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Travel Photography packing the gear

Whilst I was working on my “How to create simple panoramic photographs” post I realised that I was writing about how to approach panoramic photography without a tripod. The truth of the mater is tripods are generally heavy and lately I have done without it. I ended up writing this travel photography post without realising it and thought I’d share it first. So here is why I did not carry a tripod very often.

Traveling with photography gear is painful, it’s heavy and most airlines limit you radically on luggage weight both checked-in and on board. My photo bag when fully loaded weighs about 17kg far exceeding the limits add a tripod to this and we are reaching the 20kg. I used to sacrifice clothing to be able to take more gear. I since learned that more gear does not make for better photos and is more cumbersome than it is worth.


So I plan my trips and the gear I’ll take. The first item to go has been my bulky heavy tripod for a lighter Carbon fibre model. The second was my big bag a Thinktank Airport Acceleration V2.0, I still have it but I bought a smaller one,  the Thinktank Rotation 360, it is comfortable, accessible and relatively light but most importantly convenient. What it brings to the party is it’s size, it forces me to think what I will be shooting and plan for it.
The only items that are always in my bag are:

  • A camera body, for now a Canon EOS 7D
  • A camera strap, a Blackrapid RS-4 Classic, I recommend it or something similar.
  • A few lens cloth, micro-fibre works but there are new great clothes around (I steal from my optometrist, it’s cheaper)
  • A pen and small note pad
  • A couple of tripod camera plates for the strap.
  • Spare camera batteries
  • Spare CF cards
  • Lensbaby Scout with the the Fisheye, Soft Focus and Sweet 35 Optics (Light an versatile)
  • A circular polarising filter

I regularly go down to Cape Town, I noticed that though I took my 100-400mm (1380g) and my 70-200mm (1310g) lenses (that is close to 3kg), I never used them because when I am in Cape Town I mostly shoot landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes so I mostly use my 16-35 wide angle lens. So I pack it now, I also use a 24-70mm (950g) lens enough to warrant it coming along for the trip. The only additional item over and above is a flash. This reduces my weight dramatically.

I also go to nature and wildlife parks, the bag configuration changes radically. The 100-400mm (1,380g) comes along for the trip but not the 16-35mm (635g), I will also take a 100mm Macro lens (625g) with a ring flash along, to shed weight I do not take my big flash (475g).

And lately, when I go photo walking, I only take one lens and sometimes the some Lensbabies along. Which lens you will ask? It will depend on the photo walk, but chances are that is will either be, more often than not, a 16-35mm (635g) or sometimes a 24-70mm (950g) though I suspect this will now be the lighter 24-105mm (670g) as soon as I get my elusive EOS 5D. Also, I will be taking my tripod on future walks, simply because it will force me to compose and think more, particularly with my HDR work and that the EOS 5D’s burst speed and 7 photo HDR bracket will not compensate for my moving anymore but that is in the future.

One last lens I think I should have with me always is the fantastic canon EF 50mm f/1.4 prime (290g), it’s not heavy. I keep on leaving it behind because on the EOS 7D it more an 80mm and it does not really work with what I do, with the EOS 5D coming this might just change.

The bottom line is that it all adds up and the spine can take so much.

Marakele National Park

Situated in the heart of the Waterburg and about 2.5 hours from Johannesburg,  Marakele National Park is probably one park I will carry on visiting. Not that it has a lot of wildlife, but rather that the wildlife comes to you when camping at Bontle Camp Site.

A word of warning though, as with Mapungubwe National Park, a high rise vehicle is advisable if you intend to visit the park’s northern side.

Bontle Camping Site is situated next to a small dam making it an ideal spot to setup camp and relax. There are no fences to talk about here, the pillars are there but the fence is long gone. A good thing really because you feel more connected. The ablution blocks are well maintained and clean, as with Mapungubwe National Park, the park’s shop has very little to offer, luckily it’s a short 15 minutes ride to Thabazimbi, a mining town where you can find anything you will need.

Left side of view from my tent in  Marakele

Left side of view from my tent at Bontle camping site in Marakele

Right side of view from my tent in  Marakele

Right side of view from my tent at Bontle camping site in Marakele

Once you have set up camp on the dam side, if you can find a spot, sit down relax and let the wildlife come to you, let it sink in, enjoy the sounds and smell and who knows the local rhinoceros and ostriches may just come and visit, not to mention the usual bucks and antelopes… It is also worthy to note that Marakele National Park has a vast bird life.

Click to enlarge photographs.

Photography Setup
Yellowbilled Hornbill







White Rhinoceros


Redbilled Hornbill





Yellowbilled Hornbill
Yellowbilled Hornbill

Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site

Mapungubwe National Park is not exactly a place you decide to go too on a hunch, unless you are my wife and I, situated on the northern tip of South Africa, bordering both Botswana and Zimbabwe, it is a solid 6 hour trip from Johannesburg. So was it all worth it? The short of it is a resounding yes, with a few caveats along the way.

Things to know about Mapungubwe National Park:

  1. Use a high rise vehicle,  an SUV, 4×4 or similar ideally.
  2. Deflate your tyres to about 1.8 to 2 bars, will help on the badly maintained roads around the park. Inside are dust roads so deflated tyres are still a good idea.
  3. There is no cellular signal, except at the gate if you are lucky.
  4. There are no shops anywhere near Mapungubwe National Park, so stock up.
  5. The closest petrol station is a cool 70km away, so refuel there first before entering the park.
  6. The park is divided into 2 sections, west where the World Heritage Site is and east where the camping grounds are. The is a 45 minutes between the two.

Now let forget about the caveats and get back to the business of Mapungubwe National Park.

 Mapungubwe National Park

We went to Mapungubwe National Park without any preconceived ideas or expectations, what we faced was breath taking beauty rarely seen. Mapungubwe National Park has wildlife, we saw elephants and rhinoceros as well as foxes and the usual bucks and antelopes and it has a viarity of predators but no buffalos leaving it with only 4 of the Big Five. But we found out that one does not go to Mapungubwe National Park for the wildlife but rather for the incredible sceneries of contrasting colours and carved landscape, not forgetting a lesson in African history. The first day we got there, we booked a sunset drive with a ranger, Johannes in this case, we often do this to get the layout of the land, the local rangers know their parks better then we do. The drive was spectacular, yet we saw little wildlife, though I did add an animal to my collection of photographs, the bat-eared fox.

 Bat-eared Fox

The next day was rather educational, we booked the visit to Mapungubwe Hill, the World Heritage Site inside the park, I am not going to tell you the history but needless to say it’s a little confusing to say the least, lots of theories and uncertainties. One thing is sure, it belongs with the Lost Cities of the world. I would highly recommend the visit. Cedric, our guide, was well informed and neutral enough in his narration, he gave us more then one theory and was not shy to add his own.

In short, if you have a high rise vehicle and a passion for Africa as well as not looking too much for wildlife, it scores a 4/5 across the board.