Article and Photos by Gary Cox
The Tenba Shootout Backpack 32L
Planning camera gear for an extended trip to Africa with location changes every two or three days starts with a solid transport solution. I don't like anyone carrying my equipment, figuring that if someone is going to break stuff, it should be me. For my most recent trip, I chose the Tenba Shootout Backpack 32L (Tenba, 75 Virginia Road, North White Plains, New York 10603, +1 914 347 3300, www.tenba.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), and returned home happy with the decision and the performance of the bag. This is not a general purpose pack with some foam dividers stuffed into it, this is a backpack purpose built from the ground up for the photographer on the go.
My backpack has shoulder straps and a padded belt to distribute weight to the hips when worn.
The exterior of the backpack was made from water repellent twill and gray rip stop nylon. The interior compartments were built with rip stop nylon and soft tricot fabric, padded with perforated foam to minimize weight (six pounds empty). The center of the bag is for camera storage and featured water resistant pockets on the panel for storing memory cards and small items. It has full height pockets, one large on the front and one on the side for thin items. The other side has a half height pocket and an opening into the main chamber for quick access to a camera without unzipping the entire bag. There are some small organizing pockets on the front for miscellaneous items.
The padded handle allowed me to carry the load comfortably.
The side pocket gave me access to the main compartment and had a mesh pocket to store small items securely.
Near the handle on the top, there is a solid compartment to store fragile items. During the trip the compartment kept my sunglasses from being crushed. There is also a set of straps and a harness to attach a large tripod on the outside of the bag. A zippered compartment on the bottom holds a waterproof cover that can be pulled up over the bag like a little raincoat to keep it dry. Between the main compartment and the padded back brace and frame, there is a slot for a laptop or tablet. The zippers to the main compartment and front pocket can be locked with a small padlock, not included. The backpack, made in China, came with a small microfiber cloth and memory card wallet.
Opening the front pockets revealed more pockets for small items.
On safari trips to gather data on properties for the Simon and Baker Travel Review, I cannot afford to have any gear sidelined, so redundancy for key items is critical. On one trip, my wide angle lens bumped into the iron plating on the game viewing vehicle and broke. Apparently these are not in high demand for the average traveler in Botswana, and it was several days before I could get a replacement lens. I learned multiple lessons, pad everything during transfers and carry spares. The next challenge is the variety of shooting situations and the volume of photos I take. My go-to lens for general wildlife photography is the Canon 100 to 400 millimeter. It is versatile and a reasonable trade-off between weight and capability. On this trip, I included a 70 to 300 millimeter lens with the backup camera body.
The camera equipment for our trip to Africa
I laid everything out before packing and started to wonder if the pack came in a larger size. Two camera bodies (Canon EOS 7D), two telephoto lenses, two wide angle lenses and a 28 to 130 millimeter for general purpose shooting. Flash, straps, batteries, chargers, memory cards, special purpose filters, macro adapter lens, cleaning supplies and iPad rounded out the final mix. It was a little tight, but everything fit and was well organized thanks to the bag's dividers and pockets, including the handy well at the top for my sunglasses and mp3 player. With this load the backpack weighed over 30 pounds.
The main compartment held most of the camera gear
The fully loaded pack was comfortable to wear and distributed the weight across my shoulders and back. I am not a small guy and the straps had plenty of length, something I often find deficient in camera packs. The handle on the top of the bag was sturdy. The loaded pack rested upright and did not fall over when I set it on the ground. The padded belt could be a little annoying when I placed the bag into a cabinet or closet, but when I wore the backpack it was a godsend for balance and load distribution.
The Tenba Shootout Backpack 32L is padded and has a built in frame for stability.
The side of the bag has an easy access pocket to pull out a camera, but I never used that feature because my gear was too snug in the pack. I liked that the bag had lots of room for small things. It made it easy to keep organized. I used the pockets inside the main compartment for most of the memory cards and other valuable items. The outer pockets were handy for quick access, and ended up full of things I picked up when changing locations and then tidied away once we had rooms again. The tall side pocket was just right to hold my travel tripod. For the long haul flights I packed it away and only used the side pocket feature when changing properties in country. The zippers had nice easy to grab attachments and none of them became jammed or stuck.
A strap allowed me to attach a tripod to the outside of the backpack.
There were rings to attach external items on the shoulder straps
The bag held up well in extreme and varied conditions. For example, for the first 10 days we had intermittent rain and many opportunities to get muddy. The other three weeks were dry and dusty with a total of 12 property changes on planes, cars, vans and open safari vehicles. Everything inside my bag stayed safely clean and dry the entire time, and backpack arrived home looking new in spite of the opportunities to get muddy and dusty in the field. While pushing the luggage cart to the car in the parking lot at the airport at the end of the trip, the cart jammed solidly into a grating and the camera backpack flew off the top of the pile of bags landing on the parking lot surface. I assumed that a five foot forward flight and a four foot drop onto concrete would mean something was broken, but when I opened it at home, nothing was cracked or damaged. I would not recommend testing the backpack in that way, but it was good to know that when I let my guard down, the bag kept the contents unharmed. The Tenba Shootout Backpack 32L is my new choice for an expedition backpack to keep my gear safe.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
The beach at Little Water Cay also known as Iguana Island
Mike and Cheno were our crew
The day after I arrived in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands of the British West Indies I received a call from Tanya at Big Blue Unlimited (Leeward Marina, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, +1 649 946 5034, fax +1 649 946 5033, email@example.com), a company owned by Mark Parrish and Philip Shearer that specialized in small groups and eco-tours. I was scheduled for a morning snorkel activity the following day, but the weather was about to change and not in a good way. Tanya had kindly found a spot for me that afternoon if I could make it.
Our boat, Starfish
With a little help from Jessica at reception at my hotel, the Beach House Turks and Caicos in the Bight, I was able to reschedule my spa treatment. At 12:30 p.m. I climbed aboard the tour company's navy blue van with a towel and biodegradable sunblock (as suggested in my booking confirmation) for the drive to the Big Blue Unlimited office at the Leeward Marina to join eight other travelers on a four hour Caicos Cays Cruise. On our way, we picked up six travelers from Club Med. A couple from another property in the Northwest Point met us at the tour company office.
All the passengers and crew on the boat (except for me)
Within minutes of arriving we were ready. After signing a page long release form on an electronic tablet I joined my fellow travelers on the covered deck of the small office. Cheno and Mike, our crew members, introduced themselves and led us to the Starfish, our nine meter long boat for the afternoon. Mike, from North Caicos, had five years of water sports experience, three and a half with Big Blue Unlimited, and Cheno, a dive master from Atlanta and Grand Turks, had seven years of water sports experience, five of them with Big Blue Unlimited. They were friendly and managed the boat well.
A sign for the Little Water Cay Nature Reserve
One of the male Turks and Caicos rock iguanas we saw
The Starfish had cushioned seating for three in the shady stern (back of the boat). It could accommodate the remainder of our group in the sunny bow (front of the boat). On our return to the marina everyone moved forward to avoid the water splashing the stern seat. Our first stop was at Little Water Cay, a small island managed by the Turks and Caicos National Trust, where we saw a number of Turks and Caicos rock iguanas close up. A local guide led the nine of use via a wood walkway, sharing insights about the iguanas and the island. From the small dock we looped around a short distance past palm trees, trust markers and signs, and the mostly unafraid reptiles back to our starting point, and to the boat in about 15 minutes.
The sand was powdery white
I liked that the tour company sought to hire local islanders (a number of employees I met elsewhere on the island were foreign nationals), that its staff had received training about marine and coastal ecology, marine life identification, island geography and geology; and that Big Blue followed and promoted eco-tourism principals, as one of the owners explained by email.
The shallow beach was like a swimming pool with white sand and clear water
From there we motored across turquoise waters to join other tour boats at Leeward Reef, where we remained about one hour. After we tied up to the reef buoy, Mike and Cheno helped us with snorkels and masks, put anti fogging liquid in the masks, and made sure we were comfortable once in the water. Cheno led three of us snorkeling, watching us every so often to make sure we were all right. He pointed out big fish such as an oversize parrot fish, a large grouper, a barracuda and three reef sharks at varying times. The swells were high and the water cool, but the snorkeling at Leeward Reef, about 12 feet deep, made up for the minor discomfort I felt. One of the other guests had to take over counter medication for seasickness when she returned to the boat.
For snacks there were fruit slices, potato chips, muffins and brownies
After snorkeling, we went to Fort George Cay, where Mike and Cheno offered us rum punch or water and snacks of Lays potato chips, chocolate brownies, poppy seed muffins, and fresh fruit (cantaloupe and pineapple slices). Mike and Cheno stayed on the boat while the rest of us enjoyed some beach time. A short stroll from where we got off the boat the beach was shallow and the water crystal clear. It was also the warmest water I swam in during my stay in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We spent about an hour there before riding back to the marina. Moments later, we headed back to our respective hotels in the van. I made it back in time for a shower and an early dinner. For the rest of the evening I thought of the excellent visibility and fun snorkeling and beach. By the following morning the wind had picked up and the waves were choppy at the beach. I was thankful for Tanya's call and to have enjoyed the snorkeling activity the previous afternoon.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
A leopard in a tree near Camp Moremi
On our most recent safari trip to Southern Africa we stayed at six Desert & Delta Safari properties, five in Botswana and one in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia. Traveling to properties within the same company offered advantages. The management similarities provided us an idea of what to expect before arriving at each subsequent property. For example, they all had eco-friendly policies; offered us moist refresher towels on arrival and when we returned from game drives as well as welcome back staff greetings when we returned from our activities; with only one exception, they all served buffet meals of similar styles at shared communal tables; the camps that depended on generators for electricity had battery operated lights for times when the generators were off at night; and most were run by a four-person management team, many of whom were friendly and helpful when asked.
Our pilot bids us farewell after our arrival at Leroo La Tau from Maun to start the adventure
Safari Air had several comfortable Caravan aircraft
Another advantage of traveling to Desert & Delta Safaris properties was their shared charter air service. Since Chobe Holdings Limited owned Desert & Delta Safaris and Safari Air (Desert & Delta Safaris, Private bag 310, Maun, Botswana, +267 6861243, http://www.desertdelta.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), a non scheduled charter safari airline founded in 1992 and based out of Maun, they coordinated our transfers between the Desert & Delta Safaris properties and between our international arrival and departure airports. The company owned five GA8 Airvan, three Cessna Caravan and one Quest Kodiak. We appreciated the convenience of the well organized and on time service.
The heat drove many poolside in the afternoons
Our stay was hampered in part by a regional heat wave that stretched all the way to South Africa. Four of the six properties ran on generators. Because the rooms remained sealed most of the day they became over hot around the clock. More than once we or our fellow travelers became ill from the heat and dehydration. Thankfully, the game viewing vehicles had partial shade. In addition, wet face cloths and pool dips were helpful in reducing our body temperature.
The wildlife was centered around the Boteti River banks near Leroo LaTau
Leroo LaTau, on the edge of the Makgadikgadi National Park, was our favorite for game viewing and views of the Boteti River from our rooms and the common areas. This was in part because Slade, our guide, was one of the most passionate and engaged of the guides we spent time with on that three country multi week itinerary. We enjoyed seeing a bit of the regional zebra migration and predators such as lions and wild dogs as well as brilliant sunsets over the shallow waters of the river.
Sunset over the Okavango Delta
Time for a drink before dinner at Xugana Island Lodge
In Camp Moremi (see Tented camp offered good game viewing, creature comforts on edge of Okavango Delta) we liked the expansive views from the elevated deck. At Xugana Island Lodge, we delighted in the birding within the island, the sense of remoteness within the famous Okavango Delta, and pretty water setting as well as many boat outings and occasional hippo sightings. Savute Safari Lodge had the prettiest rooms and some of the tastiest and most abundant meals. We especially liked the views of the man made waterholes from the dining area and our tented rooms.
Breakfast at the Chobe Game Lodge with a view of the Chobe River
At the Chobe Savanna Lodge and Chobe Game Lodge, situated on opposite sides of the Chobe River and in separate countries, we were thankful for the air conditioned rooms. Although the border crossing from Botswana to Chobe Savanna Lodge on the Namibia side of the Chobe River was time consuming, hot and tedious we enjoyed the shady leisurely river rides on the pontoon boat. We particularly liked it when our boat was one of few on the river and we were alone with our local guide. The flat river water and quiet when the motor was off were particularly appealing. At the Chobe Game Lodge, we appreciated the three daily game viewing activities, and luxury amenities such as plated meals at private tables, in-room phones, WiFi internet access, work out room, spa room and its innovative electric safari vehicle.
A hyena in the Chobe Game Reserve
Elephants sharing a waterhole near Savute Safari Lodge in Chobe
Overall we had a fun trip and numerous bird and wildlife sightings of common species such as zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, red lechwe (at Xugana), including elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion from the coveted Big Five. We saw beautiful birds, including the elusive paradise flycatchers, fish eagles multiple times, and particularly remember pairs of fish eagles relatively close to our boat at the Chobe Savanna Lodge. During the trip, we had extraordinary sightings such as wild dogs at Leroo La tau, crocodiles hunting, interactions between lions and elephants and numerous striking landscape and waterscape moments that will linger in our memories for years to come, and draw us back to Botswana and Africa in the future.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Camp Moremi, a luxury tented camp in Botswana, Southern Africa
Our greeting committee was a coalition of lions.
During a recent multi-country safari itinerary we spent three nights at Camp Moremi (Desert & Delta Safaris, Private bag 310, Maun, Botswana, +267 6861243 and +267 6861418, Fax +267 6861791, http://www.desertdelta.com, email@example.com), a luxury tented camp within Botswana's Chobe Game Reserve in Southern Africa. To reach the property we flew on a small plane from Lerro LaTau, its sister Desert & Delta Safaris property on the Boteti River adjacent to the Makgadikgadi Pans. Our first impression driving from the landing strip through a mopane forest was of the vegetation and color contrast from the dry straw colored patches and scrawny plants of the Kalahari area to the south and the bushier greener area near camp.
A wildebeest watched us briefly before running off into the bush
A wattled crane
Arriving at the camp's central lawn we heard the cacophony cries of dozens of Burchell's starlings calling in the midday heat in the tree canopy above us. The game viewing property overlooked the Xakanaka Lagoon to the west and the inland mopane forest and open grasslands to the east. During our twice daily game drives in the reserve on partly open vehicles we saw three of the Big Five and many birds, as well as a number of other fauna. Our guide also identified some flora. Since visits to the park were limited to daytime hours, in the mornings, we entered the park immediately after sunrise and in the afternoons we exited right before sunset. At night, we had to be escorted by a staff member from our tents to dinner and back in case we encountered animals within the camp.
Our breakfast included a cold buffet.
Camp Moremi was established in 1984 and completely renovated in 2012. It had 12 luxury tents on a five hectare generator powered camp with 32 Setswana staff. Bruce Petty was the general manager. While we were there Thuso, Frank, Lydia, and Lettie shared management duties. The property, which had Ecotourism status from the Botswana Tourism Organisation, received a TripAdvisor 2015 Certificate of Excellence.
Thuso, Frank, Lydia, and Lettie managed Camp Moremi
Our accommodations consisted of 5 meter by 5 meter tents atop wood platforms set slightly above the bush. Each of our tents had four distinct areas: a spacious entry foyer with a writing desk and mirror; a bathroom with a walk in shower with hot and cold running water, and a flush toilet; a bedroom; and a covered bush facing deck.
The entry sitting space with mirror, desk and chair.
At a previous Desert and Delta Safaris property the staff provided a metal container for each of us to fill up with bottled water from a common area cooler. This method was designed to cut back on the number of plastic bottles discarded. Because of the high temperatures (reaching 45 Celsius while we were there) the water in that container heated up soon after filling it up. Our ice buckets were replenished once a day in the morning, but the ice melted within minutes. Refilling our bottles also required queuing up at the single water cooler when everyone was preparing for departure and time was limited. The water chilled from the cooler became warm within minutes. Also, carrying the bottles from our rooms to refill them in the main building was inconvenient, especially during the rest period between activities when it was hot and uncomfortable everywhere and we sought water to lower our body temperature and became thirsty. Although we liked the conservation minded concept behind the refillable non thermos metallic bottles, in practice the idea did not work well at all.
At night, the staff spread mosquito netting around the two single beds set next to each.
The bathroom in the tent had a bush view.
Meals and game drives were included in the nightly rates. Tent amenities included: two cotton bathrobes, Charlotte Rhys Refillable toiletries (conditioning shampoo, shower gel and body lotion), two umbrellas, insect repellent, insect spray, flashlight, and shower caps. There was no soap (only shower gel). There was a dining area with a bar and a library corner that included a popular computer for guest use with a very slow (1 megabyte, 1-100 kilobytes per second) connection, a curio shop, an elevated viewing deck facing the lagoon, and an outdoor pool.
Our best leopard sighting in Botswana
During our summer visit, the 1.5 meter deep plunge pool deck was the most comfortable place in the property in the middle hours of the day between brunch and tea time. The pool area had eight cushioned lounge chairs with rolled up towels on every chair and two large umbrellas. The pool floor was slick, requiring care to avoid slipping. There was also a cooler with bottled beverages although it had no ice so the beverages were almost at ambient temperature.
The pool was the place to find relief from the blistering heat
Our guide Osman in front of our safari vehicle
Our very bumpy game drives were aboard a canvas topped Toyota Landcruiser with three rows that could accommodate two passengers in each of the front rows and three in the rear row. Osman, our Setswana guide, had three years of experience. In his company we saw Kalahari apple-leaf, baobab, jackal-berry, leadwood, marula, sausage trees, blue water lily flowers and papyrus as well as baboon, bushbuck, elephants, giraffe, hippopotamus, brown hyena, lechwe, leopard, lion, banded mongoose, Selous mongoose, vervet monkey, reedbuck, sitatunga, South African ground squirrel, tsessebe, waterbuck warthog, wildebeest, and zebra. We also saw Nile crocodile, Nile monitor and Okavango hinged terrapin. He pointed out hippo tracks and mole rat holes.
A mother lion and her cub
The entrance to our tents was lit at night.
Birds we saw or heard included: arrow-marked babbler, black-collared barbet, crested barbet, bateleur, Southern carmine bee-eater, swamp boubou, reed cormorant, wattled crane, African darter, fork-tailed drongo, white-faced duck, yellow-billed duck, cattle egret, great egret, little egret, slaty egret, African fish-eagle, go-away-bird, Egyptian goose, spur-winged goose, Southern ground-hornbill, grey heron, purple heron, squacco heron, red-billed hoopoe, African hoopoe, African grey hornbill, red-billed hornbill, glossy hornbill, pied kingfisher, woodland kingfisher, yellow-billed kite, blacksmith lapwing, crowned lapwing, Meyer's parrot, Kittlitz's plover, broad-billed roller, brown snake-eagle, red-billed spurfowl, Burchell's starling, Cape glossy starling, black-winged stilt, African stonechat, saddle-billed stork, yellow-billed stork, barn swallow, water thick-knee, hammerkop, wattled crane and golden-tailed woodpecker.
A leopard in a tree during a game drive at Rattray’s on MalaMala
The pool at Ratttray’s had a view of the dry river bed
When on safari the repetitive cycle of daily game drives and copious meals can leave us tired without the healthful benefits of exercise. On our most recent itinerary featuring safari properties in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa two lodges stood out for their fitness and pool features. Both lodges, within the Sabi Sand Reserve, a private reserve adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, had private plunge pools in the rooms as well as a main area swimming pool large enough to swim short laps.
The exercise room at Rattray’s
A white rhino during a game drive at Rattray’s
In the Mala Mala Reserve, Rattray’s on MalaMala had a dedicated fitness room for guests with exercise equipment and a few weights. Next to the fitness room there was a sauna. In front of the fitness room there was a swimming pool. Both had expansive views of the lawn and dry river bed. In addition, there were private plunge pools on the river facing deck of each spacious room.
The main pool at Chitwa Chitwa Private Game Lodge faced a dam
From the pool deck we observed elephants visiting the dam
Chitwa Chitwa Private Game Lodge, in the northern end of Sabi Sand Reserve, also had a dedicated workout room with electric exercise machines. The art filled sunlit room with glass walls was adjacent to the property’s dedicated spa treatment room. Guest rooms had private decks with bush and dam views as well as plunge pools. In the main area, there was a rimless swimming pool facing the property dam.
The exercise room at Chitwa Chitwa
A lion seen during a game drive at Chitwa Chitwa
Birds of Kenya
Photo: Princeton Press
The thousands of flamingos on Lake Nakuru may be perhaps the most famous of bird sightings in Kenya's Rift Valley.
There are many bird other species in that area, which includes four national parks: Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Mount Longonot, and Hell's Gate. Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley (Princeton University Press, $29.95), a 256-page softcover book by Adam Scott Kennedy published in 2014, features the 320 bird species he believes travelers are most likely to encounter on safari in the region, which runs from Lake Baringo in the north to Lake Magadi in the south.
In the book, there are 500 color photos, most by the author, as well as non technical information on the ecology of the area and bird behaviors by species. It is divided into seven sections: Birds of Lake and Marsh; Up In the Air; Birds of Prey, Birds of Grassland and Open Areas; Birds of Wood, Scrub and Garden; and Night Birds.
Scott Kennedy has served as principal leader on birding holidays in Africa, South America, Europe, and New Zealand. He and his wife, Vicki, operate as private safari guides, specializing in photographic and wildlife safaris in East Africa. He is the author of Birds of the Masai Mara (see New Masai Mara bird book available).
Click to buy Birds of Kenya's Rift Valley (WILDGuides)