On the back of our successful, but gruelling 2009 safari, I decided to do something different for our Nikongear.com safari in 2010. Together with Pepe Jones’ expert help we booked out an entire camp at the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands. We had 9 people join us on that initial foray into the very different world of private game reserves and the positive outcome of that trip solidified in my mind the vision of my personal future; namely to produce the best photo safaris that any photographer could hope to make.

This past October we returned to Little Bush Camp at Sabi Sabi to enjoy 7 more days of enchanting game drives, with our focus being Africa’s Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo). This series of posts serves as an account of that time, as well as hopefully a reminder to those of you reading them that life is too short to put trips like these on hold indefinitely. I hope you enjoy the story of the 2012 Nikongear.com safari.

Getting to Sabi Sands from Johannesburg is a 45-minute flight to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) and then a further 2 hours by predominantly tarred road to get to Shaw’s Gate, which is the main entrance to most of the private lodges on the Southern part of the Sabi Sands reserve.
Along the way you drive through towns such as White River and Hazyview, which don’t particularly stand out as attractions on their own, but do give you the sense of being close to a much bigger attraction, namely the world famous Kruger National Park. You’ll see lots of local arts and crafts, such as stone sculptures of the Big 5 being sold by the roadside and plenty of signs advertising independent safari accommodation or game drives for day trips to the park. Apart from farming and forestry it’s the main lifeblood of the region.

2011 was a bust for safaris, but 2012 was much better and we sold out this trip long in advance. A total of 10 people would be joining us at Little Bush Camp, including people from the USA, Sweden, Andorra and South Africa. Our rendezvous point was in Johannesburg, or to be more precise, Sandton, which is just North of Jo’burg. Some guests arrived a couple of days earlier than the trip began, which gave them time to overcome the jetlag, while others joined us from the week long pre-extension to our Big 5 trip, which took them from Cape Town along the beautiful coastal Garden Route of the Western and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa. One party, Mike and Mary, had elected to do a self-drive safari in Namibia for a week, which we organised for them.

I flew up to Johannesburg from my home city, Durban on the Saturday so that I could greet our incoming Safarians at the airport and make sure they got to the Tladi Lodge in Sandton safely. On this trip we made extensive use of the new Gautrain, which is a bullet train service linking Sandton and Pretoria with OR Tambo airport. It’s pretty cool and what would normally take about an hour by car in the worst traffic in the country now only takes about 15-20 minutes, dropping you in the heart of Sandton, from where you can take a taxi to your accommodation, or if you have forgotten anything to one of the many shopping malls in the area. The train leaves from right inside the airport terminal so you don’t have to do too much walking to get to it.

Lena & Roland aboard the Gautrain

I met up with Ann, Roland & Lena in the baggage claim area at OR Tambo as our flights had arrived there at almost the same time. This was Ann’s third trip with us, so finding her wasn’t difficult at all. I should have recognised Roland straight away too as not many people travel with massive Nikon DSLR’s and lenses around their necks! We all eventually got our luggage and made our way to the Gautrain station inside the terminal building. Outside as the sun gradually began its descent below the horizon, we too descended into what Ann called “Middle Earth” as our train entered the underground tunnel that brings it to Sandton. I think we ended up riding at least 6 or 7 long escalators upwards  before we finally emerged in the heart of Sandton. A quick taxi ride to our rendezvous lodge and we were checked in and ready to begin our 2012 adventure.

That night we enjoyed dinner at a restaurant chain named Moyo, which presents itself in as African a style as you can imagine. Lots of earthy colours, African motifs and sculptures abound everywhere. I’ve eaten in their Durban branch before, having taken some Japanese 3D photographers to dinner there one night and unfortunately the cuisine hasn’t appealed to me much since. It’s a lot of weird stuff, which is not typically African and seems very contrived to be passed off as haute cuisine, which is about as African as open air ice rinks. But our guests seemed to enjoy it and that made me happy.

Some photos of Moyo, courtesy of Ann

Our small party of Safarians at Moyo – interesting table decorations!

On Sunday morning we met Richard & Barbara who joined us from Colorado a couple of days earlier. After breakfast we collected Nicola, Ann’s daughter, from the airport and later on Sunday Pepe arrived in her Hyundai H1 van after driving through from Port Elizabeth. We then collected Mike & Mary Berry who came to us from their pre-Safari extension in Namibia and later that day we also met up with Richard Sparks, an anaesthetist from Johannesburg, who now holds the distinction of being the first South African to join one of our South African safaris as a guest. The owners of the Tladi Lodge put on a wonderful braai (BBQ) for us that evening and we all got to know one another over some drinks and excellently unpretentious African food.

Dinner braai at Tladi Lodge – click to enlarge

There was only one person missing, namely Victor from Sweden, who we discovered had missed a connecting flight from Stockholm to Frankfurt and was about to experience 48 hours of travel nightmares as he tried desperately to meet up with us in Sabi Sabi, via Luanda in Angola. Pepe got to work on this crisis immediately and was able to make arrangements for him to get a connecting flight from OR Tambo directly to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA) as well as the necessary road transfers to the lodge itself so that we could meet him on the Monday night at the lodge.

Early on Monday morning Richard Sparks and Pepe drove their respective vehicles to KMIA together with the bulk of our luggage, while the rest of the gang and I flew in from Johannesburg. Taking a flight to KMIA gives the Safarians more time to get ready for the first day on safari and it also allows us to bypass the weight restrictions for hand luggage when flying domestically in South Africa. The guidelines are for 8 kilograms of hand luggage and whilst I have yet to have mine weighed by the airport check-in people, you don’t want to run the risk of having to check in your gear, especially not when you’re on the apron, about to board the plane.

For this trip the aircraft we flew between Johannesburg and Kruger was a fairly decent sized one, but if you’re flying in from smaller cities like Durban and Cape Town the chances of being on a much smaller plane are quite high. When I flew back to Durban from KMIA at the end of the trip I was on something that didn’t even have overhead storage compartments and my Lowepro Nova 200AW barely fit under the seat in front of me. It was touch and go. Fortunately I got away with it because I made sure I was the first person on the plane. I watched people boarding behind me having to leave their bags in one of those apron check-in baskets they have outside the plane. Not something you want to do with expensive camera gear.

From the air you get to see the small and larger farms that make up the landscape en route

If you do find yourself in a situation like this, the best thing to do is make sure that your camera case is both lockable and preferably a hard shell one that can withstand the kind of handling indifference that airline staff show towards the luggage of their customers. Mike and Mary both had the Pelican 1514 roll-on cases containing their Canon 500mm f/4 lenses and other expensive camera bits as their hand luggage. These cases are certified as being within the carry-on size limits for just about any airline worldwide. That’s what I am going to get next time around. I think the weight restriction is more about safety in the overhead bins than the actual weight of the items for conveyance purposes. They don’t want something like 20kgs falling into the aisle and knocking people on the head should there be some kind of extreme mid-flight turbulence. That would definitely ruin the fun for a passenger and potentially open the airline up to all sorts of litigation. So, if you can, get a case that’s not only convenient to carry around, but one that also offers the best possible protection should you need to be parted with it for flights.

Nicola against the backdrop of Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport

Pepe arrives with the Hyundai H1 bus to carry us the rest of the way to Sabi Sabi

It’s also a lot easier to join one of our Ultimate Big 5 trips and then you don’t have to worry about this once you get into South Africa. :)

[part 2, covering our arrival at Little Bush Camp will be published here next week]