13 Tips for your Next Game Drive

Words & Images By The Travel Manuel

The experience of a game drive in the open bushveld is unlike any other. The excitement of spotting wildlife and the fascination we have with the animals never tires. As we enter this sanctuary where wild animals are protected and roam free; we should enter so as not to disturb, tread lightly and leave no trace behind us. So, if you’re about to embark on your first safari holiday, here’s a few tips to get you started.

Safari etiquette

1. Don’t be that tourist.

Be in silent awe. Be still. The only thing that should be heard are whispers or the shutter of your camera (and even that needs a break sometimes) A stage whisper does not count.

2. Don’t get out of your car.

There’s a reason you’re not allowed to place any limbs outside the vehicle and one of the main reasons is that animals are used to and/or accustomed to the sight and shape of a vehicle, but as soon as they recognize you’re human, it either makes them run or go into protective, angry mode.

Game Drive Tips

3. Animals first, humans second.

Your habitat is back home this is theirs. Treat it as such. If you see elephants or animals wanting to cross, especially angry bulls on heat; reverse and let them pass. Elephants have been known to overturn cars because people imagined that they can taunt or drive up really close to large, majestic and intelligent creatures.

4. Be polite, courteous and make friends with the game rangers.

If you’ve been eyeing the sleeping leopard for a while, move on or at least move forward so one of the other cars can catch a glimpse. Be polite to passing safari-goers on the lookout for game. Slow down and let them know about the ground hornbill or the giraffe you just saw, three acacias down. Smile, wave and slow down beside a game ranger who will definitely have the low down on the biggest sighting for miles.

Game Drive Tips

Tips for a Safari with Kids.

5. Don’t do it.

Jokes. Do it because they’ll love it and you’ll love seeing them explode with joy. But in all honesty all game reserves with the Big Five in it won’t allow kids younger than six (or older) in a safari vehicle. If you’re visiting a reserve with only the friendlier fellows such as kudu, giraffe, rhino, eland, zebra and more, often kids are allowed. Caleb isn’t even two years old yet and has been on three game drives in three parks around South Africa-One in a open-air safari vehicle, one self-driving with us and one in the enclosed Protea Hotels by Marriott vehicle.

Game Drive Tips
Game Drive Tips

6. Make it fun before, during and after.

Depending on the age of your kids, start introducing them to some of the animals they could see along the drive. This makes their sightings all the more thrilling. Caleb used to point and shriek each time he saw an animal, luckily the zebra didn’t seem to mind much and we found it brilliant. Afterwards ( because toddlers never skip a beat and will need another activity directly after), get them to colour pictures of safari animals and if you really have energy, get crafty with sticking outdoor finds onto paper: leaves, sticks, feathers etc.

If your kids are older, give them a pen and notebook to write down the names of plants, trees, animals and birds they see and quiz them later. (You take notes too, you will definitely want to remember all the magnificent creatures you saw) Some private game reserves may also have activities geared specifically for kids like fishing, treasure hunts or identifying animal spoor. Find out what is offered ahead of time.

7. Take photos of your family too.

While you will treasure every single photo you took of the elephants crossing the swamp or the blurry hyena running beside the vehicle, you will find the photos of your kids watching the animals or enjoying their time even more precious.

Game Drive Tips

Photography Tips on Safari

8. Time of day

While on safari you will now have a dual purpose for waking up at 4am and leaving for a game drive at 5am; spectacular light at sunrise ( and later afternoon before sunset) as well as a bigger chance of animal sightings ( when animals tend to be more active). So while sleeping in until 11am is always appealing to me, the animals are usually hiding from the harsh light and temperatures as you and your lens should be.

Game Drive Tips

9. Good things come to those who wait.

If I had to be at the helm of the wheel on a self-drive through a game reserve I’m pretty sure I’d hardly spot anything. I’d want to zoom through ( as quickly as the speed limit allowed) until I spotted something. But similar to finding a parking space, often getting the best sightings involve a wait.

Game Drive Tips

A wait beside a watering hole at dusk ( preferably with a G&T in one hand and a camera in the other) or a slow drive around a long grass because the ranger has a hunch that the leopard who just devoured her prey would be sleeping there.  A wait is often well rewarded.

Game Drive Tips
Game Drive Tips

10. Learn about your settings and functions.

You’ve probably spent good money on a camera to capture the wild, so take time (even if it’s on the plane) to learn a few basic things on how to use it. Read the menu and play around with Settings (which you may get away with altering once or twice) and functions on the dial wheel which you may change all the time.

A few suggestions include:

  • Set your white balance to daylight,
  • set your colors to vivid,
  • set your ISO( film speed to auto) to allow the camera to choose what’s best with moving animals or tweak it higher for moving animals and/or low light.
  • Shooting mode P ( program) as it gives you the best of both worlds but many also enjoy A/AV( aperture priority) mode.
  • When it comes to light metering, center weighted is the safe option where the camera favors the central image.

11. Equipment

To get close enough to animals and birds, you should try have a zoom lens of at least 200mm. A 18/20-200mm is a great option as you don’t need a million other lenses.

When it comes to lenses,

  • 200-500mm range for animals,
  • 10-22mm for landscapes
  • 24-104mm is great for (plus a polarizing filter would be great in the bright African sunlight).

Bring a dozen memory cards, you will never have enough space for your safari pics as well as hard drive to store them all on and to serve as a backup. We don’t ever travel without a power bank either which can charge your phone mid-drive (and then there are adaptors and power strips). But best make sure all your camera equipment is fully charged the night before.

12. Composition

Try focus on the eyes of an animal if you can, makes sure trees are not growing out of your rhino’s head and watch out for intense shadows. No need to always make sure the animal is at the centre, in fact spice it up and go with the Rule of Thirds and place them to one side of the photo.

13. Put the Camera Down

The magic of the bush lies in the scents, the sounds of wading through water, the birds and insects working and the way the light colors the sky and landscape. You lose all of that if you’re always shooting. You’ll be so pleased that you’ve put your camera down and saw the splendor through your naked eye instead of the lens and so will your family.

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