1. And So We Start Again

I don’t blog every workshop I do, as I don’t like repeating myself so often; I spread these things out and try to provide a few new teaching bits and insights each time. It’s been three years since my last Africa workshop blog, so this seems like a good time to pick up and see what I can write that’s new. 

Thing is, every trip to Africa—even to the same place—tends to be very different, as we’re intruding on the animals randomly to start with, and Botswana in particular tends to have quite a bit of variability due to the way the waters move into the delta (or don’t). 

But let’s start this blog where we should: packing. 

Given my recent surgery, I was a little worried about this trip. Enough so that I did a “test” trip prior to it just to make sure I was up to the hassles of travel. For a month, I had a 20-pound lifting limit imposed on me by my doctor. My current pack weight as I sit in the lounge waiting to board my plane? 33 pounds. I’m being careful not to lift it outright, but to shimmy into it ;~).

And my bag is DX light (no FX bodies, no big exotic lens). Some of that 33 pound weight has to do with battery needs for the places I’ll be going on this trip, but those batteries are spread between my backpack and my laptop bag (which is another 22 pounds). 

Funny thing is, even though I’m bringing a bunch of miscellaneous stuff to leave with friends in Africa, my two checked duffel bags weigh less than my carry-ons. The life of a well-prepared wildlife photographer requires a great deal of weight lifting. As much as possible, I’m having others lifting my bags at the start of the trip.

Some of the things I’m bringing on this trip that you probably wouldn’t: projector, two extra telephoto lenses in case students have issues, and lots of extra charging gear centered around big batteries. As big as you can legally carry on an aircraft.

I’m going to give you an Excel spreadsheet that (mostly) deals with all the minutiae of what I packed this time (some of the weights aren’t up to date, but you’ll get the idea of everything I was dealing with). This spreadsheet started with a former workshop student, and I’ve been using it ever since.

<packing spreadsheet>

Use this spreadsheet at your own risk! This list is very specific to my teaching in Botswana and what I know I need and can deal with logistically. It’s also specific to a time of year there. Note that when you do things on your own or have to get to certain areas in Africa to join a tour, you very well may encounter bag and weight limits that my list will easily put you over. 

That’s one reason why I use Air Botswana from Jo-berg to Maun, by the way: I know what fits in their overheads, and I know that I can be over in bags and weight and pay a reasonable fee (US$3 pound typically) for getting that extra stuff where I need it. On the internal flights we use within Botswana, I work to a specific set of requirements that are more space restricted than weight, but when you book such bush flights on your own you’ll probably find the opposite to be true. More on that when we get to it later in the month.

Planning for these big trips isn’t easy. If you haven’t already partaken of my Big Trip Planning 101 article, spend some time reading and absorbing that. I’ll say this: the more anal you are about the pre-trip routine and packing, the easier the trip is going to be. 

For this trip I did my first pre-pack a week before I left. Pretty much everything was in the bags, weighed, and checked off my list, then everything set into a staging area. During the week before I left, I’d visit this staging area several times each day and “refine.” Every time I refined, I changed my spreadsheet. Yes, anal.

Every day after having everything mock packed I also played the “what if” game: what if it rained? What if it was colder or hotter than expected? What if X broke? Be careful, though. If you play this game too well, you’ll just keep adding things to your bags. The real trick here is to play the game while trying to balance all the possibilities against their likely reality. Your goal isn’t to bring everything. Your goal is to bring the right mix of things that maximizes your possibilities. All while trying to keep within weight and bag limits, of course.

The final touch? Print the spreadsheet and carry it with you. Note that I’ve got room for serial numbers on that spreadsheet, so in the case of loss I can fill out an accurate and complete police report. Likewise, should an airline lose a bag, I have substantiation of what’s in it (also take a photo of the packed bag with the zips open with your iPhone to go along with your list). 

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