The third adventure to Africa happened in a rushed style compared to the previous two trips. I had only started to book it about 6 weeks before I wanted to be heading out. I had developed a strong passion for wanting to learn wildlife photography, and what could be better than learning a new skill, in a country I love, with so much wildlife!
For this adventure, I used a volunteering organization called African Impact, who specialise in a number of different wildlife and community projects. This project was again based in the Kruger region, which landed me about 20 minutes down the road from Moholoholo.
I decided a shorter stay was probably best this time around, and so I booked a 6 week stay for this project. The first 4 weeks would be an intensive wildlife photography learning experience, with the last two weeks allowing me to experience the research project part. These projects are run at the same location and so you will move groups once your photography experience is finished. This adventure began on the 21st of May 2015, which therefore meant another birthday spent in the African bush.
When landing in Johannesburg, you will be met by a driver, organised by the project coordinators, who will take you to a nearby hotel. You stay at a hotel for one night and will then be driven the 6 hour route to the project near the Kruger. The route did consist of a stop at Alzu and Dullstroom again, as in my previous adventures, as these are very popular rest stops for anyone traveling in the direction of the Kruger from Johannesburg. Upon arrival at the project, we found out that the project had only moved to the location we stayed at on that day. Luckily everything had been set up by the staff and other volunteers already at the project.
The typical daily schedule consisted of waking up at 5am, ready to be on the game vehicles at 6am, which meant eating some breakfast and gathering all your camera gear and anything else you wanted with you. The morning game drives lasted anywhere from 3-5 hours, depending on what you found. The time was then your own until lunch which was at 12:30-13:00pm, depending on how quick the lunch was to prepare. The afternoon drive then went out at around 3pm and finished by 7pm, where it was then dinner. The food at this project was some of the best I’ve ever eaten; not only was there the typical western diet which they will normally provide at projects like this (to include as many varieties as possible to suit everyone’s needs), but they also prepared some traditional South African dishes.
The daily schedule sometimes changed on the photography project when we needed to be in a classroom to learn camera settings, working with different lighting and also learning editing software, the main one being lightroom, with a little bit of photoshop thrown in. Learning the settings took me a little while before I started getting them right, especially as it was all new to me working with a DSLR rather than a point-and-shoot. I was taught how to balance the ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture (f/stop) to create good images using natural lighting. I’m not sure I really grasped the concept for quite a while, but eventually I did start to understand how it all works, and now I’m fairly confident in saying that I can get a picture of most things that I want to. I was also taught that the image should be good enough out of the camera that you don’t have to rely on the editing software too much. If the image is bad out of camera, there is almost no way of making it good post production either, so shooting the image correctly in the first place is important. Even now, I still stick to that rule, and when editing, I mostly only crop the image to a suitable size for social media and slightly adjust the exposure and contrast settings.
Whilst on the photography course, they will work towards you becoming useful to the research team as they need to use a lot of images of the wildlife. They use the images to build ID kits for animals such as elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, hyenas, and maybe a few other species. Animals have unique markings in the way we all have unique fingerprints. The pictures need to cover an array of different angles of the same individual so that all identification marks can be seen and used. This information is then used for the research projects such as finding out if there are frequent, or new, visitors on the different reserves that the research is carried out on.
At the time of my visit, the project was working on two reserves, one just down the road from our base or “home” as we all called it, and one based in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. When we did research at the Klaserie reserve, we got to stay for 24 hours and camp in tents overnight once a week. This is due to this reserve being a 1.5 to 2 hour drive from our lodge and so to be there early enough in the morning to do research, we had to be there from the afternoon before. The camping was most probably the best part of the whole experience for me, being in the bush and so close to nature really does something good for the soul. The research may be at different reserves now as this is over 5 years ago since I was there, and if they have collected enough data for each of the reserves that they work on, they may move on to others.
As a part of this experience, African Impact will always try and include some form of community volunteering as they are passionate about improving lives within the local communities. Even though I was predominantly photographing wildlife and doing wildlife research, we also went to a local school once a week. At the school, we were helping to build key-hole gardens. These are raised vegetable gardens to help minimise too much damage to the crops and soil during the rainy season, with the idea behind it of providing the children at the school with healthy, nutritious meals. The children that go to this school live in a township, which are usually poverty stricken and so food and healthcare is hard to come by. With the school providing each child with at least one nutritious meal during the day, this helps the community to fight against malnutrition and health issues in the younger generations. The children were always happy to see the volunteers when we turned up at the school, and we had teamed up with an Australian Indigenous volunteer programme that was helping out full time at the school.
I had some of my best experiences with the African wildlife on this trip, from spending a few peaceful moments with a rhino and her 2 month old calf on my birthday, to accidently stumbling upon an elephant and her very young calf, perhaps just a week old. There are so many things I could talk about with the wildlife and the guides, but as an overall experience this is probably one of the best volunteering programmes I have come across. The staff and volunteers at the project made me feel like I was part of a huge family; we all looked out and cared for each other and had some of the best times together.
The African Impact office team were also a huge help when I was booking my tour as it had to be done in such a rush. If you don’t want to stay at just one volunteering experience, the team will help make arrangements to transfer you to some of their other projects. They have projects in more than just South Africa, including at least one project in Seychelles and many other locations. I would highly recommend African Impact and their projects and I will hopefully book onto another adventure with them in the future.
All of these images were taken on this trip, and as you can see, I wasn’t the best to start with, it takes a lot of practice and patients to really understand where you’re going wrong, but if you work hard enough, you will get there eventually.
The DSLR that I used on this trip was a Canon 1200D with basic kit lenses, this was the cheapest set up I could get as I didn’t want to buy an expensive camera until I really knew what I was doing. Since then, I progressed to a Canon 760D, the next step up, and now I use the Canon 7D Mark II with a pro lens.