The Most Important Secret to a Great Safari - Part 2
The feedback we receive the most and enjoy the most from guests after their safari, usually relates to the quality of their safari guide. In the Kruger National Park, we are fortunate to have our own top quality safari guides, and they are among the most experienced in the business.
It's easy to underestimate what a difference a good guide makes if you have never been on safari before. The Kruger National Park can easily be visited on a self-drive basis for example, and many people do this to keep costs down. You would book your own accommodation, rent a car, buy a map at the entrance, and off you go. Nothing wrong with winging it on your own, but having a knowledgeable guide with you who understands the bush, knows the wildlife and can interpret (and often predict) their behaviour, and is an expert at spotting things you might never have seen, makes a huge difference. It's not a mere coincidence that some self-drive guests complain that they hardly saw anything, while guests on a guided open vehicle safari with an expert guide hardly ever have that complaint.
A story of two safari guides
In part 1 we began our story with the guide from hell. As I explained before, these stories are made up, but not entirely fictional. They are based on actual incidents I have witnessed or heard about, and part 2 is no different. What you will read here is entirely plausible because I have seen how top guides operate.
"Best guide we've ever had"
I'll title my story with these words that we have so often heard from people who have been on multiple safaris and seen many different guides in action. So how is a "best guide" different from an average guide? It starts when you are collected at the airport. You've been a touch nervous about this moment of arrival. What if nobody is there to meet us? What if we can't find our guide? Or what if we can't understand him or can't get along with him? All that disappears when you find that he is there waiting for you, smiling, well-dressed, well-spoken, and armed with a witty and friendly personality that you instantly take a liking to. The guide immediately takes charge and helps you with your luggage trolley, leading the way toward the vehicle.
"No thanks, they're with me," the guide says as a stranger comes up to offer you a taxi ride. Outside the exit, you see several more touts and taxi operators offering people taxi rides and unwanted assistance with their bags, and you are thankful to have a guide with you who can keep them at bay.
You get into the vehicle, a comfortable, air-conditioned minivan, and before driving off the guide spends a few minutes talking about the plan for the next few hours, where we are going and what you can expect. He seems to have anticipated many of your questions. He puts your mind at ease about safety, and as you begin the drive toward the game reserve, it becomes clear that he is a very safe, courteous and professional driver.
Thankfully, the guide also understands that you are tired from the flight and he is not one of those motor-mouths who talks your ears off your head. His people skills and easy conversational style make him easy to listen to, and he also seems genuinely interested in getting to know you. He asks about your flight, your home country, your interests and expectations for this trip, and your interactions so far with the booking office.
One profession, many skills
By the time you reach the game reserve, you've learned a lot about the country and had some wide-ranging and interesting discussions about many different topics. You find it refreshing to be able to engage with someone who is mature, well-read, diplomatic and wickedly funny at times! He knows how to listen and seems more interested in hearing your opinions and views on a subject than promoting his own, although he is not reluctant to answer all your questions and shares his own opinions and experiences with humble confidence that reflects his positive outlook on life. He obviously loves his country and his job, and this becomes more evident as you enter the game reserve and find that your guide is as enthusiastic as you are about the wildlife you spot!
Your guide knows that the first game drive is a special experience and he has planned for this. He does not rush you to your camp to unpack and settle in but takes his time to stop for every new animal, and the most interesting stories begin to come out! You spot a giraffe, and at first, you sit in silence and awe as you watch this beautiful animal browse from a nearby tree. Your camera shutter clicks non-stop and the guide notices this quietly, gives you the time to take photos and just enjoy the sighting in silence, with the engine switched off. You can even hear the leaves crunching as the giraffe chews. This guide understands the power of silence and the importance of listening as well as watching.
Only after a few minutes does he begin to explain about the giraffe, how its long tongue is able to twist around a thorny branch and strip off the leaves without injury, and many other interesting facts. He explains that the tree it is browsing from eventually begins to taste bitter, as the tree produces tannin as a defence mechanism, which not only convinces the giraffe to move on to another tree, but can even spread to nearby trees as a kind of alarm signal, triggering increased tannin production in nearby trees as well, so that the giraffe may not move on to the very next tree, but skips a few and continues browsing some distance away.
As if on cue, the giraffe stops browsing, gives the tree an ugly look and moves on, skipping the next few nearby trees and walking gracefully to a different tree, a bit further away, to continue eating. You realise immediately that understanding what is going on, and why, makes the sighting that much more special, as you would never have realised this had you been on your own, or with a less knowledgeable guide.
Can dead bones be an interesting sighting?
As the safari progresses, you find it amazing that the guide finds something new and interesting to explain each time you see the same animal. He does not overload you with a book full of giraffe facts at the very first sighting. Over four days and many different giraffe sightings, the guide has something new and unique to share about the giraffe each time you see one. Just before sunset, the guide stops alongside an old skeleton of a big animal and asks if you can identify what animal it was.
It turns out to be an elephant carcass and he explains the different threats to an elephant's life. Fortunately, this one died of natural causes. As you drive on, the discussion turns to elephant and rhino conservation and what can be done to combat poaching.
By the time you finally reach your camp, you've seen so much it feels like you have been on safari for days already. Each time you stop somewhere, the guide takes time to explain where we are, where the restrooms are, how long we plan to stop for and what is going to happen next. You're never left wondering about what, why or when something is happening. This may not seem like a big deal, until you've had a guide who does the opposite, and walks away without a word about why or how long we're stopping here, where the bathrooms are or when you need to be back at the vehicle.
You check into your room but find that there is a problem with the bathroom. There seems to be a water leak behind the toilet and the bathroom floor is wet. You think about just ignoring it and living with it but your guide has made you feel so comfortable about asking questions and letting him know if there is anything you need, that you decide to mention the leak to him. "No problem," he says, "let's see if we can get someone out to fix it right away, or move you to another unit before you even spend time unpacking your bags." In a few minutes, he is back from reception with a different set of keys and shows you to another room, which turns out to be perfect. You're so happy that you bothered to ask and equally happy that you have a guide who is willing and able to sort out any problems on your behalf, with no complaints or excuses.
In the evening, a new surprise awaits, as you discover your guide is not just a good mediator, brilliant and considerate driver, knowledgeable wildlife expert, funny comedian and all-around great company, but he is also a master chef! It turns out he has opted not to use the camp restaurant for dinner, but to prepare a traditional South African "braai" or barbecue over an open fire under the stars. The atmosphere is magic, and the quality of the food and its preparation is top class!
The next morning there is a gentle knock on the door by your guide at the exact time he said he would wake you up for the early morning game drive. As you stumble to the vehicle with sleepy eyes, you find that coffee has already been prepared, along with traditional South African rusks (biscuits). Breakfast has been packed and your guide explains that we will enjoy breakfast a bit later during the game drive, around midmorning, at a nice picnic site somewhere in the bush.
He explains the plan for the day and makes it clear that our priority is game viewing, and the schedule will be determined by what we see and by what you as guests want to do. You can choose when you'd like to head back to camp, or whether to continue a bit longer or even whether to stay out all day game driving if you have the energy and would like to see more of the game reserve!
On the vehicle, you find that the guide has already put out blankets and water bottles for you, and there is a courtesy pair of binoculars for you to use, in case you forgot to bring binoculars. During the morning drive, it becomes clear that your guide has a fascinating interest in and knowledge of almost every aspect of the bush. He does not chase only the "Big Five" sightings but makes every sighting special and interesting, stopping to watch the funny antics of a troop of baboons, watching some warthogs feed on their knees, even taking the time to observe two impalas (a very common antelope) groom each other.
Each time, he kills the engine so you can observe the animals in peace and enjoy the sounds of the bush. The guide welcomes your questions and once or twice he actually stops the vehicle to answer your question properly, then relates it to something that happens to be visible right there where you stopped! There are times when you drive for a while without seeing any animals, but even these stretches are made interesting by the occasional stories (and some entertaining jokes) from your guide.
Little things can make a big difference
Sometimes, he stops for something and asks what you see. Usually, it's a well-camouflaged animal or bird, but occasionally he points out something totally different, like a tortoiseshell, an animal track or dropping, or a tree growing out of a termite mound. Another interesting story follows.
Once he manages to spot a chameleon while driving, which he brings close for you to have a look at, before putting it back on the branch where he found it. How did he even spot this tiny green chameleon among green leaves, while driving?
Another time, he stops for a snakeskin hanging in a tree. From a distance, it just looks like a dry branch but up close it is fascinating to see the individual scales and learn about how snakes shed their skin like a whole garment. Once again you realise you would've totally missed this had you been on your own or with a "jeep jockey" guide who only chases after the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo).
Not that the Big Five are neglected, of course. In many game reserves, leopards are notoriously hard to find. They are well-camouflaged and elusive, and apart from luck, it takes some skill and bush knowledge to spot them. At one point, your guide stops and looks down at the soft ground along the edge of the road. Although there appear to be hundreds of different animal tracks everywhere, he noticed the distinctive shape of a big cat's paw prints while driving. He identifies them as fresh leopard tracks. Very fresh. The guide thinks out loud for your benefit. The leopard might still be in the area, but if it was 20 minutes ago, the leopard could also be long gone.
The question is, where would the leopard go? Up ahead is a road that turns off and follows a dry riverbed. Leopards love riverbeds with big trees, so let's take the turnoff. Only a short distance down that road, the guide stops again and listens. Monkeys in the trees, chattering away. You would've thought nothing of it, but your guide explains that they are not simply having a chit chat over early morning coffee - they are making a racket and warning each other. That sharp chirpy bark is an alarm call. He drives on and spots some of the monkeys, high up in the trees. Watching them through binoculars, it is clear they are looking at something down in the riverbed, excitedly jumping from one branch to another.
"It's that leopard," your guide says confidently. By following the looks of the monkeys, he can see exactly where the leopard is walking along in the riverbed, although you are just too far to be able to see down into the riverbed. But the guide knows this road and knows that up ahead, around the next corner, the road turns and crosses the riverbed. "Get your cameras ready, we're going to try and intercept that leopard just as he crosses the road."
Sure enough, the road turns and goes down to the riverbed. He stops the vehicle right in the middle of the crossing and switches off the engine. He tells you to be absolutely quiet. You wait but see nothing. Maybe it was a clever trick by the guide, getting the guests all excited about something without actually seeing anything. You're just about ready to give up in disappointment when the guide excitedly whispers, "There he is!" And sure enough, a beautiful, fully grown leopard comes walking down the dry riverbed, right toward the vehicle! He crosses the road right in front of the vehicle and even stops to pose for a photo.
As the safari carries on, the same thought comes back to you time and again - what an amazing difference it makes to have an excellent guide! How many times has he managed to spot something that you would surely have missed, or been able to accurately predict an animal's behaviour or movement to ensure you get an amazing sighting or photograph? You ended up seeing all of the Big Five, and so much more!
Animals great and small, plants, birds, reptiles, insects, tracks, bones, you name it. Even the time you spent watching an eagle eating flying termites as they emerged just after the rains - it seemed so ordinary at first until you realised that this only happens once a year, after the first rains. Taking the time to watch a herd of zebra in silence, for a long time, watching them play and pull funny faces. The sudden and unexpected charge by a lioness surprised and frightened you as much as it did the zebras, but you would never have seen it had your guide not been willing to sit and watch this little herd of zebras for fifteen minutes, instead of driving off after a quick picture.
The most important secret
As the sun rises on the last morning of your safari, you realise that you have discovered the most important ingredient to a great African safari experience - the quality of the safari guide. You experienced first-hand the value of having a guide who is not only very knowledgeable about nature and experienced at what he does, but someone who has mastered the diverse skillset required of a professional safari guide. Someone who drives well, cooks well, communicates well, plans well, and deals well with unexpected problems or delicate situations. Someone who is safety conscious and guest conscious, enthusiastic, respectful toward wildlife and people, well-spoken and easy to understand, courteous and witty and easy to get along with, good with children and with people of many different cultures and languages, diplomatic, confident yet humble.
I end my story here. There is no such thing as a perfect guide, but having had the privilege to work with a number of truly excellent safari guides over the years, I'm always amazed at their many skills and I salute them! They know who they are.
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About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.