Visiting Uganda was an eye-opening experience for Cameron Hooyer, 18, a freshman at the University of Utah. An Ujuzi safari that he took with his family this June was his second voyage abroad and his first trip to Africa. Whether he was in a town or out in the bush, there was always something new and exciting to see. “I seriously spent half the time we were driving leaning out the van taking pictures,” he says.
Cameron had heard a lot about Uganda from his father and other family members who lived there in the 1980s. But seeing the wildlife and experiencing the culture firsthand was a much different experience.
The family started its trip with an overnight in Entebbe, then spent three days in Queen Elizabeth National Park, a vast reserve that has several different microclimates including desert, acacia-studded savannahs and forests. There, he took a morning chimpanzee trek in a tree-lined canyon, seeing primates in the wild for the first time. “They would move around and we would try to move around with them. It was really an experience to be standing with them all around, hollering to let each other know that we were there.” He also saw other primates on the trek, including colobus monkeys and baboons.
Another memorable adventure was taking a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel. “We probably saw over 100 elephants right on the water. There was a little fishing village that we passed, and there were elephants right next to these fishing boats with little kids playing in them. That was amazing.”
From Queen Elizabeth National Park, the group went north to Murchison Falls, where they saw large game including giraffes, hippos and crocodiles. The park also proved to be a great place to see much of the country’s unique avian life. “My dad and I really like to bird, and throughout the trip that was a really great thing, because even if you’re not seeing animals, birds are everywhere, all the time. There are all these species, and the colors are just mindblowing.”
The family also stayed in the town of Arua, where they visited family friends and local schools and churches. A visit to a children’s Sunday school class of about 50 students made a big impression on Cameron.
“Before class started, everyone was talking, being very loud, and as soon as the teacher got up everyone was very quiet. She started teaching and everyone was interacting. I could immediately tell that all the kids really wanted to learn. Here in the United States it’s ‘Why do I have to go to school?’ and ‘I can’t believe the teacher talked for an hour.’ There, kids are just captivated and they want to learn. There were little 2-year-olds in there paying attention. That was a big culture shift for me.”
Cameron recommends that any traveler to Uganda be adventurous and try some of the local flavors, such as fresh pineapples; samosas, a savory pastry filled with chickpeas; groundnuts, a small peanut variety used in stews and for snacking; and ugali, a porridge made of millet or corn. Lodges also offer plenty of western foods; Cameron says he liked to fill up on waffles when he wanted a taste of home.“I did a food log where I took a photograph of every meal I ate. The stuff at the lodges was amazing – better than the food I’ve had in the States.”
Learning about Uganda made Cameron reflect on his own culture. “Obviously right off the bat it was very eye opening to realize how many physical possessions I have here in the U.S, and public utilities and services like decent buses, good roads, and drinking water,” he says. “But as I spent more time getting to know the people and their culture, I noticed that everyone there seems so much more happy than the people in the U.S., which seems backwards compared to the American way of thinking that possessions make you happier.”
The rugged hills and undulating plains of Samburu and Shaba National Reserves in Kenya offer the quintessential safari experience. Here, the iconic acacia trees are plentiful and provide sustenance for giraffes, elephants and a long-necked gazelles called gerenuks. Euphorbias (the Eastern Hemisphere’s answer to the cactus) also dot the landscape.
With a mix of arid grassland, riverine forest and swamp, Samburu and Shaba offer opportunities to see many different kinds of wildlife, including elephants, reticulated giraffes, leopards, cheetahs, lions, Somali ostriches, hyenas, countless antelope and gazelle species, and more. In Shaba, small herds of fine-striped Grevy’s zebras – the largest and most endangered of the three zebra species – can often be found grazing in the sun or cooling off with refreshing dust baths.
Both parks lie on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro (Nyiro) River, which flows through the middle of this area. Although its name means “muddy water” in the local language, it is a vital source of life for the resident animals and humans. Elephants and vervet monkeys play on its shady banks and crocodiles patrol the waters in search of suitable prey.
Nearby villages offer the opportunity to interact with local Samburu, cousins of the Maasai who traditionally raise goats and sheep for their livelihood. Many customs and dress are similar and, although the languages are different, they can often understand each other with a little effort. The Samburu are known for being very fast and dynamic talkers, and for their bright and plentiful beadwork.
Several tented camps in Samburu offer visitors fresh air and close access to wildlife without sacrificing comfort. Most tents are permanent, having wooden floors that are raised off the ground; fully plumbed bathrooms with hot and cold water, showers, sinks and flush toilets; and outlets for charging cell phones and camera batteries. Shaba features a lodge with stone buildings, a large swimming pool, fish ponds and views of the river.
Activities in the parks include game drives, bird watching, cultural activities and raft trips.
“In many ways safari photos have become the hunting trophies of the modern day,” photographer Melissa Kay wrote in a recent article for the London newspaper The Independent.
Whether you’re a photography hobbyist or someone who barely knows how to take a picture with your phone, Ujuzi wants to help you bring back the best photographic trophies possible from your trip to East Africa.
If you use a digital SLR (a camera with interchangeable lenses):
- A zoom lens has many advantages. Safari conditions aren’t always best for changing lenses on your camera — in dusty or sandy areas, debris can get inside your camera as you switch lenses. Also, the more time you spend changing lenses, the more shots you’ll miss. Choose a zoom lens that extends to at least 300 mm. Longer lenses (400 mm and above) have the advantage of enabling you to get distance shots and shots of birds and small animals, but they aren’t as good at taking focused shots when a vehicle is moving.
- A monopod may be useful in some instances, but can be difficult to use inside a safari vehicle. Also, monopods may be prohibited on some walking excursions, such as gorilla treks, because animals (especially primates) can feel threatened by them. If your bring a monopod, it should collapse to fit easily into your daypack.
- While in a vehicle, rest the camera against the roof bars or window frame. Setting a bean bag under the camera adds stability. (Many companies make bean bags especially for supporting cameras; examples include the Kinesis SafariSack and the Pictureline Bean Bag Camera Support.*)
- Pack a small camera-cleaning kit to keep the lens and sensor free of dust. A jeweler’s screwdriver will come in handy if any of the screws in your camera shake loose on a bumpy safari ride.
Not everyone wants to invest in a professional-level camera. And that’s okay. If you own one of the newer smartphones or tablets, you already have a reasonably good camera on-hand. It won’t allow you to take amazing close-ups or crisp photos of starry nights, but it can be a great way to preserve memories of your daytime safaris.
Below are some hints for taking photos with an iPhone or iPad. Many of these tricks can be done with other phones, tablets and point-and-shoot digital cameras, although the specific commands may differ from model to model:
- To reduce blurring when taking a shot, hold the phone close to your body.
- Your phone will try to guess what object you want to focus on, but it won’t always guess right. On the screen, tap the part of the image where you want the camera to focus. A white or green square should appear, telling you that the camera got the message.
- iPhones allow you to take panoramas. Do this by selecting “Panorama” under “Options,” then sweeping the camera from right to left or left to right.
- Choose “HDR” or “High Dynamic Range” under “Options” to take better pictures when light is low or there are lots of shadows.
- So you can always take a picture at a moment’s notice, make sure the camera icon appears on your phone’s “sleep” or “lock” screen. Unlock your phone by swiping on the camera icon, and it will go right to the camera function.
- Check out some excellent tips for better iPhone (and general) photography from professional photographer Cotton Coulson on the National Geographic website.
These tips are good no matter what type of camera you use:
- Make sure you know how to use your camera before you leave for your trip.
- Recharge your camera or batteries each night. All accommodations that Ujuzi uses, including tented camps, have recharging facilities.
- Bring extra memory cards — you’ll likely take more pictures than you thought possible. Some people even bring a small portable hard drive to transfer photos to at the end of each day. You may also be able to upload photos to the web at accommodations that offer WiFi; but keep in mind that internet connections can be spotty in more remote areas, so don’t rely on this as your only backup.
- Turn off the flash when taking pictures of the sunset or sunrise.
- Turn on the flash when taking pictures with lots of shadows, even if it’s bright outside. The flash can help illuminate whatever’s inside the shadows.
- Take some of your pictures with your subject off-center. This often creates a more interesting shot.
- Objects in front of the sky — for example, a goshawk on top of a tree — can end up looking dark and shadowy in photos. To prevent this, use your camera’s HDR setting or overexpose the shot by using a wider aperture or using a slower shutter speed than suggested by the automatic settings.
- And a piece of cultural advice: Never take pictures of people without getting permission first. Some people are happy to have their picture taken, others don’t like it, and others expect compensation for modeling. Seek advice from your guide.
Last but not least, don’t forget to come out from behind your camera every once in a while! From the fragrance of wild basil to the sound of elephants munching on shrubs to the feel of the breeze against your skin, safari is an experience for all the senses.
*Products are listed as for illustrative purposes only.
Most of us go on safari in East Africa to see the big game. And that’s understandable – for on what other continent can one encounter such a variety of large mammals? It’s breathtaking to see a giraffe bend down to nibble on the top of an acacia tree.
But if you only pay attention to the big game, you’re missing half the fun! East Africa is also home to an incredible variety of birds. Songbirds dot the landscape like small, colorful jewels, and larger birds like ostriches, crested cranes and secretary birds are quite spectacular in their own right.
I recommend the book The Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe to anyone who’s going on safari. Another great resource is the Wild Birds of East Africa group on Flickr. It is free and has thousands of colorful photos, as well as an interactive map that allows you to view birds by location. If you’re a member of Flickr, you can join the group to share your own bird photos from safari.