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Packing For An African Safari


I arrived in Kenya a couple of days ago, and after looking for rhinos for two days in Nairobi National Park, I’m now settled in on the Maasai Mara and eager to get back to work behind the camera. No clients this time—just me and my best friend and a chance to photograph our favourite place on the planet.

I’ve been asked over the years, both by my safari clients and others, what and how to pack for a trip like this, so it felt like this might be a good time to explore that for those who are curious. If you and I were sitting down over a glass of wine and you told me you were planning a safari and asked me for my advice on packing, here’s what would be most likely to tumble out of my mouth, in no particular order. This is a long one, so you might want to get that glass of wine (or cup of coffee) now.

Arrive Early

Most flights into Nairobi arrive late at night, usually from 9 pm to midnight. You clear customs, grab your bags, and head out of the airport to take your first breath of air—a mix of dust and diesel and the heady promise of adventure. If you’re on one of my trips, a driver will pick you up and take you to your hotel for whatever sleep you can get before an early breakfast and a short flight to the Maasai Mara. That’s if it all goes well: if there are no delays, no missed connections, and no lost luggage.

My recommendation is to arrive at least one night earlier; I prefer to spend two or three nights at The Emakoko. Located in Nairobi National Park, staying at The Emakoko means I’m in a Land Cruiser and out of the city within 20 minutes of walking out of the airport (about 40 minutes to the actual camp). And within seven or eight short hours, I’m photographing rhinos and lions in the morning light, shaking off the dust and jet lag while waiting for my clients (or luggage) to arrive.

And if there’s a problem with international flight delays (or wayward luggage), I’ve got time to sort that out before I need to be on a small plane heading to the Mara or whichever area I’m exploring. Planning to arrive two nights before you’re meant to be on a charter flight to the Mara (or Amboseli, or Meru, or wherever) provides a buffer and some peace of mind. And if you want to get out to see things like the Giraffe Centre, the Sheldrick Elephant Trust, or just spend the day exploring and photographing in Nairobi National Park, this gives you time to do that.

Pack Light

This is easily the hardest part of most safari travel. Sure, your flight to Nairobi will let you carry 50 lbs (or more) of checked luggage and maybe as much as 50 lbs in your carry-on luggage as well. So bring it all, right? But the problem arises when you need to get on a small Cessna and they tell you you’re limited to something insane like 25 lbs—total! It’s an impossible ask of photographers with gear.

Even if I didn’t bring a stitch of clothing (look away!), my camera gear alone weighs more than this. The workaround is to book an additional seat or child’s seat with your airline (usually SafariLink), or to travel with a small group specifically catering to photographers, like one of my trips, in which case we just charter the whole plane. Weight limits of some sort still apply, but they’re much less restrictive. Mercifully, my clients can now pack a few pieces of clothing as well.

Once you arrive at your safari camp, you need very little. A couple changes of clothes is really all you need as there’s basic laundry at most camps. Bring a sweater or light jacket as the mornings can be cool. Bring a rain shell if you’re there during the rainy season. You’re not there to make a fashion statement, so just bring the basics. But do be aware of what your limits are before you get there and plan for those limits (everything is negotiable) or you’ll find yourself frustrated and stressed out when all you want to do is board your plane. If you’re going with a group or you’ve got a safari organizer, be sure to ask about this. Of course, if you’re driving to the Mara (or whichever area you’re visiting) it becomes a non-issue, but I wouldn’t trade more time on safari for unlimited gear and the long drive ever again. A 45-minute flight compared to an eight-hour drive? That’s an easy choice for me.

Soft Luggage

The other thing to keep in mind is your luggage itself; the smaller planes really don’t like rigid luggage, so leave the hard shell suitcase at home. Pilots like to be able to get as much luggage as possible into the small holds, and large rigid suitcases make this more difficult than it needs to be. They’re also heavy, so if you want to save weight and not get your pilot’s nose out of joint, stick to something soft. I like the Base Camp series of duffel bags from The North Face. I’ve got five of these bags in different sizes, and they’ve never failed.

The North Face Base Camp Duffel has been around the world with me, in various sizes and colours for many years. Reasonable weather-proof and extremely durable, these (or something like them) are my recommendation.

In addition to what I wear as I travel, here’s what’s in my duffel for this trip:

  • 2 long-sleeve buttoned shirts (I prefer something lightweight and synthetic, like nylon) 
  • 1 warmer long-sleeve shirt (I like merino wool)
  • 2 pairs underwear
  • 2 pair of socks
  • 2 pairs lightweight long pants (I prefer synthetic travel pants in addition to the blue jeans I wear there and back)
  • Lightweight flip-flops
  • Light nylon shorts that double as swim trunks
  • 1 baseball or sun hat 
  • 1 sweater, merino wool (I like the Icebreaker brand)
  • 1 lightweight puffy jacket (Patagonia) for cooler mornings
  • 1 lightweight rain coat (Patagonia)
  • 3–4 Buffs, which are handy fabric tubes that can be worn around your neck to protect from sun, pulled over your nose and ears to keep pesky flies out, and wrapped around lenses and camera bodies to protect them in transit. I love my Buffs!

What About Footwear?

My favourite slide-on/slide-off boots are Blundstones, and they’ve been around the world (and on safari) with me many times. You don’t usually need much more than light sneakers or ankle boots for safari because you’re not often out of the vehicles unless you’re on a walking safari. Don’t weigh yourself down with heavy leather hikers. I have clients who happily wear sandals all day, though I prefer to keep my feet covered and out of reach of bugs.

About Carry-On Bags

Now, this all assumes you’ve managed to get to Kenya in the first place without running the gauntlet of various luggage limitations imposed by international carriers. Since they all differ, the best thing you can do is check your limits and buy a decent luggage scale and keep it with you as you pack.

My British Airways flights to get here (YVR – LHR – NBO) allowed me two pieces in the cabin, each up to 23 kg (or 51 lbs). That’s generous; many airlines don’t give you this much. To my surprise, Air Canada is currently limiting the size and number (2) of carry-on bags but is saying that no specific weight limits apply. I’m not sure when that change happened, but it’s welcome! Know your limits and work within them.

My carry-on bags are the Gura Gear Kiboko 30L and the Gura Gear Chobe 16″. Both are lightweight, can carry a ton of stuff, and still fit in almost every overhead bin I’ve ever tried and under some of the tightest seats, and they look like they carry less than they do. I own five different Gura Gear bags, and they’re my hands-down favourites for my long-lens trips.

One of my Gura Gear Kiboko bags (left and centre) and my Gura Gear Chobe (right). Made from a durable sail cloth these are lighter than any other bag of the same size that I’ve used.

About Gear

For this trip, I packed the following in my Kiboko backpack (carry-on #1):

  • 2 x Sony a1 bodies with vertical battery grips
  • 24-105/4.0 lens
  • 100-400/4.5-5.6 lens
  • 600/4.0 lens
  • 1.4x  and 2x teleconverters
  • 6 batteries for the cameras (lithium-ion batteries cannot go in checked luggage)
  • 1  small Petzl USB-rechargeable (lithium-ion) headlamp (don’t overlook this; you’ll be starting and ending the day in the dark, and having a hands-free light to find things while you’re bumping around in the truck at the edges of day can really help)
  • 1 card wallet with 10 x 256 GB SD cards (bring more than you think you need)

*A note about packing lenses: don’t travel with them attached to your camera bodies, especially longer lenses, which act like levers. It’s just too easy for the weak point—where the lens and body connect—to fail if a bag gets dropped. Keep them separate in transit and put them together when you get to your camp.

I packed the following into my Gura Gear Chobe bag (carry-on #2):

  • 1 x Apple MacBook Pro 13″
  • 2 x Samsung 2TB SSD hard drives (SSD drives have no moving parts and are much faster and more durable than drives with spinning platters (and they’re so small I can put one in my passport wallet)
  • 1 card reader and one hub to connect it all
  • Power cables and plug adapter (Kenya uses type G, the same as the U.K.)
  • USB-C charger, Sony charger (this one does 4 batteries at a time and charges via USB-C)
  • 1 novel (I like books about the places I’m traveling to, and this time it’s A Grain of Wheat by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o)
  • 1 journal and pens
  • Apple AirPods Max
  • Passports, copies of my visa, and relevant vaccine passports (copies of all these are also in the cloud on Dropbox, just in case)
  • iPhone
  • Sunglasses
  • Medications and a couple of meal bars
  • Cash for tips and emergencies (USD in newer, smaller bills—most camps take credit cards, but it’s good to have a few hundred bucks in cash to tip your drivers)

On other trips when weight limits are tighter (for example, on Lufthansa, I’m allowed two carry-on bags, but each max out at 8 kg/roughly 18 lbs, and that’s for the business class cabin!), I move some of the heavier stuff from the big bag into the smaller one because the big bag is most likely to draw attention and get weighed. Fortunately, the airlines don’t like putting expensive gear, lithium-ion batteries, or life-saving medication in the hold, and that pretty much covers everything in my bags!

What I like about this set-up is that when I get to camp, my computer and personal stuff is all in one bag that stays in my tent, and once my gear is all together, I have only one backpack and a long lens and camera to take to the Land Cruiser for game drives. It’s easy to work out of and still keep my stuff (as well as a raincoat, a sweater, and a bottle of water) all together.

So, Which Lenses?

I’ve listed above which lenses I bring. Out on the savannah, you’ll have plenty of times when the 24-105mm will be perfect (the lions and beasties almost within touching distance), and the wider focal lengths for landscapes and shooting the adventure itself are great. Other times you’ll want the reach of a longer lens.

Do you need a 600mm lens? No. In fact, longer lenses are bigger and weigh more, and you might be better off with a 300/2.8 and a 1.4x or 2x tele, depending on the quality of images you get with your particular glass. A 1.4x on my Sony 600/4.0 is amazing and gives me the extra reach. The 2x is overkill, but I bring it just in case since it doesn’t weigh much. Another way to get some extra reach might be to bring one body that’s not full-frame in order to take advantage of the crop factor.

The other consideration is not only reach but how much light it lets in. Some of the best opportunities I’ve had in the softer light on either side of the day have benefited from a lens that lets more light in, but if your camera does well at low-light/high-ISO, then just nudge that ISO up. It’s always a compromise (with budget as well), and for many people, the best compromise might be something like a slightly slower zoom lens rather than a long fast telephoto. And because you are usually confined to vehicles, generally choosing zoom lenses over fixed primes will give you some flexibility with your compositions. I personally don’t think there’s any reason to bring more than three lenses on safari.

Instead of the big heavy 600mm and the 100-400mm, you could bring a lens like Sony’s excellent 200-600/5.6-6.3. As long as I could get to about 600mm of reach with focal lengths in between from about 24mm, I’d be happy on safari.

Remember, some of this glass is prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re not doing this often, and this is where I suggest you consider renting. Don’t buy a $10,000 lens when you could rent one and get access to a much longer, faster lens for much, much less.

Which Camera?

Well, for most of us, the answer is “whichever cameras you own.” But something with decent high-ISO performance, a fast burst mode, and quick autofocus will serve you well. It’s probably more important that you have two of them so you have a backup if one fails, and so you don’t have to change lenses too often in what is often a very dusty environment. Most of the time, I’ve got one body with my 600mm and mounted to a monopod, and the other with my 100-400mm sitting in my open bag at my feet.

Batteries?

Bring enough batteries for a long full day of shooting a lot of frames. Most lodges have easy access to charging stations, but you’ll want to be sure you can shoot all day. Not every camp has charging stations in the tents, so it’s helpful to label your batteries and chargers just so you know what belongs to who if there are others there with similar gear.

SD Cards?

Bring them all. My hard drives max out at 2 TB, so I have 2 TB of cards (mostly 256GB, but some older 128GB cards, just in case). They weigh nothing, so if you’ve got’em, bring’em. I make sure I have enough cards and hard drives that I can arrive home with everything backed up on two drives and not have to reformat or re-use my cards until the images are safe at home.

Anything Else?

  • 1 x 4-outlet power strip with USB (this means I only need one plug adapter and can charge multiple things at once—handy if there are other photographers wanting to use a limited number of outlets)
  • A rocket blower and small sensor cleaning kit
  • 6-8 microfiber lens cloths in a Ziploc bag
  • Small multi-tool (Gerber)
  • 2 x garbage bags in case it rains or my big gear needs quick protection from dust
  • Tiny roll of duct tape and tiny tube of Superglue
  • Tiny pocket-sized first aid kit
  • Spare glasses and sunglasses (if I can’t see, the trip is over!)
  • Binoculars (although the camps often provide them, I like using my own—and if I’m cutting bag weight, these are the first to get left at home)
  • Monopod (Really Right Stuff) with a gimbal head specific to monopods (I use and recommend the Wimberley MH-100)

About Support

Longer lenses mean the need for some kind of support. Sure, you could just hold that 600mm (it weighs 3 kg without the camera), but not for very long! Wildlife requires a lot of patience and waiting, and you want to be ready when the action happens, not sitting there with a camera on your lap.

For years I brought a bean bag filled with lightweight buckwheat husks, and filling it at home saves you from having to find beans or some other filler when you get to camp. I still suggest this for those who don’t want a monopod or who use lighter lenses, but many vehicles (especially the open-sided ones that are best for photography) don’t have a great place to put a bean bag, or if they do, they’re so low you couldn’t see through the viewfinder if you wanted to (tilting LCD screens to the rescue).

What About Tripods?

You might want a tripod if you plan to shoot landscapes or the night sky, but a tripod is a terrible idea for the vehicles; there’s just no room. And they’re one more thing cutting into your limited weight allowance. I haven’t packed a tripod for safari in 12 years, but last year, I started using a monopod, and with the right gimbal head for lenses with a tripod collar, it’s amazing

I keep my monopod collapsed and rest it on the seat or my thigh most of the time. But I can also expand it and rest it on the floor, or expand it more completely and rest it on the ground outside the vehicle to get my camera much lower. And once it’s up, I can sit for hours, holding it loosely, with my camera aimed where I want it. I can’t believe I waited this long to shoot this way. And if you don’t want it, take it off, and it’s out of the way.

So, ahem, while we’re talking about support, Cynthia and other female clients have told me often that I need to add a good sports bra to my suggested packing lists. There is a lot of bouncing around in the safari vehicles and for those for whom that might matter (you know who you are), if a little extra support sounds like a good idea, then consider adding that to your packing list.

My first Kenyan safari was 13 years ago, and it changed my life. We now spend every January (pandemic notwithstanding) exploring this wonderful country. For wildlife lovers, it’s an extraordinary experience. But it’s not only the fantastic animals: it’s the light, the landscapes from which the human race sprung, and the people. I feel so…home here. If you’re at all curious about exploring or photographing Kenya, I’d love to answer any questions you may have in the comments below this post.

I’ve got an incredible safari planner, and if it might help you plan your own trip, let me know in the comments, and I’ll introduce you by email. He’s my secret weapon.

Got a question about gear? Let’s talk about that, too. It’s taken me a long time to dial this in, and I’d like to make it easier for you if I can. There’s so much I didn’t cover in this article, but if you’ve got questions, let’s explore them!

For the Love of the Photograph,
David



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Rafael Jones

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