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Westporter leads safaris where wildlife images are the 'prey'

Published 3:52 pm, Thursday, September 6, 2012

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  • A lion photographed on an African safari led by Westporter Craig Berger, owner of OasisAfrica. He leads wildlife and photographic safaris to share his knowledge of native animals and birds and of photography to enhance his clientsí experiences in the bush. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    A lion photographed on an African safari led by Westporter Craig Berger, owner of OasisAfrica. He leads wildlife and photographic safaris to share his knowledge of native animals and birds and of photography to enhance his clientsí experiences in the bush. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Craig M. Berger grew up in Westport, where the closest thing to wilderness is probably the 234-acre Sherwood Island State Park. Today, Berger prefers the wilds of Africa, roaming the 24,000-square-kilometer, unspoiled Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Berger, the 62-year-old owner of OasisAfrica, conducts wildlife and photographic safaris that share his knowledge of the native animals and birds and of photography to enhance his clients' experiences in the bush.

He brings to his clients "what I've observed, what I've learned, what I've read," as well as sharing with them "a love for animals, a love for being out in the wild."

"I've got the easiest job in the world, even though I work 16 to 18 hours a day. It's like taking people to a museum," he said. "I do the driving. I do the cooking. I do it all. I rarely have another guide with me," said Berger, who has conducted a couple hundred safaris throughout his career.

From a young age Berger was exposed to the world through the eyes of his father, Milton, and the lenses of the notable photographer's cameras.

"My father was one of the first commercial photographers in the world," Craig Berger said. Milton Berger worked for Kodak. "He would not teach me anything to do with the camera but we all inherited the gene as far as composition and the art form," he said.

He does not arrange hunting safaris. The only shooting his clients do is with a camera. "You are a hunter with your camera," Berger tells his clients in the printed material he distributes before their adventure begins. He also prepares them to be patient and he assures them they will come across a menagerie of indigenous animals.

"People want to go and see cats -- lions, leopards, cheetahs. Then they find the giraffes and the zebras and the birds; so much beauty they hadn't contemplated," Berger said. The birds become an unexpected pleasure, he said. There are 507 species of birds in the park. "I know about 187 of them," he said.

Some clients grow concerned when Berger drives passed some wildlife photographic opportunities, but he reminds them in his literature, "I have been in the African bush before and I have a good idea that you will see perhaps 10,000 impala and 500 elephants, and 2,000 zebra, 2,000 Cape Buffalo and 300 giraffe."

"The first day we saw a lot of impalas. One day we came across a leopard on a road sign, and another morning we started out and there was a male lion sleeping in the road," said Thea Finkelstein of New Haven.

Berger has captured about 100,000 photographic images of his own throughout his many travels and it is his knowledge of the animals, their habits and their habitat, that allows him to set up his clients for the best photographic opportunities. He not only knows where the animals will be and when, but he is able to share his own photographic knowledge with his clients to help them with composition and lighting.

"He's not Crocodile Dundee, but he knows animal behavior. He gets you where you need to be to see animals, but he also puts the animals in the best light," said Kevin J. Railsback of Filmmaking Naturally in Iowa. Railsback went on Berger's safari to test a new camera for Panasonic. "So it was imperative that I come back with some good (demonstration) footage. Craig made that happen," he said.

Railsback likened Berger to a hockey player who knows not to skate where the puck is but rather "to skate where the puck will be." Berger anticipates where the animals will be.

"He sets you up in advance and the animals come to you rather than chasing these animals all over the park," he said.

"I'm good at getting to the place where the opportunity is," Berger said.

His clients need not be professional photographers. Finkelstein is only a hobbyist. "I had a little Fuji point-and-shoot and I got amazing pictures. Craig helped a lot in that regard," said Finkelstein, who called her 10-day safari with Berger "the trip of a lifetime." It wasn't just the wildlife that impressed her. "The stars were like I've never seen," she said.

"Craig loves what he does so much and communicates it so well, we wound up being thoroughly enchanted with Africa. It was like going on vacation with a friend who is an expert teacher," said Roberta Knussmann, of Virginia.

Back in the 1990s, Berger said his travels were quite dangerous, not so much because of the wild animals but because of the political climate in post-apartheid South Africa. Today, it is quite safe. "I haven't felt threatened in ages," he said, not even by the big cats. He said they are curious about people but basically afraid of them. "Other times they pay you no mind at all," he said.

Berger said there are times when lions have walked so close to his vehicle that he could reach out and touch them, but he doesn't. Nor are his clients allowed to interact directly with the wildlife. His restrictions are as much about respect for the environment and the natural world as they are about safety.

He encourages people to take a safari vacation, whether through his OasisAfrica or another travel outfit. But he also encourages people to do their research first. "There are many companies providing safaris, and what is a perfect match for one is a horror for another. I encourage people to be informed," Berger said. "I've seen a 30-year-old couple on a Greyhound bus with 38 seniors doing a safari; someone didn't do their homework," he said.

He keeps his groups small, usually only four people plus himself. On the rare occasion Berger has more than that he will bring along a second guide and a second vehicle.

For more information about Craig Berger and OasisAfrica, or to book an African safari, visit www.OasisAfrica.com.