As a wildlife photography enthusiast, I not only guide and plan Wildlife Photo Safari Tours but enjoy going on tours to places I am unlikely to ever lead one. I make use of fellow providers to explore new places and see new animals I haven’t photographed before. Recently I was asked how I go about choosing a tour provider as there are so many options available at various price points. Most people think the cheapest option must be the best value for money but that’s usually not the case!
Researching tours can be overwhelming as there are so many options out there so I thought I’d let you in on my ‘strategy’, if you will, for picking the right tour to meet your interests, comfort level and budget. Naturally, I start with “What animals do I want to see? Where can I find them?” For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to narrow the sample search to South Africa and say “I want to see the Big 5”. Here are the seven things, in no particular order, I consider when researching tours and comparing prices.
1. Number of fellow passengers
A safari vehicle can accommodate 9 passengers seated on three rows. Most wildlife photographic tours will seat 6 guests to a vehicle (two per row) – this means that if I’m seated on the right side and the action is happening on the left of the vehicle, I’m not going to be seeing or photographing much unimpeded.
I prefer to share the experience with a small group of photographers and lots of space – able to photograph the animals from all angles and wait around for interesting interaction with other wildlife. The unpredictable movement of some of the cats, for example, requires the flexibility to move from one side of the vehicle to the other, or move higher or lower to get the best perspective.
Photographers, and I am as guilty as the next, go on a game drive loaded with cameras, lenses, tripods and accessories; the space to accommodate these extras means I don’t want to share a row with others. Ideally, I choose a safari carrying only one photographer per row and perhaps a partner with whom I am willing to share those moments.
2. Point of departure
Experience has taught me that flights to safari points of departure are seldom available directly from the USA or Europe. If the tour begins from Victoria Falls, Maun or Windhoek, I have to overnight in Johannesburg. Staying in a hotel overnight, catching a flight to the start of tour and returning to Johannesburg at the end, means at least another $800 – $1000 depending on the season: if a tour doesn’t start from Johannesburg, I automatically add that on to the advertised price. I also factor in the extra work of organizing accommodation, who to use and how long to expect for airport transfers, etc. In time and stress, it adds up to more than just the monetary value.
3. Type of accommodation and season
Cheap and cheerful holidays have their place and I have been on some in my lifetime. Many safaris state “tented accommodation” which can mean anything from a covered space with spartan facilities to air-conditioned luxurious tents with attached hot showers so it’s important to establish what ”tented accommodation” actually means for each tour option. Tented accommodation in winter in the Kgalagadi desert, for example, is not something to look forward to unless you are really prepared for it. When making comparisons, I ensure the safaris I am considering take place during the same season. For example, a green season tour – during the rainy season and with 105F temperatures –will cost much less than a dry season outing in moderate temperatures. There will also be a significant difference in comfort level and packing requirements.
4. Incidental costs – transfers, park fees, refreshments and other incidentals
If the tour does not state explicitly that something is included, I always assume that I have to pay for it and will have to allocate time and energy to see it through. It’s important to find the “included / excluded” part of the tour details and work out how much more all of the exclusions will cost me, as well as think about what may not be mentioned – park fees, laundry costs, and refreshments – all appear insignificant when you’re paying little amounts here and there but they do add up to a considerable sum.
If it isn’t mentioned, I ask the operator for an estimate of how much I will need to budget for any disbursements during the journey. Specifically, I look out for the section on the gratuities for lodge staff, guides and rangers as it’s always best to know what the tipping customs and expectations are before arriving.
5. And when the wheels come off….
I have been on outings where, despite the best intention of the operator, gremlins have crept in. Here is my checklist of ‘must knows’:
- Will someone be at the airport to welcome me when I arrive at my destination? With transportation to the hotel or meeting place for the fist introductory meet?
- Is the operator running a one-man show relying on good luck and fortune for a memorable safari or does he have a support team?
- Who is ensuring the behind-the-scenes coordination so that I never become aware of slight slip-ups?
- If there is a mishap over a weekend or after hours, will someone be there to answer the call or will the tour be stalled until Monday when business resumes?
6. Professional photographic guidance
There is no golden rule that states a photographic safari tour has to have a photography guide. But I am loathe to go to a destination for the first time and place my photographing success on hope alone. Without the expertise of a photography guide with local knowledge, who will let the ranger know how to position the vehicle to ensure the light is most appropriate for the scene? Who determines where to go and the time of day to do so? Having a professional photographer who knows the area and how to get the best photographs means I’ll be in the best position to get my own stunning images.
7. Reputation and identity
This is a tough one as there is no explicit place reflecting every professional’s credentials. As a subjective approach to the person’s reputation, I read the ‘About’ part of the person’s website, seek them on social media and peruse the comments made by guests on previous outings.
I make notes of questions as I go through the offerings – oftentimes these questions are resolved as more and more information is covered. In the end however, is there a number and a name I can call upon to answer any remaining doubts? And do they respond timeously? This is a good indicator of the approachability of an operator and their openness to assist guests while on safari.
I also review the images chosen to showcase their photography skills and capabilities. Ultimately, I question: “How much do I identify with the images?”, “Are they technically sound?“, “Is the composition appropriate for the subject?“, “Do they convey the meaning and feeling I would like my images to convey?“ If the answer to all these questions is positive then I am content that I have found a winner.
If you consider all of the above when comparing tour options and make note of all of the extra expenses or exclusions on each tour, you’ll get a much clearer ‘apples with apples’ comparison and come to realize that the “cheapest” option may just be that way because their offering falls short on convenience and will ultimately cost a lot more than just the advertised price.
As a professional photographic tour guide, I’ve factored all of these issues into the planning and pricing of my own tours. I want my guests to enjoy the adventure of visiting a new location and have a ‘wild’ experience without worrying about what happens next or how much more it’s going to cost. I not only co-ordinate the day’s activities but also ensure that the guests know what to expect the following day so they can set their cameras accordingly. I want them to return home with a disk drive full of images they can post online, share with friends and family, and enter into wildlife photography competitions.
I encourage you to go on that photographic safari you have envisaged for so long. Visit foreign lands, meet other peoples and see the African wildlife from close up. Take the best images you can and return home with a most memorable experience. Start off planning your trip understanding exactly what you will be getting – choose wisely, the right operator will make the photographic safari memorable and trouble free. And don’t necessarily take the cheapest option.
Image Copyrighted by Owner – unattributed as photographer is unknown