Picture Perfect

 

Why a photographic safari with Craig Berger is one of the best ways to experience African wildlife. 

Craig Berger found his calling in the late 90’s after being asked by a travel agent friend if he would be interested in guiding a group of senior travelers on an excursion to Africa.

“I loved it immediately and became a guide within a year,” said Berger, who spoke with Friends of Animals from his office in South Africa where he now runs his own company, Oasis Africa Photo Safaris.

Berger’s company only offers small-group custom African photo safaris throughout southern Africa, which provides the best opportunities for the trip of a lifetime. He works one-on-one with interested travelers to customize their experience and fit their needs and budget, and travels with them—doing everything from driving and setting up the perfect photo opportunities to cooking meals.

Berger has a true taste for adventure and always advises his clients to stay away from so-called “luxury resorts,” which are typically small and actually keep animals fenced in. Instead, he steers them towards experiencing the beauty of South Africa’s bountiful nature reserves and national parks.

“It’s not every day that you can drive down a dusty bumpy road and see amazing zebras or kudus or wildebeests,” he said. “It is pure excitement, especially when that big bull elephant shakes his head and trumpets at you for being in his space.”

During the interview, Berger, who is from Weston, Connecticut, shares more about why he continues to answer the call of the wild and why he lives by this motto: “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photos. Waste nothing but time. Love and respect nature or it is gone forever.”

WHAT DO YOU FIND MOST REWARDING ABOUT THE SAFARIS? WHAT HAS BEEN MOST CHALLENGING?

It is so rewarding on many levels. I get to spend quality time in wildlife reserves hunting for another perfect view. I am always thrilled to give my clients more than they ever expected to get from a safari. In truth, my job is quite easy because the product I’m selling (experiencing African nature and wildlife) is so superb. What is challenging? Ha! Everything about doing business in Africa is a challenge. You get used to it, and when things go wrong, you just have to use the ancient expression, “Hey, it’s Africa.”

WHAT MAKES OASIS AFRICA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SAFARI COMPANIES?

Maybe because I am a one-man show most of the time. I market and run my tours without using travel agents or safari outfitters. I will only have, at most, four clients in the vehicle. These days, I think most people view a safari as part of a large group of strangers. They travel in large buses then do game drives in Open Safari Vehicles (OSVs). I see few other safari companies providing the bespoke service of a small-group safari. People seeking a safari adventure should do their homework and find out what is best for them.

DO ANY MEMORIES STAND OUT THAT REALLY CAPTURE WHAT IT’S LIKE TO GO ON A TRIP WITH YOU?

Oh, gosh, don’t get me started with stories! I’ve only had a couple of clients I regretted, and the rest of my clients helped create great moments. I’ve had many dozens of sightings that make amazing memories. Last October, I came upon 10 or 12 resting wild dogs (also called the African hunting dog) and then I noticed a lone male hyena with them. They are enemies, traditionally, but these guys were buds. I asked a few friends but no one had ever seen this before. I’ve seen an elephant give birth. I’ve also seen a mama elephant attack a small car sensing danger to her wee one because there were two people sticking out of the skylight taking snaps (a big big no no in most wildlife reserves).

Another time, I ran out of film one time while in a hide (a secluded area used for taking pictures of wildlife). I went back to the car for another roll, and while returning I saw something out of the side of my eye—two large male lions walking next to me at 20 feet. Be still my heart! The lions couldn’t have cared less about me. They changed course and headed down to the waterhole.

THE PHOTOGRAPHY ON YOUR FACEBOOK PAGE IS ABSOLUTELY STUNNING. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO ARE JUST BEGINNING?

My safari clients come with all skill levels. Some are super photographers who need no help, but others have never made a good photo in their lives. Most are in the middle level with their talent. There are dozens of small tips I can share but some want no help at all while others really appreciate it. I want my clients to take home great photos (trophies?). I love it when clients take a super snap. They did it themselves and they love what they created. I love it because I helped by finding that beautiful creature to shoot (meaning click click, not bang bang).

BECAUSE OF YOUR DEEP APPRECIATION FOR AFRICAN WILDLIFE, IS IT HARD KNOW THAT YOU MUST SHARE THE CONTINENT WITH THE TROPHY- HUNTING INDUSTRY?

Trophy hunting is very big business in Africa. Hunting advocates make wild claims that only hunting can save the creatures. I have led African safaris for over 25 years. I have witnessed the ever increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans coming to South Africa for the sole purpose of killing animals who are fenced in on game farms or private reserves and who have never been wild and have no fear of humans. Not all trophy hunting is “canned.”

In other parts of Africa, like Zimbabwe, big game areas are classified as Game Management Areas. They are protected open wildlife areas on land belonging to local communities in which animals are protected and mainly used for organized hunting and tourist safaris. I made it a policy to refuse to sell any hunting safaris, and I even refuse to sell a wildlife safari to anyone also going on a trophy hunt with someone else. It hasn’t happened many times, but I could not be an accomplice in any way to animal murder.

It is a mystery to me why trophy hunting is so popular. Do people who spend so much money for a hunting trip to Africa really envision themselves as the great white hunter of lore? Are they brave men and women who put their lives at risk in order to save mankind from this evil creature?

The truth is that very few canned hunts are conducted on foot; most are done from the back of a pickup truck while seated in a nice chair with a shooting platform. And at their feet, of course, is the cooler with cold beers and Jack Daniels. Places like YouTube and Facebook have many shared trophy hunting accounts.

The brave white hunter, ear to ear smile, fat gut, and gun in hand, blood purposely smeared on pants, attempts to show all of his besties and neighbors what a hunter he or she was (and there are lots of women going hunting). Trophy hunting is another topic that could be discussed ad infinitum. I’m never going to convince a hunter that he is wrong to kill for pleasure.

He’s not going to convince me of anything because I wouldn’t give him the time of day to start with.

SINCE THE BEGINNINGS OF THE COMPANY, HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY CHANGE OR DECLINE IN THE NUMBERS/VARIETY OF SPECIES OF WILDLIFE IN AFRICA?

For sure. On one of my favorite roads in southern Kruger National Park, I often had multiple rhino sightings along the 20km route; six here, two there, one here, four there, and two near the end of the dirt road. I’ve only seen one rhino on that road in three years. I see far fewer rhinos all over.

Over all, I do think the numbers have decreased. Several years ago, overpopulation was openly discussed in southern Africa. Many people in the industry called for a massive culling of the elephant numbers, but there was such an outcry that this never happened. Perhaps one way they did manage the numbers was to decommission many dams and water holes. The reasoning was that man was artificially supporting wildlife and that it was best to let nature return to what it was 100-plus years ago. My problem with that concept is that 100-plus years ago, there were no fences or towns creating barriers to natural wildlife migration.

Man has, for the most part, put the wildlife in a reserve and prevented them from roaming as they have always done.

DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR WORK TO BE A FORM OF ANIMAL ADVOCACY? IF SO, WHY OR WHY NOT?

Sort of, but mine is the easier job compared to the dedicated people I know in the animal rights field. You guys do great work, and you invest much more emotional energy than I do. I try to do what little I can to make people aware of the many threats against wildlife worldwide from poaching to trophy hunting. But I’m glad there are better people than me doing the heavy work of animal advocacy. For more information about Craig Berger and his company, Oasis Africa, visit africansafaricompany.com