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Friday, April 5, 2019

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/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 40+ 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 and comfy; especially, when traveling 40 hours door:door and when it's not possible to run to a store when something breaks, leaks, is forgotten or is taken; and,
  • I want good value from my investments; especially, since products that weigh the least (every ounce counts) usually cost a premium.  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 Mar. 10th), 2) How to Shoot from a Safari Land Rover, Safari Prep and Image Workflow (updated Apr. 1st) and 3) Avoiding International Air Travel Grief (updated Apr. 2nd).  For non-photographers, Hack the Hackers and ID Thieves and Don't Leave Money on the Table are handy tips as well. Yep, it's a ton to do and think through; but, no pain, no gain.  Fast Browsing Tip: scroll down quickly one page at a time on a Mac by pressing the fn key + the down arrow.  To scroll super-fast, press the fn key and hold the down arrow.  Page up/down keys work as well.



Chris
www.wildliferhythms.com

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Favorite Wildlife Sightings

My Feb/Mar. 2019 Tanzania trip was a blast with 8 lions cubs at 6 -7 weeks old, 5 cheetah cubs at 2.5 weeks, and this precious serval cub at 10 days old.  They were all too precious for words.  Watch for more images coming soon at www.wildliferhythms.com

Nothing is more special than 5 week old leopard twins and I lust for more photo ops like - see Leopard Cubs - Blue Eyed Babies 


A very cherished cheetah sighting includes this spunky 3 week old  cub - Cheetah Cubs - Meet Sparky 



These less than 2 months old cheetah triplets were beyond precious - Cheetah Cubs - Adorable Triplets

Finding healthy cheetah quadruplets during a very tough drought year made this sighting extra special - Cheetah Cubs - Four Furballs



It's rare to find a leopard mom with 2 week old twins and sometimes prayers get answered - see Leopard Cubs - Precious Twins.   


My other love is photographing 2 month old polar bear cubs emerging from their den which I did for 7 years in a row.  2013 was my favorite year because we watched the most animated polar bear family on the planet - see Polar Bear Cubs: Romp and Roll Twins  and stay tuned for more galleries.  


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

How to See Cute Polar Bear Cubs in the Wild


  • From the comfort of your warm, cozy chair if you're practical.  As a reality check: check out this "behind the scenes" video made by ABC Nightline News which was filmed while we were in Churchill, Manitoba in March 2011.  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 with each other and interacting with their moms; and, I posted several of my fav photo galleries on my website at www.wildliferhythms.com.
  • 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 approx. 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.  A good way to get in before your name reaches the top of the waitlist is to let Wat'chee know that you're available for last minute cancellations via their website (and then follow up frequently) and/or to sign up with a group that has reserved slots. 
  • 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, the owners do their very best to accommodate your requested number of nights, and repeat guests get bookings priority. 
  • 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 the small staff go back to their regular jobs; 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 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, the food is hearty/good, and    the lodge is kept remarkably warm with only 2 wood burning stoves for heat.  Because there is no running water and the hauled in water is in limited supply, guests should bring their own packets of no rinse bathing wipes and all toiletries for personal hygiene.  Some guests pack dry shampoo while others use a pan of water to wash their hair every 3rd day or so.
  • 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.  Even though there have been fewer families per season than a decade ago, it's still worth going to Wat'chee before it's totally too late.
  • 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 visits, and had goose eggs on the last 2.  But being able to see even one mom with a cub is still truly special and in 2019, Wat'chee Lodge guests were blessed with 3 different moms with twins.
  • 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, there are up/down bear activity seasons, you can miss planned shooting days due to snow flurries and worse case, access to/from the lodge may be delayed due to severe storms. 
  • 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 when it's working.  Bring all necessary meds, including OTC sinus/cold emergency supplies, and stay hydrated.
  • 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 to pull back.  When Mike says to pull back, you back up quickly - period!  It's for the safety of the entire group as a polar bear can cover 100 yards in 9 seconds flat.  Also, never  run toward the bears, never walk in front of other shooters in position, and/or set up your tripod too closely 'cause an elbow could knock down someone's rig in a blink of an eye. 
  •  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).  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 (or best case the day before to avoid luggage delays).  When taking the AM flight, I typically rent a day room at the Seaport Hotel to re-organize my gear and rest up. Wat'chee staff will take you to the train station* and put you on the 7P train.  After 2 hours, you'll be instructed to de-board in the middle of no where where staff will be waiting for you in modified tundra vans.  Driving on hard tundra is a slow, bumpy  process (10mph) and it takes an hour to get to the lodge.  Bad weather can delay the train schedule and assigned roommates are often asleep upon your arrival.  That is why I always re-organize my gear/clothing back in Churchill so that I'm quiet and ready to shoot the next morning.  Each morning, two experienced trackers search for bear tracks and call it in, then the vans depart 8:30A - 9:30A and return around 7P - 9P.  While waiting for the bear sighting report, photographers anxiously wait in the lobby all ready to go in anticipation of a quick departure.  * In 2018, the trains were not operating and guests were driven to the lodge mid-afternoon. 
  • 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, April 2, 2019

Avoiding International Air Travel Grief

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.

Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees
  • Remember to charge in the local currency, not USD, when using cards without foreign transaction fees.
U.S. Global Entry, TSA Preê or Mobile Passport App:
  • 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 allows you to bypass long customs lines when returning to the U.S. and the cost is $100/5 years. Note: the United Explorer Visa card will cover the cost if you use it to pay.  In Oct. 2017, the GOES log-in system was superseded by the new Trusted Traveler Programs (TTP) log-in system and you need to set-up a new password for your PASSID #.  There's also an option to bypass kiosks lines with the Mobile Passport Control app at some airports but I haven't tried it.  Note: scanners are sensitive to lotion/sunscreens and long flights dry out your skin, making it hard for scanners to read fingerprints.  Agents suggest that you rub fingertips on your forehead or neck to lubricate with natural oil instead.  
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.  Also, make sure that high end photo/computer accessories are insured. 
  • Delta Gold SkyMiles and United Platinum cards help to get you in the first boarding groups.
Smaller Aisles and Rows Mean More Liquid Hazards
  • If electronics are splashed, they can die days after the occurrence from moisture slowly seeping inside.  If this happens, turn electronics off immediately and try to draw any moisture out with desiccants/rice after landing. 
Hack Pickpockets, Purse Snatchers, Plane Pirates and Baggage Thefts
  • Traveling to Europe/3rd world countries is stressful because of notorious pickpockets.  It happens in the blink of an eye, especially when nicely dressed thieves work in teams; i.e., check out Will Smith's 2015 movie called Focus.  
  • So always look and stay alert, dress indiscreet and never fumble with wallets.  That's why I use a quick/easy decoy wallet (a Thin King RFID credit card holder with just a driver's licenses/2 cards) and keep a small amount of cash for tips/trinkets in a same size mesh.  Emergency credit/debit cards are stashed in a slim RFID Ridge wallet or plastic sleeve which are hidden in a Clever Companion 2 zippered pockets tankmy favorite cargo pants* or a slim runner's belt when wearing skinny jeans; i.e., SPI/GearProz.  The Large SPI fits a passport or iPhone; whereas, the SPI Glide fits both.  If I have a tons of small bills - i.e., for India - I use my trusty REI leg wallets which work best at hiding large bulges (discontinued but stay on the lookout).  I also add Nite Ize MicroLock carabiners  to secure purse zippers. *For secure/easy zippered pockets, I like Rab's sturdy Sawtooth pants which are lightweight @12 oz. and has 2 large side plus 2 large/flat cargo pockets. I buy BluffWorks travel pants for my husband which can double as dress pants. 
  • 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 bays on airplanes.  So, I always hide items that I can't afford to lose in opaque bags, double wrap them, and then secure them the bags with plastic ties or straps.  For expensive and critical items - i.e., monopod heads, gimbals, camera chargers and flashes - I lock them inside my daypack (ThinkTank Glass Taxi/Limo) and then cover the bag with an ultra light dry sack secured with straps with hope that lazy security agents or baggage thieves won't bother.  The Glass Taxi/Limo also protects breakables and makes it faster to pack/find things. 
Avoid Gate/Valet Checking 
  • After seeing employees drop/toss bags down chutes many times like this and hearing first hand report of bags roughly stuffed into cargo holds, I only agreed to valet check my camera bag once back in 2009 aka lesson learned. Videos like this might change your mind as well.  
Airline, Airport and Bush Plane Tidbits
  • Re-verify carry-on/baggage weight rules for every airline segment being flown before departing.  And always have a worst case back-up plan in case your airline reduces the # of allowed carry-on bags on the day of departure (had that happen with Lufthansa and KLM). 
  • If flying KLM to Amsterdam, you go through security upon arrival and departure; and, sometimes they require all cameras/lenses out.  When I fly from SFO to Arusha in TZ via AMS, I have a long layover, 20 hrs, so I stay overnight at the Sheraton Hotel (a 2 minute walk off the Arrivals lobby).  Departing is a little convoluted, so I return to the Arrival lobby 3.25 hours beforehand and go up one level to the departure check-in kiosks (escalators/elevators are to the right). That's because there's often a long line to use the self-check-in kiosks followed by another long line to self-weigh bags.  If you're instructed to see an agent after the weigh in, go directly to the service desk as opposed to waiting in line again.  Next, go to bag drop off and then to security and Customs (another level up) before going back down again to your gate (typically E/F). Starting early beats the crowd aka waiting lines and allows time for Starbucks and/or shopping.  Note: getting a Gold Delta SkyMiles/AMEX card gives you priority boarding and the Delta SkyMiles Medallion program gives you access to much quicker KLM SkyPriority lines. Note: If you buy air tickets form Delta, you can only reserve Comfort Plus seats for the legs that Delta flies in advance which is why I buy my tickets directly from KLM.  If you have a Priority Pass card, there are lounges in Terminal 1 and 3. 
  • 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.  KLM at SFO even wanted to weigh my carry-on when all I had was my ultra-pared down kit (TravelPro Maxlite3 rolling tote and Bagallini Avenue tote  aka unbelievable).   
  • 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 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 (that plus light colored clothing just makes you stand out for more security scrutiny).  Lastly, I avoid standing next to folks with oversized bags or tons of stuff because that calls attention to gate agents as well.  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 have been using Eagle Creek's packing cubes for decades.  When weight became an issue, I switched to Eagle Creek's 1 oz. Ultra-Light Specter cubes plus a few 1 oz. REI Expandable Mesh Packing Cubes .  However, my new favorite in 2018 are ebags Ultralight cubes which keep their shape better due to spring wires and nice zippers.
    • 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.  
    • 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 large airport terminals and multiple security/passport lines upon arrival and departure even when connecting In Frankfurt, it takes about 45 minutes to get from Terminal 1, pier B lounges to pier A/Z gates. If you arrive in a pier A gate and depart in a pier Z gate (same area, different levels), you still have to walk to the center  of the spoke and go through passport control before going upstairs and then walking back out to the gates (>45 min. depending on where you are in the passport line queue.  Note: to board a Z gate plane, you need to walk down a set of stairs. If you want to go to the main restaurant/shopping arcade (pier B), you need to allow time to go through two securities; i.e., to enter pier B and again when re-entering pier A/Z.  And sometimes, the airport makes you go through a bogus A to Z route so that they can hustle pier A to B/C passengers (a longer distance) through passport/security more quickly.  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.  Lastly, some of Lufthansa's gates in Frankfurt have self-scanners, so boarding has been reduced to 30 - 40 minutes prior to departure (good news if you have a short layover).  
    • 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 on Calm Air from Winnipeg to Churchill can be a risk for checked bag #2, unless you're willing to pay an extra fee for guaranteed freight, or fly in on an earlier flight.  If you want to reduce major stress, read the carry on rules and luggage weight limits carefully.  Some agents follow these rules to a tee and some are more lenient with Canadians.  Wear a jacket with large pockets to hide some of your weight; but, don't look overstuffed or else agents will weigh your jacket as well.  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, 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 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/iPhone/iPad - 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 your original 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 expensive 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 it required some ransom/bribery cash).  It took over 4 hours of multiple meetings and tons of paperwork to get the lens released.  
    • When traveling to India, you are not allowed to take rupees in or out of the country.  I try to carry cash for small items in order to avoid credit card ID theft and because finding a working/secure ATM machine can be your worst nightmare - I highly recommend that you exchange your currency at the airport upon arrival for all service/game drive tips, laundry, drinks/water, luggage fees, spending money and emergency cash, even if you arrive in the middle of the night.  That's because money exchangers in town don't stock small bills, especially if you arrive on a weekend.  Shop around for the best rate and then negotiate a matching rate at the Thomas Cook kiosk.  Also, save your money exchange receipt because you will need it for changing your rupees back to USD when leaving the country.  Be prepared to lose around 8% on the dollar - the exchange cost in both directions. 
    • 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 small bills 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.