Your arrival in South Africa

You have planned for months and triple-checked your luggage and gear. Now you are ready to board your long flight, arrive in South Africa, and start your adventure. In part 2 of this multi-post theme I will discuss what to expect in the country and the travel to your first photography destination.

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Your arrival in South Africa will most likely be in either Johannesburg (north central region) or Cape Town (southwest coastal region) and the two could not be more different. Jo'burg is the heart of the SA business world and is a bustling large city with an unfortunate number of crime ridden areas. My advice is to get your vehicle and move out of the city quickly. Cape Town, on the other hand, is a beautiful destination city with wonderful beaches, restaurants, and diverse attractions. My advice is, if you have the time, spend a few days to adjust to the time change and enjoy the city on foot, by tour bus, or with Uber. I will have more about Cape Town and the south coast in a later post.

The long flight and the seven to ten hour time change from the US will have you a bit groggy for a couple of days so take it easy and start slowly. Take a nap if you need to but try to stay up until a reasonable bedtime and you will soon feel fine. Find a nice book store and pick up a good highway map and any reference books you will need for your trip. Bookstores are uncommon outside of the big cities. When you are ready to leave the city, pick up your rental vehicle and check it carefully for any damage or worn tires. We had the unfortunate experience of leaving without checking the car and found severely worn tires and had a blow-out on one of the national highways. We had to have the rental company replace the car and they later charged us an excessive amount for some "body damage" that we had not noticed. It is a common scam so look carefully before you accept your vehicle.

You will get a right-hand drive vehicle and will be driving on the left side of the road - "keep left" should always be at the top of your mind while driving. The roads in South Africa, for the most part, are excellent and better than US highways. The signage is superb and lanes on most larger roads are marked with arrows on the pavement and have both left and right turn lanes at major intersections. Traffic lights in SA are called "robots" so when someone tells you to turn left at the second robot, don't be surprised.

There are several useful road numbering conventions that help you judge the style and condition of the roads while reading your map. The national (N) highways are like the US interstate system - high speed (usually 120 km/h) and controlled access (at least in the cities.) Some of the N highways are toll roads or have toll segments (especially around Johannesburg and Pretoria and the south coast) so don't be surprised if a toll booth pops up on your drive. In rural areas the N roads can be only two-lane but with turn lanes at intersections. Expect cars to pass you (on the right) at speeds above the posted limits. If you are approached from behind by a faster vehicle, most people pull onto the wide paved shoulders and let the vehicle pass - even on curves with double yellow line (no passing) areas.

A piece of advice about choosing your rental vehicle style is to get a car with a real trunk (or "boot" as the South Africans say.) Most hatch-backs and SUVs have windows exposing all of your luggage and photography gear. A locking trunk keeps prying eyes off off your things and gives less of an impression that you are a tourist. We left most of our luggage in the trunk at our lodging overnight and even at hiking trail heads along the way. We felt safe and had no problems but I wouldn't leave anything in your car or even leave the car on the street in the large cities. 

Regional (R) highways are more like US highways. These are paved, high traffic roads between cities. They are usually two lane with wide shoulders but sometimes are 4-lane. There are often passing lanes in the mountains or on the (frequent) long, steep hills. Expect lots of people walking or bike riding along the roads. In the national parks you will find special (H) roads that are tarred (paved) but have more narrow gravel or dirt shoulders for pull-offs. Secondary (S) roads are much more variable and often are shorter roads to specific destinations. They are variable from paved, partially paved, gravel, or dirt. Some of the remote S roads have pot holes and the speed limits are usually significantly reduced to 60 - 80 km/h. In national parks expect the S roads to be dirt and narrow.

Many ask about GPS and I believe it is helpful but not necessary. If you have a smart phone, the map function GPS works very well so long as you load the entire route while you have wifi before your departure. Broadband data service is available along most N highways and cities but our Verizon international plan almost never worked so be careful to check you maps before leaving your lodging.

South Africa is a huge country (almost twice the size of Texas) so distance between destinations may be long. There are many things to stop and see along the way so travel time will be far longer than you will plan. Even when we thought we were driving near the posted speed limits, our time to destinations was often twice what we expected. Plan to slow down to really see and photograph the sights.

I mentioned cash and financial considerations in the first part of this series but here is a reminder to have a no-charge, "travel" credit card for most of your South African financial transactions. The card must be chip-enabled and a credit card is more widely accepted than a debit card. These cards are accepted for even the smallest transactions and allow you to avoid carrying much cash or exchanging dollars for South African Rand (ZAR.) Check with your bank but some large US banks have relationships with SA banks and allow use of ATMs with no US charge (there will be a SA charge.) Most restaurants and gas stations have portable transaction machines that allow you to keep your card in your possession at all times - a good  practice. In 2017 about the only charges that will require cash are the national highways toll roads. When we visited the toll booths did not accept international credit cards. You will also want some ZAR for tipping. Gas stations are "full service" and attendants are usually tipped 5 - 10 ZAR (80 cents). Uniformed "watchers" in some public parking lots expect a 5 - 7 ZAR tip (likely a good investment.) Other tipping can be added to your credit card charges.

One thing you will almost certainly want to purchase in SA is an electrical converter plug. South Africa has 240VAC/50Hz power and uses a unique 3-prong plug that is unlike Europe in that the prongs are round. The best adapters will accept both 2 and 3 prong North American plugs and European plugs. Some even have 1 or 2 USB charging points built-in - very convenient since many guest rooms have only 1 or 2 unused outlets. Some places have a European 2=prong outlet so you a use a small adapter to a 2-prong US style plug available on many more standard travel adapters. Almost all modern electronics and chargers work on 240VAC power but if you bring a hair dryer be sure to use the correct voltage setting.

I mentioned before that most lodging in SA, once outside of the large cities, is in small guest houses, lodges, or private home B&Bs. We found these to be a lovely way to obtain some local knowledge and meet other foreign visitors. Most are inexpensive $45 - 80 per night for the nicer spots including a wonderful breakfast. Almost all lodging in small cities and towns will have wifi but check in advance if this is important to you.  The national parks have almost no wifi except in the higher end, private lodges. Broadband data services are quite variable in speed and we found Verizon international data to be totally unreliable. Campgrounds (caravan parks) are frequent in most of the tourist areas and most tourist towns have travelers rests (hostels) for those who want to meet more people and really have an adventure.

Finally, going out for dinner is a South African past time and restaurants are common and usually very good. Meals are very affordable and often a very good 2 or 3 course dinner with wine in the city will cost only $35-60 for a couple, less in smaller towns. Breakfasts can be found for about $4-5, and big lunches about $5 each. Most grocery stores are well stocked and carry a variety of delicious SA wines starting at about $4 (good table wines) to about $15 for a truly excellent wine. A cold draught beer in a pub is about $2; an ice cream also about $2.

There is a tremendous amount to see and do in Cape Town and while driving around the country. In the next segment, I will describe the trip along the south coast and later turn to the national parks.

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Your arrival in South Africa

You have planned for months and triple-checked your luggage and gear. Now you are ready to board your long flight, arrive in South Africa, and start your adventure. In part 2 of this multi-post theme I will discuss what to expect in the country and the travel to your first photography destination.Karoo-08111-EditKaroo-08111-Edit Your arrival in South Africa will most likely be in either Johannesburg (north central region) or Cape Town (southwest coastal region) and the two could not be more different. Jo'burg is the heart of the SA business world and is a bustling large city with an unfortunate number of crime ridden areas. My advice is to get your vehicle and move out of the city quickly. Cape Town, on the other hand, is a beautiful destination city with wonderful beaches, restaurants, and diverse attractions. My advice is, if you have the time, spend a few days to adjust to the time change and enjoy the city on foot, by tour bus, or with Uber. I will have more about Cape Town and the south coast in a later post.Continue reading "Your arrival in South Africa"

Light Painting Without Lights

Lightroom and Photoshop to the Rescue!

Recently, the Park Service announced slight changes in the enforcement of a few rules already on the books. The change involved a restriction on the use of artificial lights to illuminate a subject for the purpose of photography. Flashlights are still allowed for safety and wayfinding. I posted a new page on the subject a week or so ago. Check out this page: Artificial Light for Photography in Grand Teton National Park.Night Barn Original CaptureI thought it might an interesting challenge to attempt to imitate a light painted shot. This is a screen grab of an image as it was captured on a Nikon D5 body and a Nikon 14-24mm lens. You can see the shooting data near the top corner: 20 seconds at F/2.8, with ISO 2500 at 18mm. The photo was taken during the “blue light” period, which can often appear too blue. I set the White Balance to a Custom setting of 6800k. (This is just a starting point for LR and not set in stone).  Of course, I was using a tripod.This page will show a lot of steps and tools that might spark some ideas of your own. I am using Lightroom CC 2015 (the current version) which contains a nice set of features that are not included in the boxed LR6 version. One of the recent additions is the Guided Transform tools, which work similarly to the Perspective Crop tool. It has been in Photoshop for quite a few revisions. Lightroom can do a lot of the heavy lifting on most images—and can even do all of the work on many images—but a project like this one still needs Photoshop. Continue reading "Light Painting Without Lights"

Planning an African photo safari

Africa - the dream of a lifetime but how do you plan for an extended photo safari?

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I recently returned from a two month photo safari in South Africa, truly a trip of a lifetime and want to share many of the things I learned in the planning, execution, and photography of this adventure. This is part one of a multi-part series of posts about South Africa and its photographic treasures.

The goals of my trip were a little different than most visitors to Africa. Most of my friends visited many parks and camps, saw little of the country outside of the national parks, and all complained about not enough time to really see the parks. I proposed to solve these issues by spending a full two months in South Africa and almost one of these months in the amazing Kruger National Park - not with rushed three hour guided tours but on my own time schedule and itinerary. I wanted to maximize time with the wildlife and keep costs reasonable.

To accomplish these goals we planned months in advance (but not long enough in advance to stay where we wanted every night of the trip.) Suggestion: make your reservations 10-11 months before you plan to travel. Things get booked quickly in the South African National Parks and most take reservations 11-12 months in advance. South Africa has many public holidays and the locals fill the lodging and campsites for many days around every holiday, so check the local calendar and be sure you have lodging over the busy holidays.

Choosing travel dates can be difficult. The wet season (September to April) is green and lush but the dry season (May to August) concentrates the wildlife near rivers and water holes. The South African summer (December to February) can be unbearably hot (especially in the north) but the winter  (June to August) can be crowded with tourists. I visited from mid-March to mid-May (early fall and the beginning of the dry season) and found the weather near perfect and the number of visitors very tolerable. Suggestion: Consider your goals carefully when choosing travel dates.

Your air flights will set your beginning and ending dates and you can work out lodging and transportation from there. There are few direct flights covering the 9,000 miles from the US to South Africa. If you cannot get a direct flight your options are to fly via Europe on any of several major airlines or to fly through the Middle East via the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. If your travel will take you only to Kruger National Park, your South African destination will be Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. If you plan to see the parks along the south coast, you might want to start your visit in the beautiful city of Cape Town. In either city you will probably want to spend your first and last nights near the airport. The duration of travel from the US to South Africa will be between 19 hours (for a direct flight) and more than 35 hours if you change flights in Europe or the Middle East.

After your travel dates are chosen you will want to plan a general itinerary for your in-country travels. Driving is easy in South Africa once you master the right-hand steering and driving on the left side of the road. Rental cars are inexpensive and the highways are excellent with great signage. A good map and perhaps a phone GPS will help your arrive efficiently at your day's destination. When planning your itinerary remember that there are many national parks and public lands in South Africa and you won't want to miss any in the vicinity of your travels. South Africa is a large country, roughly twice the size of Texas, so be sure to break up your travel in manageable distances - there is a lot to see. Almost all lodging outside of the major cities will be in small guest houses or Bed & Breakfast homes. These are often very nice and readily available at a reasonable cost. Note: Personal travel is safe. easy, and rewarding in South Africa.

A few things to consider before you leave concern health, finances, and communication. Part of South Africa is in the tropics (north of the Tropic of Capricorn) and can pose some health risks for travelers. It is best to check with a travel medicine physician before you leave and obtain appropriate vaccinations. You will also want malaria prophylaxis when in the tropics and, perhaps, some antibiotics for respiratory or gastrointestinal maladies. You will need insect repellent with a high concentration of DEET (surprisingly this is hard to find in South Africa.)

Travel expenses are best handled with a no fee "travel" credit card. Chip-enabled cards are accepted almost everywhere and can be used for everything from an ice cream cone to a week's lodging. A small amount of local currency (Rand; ZAR) is needed for tips and for highway toll booths. The current exchange rate is about 13 ZAR/dollar and almost everything goes on the plastic. Finally, you might want to check with your cell phone provider for an international calling option while in South Africa. You need a GSM phone and will find voice and text charges reasonable. Data charges may be very high and while Wifi is readily available in the B&Bs and restaurants, it is not available in the national parks so plan ahead.

One very important item to purchase before your trip is a SANPark "Wild Card." The South Africa National Parks organization, SANPark, will send you a personalized card good for family admission to all South African national parks and their affiliate parks. If you plan to be in multiple parks or any park for more than about two weeks this card is a good deal. It covers admission and daily conservation fees and will save you considerably over daily fees. The card is available from SANPark but it takes about 4-6 weeks to arrive in the US so order early!

Pack lightly for your trip. Dress in South Africa is casual and, outside of Cape Town, conservative. Shorts and sandals work most places and joggers are nice for hiking when it is allowed. You will need long pants, long sleeved shirts, and a light jacket for early morning activities. A hooded Gortex rain jacket is also advised. In the south during the winter season, you will need another layer as it gets quite cool and windy. Suggestion: the less you have to carry in your luggage, the happier you will be

You won't need as much photography gear as you might think. I took a lot and used very little. You will want (at least) two camera bodies, a moderate zoom (24-70mm), a telephoto zoom, lots and lots of high-capacity memory cards, extra batteries and charger(s), lens cleaning gear, sensor cleaning gear, and a reasonably dust-resistant pack. I took wide angles, a macro, a short tele, some prime lenses, a cable release/intervalometer, and a tripod - I used none of these in 2 months - probably could have, but didn't. Almost 90% of my shots were with a 100-400mm zoom on a crop sensor body.

You will need a laptop, external hard drive(s), chargers, and a card reader. It is wise to download and back up your camera's memory cards every day. At times this was difficult at a campsite but it was reassuring to know I had 3 copies of every image. Suggestion: Back up your images daily and keep your original memory cards until your return home.

Don't forget battery chargers, adapters, and cables for your electronic gear. You will also need an electrical adapter for 240VAC/50Hz power using a unique South African 3 round-prong plug. Some B&Bs will also use a European-style 2 round prong plug but these are rare in the parks. Note: The usual 3-prong European-style plug does not work in South Africa.

We were able to pack everything into our two soft-luggage checked bags. We carried a day pack with personal items and my camera bag on the plane. Be sure to check with the Transportation Safety Administration about laptops and cameras on your return flight to the US. Since we flew through Qatar, my laptop and camera bodies had to be checked. I carried one hard drive with copies of all images and my Lightroom catalog but the camera bag was checked. I had Qatar Airlines sign an inventory with replacement costs and they very carefully sealed the camera bag, wrapped it in plastic, sealed the plastic, and labeled it to be hand delivered in customs on my return to Dallas. They did as promised and there was no damage but I was not a happy traveler. 

Those are some general thoughts to consider before leaving on your extended photo safari. In future posts I will discuss more detailed things to consider while on your trip and the realities of an extended photography safari. Kruger-3868-EditKruger-3868-Edit