DON'T sleep in
It’s understandable if the idea of beginning your hard-earned vacation every morning at 6 a.m. gives you pause, but don’t let it get the best of you. Animals are typically most active in the early morning and at sunset, with the heat of mid-day devoted to napping or more low-key pursuits. That means you’ll wake up before dawn to catch the sunrise. The already magnificent landscapes are at their most spectacular at this time (sunsets are pretty awesome, too), and you’re not going to want to miss it. Couple that with the vision of a leopard bathed in golden light, 30 feet from where you’re sitting, and sleep won’t seem that important anymore.
DON'T rely on a point-and-shoot camera
One of the most spectacular things about going on a photographic safari is that you can get very close to the wildlife. On average however, the distance is typically out of range of a point-and-shoot’s zoom, especially if you want a decent-quality close-up.
Veteran wildlife photographer Andy Biggs suggests "consider bringing a camera that can support a minimum of a 300-millimeter lens on the long end,” meaning if it’s a telephoto lens, its maximum magnification is 300 mm. Biggs also recommends renting your equipment if you want to minimize the investment.
DON'T get stuck on the Big 5
You’ll hear a lot about the “Big 5” when you’re in Africa. Originally coined by big game hunters, the Big 5 (African elephant, lion, leopard, cape buffalo and rhinoceros) refers to those animals that are the most difficult to hunt on foot. Many travelers have come to use it as a checklist of sorts, rating their safari on whether they’ve seen every one. Don’t fall into that trap. Your guides will be talented at tracking wildlife, but you’re dealing with nature; It’s not a performance, and animals don’t appear on cue. Chances are you’ll see more than one of the Big 5, but keep your mind open to all the other species you’re bound to see. There's plenty of wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, impala and hippo to see, many of them all at once.
DON'T get out of the jeep
You may read this and think, “duh,” but you’d be surprised at how many people have ignored their guides and done just that. The problem is—and this won’t be a shocker—it’s incredibly dangerous to enter the environment of wild animals. It’s true that many animals behave as if they’re performers in a play and ignore the presence of their awestruck audience, but it’s the jeep they’re comfortable with and not its passengers.
Gerry van der Walt, a wildlife photographer and co-founder of Wild Eye Photographic Safaris, explains:
Through many encounters with game-viewing vehicles, these animals have been habituated to perceive them as neither predator nor prey—the people within are an extension of that. The moment you get out, stand up, or hang your head out of the window, they will focus on you, as a human, something that they fear through both instinct and experience. The reaction you will get from an animal on foot, versus in a vehicle, is worlds apart.
DON'T forget to ask questions
Wildlife guides and professional photographers—sometimes they’re one and the same—lead every photographic safari. You’ve got an amazing well of information at your fingertips and you should drink it dry. No matter how much National Geographic you’ve watched, nothing compares to the experience of learning about nature from your guide in real time. Animals can do strange and inexplicable things. A guide is able to translate that behavior and put it into context. The same goes for the photographer. You have an opportunity to ask questions as they come to you; when the lighting is tricky, or there’s a lot of action, learn as much as you can. Think of your visit as your own wildlife documentary with your guide as narrator.
[Photos: Susan Portnoy/The Insatiable Traveler, on safari in Kenya, 2013]