After dark, the African bush becomes a place of sharpened senses, where predators roam and the darkness reverberates with strange calls and unexplained rustlings. The animals that wake with the moon are different to those seen during the day, and most of them are players in a fight for survival that lasts until morning. Night safaris offer a unique opportunity to explore this alternative world, and to experience firsthand the untamed drama of life after sundown. In order to keep you safe and to limit the disturbance to nocturnal wildlife, night drives throughout Africa are usually led by professional guides. In this article, we take a look at a few top tips for getting the most out of your night drive experience.
By definition, spotting wildlife at night is a completely different ballgame to looking for animals during the day. After dark, colors fade into a myriad shades of gray and your vision reaches only as far as the beam of your flashlight. Night drive vehicles are equipped with spotlights, which the guide uses to scan the bush and illuminate passing animals. Sometimes, guides will allow you to bring your own flashlight. Ask for permission in advance, and opt for a spotlight with a strong, focused beam. Even if you can’t bring your own light, you can help the guide in his search. Follow the torchlight carefully, making sure to scan upwards into the trees as well.
Find out about the area’s nocturnal animals before the night drive so that you know where to look, and how to identify animals when you see them. Keep an eye out for eyes shining in the torchlight, and for irregular or moving shadows. Don’t expect to witness a lion kill or to spot a leopard on the prowl on your first outing. Often, night safaris are about smaller species that are rarely seen during the day, including hares, porcupines, bushbabies, genets and small felines. For birders, night safaris offer the opportunity to add nocturnal species to your life list. In particular, keep an eye out for owls, nightjars, night herons and thick-knees.
What to Bring
Staying comfortable is key to enjoying your night drive experience. Make sure to douse yourself liberally with insect repellent before departure, as mosquitoes are often most active at dusk. This is especially important if you’re staying in an area afflicted by mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Dressing warmly is important, and a warm hat, gloves and even blankets all come in handy on a night safari. Don’t be fooled by hot daytime temperatures or by the fact that most night safaris start before dusk. Once the sun sets, most destinations get cool rapidly. A flask of coffee serves the dual purpose of keeping you warm and counteracting the drowsy effect of driving at night. Don’t forget to pack your binoculars, and your camera if you have one.
Taking Photos at Night
Taking photos at night is tricky, and in some cases, impossible. However, while the lack of natural light undoubtedly impedes your ability to achieve good shots, there are a few tricks that might make the task easier. A flash (whether it’s inbuilt or external) provides an obvious solution to the light problem, but in most cases, using flash disturbs nocturnal animals and is not allowed. Instead, use your camera’s settings to capitalise on the light available to you, whether it’s the torchlight, the light of the full moon or the last touches of sunlight before full dark. If you’re using a compact camera, make sure to select the inbuilt ‘night’ setting. You’ll need to hold the camera as still as possible to avoid blurry photos when you’re shooting without a flash.
Tripods, monopods and beanbags all help to reduce camera shake, but are only effective when the vehicle is at a standstill. If you’re shooting with a DSLR, set your camera to manual mode. Set the f-stop to the lowest number possible, in order to increase aperture size and allow more light to reach the camera sensor. Longer shutter speeds also allow for more light; however, the longer your exposure is, the more blurry moving subjects will be. Often, the best option when shooting at night is to hike up your ISO. The higher your ISO is, the grainier your photos will be - but this is your best chance of achieving enough light to capture your night drive experiences on camera. If an animal comes close to the vehicle, use the illumination from the guide’s beam to light your shot.
Night drives offer a completely different perspective to daytime safaris, and for many of us, they represent the ultimate African adventure. As always, sightings can’t be guaranteed - but if you treat the experience as an opportunity to immerse yourself in the wild world of the bush after dark, any animals that you spot are simply an added bonus.