Botswana has a climate similar to Southern California's and a density
of wild animals similar to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. This makes
it one of the world's most pleasant places to be a wildlife
Botswana's big attraction is the Okavango Delta. Unlike other African
countries where animals migrate to follow the water, the Okavango is
wet year-round and therefore has animals year-round. Where does the
water come from? In the wet season, November through March, it falls
from the sky. In the dry season, it arrives in the form of a flood
from a river rising in Angola.
The part of Botswana that doesn't get flooded by the Okavango is very
dry indeed. Most of it is the "Kalahari semi-desert" and thinly
populated with animals or humans.
The best time of year is the dry season: April through October. June
through September seems to be a favorite, and animals are more
concentrated at rivers and other water sources. If you don't like the
cold, be aware that a pre-sunrise game drive in July or August (Southern
Hemisphere winter) will be very cold indeed. The high-end lodges will
supply wind-proof ponchos and hot water bottles, but you're driving
around in an open vehicle in near-freezing temperatures.
The cities of Botswana are pleasant and relaxed by African standards,
but for the visiting photographer are most likely to be transit hubs
rather than destinations. You will probably fly into Maun, adjacent
to the Okavango Delta, and immediately fly out on an air taxi.
South Africa is a country where Democrats would feel right at home.
They celebrate gay marriage. Applicants for a job are sorted by skin
color before their skills are evaluated, in affirmative action
programs that favor the dark. When you ask folks why there are so
many carjackings and armed robberies, they say the criminals didnt get
enough love during apartheid or "We need to create more jobs". National
parks are accessible by paved roads and open to all for a modest fee.
Botswana, on the other hand, is for Republicans. Areas of natural
beauty and abundant wildlife are leased to private tour companies who
are allowed to build lodges with no more than 7 or 8 rooms (tents).
The result is that only people who can afford $1000 or $2000 per night
per room will see the lions, leopards, and rhinos. Affirmative action
is unknown and job applicants, white or black, are evaluated on the
basis of their ability to work. Thieves are imprisoned, often after
being beaten unconscious by enraged citizens. Finally, the Botswanans
love diamonds, discovered in 1967, one year after independence, and
are now the world's leading producer of gem-quality stones.
The country has the relaxed wide-open feel that you'd expect given
that it is the size of Texas and populated by only 1.8 million people
(2007). The population is growing at a robust 1.5 percent per year,
despite an estimated 37 percent HIV infection rate. Botswanans
interviewed for this article estimated the HIV infection rate at
closer to 10 percent. People are rich by African standards, with a
per-capita purchasing power of $11,000 per year, equivalent to about
one quarter that of an American.
On the edge of the Kalahari, and lacking the Big Five, Jack's Camp is
a great place to start or end an Africa trip. The level of luxury
here is not very high compared to the newer "less African" camps, so
it might not be the best choice for honeymooners. For everyone else,
however, Jack's will instill a deeper appreciation for the Botswanan
ecology, the skills of the Bushmen, and the knowledge of a dedicated
Jack's is one of the best places in the world to photograph meerkats.
The Camp employs a full-time "meerkat follower" whose job is to live
with the meerkats, camping next to them every night, and keep them
accustomed to a human presence. You can get interesting photos with a
lens as short as 14mm. I got so many keepers that I created
a separate page for my meerkat photos.
A rotating group of Bushmen live at the
Camp, ready to take tourists out for a walk through the Kalahari where
traditional survival skills are demonstrated.
Zebra migrate through the area in such numbers that they create
permanent tracks. The dust kicked up is so thick that the animals
close their eyes and follow each other by sound and smell.
Baobab trees can be enormous (click to see the person, added for
scale, in the middle of the tree) but they are difficult to date
because they are "semi-succulents" and lack rings like true
trees. This is "Chapman's Baobab", perhaps more than 4,000 years old,
and a landmark for early explorers such as Livingstone.
Food at Jack's is simpler and tastier than at newer camps, where the
grasp of ambitious chefs usually falls short of their reach. When
ingredients have to be flown in by Cessna and the chef has to be kept
entertained in the middle of nowhere, it is impossible to produce the
kind of elaborate cuisine you'd find in the best restaurants of Cape
Digging up a scorpion...
Digging up a root, scraping out pulp, and squeezing it to extract
Building a fire...
Enjoying a game...
People come to Mombo to see interactions among species. When not
viewing animals, guests are luxuriously catered to with 24-hour
electric power, hot water bottles, cool face towels, etc. The cuisine
is ambitious, always copious, and often excellent (try to limit your
trips to the buffet, remembering that you will probably be less
physically active at a game lodge than at nearly any other time of
Caveats: Mombo is within a national park and therefore night drives
are prohibited; this reduces your chance of seeing a kill. Mombo is
perhaps the most expensive camp in Africa, which draws in a crowd of
folks who may not be passionate about animals, photography, or Africa.
For you, it is the trip of a lifetime; for them, it is a pleasant
diversion for this particular month.
We were fortunate to see some young hyena waiting for their mother to return with a buffalo leg.
This hyena pup wasn't kind enough to step into the clear to be
photographed. A moderately wide aperture of f/5.6 renders the
interfering grass reasonably unsharp (might have been better to use
the f/4 maximum aperture of the 300/4 lens). This is a good
illustration of when it is necessary to use manual focus. The
camera's autofocus system would have done a great job... of focusing
on the grass in the foreground. Unless you can find a camera with
"hyena face detection", prepare to focus manually in this kind of
situation. You're the photographer; only you know which part of the
scene should be rendered in sharp focus.
Mombo is a reliable place to see leopard, which do not run from a game
drive vehicle. If you see an antelope head in a tree, that's not the
result of a big jump, but rather part of a leopard's pantry.
"They always look at you as though you owe them money," one guide observed about Cape Buffalo.
At 420mm, this Fish Eagle is quite small. The dead tree adds more
interest to the frame than empty blue sky and it is possible that this
would be an effective image enlarged to 16x24".
Giraffe are shy and tend to move away from an approaching vehicle at a
deliberate pace. Don't linger with your composition.
You would think that the time around sunset would yield the best
images, but (1) at Mombo, you'll be racing back to camp to avoid the
national park ban on driving after dark, (2) the sun sets quickly near
the Equator, (3) animals may not look very interesting when backlit,
and (4) there are seldom any clouds in the sky to add interest.
A handful of white rhino live at Mombo. Finding this one required
directions from another guide and an hour of bumpy off-road driving.
Mombo has its own pride of lions. During the day, they lie around on the grass preparing for a
Spencer Tunick photograph.
Additional Mombo Images
Vumbura offers more activities than the average game lodge: powerboat
rides, mokoro (poled canoe) rides, walks with a rifle-toting guide, as
well as the usual game drives before and after dark. Vumbura is home
to a large herd of the rare Sable Antelope as well as the usual
animals of the Okavango Delta.
The lodge itself is one of the most modern and comfortable in Africa.
Each guest room includes a sunken seating area with a sofa large
enough for 10 people. The patio includes a plunge pool, some chaise
longues, and a shaded L-shaped sofa, also big enough for 10 people.
You could easily host a party for 50 people within the private area of
your room and deck. Given that Vumbura Plains only has eight rooms
and a maximum of about 20 guests, you might have to fly some party
guests in for the day. Due to the comfort and relaxed atmosphere,
this would be a great lodge at which to start a honeymoon.
The elephant image at left illustrates the important photographic
principle of "f/8 and be there". This was the first photo taken at
Vumbura Plains, from the deck of the main lodge, with a fixed 50mm
lens. The image at right required a bit of a drive and a 300mm lens.
The Makoro ride was a perfect place to use the
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, (buy from Amazon). The tiny Painted Reed Frog in the
image at left shows up fairly well in a full-size version. A macro
lens would have been nice, but you can't get every photo on every
A Sable Antelope portrait, left, at 420mm, can be nice, but it is also
good to capture the overall scene, right, at 130mm.
The Saddle-billed Stork is an enormous bird, by bird standards, but 420mm still isn't long enough to get a true portrait.
Additional Vumbura Images
The BBC has elected to camp out here at Chitabe for the past three
years, gathering material for various nature shows. The area is rich
with all kinds of animals and is an especially great place to
Arriving at the hippo-filled river at sunset was a magical experience
for guests. It is tough to capture the magic, however, with straight
overall photos such as these.
The telephoto close-up of one hippo at left makes a reasonably
effective image, but it could have been taken in a zoo. The cropped
image at right (click to enlarge/appreciate) is better at
communicating the extent to which the hippos were filling the river.
The longest lens in the bag, a 300/4 plus a 1.4X teleconverter,
produced the boring "could have been taken in any zoo" image at left.
Removing the teleconverter shows the young male lion with his
companion, at right, but we still haven't learned anything about Chitabe.
Going to a standard 70-200 zoom lens, set to 115mm, results in an
image showing the lions and their lonely prey-free environment.
You may get tired of seeing impala, which the guides refer to as
"leopard food". You will either see a handful of young males or a
dominant male and his harem of up to 100 females. It is difficult to
get an interesting image of these abundant antelope, which generally
start to run away when a vehicle approaches.
There are two kinds of Ostrich photos that you can take. They will either be far away (left) or running away (right).
Do not invite elephants to a backyard barbecue. In addition to
stomping and eating everything, elephants will strip bark from certain
trees and knock others over to gain better access to tender
Additional Chitabe Images
You will see game from the air taxi flights that go from lodge to
lodge, but these generally fly too high for interesting aerial photos.
You can charter an airplane out of Maun to do a specific photo
mission, but the windows and struts of the little Cessnas will get in
the way and the pilots who work for the Botswanan air taxi companies
are some of the least experienced commercial pilots in the world.
You're much better off in a helicopter, though sadly the only machines
available are expensive jet-powered machines that will start at $1000
per hour. If you do manage to get hold of one, you might find our
aerial photogaphy tutorial helpful.
Arranging a Trip
However you book your trip, do it far in advance. Roads are few and
poor in Africa, making air travel essential. In an effort to protect
small domestic carriers, governments set tight limits on air travel.
The result is that flights are few, far between, and five times as
expensive as in the U.S. or Europe. Even if you can get a place in a
lodge, you might not be able to get there. People typically book
Africa trips six or nine months in advance. If you book last-minute,
be prepared for some days cowering in a Jo'burg hotel room or
bored in a dusty provincial Botswanan town.
The easiest thing to do is what I did: contact James Weis at Eyes on Africa and let him book
the entire trip. He is an experienced wildlife photographer and knows
the lodges, the seasons, and the animals.
Botswana is tough to visit on a tight budget, but it can be done if
you're willing to rough it. The easiest approach is the driving
safari, in which tents are set up in a new location every night.
Check Lonely Planet Botswana and Namibia for the