Wednesday, January 18, 2017

About Chris' Travel and Photo Tips - A Living Document

Wildlife photography has it's share of challenges; i.e., being in the right place at the right time with the right lighting.  Plus, one needs to be armed with the right tools, positive vibes, and best shooting techniques on auto-pilot.  And in my opinion, it's better to be overly prepared than mildly handicapped.  If not, the mental game is compromised.  And when the mental game is off, the fastest camera in the world can't deliver home runs.

When I prep for wildlife safaris and photo trips, there are a zillion things that I do in order to insure success with the least amount of hassles or gotchas.  I'm a list junkie and this started out as the typical what to bring pack list on my first African safari with Andy Biggs back in 2004.  As you will see, this list continues to grow because the "whys and how" are just as important as the "whats". 

After 30+ photo trips, I painstakingly documented what worked and didn't - ranging from travel prep, weight and logistics to clothing, shooting techniques, tools and workflow - because:
  • Airlines are continually cracking down on carry-on size and weight,
  • Reducing stress is always top of mind and I want travel adventures to be efficient, comfy and successful - especially when traveling 40 hours door:door and when it's impossible to run to a store when something breaks, leaks, is forgotten or is taken; and,
  • I want good value from my investments and try to be pragmatic; especially, since products that weigh the least usually cost a premium and always having the latest isn't always the greatest.  Note: I have no affiliations with any vendors mentioned in this blog.  

Since I often get requests for advice, I'm sharing most of my action items and logic here in this living resource document.  Check back frequently for updates to: 1) Chris' Packing, Travel and Image Storage Tactics which includes Extreme Cold Weather tips (updated Apr. 5th), 2) How to Shoot from a Safari Land Rover, Safari Prep and Image Workflow (updated Apr. 5th) and 3) Avoiding International Air Travel Grief (updated Apr. 3rd).  For non-photographers, Hack the Hackers and ID Thieves is a handy checklist (updated Oct. 22nd) as well as Don't Leave Money on the Table for shopping tips. Yep, it's a ton to do and think through; but, no pain, no gain.  Tip: to scroll down quickly one page at a time on a Mac, press the fn key + the down arrow.  To scroll super-fast, press the fn key and hold the down arrow. 


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Favorite Galleries (updated Apr1, 2017)

I love watching cheetah/leopard moms in the wild interacting with their cubs but I was over the moon when we observed 2.5 week old lion cubs for 10 days in Feb. 2017.  They grow so fast and you can see these cuties at Lion Cubs- Mesmerizing Babies. 

Other cherished experiences include Cheetah Cubs: Meet Sparky about an adorable 3 week old cheetah cub.

The first 2 mo. old cheetah cubs that I ever saw in the wild were beyond precious - Cheetah Cubs: Most Adorable Triplets.  

Finding healthy cheetah quadruplets during a tough drought year made the 2015 trip extra special -  Cheetah Cubs: Four Furballs

It's rare to find a leopard mom with 2 week old twins but we were extremely lucky in 2013 - Leopard Cubs: Moving Day.   

Nothing is more special than finding 5 week old leopard babies like these cuties - Leopard Cubs: Blue Eyed Babies - and I continually pray for another memorable experience like this one from 2012.

Lastly, I photographed adorable polar bear babies for 7 seasons in a row (through 2015) but 2013 was my favorite year because we were entertained by the most animated polar bear twins on the planet.  See Polar Bear Babies: Romp and Roll Twins.   

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How to See Cute Polar Bear Cubs in the Wild

  • From the comfort of your warm, cozy chair if you're practical.  A reality check: review this "behind the scenes" video made by ABC Nightline News which was filmed while we were in Churchill, Manitoba in March 2011 and I was thrilled that a few of my images were featured.
  • But, if you can handle the craziness of minus 50 temps with Arctic wind blowing in your face, wearing 22 lbs. of expedition clothing/boots/gloves/mitts, driving for hours on extremely bumpy tundra, staring at tiny den openings from 100 yards away, and praying for happy faces to pop out and smile at your camera, then trek on up to Manitoba near the Arctic Circle.  Although freezing your fingers off isn't fun, the experience is truly magical. 
  • I love watching polar bear babies playing and interacting with their mothers and I posted several photo galleries on my website at
  • The only place to see dens/families is at Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada (south of Churchill near Hudson Bay); and, the only lodge/operator is Wat'chee Lodge.  Wat'chee means high spot in Cree; and, the lodge sits on a ridge dotted with spruce trees, often with Northern lights dancing in the sky at this time of year.
  • In the past, Wat'chee Lodge was a closely guarded secret among pro and serious photographers.  But, now that the cat is out of the bag, it's safe to open up the kimono without getting slammed by fellow shooters.  
  • This rustic lodge is open from mid-February to mid-March and there are only 25 co-ed bunk beds available (2 - 4 to a room).  With this very short season and limited number of beds, be aware that the wait list is several years long. 
  • If you request a booking via the website, you'll be placed on the wait list for the following season or mostly likely, the ones after that.  Typically, you won't hear back from Wat'chee until your name gets to the top of the list for the following season (and that's when deposits are requested to secure spots, approx. July - Sept).  Starting with the 2018 season, Wat'chee plans to reach out periodically to reconfirm your level of interest by year.  A good way to get in before your name raises to the top of the list is being able to fill in last minute for cancellations which occur around Dec/Jan.  If you're in that position - and can get your cold weather act together - then send a follow up note to that effect around Sept/Oct. 
  • Now is not the time to skimp on proper clothing as it could put you at risk.  In order to stay warm, the initial investment for a Canada Goose Snow Mantra expedition parka, Canada Goose Rocky Mountain bibs and Cabela's Trans-Alaskan III Pac boots is obscene (in other words, a multi-year commitment) not to mention investments in adequate wool/polypropylene base/mid layers, hats, gloves/mitts and a heavy tripod/gimbal.  When available, you can rent Canada Goose parkas from the lodge.
  • There's no guarantee that you will see anything for days on end  as mama bear/baby activity can be earlier or later than your given lodge nights.  The train to the lodge to/from Churchill runs 3 times a week.  You should request at least 6 shooting days to increase your chances of seeing polar bear babies, along with your preference of coming in Feb. or Mar.  The owners do their very best to fit everyone in; and, they especially take special care of their repeat guests.  
  • The Wat'chee operation is a labor of love and running the lodge for only a month a year in these extreme weather conditions requires a herculean hands-on effort and investment - more than you can ever imagine.  Mike and Morris Spence - brothers who own and built out the lodge - truly want to share this special experience of seeing polar bear families in/near the dens, while preserving the natural habitat as they remember it from their youth.  
  • Mike and Morris have the most hands-on knowledge on the planet and share knowledge with various polar bear organizations and researchers.  Mike runs guest operations; and, Morris plus good friend Amak, are the best and heartiest polar bear baby trackers in the universe. The rest of the year, Mike, Morris and small staff of 5 have other full time jobs and responsibilities; i.e., Mike has been the mayor of Churchill for over 20 years.  
  • The denning area, which became part of Wapusk National Park in 1996, is where the Spence brothers - Mike, Morris, James and Frankie - fished and hunted using traditional traplines with their parents when they were kids, with added knowledge handed down from their grandparents. The property is a refurbished World War II Navy communications base (originally used for Arctic survival training) and is located 40 minutes south of Churchill.  All essential supplies - food, water, wood, gas, building and auto parts, etc. - have to be brought in by train and driven to/from the remote drop off point on snow mobiles.  During the lodge's 5 weeks of operation during the height of the denning season, guests are driven in vans modified to operate on the harsh (aka hard/bumpy) tundra.  Running this operation for such a short window is a herculean logistic challenge given that once the snow melts, the surrounding area becomes a huge marsh with no access except by helicopter.
  • Every resource is precious and the operation is extremely well run.  Keeping Wat'chee vehicles running (and warm) in these harsh conditions is a feat in itself.  Most impressive is the hearty food that Daryl, the sole cook, is able to prepare for a hungry group of 25 plus the staff.  The lodge is kept remarkably warm with only 2 wood burning stoves for heat; and, guests conserve at the no running water, co-ed facilities by bringing their own packets of no rinse bathing wipes and personal sundries, etc.
  • There is no best week to visit Wat'chee Lodge as the season could start early (when families leave earth dens and head to the Bay so that moms can feed on seals) - or late.  After emerging from earth dens, families hang around for a few days (out in the open or next to snow banks referred to as day dens) before starting the 40 mile trek to the Bay.  Since there are over 200 re-usable earth dens in the area, success means being in the right place at the right time.  
  • Researchers say that Hudson Bay's late freezing/early thawing has had consequences on the number of  bears in the area.  Less ice and fewer seal meals equates to fewer females strong enough to go into heat.  I truly believe that this is a reality. 
  • I always approach Wat'chee with the expectation that one good sighting per trip would be a win; and, that 3 days of good shooting out of 10 is a home run.  But with wildlife photography, we don't always win on every trip.  So, I'm always braced for goose eggs because it does happen.  If you're not ready for these odds, perhaps Wat'chee is not meant to be because standing outdoors in minus 40 - 50 degree temps will already test your sanity.  
  • Seeing triplets may be the brass ring; but, seeing playful cubs (twins or triplets) in nice lighting is the holy grail.  I was blessed with triplets during my first 3 visits, missed them by a day on the next 2, and had goose eggs on the last 2.  Even seeing one baby with mom - as long the cub is an animated poser - is special.
  • Wat'chee attracts experienced, diehard photographers with great attitudes (no whiners); and it's a great place for exchanging travel knowledge, making new International friends, and seeing Northern lights.  It's estimated that only 500 or so folks in the world have had the opportunity to see moms with newborn cubs in the wild, so finding/watching them is pretty incredible. I want to stress that building a polar bear portfolio should be a multi-year commitment as the right expedition clothing (base/mid layers, parka/bibbs, Pac boots, gloves/mitts, etc.) is expensive aka >$2,000, you need a sturdy tripod/gimbal, the learning curve is steep, and there are up/down years.
  • The ability to get sharp images continues to be a huge challenge, especially when winds are blowing 30 - 60 knots (35 - 70 miles per hour).  Lenses shake, viewfinders and LCDs frost up, batteries drop 50% in minutes, cheeks/fingers hurt, autofocus gets sluggish, tripod/gimbal joints get loose, and rigs blow over when you're not looking; not to mention that it's difficult to operate camera buttons and latches.  Even without the wind, it's a challenge to get low contrast subjects in flat lighting tack sharp; especially, when there are snow flurries and atmospheric shimmers between you and your target 100 yards away.  Being blessed with nice lighting can make all the difference in the world; and, it helps to stay calm when LCDs start to look like snow cones.   
  • It goes without saying that it's critical to be fit and healthy; and, you must monitor and listen to your body to avoid frostbite and other serious injuries.  It's not the time to man up or prove a thing as there's no access to nearby medical facilities; i.e., the train back to Churchill only runs 3 times a week. 
  • It takes a high level of commitment, patience and good karma to make this trip a success.   
  • Being bear-wise is important too.  It's very easy to be engrossed in your viewfinder and not hear the Wat'chee staff telling people to stick together, be still, not to slam doors, be quiet or pull back.  When Mike says to pull back, you pull back - period!  It's for the safety of the entire group as a polar bear can cover 100 yards in 9 seconds flat.  
  •  If you're still serious about wanting to see these endearing, endangered babies in the wild, then get on the Wat'chee wait list or find a tour group (i.e., Thomas Kokta) that has available spots for the 2018 or 2019 season.  You also need to get a Wapusk Park Photography Permit before your visit which the the lodge will provide.
  • This is a seasonal business and the very small team works miracles in these harsh conditions (while giving up their normal jobs for this labor or love), so tips in the range of $40 - $50/day are appreciated. 
  • Getting to Wat'chee: take the morning Calm Air flight from Winnipeg to Churchill.  Reserve a day room at the Seaport Hotel if you need to catch up on zzzz's.  Take the 7P train and after 2 hours, you'll be told to get off -  in the middle of no where - where the Wat'chee staff will be waiting for you in modified tundra vans.  Driving on tundra is a very slow process and it takes another hour to get to the lodge.  Bad weather can delay the train and assigned roommates are often asleep upon arrival.  So, I always re-organize my gear/clothing back in Churchill so that I'm quiet and ready to shoot the next morning.  In the past, delayed luggage was a recurring issuing on the flights from Winnipeg.  But starting in 2016, Wat'chee solved that problem by working with Calm Air to use larger aircraft and they now include the flight to/from Winnipeg as part of your booking reservations. We start each day around 8:30A (after the trackers have found tracks) and we returned between 7 - 9P.
  • Before visiting, be sure to review my Baby, It's Cold Outside section below as there's lots of prep work involved; especially, if you want to stay warm and comfortable.  Hopefully, I've taken at lot of the guesswork out of clothing and shooting tactics.   If I can do it, so can you!  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Avoiding International Air Travel Grief (updated Apr. 7, 2017)

Traveling internationally with a ton of gear is a hassle and stressful.  It takes a lot of thought and preparation as every airline and airport has it's own rules and nuances.   Here are some of my lessons learned.  Also, learn more under Chris' Packing, Travel and Image Storage Tactics by scrolling to the bottom of this document.

U.S. Global Entry and TSA Preê:
  • If you're a speed/comfort freak like me, apply for TSA Pre√ and make sure that your Global Entry number is added to your airline profiles.  
  • U.S. Global Entry is a stellar program for international travelers.  It cost $100 to apply, lasts for 5 years, and allows you to bypass the long customs lines when arriving back in the U.S.  Renewing is easy too.
  • TSA scanners are sensitive to hand lotions and sunscreen (i.e., false readings) and international flights can dry out skin (making it hard for Global Entry scanners to read fingerprints).  Net:net: clean hands and then rub fingertips against your forehead or neck before going through TSA. 
  • Register for the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) .  This replaces the U.S. embassy registration process which enables U.S. Embassies to contact you in an emergency while you are traveling abroad and/or the State Dept. to send you important Travelers' Alerts. 

RFID Credit Card and Passport Protection
  • For a real eye opener, check out this youtube video  or Will Smith's movie called Focus, or see this Consumer ReportThere are many RFID products on the market but the trick is finding non-bulky solutions that are certified to work against different scanner frequencies and strengths.  So far, I've only found small scale RFID testers like RFID Wallet HQs and MET Labs who tested the patented Scanner Guard Cards.  Personally, I'm most comfortable with metal and my primary slim RFID holder is the original Thin King which I use for 2 cards, 1 licenses and 1 insurance card.  The rest of my stuff is in the Ridge RFID credit card size wallet  which rarely needs to come out of my purse or hidden zippered pocket.  1.10.17: I just ordered the newer/deeper Thin King Gordito for testing.
Checking In and Boarding:
  • Avoid lost luggage issues by double checking your luggage tag's final destination before agents take your bag. Once your bag disappears on the belt, it's tough to get tags corrected with certainty.  
  • Some airline liability terms do not cover cameras, jewelry or computers if lost/stolen in checked luggage.  So, make sure that expensive items like camera chargers and high end tripods are insured.
  • Your ticket may state that you need to be at the gate 30 minutes before; but, some lines queue up 60 minutes beforehand.  Delta Gold SkyMiles and United Platinum cards will help to get you in the first boarding group.
Smaller Aisles and Rows Mean More Liquid Hazards
  • With smaller aisles and space between rows, getting splashed by drinks and food - i.e., by flight attendants and passengers - is the new norm, especially when sitting in the aisle seat.  If your electronics are splashed, they can die days after the occurrence from moisture slowly seeping inside.  If this happens to you, turn electronics off immediately and try to draw any moisture out with desiccants after landing, etc.  
Hack Pickpockets, Purse Snatchers, Plane Pirates and Baggage Thefts
  • Traveling to Europe and 3rd world counties is always stressful because friends are always reporting someone getting a purse or wallet snatched.  It happens in the blink of an eye - i.e., thieves have scouters watching you check into hotels or getting distracted in public places who then then alert accomplishes who are waiting to snatch/speed away with valuables.  What drives us gals nuts are that guys always think it won't happen to them - and guess what?
  • So always look and stay alert, dress indiscreet and never fumble with wallets which is why I like the original Thin King credit card holder mentioned above which I use as my decoy.  My other cards/cash are inside the Ridge wallet and 3 x 4" zippered mesh.  As needed, they're tucked away in mClever Travel Companion tank (2 zippered pockets) worn under a tee.  My passport stays secure in the Clever tank as well.  If I have to carry a tons of small bills (i.e., in India), I put everything in a REI calf wallet instead of the tank top.  If I need to stash my phone when not carrying a small purse, I use a GearProz RFID Money Belt.  I also add Nite Ize lockable zipper pulls to secure purse zippers.  For men, BluffWorks travel pants are functional and very nice looking.  A sidetone: to avoid foreign transaction fees on credit cards without transaction fees, remember to charge in the local currency, not USD. 
  • With stricter carry-on limits, photo accessories go into checked luggage and it's always stressful because friends have had items stolen; i.e., see this CNN video of baggage handlers riffling through bags; including, inside luggage bay on airplanes.  So, I always hide items I don't want to lose in opaque bags, double wrap them and secure them with plastic ties or straps.  For expensive and critical items like monopod heads, gimbals, camera chargers and flashes, I lock them inside my daypack (ThinkTank Glass Taxi) and then cover the bag with an ultra light dry sack secured with straps in hopes that lazy security agents or baggage thieves won't bother.  The Glass Taxi also protects breakables and makes it faster to pack/find things. 

Airline, Airport and Bush Plane Tidbits
  • Re-verify carry-on/baggage weight rules for every airline being flown before departing.   And always have a worst case back-up plan in case they reduce the # of allowed carry-on bags on the day of your flight as I experienced with Lufthansa and KLM. 
  • If flying KLM departing from Amsterdam, the good news is that boarding time is now the normal 45 - 60 minutes before departure (from 90 min.) because security is before you go to your gate, not after as during the airport remodel.  But the bad news is that all cameras and lenses have to be removed for inspection.  For overnighters: get to the airport early (I allow 3 hours 15 min.) because there's often a long line to use the self-check-in kiosks followed by another long line to weigh your bags.  If you're instructed to see an agent after the weigh in, go directly to the service kiosk as opposed to waiting in line again.  Next, go to bag drop off and then through Customs before heading to your gate.  If departing KLM from SFO to Arusha with a long layover in Amsterdam (i.e., close to 24 hrs.), you can check your luggage only through AMS (with a temporary release) to that you can retrieve your stuff to sleep overnight.  This must be requested during check-in at the airport and I like to stay on-site at the Sheraton Hotel for convenience.  Note: getting a Gold Delta SkyMiles/AMEX card gives you priority boarding and the Delta SkyMiles Medallion program gives you access to faster KLM SkyPriority lines.  If you buy air tickets via Delta, you can only reserve Comfort Plus seats for the legs they fly in advance (which is why I started buying my tickets directly from KLM/Jet Blue).  
  • Some of Lufthansa's boarding gates in Frankfurt now have self-scanners, so boarding has been reduced to 30 - 40 minutes prior to departure (good news if you have a short layover).  
  • Carry-on Bag Hassles:  Some United Star Alliance Partners are ridiculously callous regarding carry-on; i.e., allowing only one personal item versus two at the gate and/or being painfully strict on weight. Asiana and Lufthansa brought me to tears on several trips, and KLM/Calm Air can be ruthless as well.  Calm Air even weighs jackets at times. The success of photographer boarding tactics gets worse each year, so it's best to streamline to the max - ounce by ounce.  June 2016 weigh-in alert: KLM at SFO weighed all of my carry-on and that was my ultra-pared down photo kit; i.e., a small TravelPro Lite roller and Bagallini tote.   
  • Boarding Area/Carry-on Tactics Rule #1: Look compact, nibble, lightweight and groomed.  This is easier said than done if you're height challenged like me as pro camera gear/bags look smaller proportionally on a tall person.  As a result, when selecting backpacks which count as my briefcase/ handbag, I look for bags that are narrower than my body so that when I sit in the boarding area, agents don't notice the bag on my back (i.e., when flying KLM in 2015, I switched from my fav 2 lb. Thule Crossover 25L backpack to a 1.5 lb. Arc'teryx Sebring 18L).  My camera bag (GuraGear Bataflae 26L) is always on a luggage cart which allows me to walk tall and light on my feet, the profile is kept slim (aka outer pockets are empty and I plan to cut off the straps); and, I dress so that my outerwear blends in with my bags aka monochromatic.  It goes without saying that I never wear a loaded vest which is guaranteed to make me stand out from the rest of the crowd (and not wise given airport security concerns).  Also, looking overloaded or wearing light colored clothing will make you stand out when standing at the front of boarding areas (aka more risk for a gate security check).  Lastly, I avoid standing next to folks with oversized bags or tons of stuff - what are they thinking? - because that tends to put gate agents and/or flight attendants on alert, often resulting in foul moods and boarding problems.   All of my bags are listed in the section below "Putting Travel Bags on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce."
  • Lightweight, see-through mesh pouches - are great for keeping things organized and reducing weight.  Plus, they make it easier for TSA inspectors to see what you're carrying without messing up your packing system.  I use color coded meshes - i.e., red, teal and lime green sets from Barnes and Noble - and several favorites from Walker Bags My favorite mesh sizes are the 4 x 9" and 3.5 x 7" which maximizes utilization of space inside backpacks when stood on their ends; and, because the flat profile keeps cords and personal items condensed.  They also make perfect passport, travel docs, receipts and travel cards organizers.  Other favorites include the 2 x 7" for thumb drives and small batteries, etc. and, the 3 x 4" for business cards and cash, etc.  And my new partial see-through find is a slim credit card wallet w/vinyl windows which holds two Samsung SSD drives (kept inside the cords/cable mesh).
  • When reducing travel weight is essential, I double up eyeglasses (i.e., in the Sun Cloud Trekker using cloth sleeves as protectors), swap to plastic see-through cases and/or check my spare. 
  • Lighter packing cubes: most seasoned travelers use packing cubes to keep things organized; i.e., the original Eagle Creek cube and knockoffs.  When weight is an issue, I switch to Eagle Creek's 1 oz. Ultra-Light Specter cubes plus a few 1 oz. REI Expandable Mesh Packing Cubes.   
    • Boarding: If you have a Star Alliance Gold/Platinum card, keep it handy to get into the better airport lounges and/or to board with the first group.  The Delta SkyMiles Gold AMEX card gives you early boarding as well (but not necessary lounge access).
    • Connecting Flights (Especially When Small Planes are Involved - Int'l or domestic): always plan extra travel days in case of bad weather flight cancellations or for luggage delays.  That's because Alaskan/African/Indian commuter flights and tundra trains aren't always scheduled on a daily basis.  And when it rains, it pours.
    • Protect your overhead space/gear: early boarding is great for getting overhead space by your seat.  But, beware of rude folks who try to jam heavy items on top of your camera bag and/or try to move things around if you're not paying attention.
    • Germany: Allow for extra time getting through the large airport terminal and multiple security screenings; i.e., upon arrival and departure even if connecting.  In Frankfurt, it takes about 45 minutes to get from Gate B airport lounges to Gates A/Z check-in lines and vice versa.  If you arrive in the Gate A area from the US, you don't have to go through security upon arrival when connecting.  If you depart in the Gate Z area (same pier, different levels), I recommend staying in that pier even though restaurant options are slim.  If you want to go to the main restaurant/shopping arcade in the center of the terminal, you need to allow time to go through two securities; i.e., to enter the Gate B/arcade area and again when re-entering the Gates A/Z area. If you arrive in Gates A/Z from South Africa, you go through security upon arrival no matter what.  The worse is, if you arrive in an A gate and depart in a Z gate, they route you through this bizarre bogus detour which takes you to the very end of the security line (thereby giving priority to those going to B/C gates).  Net:net: if you're first off of the plane, you just wasted 40 minutes.  My last arrival in a C gate also required going through security right off the plane; and, then again to enter the B gates.  And if you are flying SAA, passengers line up at the gate 30 minutes or more before boarding time.  In the Frankfurt Lufthansa Senator lounge, many of the floor plugs by the comfy leather chairs are broken, so carry an extender in case you need to share with other passengers.  Also, if you're flying coach and thinking about boarding from a 2nd level Senator lounge, don't do it as you'll be entering from the back of the aircraft aka against the flow of traffic. 
    • South Africa: Arriving in Johannesburg: Airport/hotel porters and van drivers are happy with dollar bills; and many bush camps accept U.S dollars/credit cards.  So, check before leaving home.  If you only need a small amount of rand (i.e., 60 rand per checked bag for shrink wrapping when you leave the country, refreshments and server tips), the ATM's are located in the Domestic terminal on the left hand side (on the opposite side of the main lobby).  If you need more rand, the currency exchange kiosks are located in the baggage area and to the left before you enter the main lobby.  The minimum exchange fee was $25 the last I checked which is why I use the Bank of Barclay ATM.  Note: I've always tipped game drive rangers in U.S. dollars using a mix of $50/20/10/5 new'ish bills.  Avoid carrying $100 bills to 3rd world countries because they're more concerned with counterfeit issues; especially at hotels.  If you need sundry items/adapters, the stores are located in the Domestic terminal (a short walking distance).  nice and reasonably priced hotel near the airport is the Protea Hotel.  The Sun Inter-Continental is excellent and right across the street; but, the rates are now 3x more.  Catch the Protea shuttle across the street from Terminal A which is where International flights arrive.  Walk down the pathway between the the parking garage and the Sun Inter-Continental Hotel and head towards the back.  Shuttles leave every half hour.  Vat refunds leaving Johannesburg on international flights: You can only get a VAT refund if you show an official your purchases on the first level of the airport.  This means that you need to get a form stamped before you get your luggage shrink-wrapped and before you check-in your luggage with your airlines.  After going through security on the 2nd level, you then have to process the refund voucher.  Next, you go to a nearby bank kiosk to get your cash.  Note that refunds are in rand.  Flying on South African Airlines: check in for flights is in Terminal B.  Then, take the elevator one level up to get through security (laptops out, not liquids).  At the gates, there are no orderly coach/business class lines or any orderly process at the boarding gate.  Once it's time to board, it's a no holds bar stampede.  So, be ready.  Pay attention to flight announcements so that you hear them, especially the one that says to cover your face/nose before flight attendants walk down the isle and spray the cabin with bug spray.   Flying on smaller bush planes (i.e., Federal Air)  means dealing with extremely strict weight limits of 44 lbs. for total bag weight. So, bite the bullet and purchase a 2nd seat to avoid travel grief.  The price/per seat each way is approx. $300  which you can mitigate if traveling with a buddy or two.  Note: With the extra seat, you still need to get permission in advance to carry your gear into the cabin.  The Federal Air kiosk is located between the parking garage structure and the Sun Intercontinental Hotel, in the back (across from Terminal A).   Arrive an hour before departure as flight times change on a dime's notice.  If you are departing on Lufthansa or United, the check-in counter is #101 and all the way to the left side of the cavernous multi-airlines check in counters.  Of course, they always drop you off at counter #1.  Once through security, Lufthansa/United co-share lounges with South African Airlines and the Senator lounge is very nice. Note for the ladies: there are only 3 stalls for the entire large Senator lounge which means that the queue can get long right before boarding times.  So if you need more timing for changing clothes, etc., don't wait to the last minute.  In addition, Lufthansa lets you check-in several hours before departure (i.e., 5 hours plus) as opposed to South African Airlines.  If you need more than a bowl of soup/light sandwich in the SAA lounge, have lunch at the fairly new Italian restaurant across from the check-in counters in Terminal A before checking in (handy when you're still lugging around checked baggage).  Otherwise, there's a couple of small eateries on the other side of security for both Terminal A/B.  
    • Reduce lost luggage risks by allowing at least 3 hours or more for connections.   If your luggage isn't with you at the start of a safari, it might not show up for days, if at all.
    • Botswana:  I've learned (the hard way) to check-in early when leaving Johannesburg for Maun on Air Botswana.  That's because luggage doesn't always get on board.  And, because camp:camp bush planes aren't daily, you may have to charter a plane to deliver your bags before you leave for another camp aka expensive.  If not, there's a real risk that your luggage won't catch up with you until the end of a safari.   Also, pay attention to the muffled flight announcements and cover your face/nose before the flight attendants walk down the aisles spraying nasty pesticides!
    • African bush planes: some planes are only 4 seaters, which means that the cargo hold is proportionately small.  If you don't heed by the rules of using soft duffels, your luggage or long lens case may not fit in the cargo bay.  Since weight limits are very lean/strict at 20kg or 44 lbs. - and everything is weighed for safety purposes -  now is the time to radically pare down; i.e., see my Putting Gear on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce below.  Don't make the assumption that because you're petite that you can get away with more luggage. That's because weight is averaged out (and the "planning average" is less than the "actual average" of most Americans).  Plus, planes are typically loaded with bush supplies and/or luggage catching up from earlier flights.  Don't take the risk of missed luggage because it's a headache.  As mentioned, I always buy an extra seat, use my lightest weight duffel - Kinesis @ 2.2 lbs. or Eagle Creek No Matter What rolling duffel @ 3.4 lbs. (not stuffed so that it crushes down), a pared down photo backpack @ 3.7 lbs, and a no frills tote/brief/backpack to and from the int'l airport and in between camps.  
    • Canada:  Flying from Winnipeg to Churchill on Calm Air is always a risk for checked bag #2, unless you're willing to pay an excessive fee for "guaranteed freight".  At minimum, fly in at least 1 to 2 flights earlier than needed so that missing bags can catch up with you.  And, if you want to reduce the major stress of having to check or valet check your gear, read the carry on rules and luggage weight limits carefully.  Some of the agents follow these rules to a tee albeit they seem to be more lenient with Canadians.  Wear a jacket with large pockets to hide some of the weight; but, don't look overstuffed or else agents will ask to weigh your jacket.  Personally, I only put small, dense items in my jacket, like batteries, portable drives and camcorders, etc. along with eyeglasses and other flat items.  On this flight leg, I pare down to the absolute minimum as described in more details under Small Plane Tactics  under the Putting Photo Gear on a Diet section below.  Depending on your total weight (carry-on plus checked luggage), overweight fees can range from $25 - $300, and hundreds more if checked as guaranteed freight.  
    • Adapters: Use seatguru to see if your airplane has A/C (if so, carry the appropriate cord/plug).  Also, carry euro airplane jacks for your earbuds along with the correct layover or destination country adapters.  Since earbud cords are fragile around the jack plug, also carry a spare. 
    • Airport lounges: check online airport maps before departing to identify the most convenient lounges as airport personnel don't always give you the right advice.  And since floor outlets near comfy lounge chairs don't always work or are occupied, carry a plug extender in case you need to share with other passengers.

    Be Ready for the Next, Next Leg and 3rd World Tactics
    • Going on international photo trips means lots of adjustments and tweaking; i.e., for airlines with different carry-on rules, planes with different storage space, airports with different security measures, lodges/camps with different amenities; and vehicles (bush planes, buses, trains and jeeps) with different configurations.  The goal is to be as efficient as possible without gotchas along the way.
    • It's takes an effort to pack organizers/bags in a manner that's easy to shift gears - in route and between hotels/camps - so that things are in the right place at the right time without have to rummage around.  My tactic is to work with a Packing and Workflow list that's tailored by trip.  I mentally walk through how I'm going to carry things on the next travel leg, identify where things need to go, and make reminders for important action items (i.e., getting local cash, checking luggage status, and swapping out adapters, etc.).  That's because sleeping aids, lack of rest and jet lag can easily fog the brain.  Important sundry items/adapters are redundant so that there's no need to move items between bags (carry on, day bags and toileties) I also pre-pack items in separate mesh pouches so that I can utilize a pick & pack approach; i.e., the travel home outfit, rain kit and game drive kit, etc.  And, all important travel docs/references are stored in my laptop and iphone - plus, a notebook.  
    • Since travel connections can be tight if flights are delayed, it's important to be organized and ready for the next, next leg; especially, when switching from an international to domestic flight or to a small airplane.
    • When traveling to 3rd world countries, there's a much higher risk of travel interruptions and it's easier to address problems if you're prepared; i.e., having all local telephone #'s handy (airlines, hotels, credit cards/banks and embassies) for each country that you're visiting.  Since cell service may not be available and/or wireless is often slow, have important travel resources bookmarked and copied into an Emergency Contacts file (i.e., how to get a hold of AMEX Global Assist).  You'd be surprised as to how hard it is to hunt for customer service numbers when you need it.  When important telephone/policy numbers are written down, you're more efficient when using public computers or asking for assistance.  And since companies are always enhancing security measures, know your answers to security questions.  Researching hotel options and airline lounge hours in case of emergencies before departure is also valuable.  Lastly, I always pack a few tees/undies, a shower kit and a mini sundry/cosmetic/first aid kit in carry on in case of major luggage delays or longer than expected airport layovers. 

    Tips for First Timers to India: 
    • If you're traveling out of the Delhi International Airport or flying domestically within India, radically prune your carry-on bags down to the bare minimum before entering the security line.  If not, security will examine every inch of the bag with a fine tooth comb and it could take 30 minutes or more for every pocket and pouch to be opened and/or emptied out.  Make certain that every tool, including simple L wrenches, and non critical items are banned to checked luggage.  Even though I follow my mantra, I've still had to remove camera and lenses and put them in a flimsy plastic bin for re-X-raying.  Good grief!  And, make sure that everyone in the group is on the same page because one delay is a delay for all. 
    • Re-think what you pack. At domestic airports, they also do a pre-screening X-rays scan on checked luggage, like Hawaii, except you have to take everything out if they have concerns.   On my last visit, my Gitzo monopod was scrutinized because of the rubber grip and my dust air blower really gave them grief.  So, only pack your must-haves.
    • Re-think how you pack.  Unfortunately, the dust blower was packed inside a day bag buried at the bottom of my duffel (a pain to remove with foot traffic all around).  So now, I always put the blower inside a baggie at the top of my duffel with a friendly note/photo explaining it's purpose.  
    • Don't use rolling camera bags for carry-on unless you're willing to risk your bag getting snatched away as checked luggage.  Also, be careful when selecting airlines if your carry-on is overweight as foreign airlines can be very rigid.  On my last visit, I used a small ThinkTank Acceleration backpack with a removable Samsonite luggage cart (same carry on as the previous year, same airline, same route).  I never had trouble with Asiana before.  But on this trip, I got serious grief departing and returning - in Biz Class!  A supervisor physically yanked the camera bag out of my hands and placed it onto the conveyor belt as I gasped in disbelief.  The fact that my gear was fragile and cost a small fortune did not faze him.  I managed to keep my bag by a quarter of a thread; but, my travel buddies did not fare as well.  So, be warned.
    • Make a pack with buddies to watch over each other's gear before/ after the security X-ray machine.  With everyone having their own security hurtles and hassles, it's easy for things to fall between the cracks.  Unlike the U.S./Canada, you are not allowed to hang back and watch your valuables disappear into the X-ray machine.  To add insult to injury, females are segregated and moved to another line - up to 3 lanes away - in order to get patted down in a closed curtain booth.  In the meantime, more folks are cutting into the X-ray line.  So by the time you get back to your belongings, items are separated and/or buried under a pile of other travelers' stuff.  So, plan accordingly and be on top of your mental game.  
    • Remove all tools and extra stuff including lipsticks: A friend who just returned from another wildlife trip inadvertently left a small pair of personal scissors in a pouch.  Even though they were readily found, every other pouch had to be opened up and examined as well.  Ditto for a guy friend with a small L wrench and searches can take up to 30 minutes per person!  
    • Think twice before checking lenses in baggage:  If you're a risk taker and check your lenses internationally, be warned that you might not be able to get your long telephoto lenses into the country.  A buddy had his 400/2.8 lens detained by Indian customs.  His only saving grace was that the lens was registered with the U.S. Customs Dept. and he had his original U.S. Customs stamped paperwork on his possession (plus some cash).  But, it still took over 4 hours of multiple meetings and tons of paperwork to get it released.  
    • When traveling to India, you are not allowed to take rupees in or out of the country. And because the use of credit cards can be an ID theft gold mine and finding a working/secure ATM machine can be your worst nightmare - not to mentioned hotels being lean on rupees for exchanging dollars - it's advisable to exchange your currency at the airport upon arrival for all service/game drive tips, laundry, drinks/water, luggage fees, spending moneyand emergency cash.  Be prepared to lose around 8% of your U.S. dollar - the exchange cost in both directions.  Shop around for the best rate and then negotiate a matching rate at Thomas Cook.  Remember to save your USD to rupees receipt that you will need for changing currency back when leaving the country.  
    • Ask for smaller bills from the get-go:  It's difficult to find and change larger 1,000 rupees for smaller 100 and 50 rupees which you will need for tips and miscellaneous purchases.   Thomas Cook typically pays out in 1,000 denominations and doesn't stock 50s.  Hotels don't keep a small bill inventory either, especially during the weekend.  So, your best bet is buy $100 packs of 100 and/or 500 rupees when exchanging your money upon arrival at the airport.
    • Best way to carry a wad:  $20 U.S. dollars equals 1,000 rupees.  So, a wad of 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 rupees for a 3 week visit will be heavy and several inches thick.  It's not easy to be discreet or comfortable carrying this much cash.  I found that the most comfortable way of carrying a wad of rupees is to use 1 - 2 lightweight nylon ankle/calf wallets which eliminates chest lumps and/or a bulging tummy.  My favorite REI calf wallet has been discontinued but there are similar options on amazon.
    • Traveling to India isn't for everyone.  You have to like the culture, people, food (yum), noise, aromas and challenges.  For me, India is mesmerizing with so much history and emotion.  And, endangered Bengal tigers are magical to see in the wild.