If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone National Park, it’s possible you’ve experienced one of the unexpected thrills of driving along the park lanes and roads and coming upon bison, marching right alongside the cars on the road.
It’s a great moment to pull out the camera, snap a few pictures and admire the animal, down to the eyelashes, because you’re so close — as long as you don’t get too close.
Imagine having that kind of opportunity with lions, elephants and other beasts of the wild in their natural habitat of Africa.
That’s the goal of outdoors enthusiast Jeff Engel.
With his business — Jeff Engel Outdoors in Delafield — he arranges group excursions for African safaris with an emphasis on photography, as well as educational tours about the wildlife, the land, its people and their customs.
Engel used to be a TV host for a national outdoors show that ran for eight years. In that time he traveled the world with a camera crew and his interest in the exotic beauty of Africa grew with each trip.
The tours begin at an African village, usually one that Engel knows well and has worked with in the past. Through an interpreter, tourists visit with the tribal chief and learn about the black magic practiced by a witch doctor and some of the African residents.
Then it continues with a visit to a wildlife sanctuary for orphaned animals, often with lion cubs. Evenings end with a campfire and a meal prepared over its hot coals.
“The local cuisine is a large part of the trip,” said Engel.
But because each group is limited to eight people, Engel can customize the trip to appeal to individual interests — and that’s where the photography comes in.
Many people want to spend a good deal of their trip at the Kruger National Park — an 8-million-acre reserve — looking for the so-called “big five” animals: elephant, lion, rhinoceros, leopard and Cape buffalo.
Other people want to spend more time looking at waterfalls and mountain vistas. Others want to remain at a water hole, watching the variety of animals come and go around them. Others are interested in excursions — things like elephant rides.
Others want to camp at different locations every couple of nights.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter operation; it’s custom-made,” said Engel.
He’s hosted tourists with sophisticated cameras equipped with a 500-millimeter lens down to the iPhone.
Tours are headed by guide Daniel DuToit with Kolobe Safaris, a native South African who understands the terrain and animal behavior, said Engel. He’ll know — for example — what to do while approaching an elephant in the bush. The guide won’t be watching the tourists snap their prized photos; he’ll be watching the elephant.
“He can anticipate when it’s time to leave,” said Engel. “And when the elephant is getting angry. It’s very important for us not to disturb the elephant — or any animals.
“Last year we had a teenage elephant bull come towards the car with ears outstretched, flapping and dust flying. Daniel knew the exact time to leave so everyone is safe — and people got real class photographs of an elephant.”
Engel said that safety is his top concern for the tours — other than showing respect to the animals and the habitat.
“As we’re driving, we never exit the car — ever,” said Engel. “The windows are rolled down. We could be 20 yards from an elephant — close enough to see it blink and close enough to hear its stomach rumble.”
The timing of the tours is not by accident. South Africa in August and September is spring. Cool mornings and evenings and warm afternoons, typically.
“People are exposed to lions and elephants and zebras and giraffes outside of a zoo environment,” said Engel. “It’s fascinating to observe animals in their natural habitat and watch their behavior. We had a couple of participants say it will be hard to go back to a zoo.
“Most people say, after the safari, it’s one of the best trips of their entire life,” he added. “Because of the variety of animals and birds and the experience of seeing huge amounts of exotic animals.”
One note: These tours are to South Africa. That region has not been affected by the Ebola virus.
The accommodations are under thatched roof and very modern chalets or homes with modern facilities. Engel said his tourists range from empty-nesters to families with kids to senior citizens. Getting there is relatively simple. Once the tourist gets to Atlanta, it is a direct flight to Johannesburg.
Jeff Engel will give a seminar on “Planning an African Photo Safari” at 7 p.m. Wednesday.