How to go on Safari—and how not to—according to a top wildlife photographer
A former fashion photographer in New York who worked with the likes of Annie Leibowitz and Mark Seliger, Drew Doggett ditched the studio to pursue his passion for wildlife photography six years ago. He has since traveled to almost 40 countries, often to remote, hard-to-reach locations, documenting life everywhere from the Chalbi desert in Kenya to rural Nepal. His work is held in private collections, as well as museums such as the Smithsonian African Art Museum in Washington.
Doggett’s latest project addresses a series of visits he has made to Canada’s Sable Island since 2012. An uninhabited speck off the coast of Nova Scotia, Sable is home only to a pack of about 550 wild horses. Wild: The Legendary Horses of Sable Island, his latest large format art book, documents his adventures there, complete with a forward by conservationist Jane Goodall.
In the pre-Covid era, Doggett, who now lives in Charleston, S.C., with his wife and their two small children, usually logged around 70,000 miles per year, almost all long-haul trips to Africa. He’ll opt for Delta whenever he can. “From the staff to the ease of the inevitable last-minute change-ups, they are always the best to deal with,” Doggett says.
As the pandemic has reshaped travel, he suggests visiting places that would have been overrun with visitors just two years ago but are now almost empty. “In the Maasai Mara in Kenya, for example, there’s usually up to maybe 20 cars at one lion sighting, but the last time I went—in May—I was in the only car by an entire pride, so I basically had an atypical, private viewing experience there,” he says.
“You can step back in time and have these uninterrupted experiences that allow you to connect with nature while also supporting these local communities, which often had to shut down” during the pandemic, he continues.
Here are more of his travel tips for whenever you feel ready to get back on the road.
Waterlogged phone? No problem. Bring it back to life with something you’d normally throw away.
I was shooting these horses in [Iceland], and I had fishing waders on up to my chest, and it had just started to snow. It’s this absolute magical thing of millions of gallons of water pouring over Skogafoss, and this beautiful white horse standing at the base of the falls.
So I’m in the midst of the river, up to my waist in freezing ice-cold, and I can barely feel my feet. I stumble on a rock, and I go under. My phone is accidentally plunged into the water. I had no way of getting it back in working order, but I saw these silica packets that had been packed in my gear bag from purchasing the new camera and other equipment that I bought on the trip. So I put the phone in a Ziploc bag with the packets.
Lo and behold: The next morning I woke up, and the phone turned back on. It was a miracle cure! I bring about 10 with me now if I am traveling somewhere I’ll be spending time near water. They’re just collected as I purchase things. I know myself, and I know that the inevitable happens.
How to get a lasting sense of a destination, even if you’re tired.
One of the first things that I do whenever I go to a place is: I roll down the window on the way to the hotel or wherever, from the airport, and I take a deep breath. I soak in the smells of that location, and I jot down in my journal what those are. Even when I’m sitting at home in Charleston, and walk outside in the morning to smell a neighbor burning leaves, I find myself instantly transported back to Africa, to Cape Town, where you walk off the plane and have that omnipresent burning smell. That, for me, is very warm and welcoming. It’s something I cherish.
The most thoughtful way to interact with other cultures often involves sharing your own.
It’s a very delicate balance, and I never begin taking photographs until I have had either hours or days sitting with, discussing, and learning from people—celebrating their way of life. But I also share a bit about my way of life, because the best moments are two-way exchanges. It’s about having a dialog: Here’s my culture, here’s your culture. There’s a mutual respect that you develop for each other through that exchange, shared moments of humanity, based upon each other’s curiosity.
With that in mind, Doggett urges everyone to make a pilgrimage to this spiritual heartland in Asia. (Just make sure to plan better for it than he did.)
I’ve had a deep love affair and passion for indigenous cultures from the very beginning of my photographic career. Take Humla in Nepal, which is one of the last pockets of traditional Tibetan culture that I could photograph. It is only accessible for up to six months during the year, because of the weather that essentially barricades the area in a protective cascade of snow. You fly into Simikot—it’s a market town—and basically hike from there towards the Tibet border. Stop at the Namkha Khyung Dzong monastery for butter tea with the gracious monks, or villages like Tumkot and Muchu, where the monasteries are laden with preserved artifacts and artworks that are more than 500 years old.
When I went there for the first time, I went on a solo trip, which I booked about two weeks before I left. I spent a month hiking among the most incredible scenic views of the Himalayas, along the Karnali river. The Himalayas almost broke me, though. I had taken my age and fitness for granted, and I’d advise anyone who does this hike to make sure you train properly.
These two gadgets ensure that your hotel can be a haven and not a source of stress.
The demands of my profession these days include capturing video, still photos, social media—and that requires I have a lot of items on my person that need charging. The last thing I want to do when I’m jet lagged, arriving at a new place? Stress about finding hidden outlets in my hotel room, or unplugging things.
I used to carry a small pouch full of converters, but now I just carry one of the universal ones and a 12-prong power strip that will take care of all my needs. One of the first things I do after checking in is set up my power station, probably in one location sitting on top of the desk, so I can keep track of everything there. And it becomes my go-to for the rest of the trip.
When it comes to safari, skip the national parks, and do this instead.
Many of the most sought-after game-viewing experiences happen in national parks, which means you’re competing with throngs of people for the best vantage point. Amboseli National Park in Kenya, for instance, is highly trafficked, and animal sightings often come with a caravan of Land Cruisers filled with tourists. And you have to stay on the road, so your ability to track and experience the wildlife is limited.
As a photographer, I want to be able to get up close to these animals, so I always try and stay in the conservancies surrounding those parks, which offer exclusive access to those staying at the lodges within them. That way, you’ll avoid the crowds. Tortilis Camp near Amboseli, for instance, is the only lodge that has access to one particular conservancy. Many of them are privately owned, so they have more relaxed restrictions on game viewing, which often includes off-road game drives.
On long-haul flights with connections, think of your layover city as a chance for a bonus meal.
Most of my travel in a year is international: long-haul flights to Africa. And living in Charleston, I don’t have access to the variety of food I wish I did. So I pick my itinerary solely based on the duration of travel time and also the layover airports or cities to have some time in. Paris or Amsterdam are favorites: they’re both beautiful airports and have plenty of dining options. So if I have a chance to get a French croissant on the way to Africa, it warms my heart and fills my belly.
Why you should bring two suitcases on any far-flung trip.
At the end of every trip, for about five years, I found myself spending hours trying to find a suitcase that could fit the cultural artifacts I had just purchased, often at the local market. I’ve always loved surrounding myself with items from my travels, and I love the excitement of not knowing what I might find: They range from carved stools to jewelry to textiles.
Then, two years ago, I was at the end of a safari visiting both the Rendille and the Samburu tribes—they’re semi-nomadic tribes in the Chalbi desert in the northern part of Kenya. I had bought two spears and three wooden shields and had no way of transporting them back to the States. I started bringing an empty suitcase with me so I’m not faced with that kind of debacle again. All international flights allow each passenger two bags—I bring the cheapest, largest hard-shell I can find, because you need protection for fragile things. I leave that suitcase at the hotel I’ve stayed with on the initial flight in, perhaps in Cape Town or Nairobi, and collect it when I fly back from my safaris.
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