses while driving around, meaning you need to swap lenses less often which is of benefit in the often dusty environment of a safari. This is now quite an old camera and is freely available second-hand, or the brand new OM SYSTEM OM-5 is 2 generations newer.
I kept this handy at all times. As both M4/3 bodies typically had telephoto lenses on during the drives, the Sony was handy for any scenic and landscape shots. This lens also goes a lot wider than either of the telephote lenses fitted to the camera bodies, which again means avoiding having to swap lenses.
The RX100 II can be found used, but the RX100 III is still available new at Amazon.
My primary lens. this offers a 35mm equivalent of 200-800mm. I also had the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital MC-20 2x Teleconverter which gives an insane 35mm equivalent view of 400-1600mm. The 100-400mm is fantastic for safari, going from telephoto to super-telephoto, all in a lens that weighs just 1.1 kg, and packs away to 206 mm (just over 8″). The sizes of the lenses are one of the main why I switched to M4/3. Used prices for this lens are still strong, so I would buy a new one and receive all the necessary warranties.
It’s a very cheap, plastic lens, but it is more than sufficient for use in good light where I needed to go wider than the 100-400mm allowed. The 40-150 mm F4-5.6 is still available new.
Even when the main targets are big game and birds, I always take a macro lens. The Olympus 60mm is wonderfully sharp, focusses down to 1:1, and is still compact so easy to find space for it when packing. This is still available new.
This takes up almost no room, and when mounted to the camera it barely adds to the profile. It is very compact, good in low light, and gives a really nice field of view. It’s my standard ‘walkaround’ lens and is also good for landscapes where you don’t want to go too wide. I have also found it good for panoramas. This is still available new.
I have owned and used this since I first bought into the M4/3 system. It is compact, sharp, enables easy manual focusing, and produces a lovely sharp image. The intention on this trip was to use this lens for astrophotography, although in the end, I didn’t do much. This lens is still available new.
I have some homemade bean bags that get filled (with pasta) when I arrive in-country. Resting these on the door frame, with the lens on top, provides a lot of extra stability when using long lenses, particularly compared to hand-holding the lens. On safari, a bean bag is more useful than a tripod, unless you intend to do lots of landscape or astrophotography.