This year I am celebrating 10 years of hosting wildlife and cultural photographic safaris. In this thread I will take a look back on those 10 years and relive some of the stories and images that I made on safaris during that time.
So where and how did this safari stuff all begin?
The idea of putting on safaris was sparked way back in 2006, in the very early days of the Nikongear forum. A member named Jorge contacted me and asked me if it would be OK if he started a thread asking the rapidly growing NG membership if anyone would like to join him on an expedition to Patagonia in a Land Rover Defender he had recently bought and was going to drive from Chile through the Patagonia region.
I was absolutely captivated by this idea, not just in the hope of joining such an expedition myself, but because it seemed like a perfectly logical thing for me to do myself here in Africa. I didn’t get to join Jorge on his trip and I am not sure if any of the NG members did either, but the seed of an idea had been planted firmly in my mind.
The idea began to sprout in 2007 when a member named papa-g joined up on NG. Geoff Cronje was a very well travelled guy who just so happened to live about 30km from me. He had recently gotten into photography and after he bought a Nikon telephoto lens from me, a friendship grew and we began to discuss the possibility of hosting a photo safari for NG members here in South Africa. Geoff would design the tour and I would do the organising and marketing.
At the time I was going through some very difficult personal circumstances. The company I had started a few years earlier was facing a bleak future (or lack of any future at all). Long story short, don’t build a business that is entirely dependent on one supplier, because when that supplier disappears, so do you. So at the beginning of 2008 I found myself in a bit of a tight spot, my company had closed and I was being hounded by debt collectors.
However, in spite of the difficulties I was going through, I had my eye set on this safari seed. I was going to make it work, one way or another because I knew that if I could just get it going properly, everything else would fall into place. I met with Geoff a few months into 2008 and we started talking seriously about putting on our African photographic safari. Then tragedy struck.
I was sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon in July when I got a call from a mutual friend telling me that Geoff had died. What? How? Apparently he had collapsed of a heart attack after having an altercation with a security guard over a parking space at his workplace during the Durban Airshow. It felt surreal. I felt as if God had set up a permanent raincloud above my head. In the meantime I was eking out a living doing odd photography jobs and helping people build websites. It wasn’t a great time for me at all.
I was undeterred though. A few months after Geoff died I started earnestly looking for somebody in the travel industry who I could partner with and get the photo safari business off the ground. I needed somebody who not only knew the game and could put together itineraries based on what I wanted to do, but who would also meet all the requirements as far as South Africa’s tourism legalities were concerned. I didn’t want to start a new business myself after all the drama I had been through with the one I had just been forced to close. I wanted to stay a sole proprietor with as few administrative responsibilities as possible and get paid commissions from the suppliers involved in the safaris.
So I placed an ad on a local tour guide portal outlining what I wanted to do and that’s when Pepe Jones (real name Penelope) popped up. She came up with a proposal that was much better than all the others I had been sent from other operators. I got Bjørn Rørslett to join us as a drawcard and the first Nikongear Photo Safari was born. We had 6 people sign up. The numbers were a bit short of the 9 I had been hoping for, but it was better than calling the whole thing off, so in August of 2009 the first NG photo safari finally happened.
For our road trip Pepe had arranged this colossus of a Land Rover Defender called the Kalahari Ferrari as well as a Toyota Quantum bus to ferry the 9 of us (me, Pepe & Bjørn included) around the eastern parts of South Africa and Swaziland over 2 weeks. I drove the Quantum and she took the Landy. Looking back, it’s a miracle that we didn’t end up as a tragic global headline, because the brakes on that Land Rover failed twice on our trip. It was also seriously unstable and the back of it fishtailed constantly at speed. Driving behind it I had visions of Nikon equipment and users being flung from it’s massive windows as it wound its way up and down the mountains of Swaziland. Headlines indeed!
That first safari was a real eye opener for me. We had some very interesting people join it. Some got along well, others didn’t. In spite of it all some strong friendships were made (which still exist today on the new NG) and I learned a great deal about not only what not to do on a photography safari, but also about managing guests' expectations.
For me the most important take away from safari #1 was that national parks in South Africa were not where I wanted to take guests. Apart from being logistically challenging for photography (you can only leave camp at sunrise and you must be back before sunset), animal sightings all depended on luck. In a big park like Kruger you cannot travel off-road and if anything interesting is happening near the road you will find yourself in a jam of other vehicles all straining to see the same thing. Situations like these tend to bring out the worst in people, which is not a good ingredient for a successful photographic safari.
In spite of the dramas with vehicles and the occasional butting of heads between tourists, two weeks later I found myself back home and already planning the next adventure, one that would be entirely different and that would set the tone for the way things have been done on my photographic safaris ever since. But that’s a story for the next instalment. In the meantime here are a few images from Safari #1.
The infamous Kalahari Ferrari parked outside my house on day 1 of the safari.
Our first animal sighting was a giraffe in Hluhluwe Game Reserve.
One of my favourite zebra images. This was taken in Mkhuze Game Reserve, just north of Hluhluwe.
Left: Cheetah at Emdoneni rehabilitation centre. Right: A Zulu "warrior" at Shakaland, which is a bit of a tourist trap.
Driving North towards the St. Lucia wetlands.
In the waters at Lake St. Lucia you will find loads of these malevolent creatures.
The scariest ever moment was when this elephant in musth charged us. Re-worked image of the mountains in Malolotja that form the border between Swaziland and South Africa.
A carver at the market in Manzini, Swaziland, working on a small drum I bought for my son (he still has it!).
We got as far north as the Tropic Of Capricorn. Well, I suppose that would be far down south for most of you! This also gives you an idea of the sheer size of the Kruger Park.