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31 January 2024 - Photography Travel Tips

What to Expect from Photo Safaris in South Africa

After dreaming of this moment since you first picked up a camera, you finally find yourself high on the bushveld, deep in the heart of Timbavati Game Reserve. The muted yellows, pinks, and purples of the rising sun illuminate your small group of fellow photographers as you climb aboard your custom-built 4-wheel drive. You’re primed for a photo safari in South Africa. Game on!

There’s plenty of room to move, with no more than six shutterbugs on deck, all under the watchful eye of professional wildlife photographer Alan Hewitt. With your local tracker behind the wheel, you set off on the first of many 3-hour game drives, one every day at dawn and again at dusk.

These magical windows of time capture the ‘golden hour’, when the softer light of the African sky offers the best conditions for exposure and composition. With bated breath, you wait patiently as the sun sinks over the horizon. Fortunately, it isn’t too long before you sight your first lioness, proudly stalking the savannah with cubs in tow. Camera ready. Zoom in. Let the magic begin.

elephants walking in a safari

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt

This is what to expect from photo safaris in South Africa with Penda Photo Tours.

The best wildlife on the planet. Professional tuition from an experienced wildlife photographer who has been there and done that. Comfortable accommodation that allows you to relax in style—when you are not tracking the Big 5 through your lens, of course.

What sets Penda’s South Africa Photo Safari apart?

Timbavati Game Reserve is a private concession sharing a natural, unfenced border with Kruger National Park. The animals are free to roam between the two areas, but they are very different parks in many ways.

a leopard sitting on the trunk of a tree

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt

In Xitsonga (the local dialect), Timbavati means ‘the place where something sacred came down to Earth from the heavens’. This all rings true when you learn that the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and the ever-elusive leopard all call this area home. This collection of game reserves is one of the shining jewels in South Africa’s spectacular wildlife crown. And our photo safari in South Africa’s Timbavati is a real game changer for those who want the very best wildlife shots money can buy.

This writer has been on game drives in the public areas of Kruger National Park, and whilst this is fantastic, it simply can’t hold a candle to the experience of a private game reserve, such as Timbavati.

In Kruger, you will find yourself limited to tarred roads, with a throng of vehicles chasing every sighting. Man, can it get crowded! And you will often be a long way away from that pride of lion or crash of rhino. This makes Kruger less than ideal for the aspiring wildlife photographer seeking to build a portfolio of well-composed images that show how far you have come since your very first ‘point-and-shoot’ experience.

a rhino walking in a safari

In the private reserves of Timbavati, on the other hand, the limitations of Kruger are stripped away, exposing South Africa’s wildlife in its full glory. Your experienced guide and tracker will take you off the beaten track, getting you up close and personal with Africa’s Big 5. There will be no more than three vehicles at any sighting, and time is on your side. There’s no rush here. In fact, it’s not uncommon to spend a couple of hours following a lion kill from start to finish. You can’t do that because of the relative safety of the bitumen!

While the Big 5 are undoubtedly the main drawcard, Timbavati offers so much more to the avid wildlife fan. Cheetahs, hyenas, zebras, a large range of antelope, and over 360 species of birds can also be found.

Sitting over 300 meters above sea level, the region is classified as savannah bushveld. During the summer (October–March), temperatures can rise to 32 degrees Celsius, with every chance of an afternoon thunderstorm, but in August, when Penda’s South Africa Photo Tours take place, the weather is cooler and the rain is scarce. This drives animals to the remaining waterholes, making it easier to spot wildlife.

a giraffe looking at her calf while sitting on a grass

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt

So, if you are a budding wildlife photographer who would much prefer to capture your memories of wildest Africa far from the tourist crowd, then our South Africa Photo safari should be on your bucket list. But with any tour such as this, it’s important to get the balance right. You can have too much of a good thing, as this writer found out many years ago.

It’s all about balance on safaris in South Africa

In 2015, my husband and I were lucky enough to honeymoon at one of the private Big 5 safari lodges in Kruger National Park. It was like a trip back in time. Our thatched safari tent exuded colonial charm. The four-poster bed and outdoor shower were curious novelties that you simply didn’t find at home. And the elevated walkways that kept us safe from the wildlife provided a comforting cushion of soft adventure that was just about right for a couple of newlyweds still finding their married feet.

lioness photographed in africa standing alone in the african bush

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt

It was all laid on, but maybe too much so. The all-inclusive 5 meals-a-day may have sounded like a great deal when we booked, but by the end of our stay, we were full as bulls, skipping the complimentary morning and afternoon tea. We thought we were going to burst at the seams!

In retrospect, we came to realize that you can indeed have too much of a good thing, and this is where some of the Big 5 safari lodges could learn a thing or two from the smaller operators. More is not necessarily better.

During our South Africa Photo Tours, your accommodation at Umlani Bush Lodge preserves the colonial charm of days gone by while keeping it simple, never letting you forget that you are still in the bush.

Umlani offers rustic yet comfortable thatched huts with en-suites. Roomy beds with mosquito nets to keep the bugs at bay. But if you prefer to get a little closer to nature, the open-air showers provide a wonderfully natural wake-up call, with a herd of elephants to keep you company at the waterhole nearby.

After a long day in the photographic saddle, enjoy a Castle Lite or a gin and tonic at the bush bar. Watch a tower of giraffes crane their necks to drink in symphony at the waterhole below. Take a dip in the pool to cool down. Finally, savor your evening meal under the stars in the African boma, a traditional outside dining area that completes the safari experience.

Your every need is catered for, but at Umlani, they get the balance right. Three home-cooked meals a day are all you need. Anything more verges on over-the-top decadence, and in this writer’s humble opinion, is more than what you should expect from safaris in South Africa, of any description.

a herd walking by the lake

Photo Credit: Alan Hewitt

After all, the main reason you are here is to enjoy the best of Africa’s wildlife through your lens. Your South Africa photo safari at Timbavati is the perfect place for just that very thing.

Find out more about Penda’s professional photographic guide, Alan Hewitt, right here. What gear does he use? How does he go about it?

What do South Africa Photography Safaris Involve?

The answer to this question all depends on where your interest lies, how much time you have available, and what you want to get out of your photography experience in South Africa.

So then, what do South Africa photography safaris involve when you join us?

If you are purely interested in South Africa’s incredible wildlife and your time is limited, then our South Africa Photo Safari in the heart of Timbavati Game Reserve is the obvious choice.

If you are blessed with more time and the desire to make an impact from behind your lens, then our South Africa Wildlife Photography Internship could be your calling card.

a lioness walking on a grassfield

Spend 8-12 weeks on the banks of the Olifant River in the Greater Kruger area. Apart from learning all about wildlife photography, you’ll also learn hands-on about conservation issues while giving a little back in the process.

Explore all of Penda’s South Africa Photo Safaris and Tours or Get in touch today

This blog was written by Cathy Kelly.

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