Take a smartphone safari – Thanda Safari

13 Dec 2023
It sounds at odds with the idea of a safari – which always conjures up switching off and tuning into nature rather than your cellphone, but we loved our taste of a smartphone safari at Thanda Safari in Hluhluwe, northern KwaZulu-Natal, earlier this year.
Thanda Safari Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
In between safari activities at Thanda Safari. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

Anyone who has tried – without any special knowledge – to capture a good photo of a leopard in the wild, a buffalo herd, a magical sunset or a boma fire knows that when it comes to safari photography, you feel like you should just submit to the people with the “real cameras”.

That was until we met Christian Sperka. Sperka is a renowned photographer based at Thanda Safari and has the titles of resident Wildlife Photographer and specialist Photography Guide. He offers photography courses and teaches wildlife photography and he has also published several books capturing his work.

A 90-minute smartphone photography session with Sperka is part of the package when you check in to any of the accommodations at Thanda Safari. The only condition is that you must reserve your spot in advance of your arrival.
Christian Sperka Thanda Safari Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
In session with wildlife photography expert Christian Sperka at Thanda Safari. 
Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

Swiss-born Sperka says he has taught more than 1,800 people since he arrived at Thanda in 2012. He worked as a successful IT consultant who travelled the world before deciding that his heart lay in Africa and that his passion was photography. He swapped his homes and cosmopolitan life for lodgings at Thanda, and he seems to be enjoying his decision more than 10 years later. 

Sperka is an excellent teacher. His instructions are clear, and he can anticipate just about any question. He is also a straight-talker who dismisses the idea that you need a “decent camera with a tele-focus lens” to capture good safari pics. While it is an advantage, he says, nowadays, a good smartphone will take you far. Read to the end for Sperka’s five tips for a smartphone safari.
Thanda Safari Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
Capturing lunch. Our media counterparts took Christian Sperka's lesson as seriously as we did.
Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

Sperka is a consummate specialist and also offers a Photography in The Wild package, which includes the 90-minute complimentary photography lesson followed by a three-hour highly customised private safari. He is strict about who comes with him – never a randomly mixed group, as these are highly focused sessions. The vehicle is kitted out, especially for photography – and for fun, so it includes everything from camera mounts to a G&T station and other lovely luxe features. It’s a game drive focused on capturing the best images under Sperka’s guidance.

We joined a media trip by invitation to Thanda Safari in Hluhluwe. It’s a big distance from Joburg, especially by car, but having never travelled to KZN for a safari before, the invitation piqued our interest. This is a low-risk malaria area, making it another reason why it's a good safari option. 

We left Joburg in a sponsored Ford Everest Wildtrak. We’re not motoring journalists, but this is a great car for this kind of long trip. Immensely spacious with three rows of seating, the Ford Everest Wildtrak comes with plenty of mod cons like cruise control and self-drive, plenty of charging points (great for media), and an immense screen for maps. The eight-hour journey we were mostly dreading was pretty pleasant, made even better by two alert drivers who navigated us safely over such a long distance.

The route there is not an easy drive, with uneven roads and massive trucks transporting coal to Richard’s Bay, but if you are someone who enjoys a car ride over a flight (and there are many reasons for that), this was worth doing. We arrived at Thanda at 14:00, having left Joburg at 06:00, with a few small stops on the way. P.S. On the way back, you’ll reach Ermelo just in time to stock up on what are reputed to be the country’s best koeksisters from Ouma Rooi Koeksisters. Traditional syrupy-soaked delights that we had to queue for at the store.

Thanda is a 14,000-hectare Big Five reserve in Hluhluwe, northern KZN. Just 20 years ago, this area was filled with cattle farms. The property has a range of accommodations, and we stayed at the tented camp, an entry-level safari camp that is affordable and accessible. Thanda has 15 tents, modestly furnished, and each has an outdoor shower as well as an indoor shower. Located along a gravel pathway, each tent has a wooden deck, is rustic and down to earth, and enjoys privacy.
Thanda Safari Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
Spotting the perfect subject at Thanda Safari. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

The wildlife we saw here was exceptional, from a sunset view of a leopard to a pride of lions at a watering hole, a separate sighting of one female lion with four cubs running behind her, many rhinos (sadly dehorned, but it's been essential for the conservation of this highly endangered species), rich birdlife, and one of the biggest buffalo herds we have ever spotted. 

The staff at Thanda Safari are super friendly and welcoming, and we enjoyed the food offering too. The kitchen team made sure we were well-fed with tasty and generously portioned dishes and lovely fresh and light meal options. In any group, the list of dietary restrictions can be a little dizzying, but the Thanda crew didn't flinch from the challenge of catering to every need – including gluten-free. By the way, the homemade granola is an absolute standout. From salmon dishes to a traditional boma braai night, Thanda delivered one lovely meal experience after another. 
Thanda Safari Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
Beautiful boma nights at Thanda Safari. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

Another unique aspect of a Thanda Safari experience is the opportunity to interact with local Zulu culture. Thanda means 'love' in isiZulu, while Zulu means 'heaven'. At Thanda, you get to meet the 'people of heaven' on their terms, and turf. A local guide leads a visit to a homestead in one of the villages that neighbours the reserve, a chance to meet descendants of the Zulu people who have always lived in the region and walk in their footsteps. This isn't your typical game lodge entertainment; it's specialised community interaction with sincere engagement at its heart and will leave you truly enriched. A contribution towards the Thanda Community Projects, which works to support the surrounding Zulu community, is included in the rate.
Traditional Zulu dance Thanda Safari Photo: Johannesburg in Your Pocket
We had the privilege of witnessing an incredible traditional dance performance at Thanda Safari.
Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

We’re experienced safari hands, so it’s always nice to try something new and measure it up against many years of visits. To be honest, most of our visits have taken place in the luxury space, and that’s given us a privileged view of safari. As Johannesburg In Your Pocket, we are always looking for what makes a destination or attraction stand out, and this aspect of focusing on the visual is so highly appealing as just about everyone wants to be able to show off their special safari sightings or at least have a memorable keepsake. 

With all that said, we're sharing Sperka's five tips for a smartphone safari.
Thanda Safari Photo: Christian Sperka
A photo safari at Thanda Safari. Photo: Christian Sperka.

1. Smartphones are very good for taking a wide-angle picture
Avoid zooming in on pictures (pinching) as most smartphones only provide digital zoom. It’s therefore best to take the picture ‘un-zoomed’ and crop it later. This of course depends on the phone make and model. Some advanced smartphones, e.g. iPhone 15, have a third tele-focus lens that provides optical tele-focus capability. 
Thanda Safari Photo: Christian Sperka
Elephants do well with wide angles. Photo: Christian Sperka.

2. Smartphones are great for difficult light conditions such as sunsets, sunrises and interesting cloud formations over beautiful scenery.
These are often easier to capture with a smartphone than with a regular camera. Combined with a good ‘enhancement’ app, like an excellent ‘Camera+ for iPhones,’ amazing pictures can be created. 
Everyone wants to capture a classic safari sunset. Photo: Christain Sperka.
Smartphones and sunsets, a match made in heaven. Photo: Christian Sperka.

3. Clip-on tele-focus lenses are available at very little cost and having such a lens will make it possible to get a decent shot of distant targets e.g. lions, birds.
Binoculars can also serve as a tele-focus lens. Make sure there is a small distance between the camera lens and the binocular oculars, focusing first on the subject with your binos, before using your smartphone camera. 

4. Smartphones are excellent at taking macro-shots.
Anything from plants to small creatures can be captured well. Make sure to check with your guide that it is safe to get close to any creature. 
Making little creatures extraordinary. Photo: Christian Sperka.
Macro-photography makes little creatures extraordinary. Photo: Christian Sperka. 

5. Private game reserves are great for smartphone photography as one is usually able to get much closer to wildlife than in a National Park.
A professional and experienced guide knows exactly how close they can get safely to animals to ensure a good picture. Get as close to eye level with your subject as you can, and you will create some great shots. 

See more on Thanda Safari. Thanda Safari offers SADC rates for locals. To see more on Christian Sperka read his blog and follow him on social media.  


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