We billed it as ‘The Ultimate Safari” because we were sure participants would ‘see it all’ and they did. Our May trip included 6 days/5 nights at Chobe National Park and 5 days/4 nights in Timbavati Private Reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park and two nights in Johannesburg. The prior stated description of the trip is too bland to convey what our participants enjoyed so we’ll break down the trip into small portions:
We had two nights included in Jo’berg. Throughout our site we refer to Johannesberg as Jo’berg or Jossie. All are the same place and is a common jump off point for our Africa trips. There are several good things one can do in Jo’berg, including a tour of Soweto and the Apartheid Museum, visiting the Cradle of Humanity, or getting a few great lion photos at Lion Park, however we were planning to use our time more simply. We wanted everyone to get adjusted to time changes so when they got to ‘the bush’ they would be ready to enjoy the sights and we wanted to use the time to allow folks to appreciate some of the unique cuisine that is Southern Africa. On both nights, accommodations were arranged at a guest house within 10 minutes of the airport for convenience.
The first night was our arrival stay in Johannesburg. While there is time for direct connection to safari locations, the one night stay allows for folks to get acclimated to the time change and to get to know fellow travel members. We got everyone into the safari spirit by having our first dinner at Carnivore Restaurant. One enters Carnivore restaurant over a teak walkway surrounded by water features, bamboo walls and African art works. This theme is carried into the restaurant where a circular fire is the central attraction with 52 converted tribal spears holding a variety of meat including game meats such as crocodile, zebra, giraffe, impala, etc. but also including pork, beef, chicken ribs and sausages. Carvers bring tableside the different types of meat onto your plate. You may eat as much as you like. We left with smiles and full stomachs. The next morning, we were shuttled to JNB airport and by 1 PM we were at Chobe NP.
We also stayed in Jo’berg after leaving Chobe and prior to our arrival at Timbavati. This was a required stay due to available flight times; but we made the most of this time by having a classic South African Braai, which is their version of a barbeque. Again, after a nice night in Jo’berg, we were shuttled to the airport for our 45 minute flight to Timbavati in the Greater Kruger area.
Chobe National Park
Upon arrival in Kasane, the village next to Chobe National Park, we were greeted by our host, Guts Swanepoel, Director and co-owner of Pangolin Photo Safaris. We’ve chosen to work jointly with Pangolin on our Chobe trips for a few special reasons. High among these is ‘Guts’, who knows the bush well and has an infectious personality that makes you want to try new challenges. Another reason for Pangolin is their specialized boats which optimize the photography experience and their unique land vehicles which provide clients the chance to move about on the vehicle to get optimal viewing angles. Another benefit of working with Pangolin is that they inventory a supply of Nikon dSLR cameras and Sigma Super Telephoto lenses which we’ve made available at no additional cost to our visitors. For this trip, this was especially important as 3 of our group or 8 did now own large lenses used in wildlife photography. It should be noted that photography is an option on our trips but is encouraged. We make special efforts to simplify camera use and to coach in a language and knowledge level correct for person operating the camera – whether beginner or advanced.
Just 10 minutes from the airport and we were on the grounds of our lodge, the Mowana. We did a quick check in and immediately boarded our special photo boat which conveniently docked at our lodge each night and were off on our first game drive. Upon entering the park area, we spotted our first elephant herd consisting of seven elephants drinking at the river’s side. These elephants were soon joined by more herd members as they all came down to drink.
From the elephants, we floated downriver to a large colony of white fronted bee-eater birds. We photographed these colorful birds as well as a few nearby Pied Kingfisher birds. We then traveled further down river to a young kudu drinking and some vervet monkeys playing on a hill side. Next we spotted a large elephant swimming in the Chobe River and grazing on ‘hippo grass’. Remember, all of this was in our FIRST AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE.
The week continued with many more fantastic sightings as we mixed land vehicles and use of boats based on the popular vote of participants each game drive. One afternoon someone noted they wanted to see giraffe, so our guide planned to head to an area known for giraffe; however, within 5 minutes of entering the park, we found giraffe at the river. Every animal seemed to appear on cue! There were many great sightings of giraffe, Cape buffalo, impala, baboons, elephants, lions, Fish eagles, white shouldered vultures, etc.
On one morning, we also traveled downstream to a large yellow-billed stork rookery where everyone got to practice photographing birds in flight. This is an amazing sight, whether you’re a photographer or just an observer. Most participants shot over a thousand images that one morning!
Actually, there was another HUGE benefit to visiting Chobe first. Most of the participants had little experience with wildlife photography, use of telephoto lenses or with shooting in the unique lighting that is Africa. The wide open expanses of the Chobe River allowed for excellent teaching of photo technique and also allowed for plenty of notice of upcoming animals so folks could get ready for their shots. While this learning curve was fairly fast, all participants agreed that these learning’s really prepared them better for the low-veld/bush like settings of our next lodge located in Timbavati (part of the Greater Kruger National Park System). We also had a really great spotting of 4 young lions and their mom on an elephant kill. Our guide correctly read the behavior and positioned us perfectly to get some shots at sunset as they came down to the river to drink.
One particular evening, we had the joy of watching hippos with a classic Africa sunset behind the animals. We were so pleased that by that time, all of our participants had mastered shooting into the sunset and came away with breathtaking images!
Having done our homework, we knew that the moon rise would be after mid-night, allowing for great viewing of the stars in the amazing African sky. As a special treat, we arranged for our group to shoot night sky photos alongside two ancient baobab trees. Our guide and friend, Guts, led the workshop as we photographed both Milky Way shots and also star trails. Several participants noted this as the highlight of their trip (and we immediately planned a second shoot at our Timbavati destination).
Also while staying in the Chobe National Park area, we took a day trip to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Knowing that the spray from the Falls makes ground photography challenging, we chartered two private helicopters to fly over the Falls. This gave everyone a window seat and allowed a better perspective of both the Falls and the amazing Zambezi River upstream of the Falls. We also got some nice shots at the Falls park. On the drive back to Chobe, we stopped along the highway to watch a large female lion. Not something you see along the highways in the U.S., but …. that’s Africa.
We cannot leave our Chobe summary without commenting on our accommodations. The Cresta Mowana is right on the river banks of the Chobe. Each room had a balcony river view and several reported sightings of hippo only a few meters from their balcony overlook. All participants commented on the fantastic food at the lodge also.
Leaving Chobe, everyone agreed that this had already become the ‘trip of a lifetime’ for them …. And we still had the adventures of Timbavati upcoming.
Part Two of the Ultimate Safari which is a review of our stay in Timbavati, part of the Greater Kruger Park system of South Africa can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/p84wpg4