What is the one magic ingredient, the most important secret, that will make the difference between an average or disappointing African safari experience and a truly amazing safari trip? It does not matter whether you join a guided small group open vehicle safari, stay at an affordable, rustic bush camp, or pay top dollar for a top-end luxury safari lodge. The quality of your safari guide is the most important factor that will influence the overall quality and enjoyment of your safari.
Safari guides come in many different moulds, shapes and sizes. As with any profession, you have a number of true experts - world-class professionals who know their trade, understand the bush, work well with people and are just absolutely amazing at every aspect of their job. On the other extreme, there are also some guides who are woefully below par, uninterested, abrasive or unprofessional, incompetent or just plain lazy. Some are enthusiastic and try hard, but they are just young and inexperienced. Perhaps they have the minimum guiding qualification, get minimum wage and speak minimal English. Some are just lacking in the basic skills that are required such as a deep understanding of the bush and wildlife, and more importantly, good people skills and communication skills. Fortunately, really poor guides are rare, because of the quality of guide training in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe. But average guides are actually quite common in Africa's safari industry, and any veteran safari tourist will tell you that truly excellent guides are few and far between.
A story of two safari guides
To illustrate the difference a guide makes, I will tell you two stories. The stories are made up, but it's not total fiction. Most of the incidents or experiences in these stories are things I have personally experienced, at some time or another, at one lodge or another, with one guide or another. Maybe not all at once like in my stories, but these things can all happen on your safari. In part one of this two-part blog, I will first introduce you to the safari guide from hell...
The guide from hell
Getting stuck with a poor guide can really ruin your expensive, once-in-a-lifetime safari trip to Africa. You've saved up and finally booked your safari trip. Perhaps you chose your operator or safari lodge based on price or a special offer, or because they came up first in a search engine, or based on online reviews, or based on what your travel agent recommended. You have high expectations. And then you arrive at your lodge and you meet your guide. At first, things are ok, he seems friendly enough. You struggle to understand him a bit with his limited command of English but you tell yourself you will probably get used to the accent. You can't wait for the first game drive.
You get to the Land Rover at the time you were given, to find that the guide is not there yet, but the other guests (a group of 4 who've been on safari for three days already) were there early and took up the front rows, leaving you to jump in the back row of the vehicle (appropriately called the jump seat). It's okay, you're a humble person and you don't mind sitting in the back. You start chatting with the other guests and find that they are not very enthusiastic about the guide. He's running late, again. He doesn't say much, and when he speaks it is hard to understand him, this is why they come early so they can sit in front, to try and hear what the guide says.
Twenty minutes later the guide finally arrives (having finished his phone call to his girlfriend), mumbles an apology about not being able to find his cooler box with the drinks, and now that he's late he doesn't bother with his usual pre-drive safety briefing and little talk about what to expect during the next 3 hours. Without a word, he races off to try and catch up with the action, forgetting to warn you about that overhanging branch around that first corner, which duly almost decapitates you. You want to ask something, but the guide is on the radio to find out what other guides have already spotted. He hears something you could not make out and immediately speeds up. You fly over a bump without warning and almost get launched right off the vehicle. You look across at your partner and you know both of you are thinking the same thing - a shaky start! Nevertheless, your spirits are high because you are finally here, you are on safari and about to see Africa's wildlife up close, from front row seats! Okay, well, from back row seats, but still.
Suddenly you spot an animal, some kind of buck! Your first wild animal in Africa! The guide obviously must have missed it, so you shout for him to stop while you fumble to get out your camera. "Ah, yes, impala," he shouts back without slowing down. "Don worreee, you will see maaany of deeez ones..." You try and get a better glimpse of that beautiful animal as you race past, and even manage to get off a shot with your camera, but the picture is blurry. "Sorry, what was the name of that animal again?" you ask the guide, be he's on the radio again and does not hear you. The guest in the front row helps you out. "Impala. Lots of them around. We've seen so many of them we really don't want to stop for them again. Sounds like the guide is going after a lion sighting so we don't really want to stop for other animals now, in case we miss the lion."
But I WANT to stop for other animals too, you think to yourself, just as your partner spots some kind of wild-pig-type animal as you drive past. The poor thing gets a fright from the speeding vehicle and runs off into the bush with its tail straight up in the air before you can even ask the guide to stop. "Warthog", the safari veteran in the front row opines helpfully. Your guide has clearly not considered the fact that this is your very first safari drive. Or perhaps he is more interested in keeping his existing guests happy because they are a group of 4 staying for several nights and will probably leave a bigger tip.
A short while later your frustrations are almost forgotten as you arrive at the lion sighting. A real, wild lion! You can't wait to hear the guide explain all about lions, but he pulls up close to another vehicle that was already at the sighting, and starts chatting to the driver in a language you don't understand. They seem to be good friends, and soon they are joking and chatting while the guests snap pictures of the sleeping lion. You end up taking pictures of the lion as well, and asking the guest in front of you some questions about the lion. After all, he seems more knowledgeable than the guide. Eventually, a third vehicle from another lodge arrives, and parks behind you. The guide on this vehicle turns around to face his guests and enthusiastically starts explaining to his guests about lions, in a quiet voice. His English is excellent and his story is really interesting, and you can't help turning around to listen to this other guide.
After fifteen minutes, your guide's radio crackles and after listening for a while, he announces that we have to leave this sighting now because another vehicle is waiting to come in. This makes no sense to you because there seems to be plenty of space for another vehicle, but he doesn't explain further. He turns the ignition and drives away, saying there were some elephants nearby that we can go and look at. As you strain to hear some more of what the guide behind you was saying to his guests, you find yourself wishing you were on the other vehicle.
Soon, to your delight, you encounter a giraffe! "Here we have another giraffe," the guide says matter-of-factly, oblivious to your enthusiasm at seeing this animal for the first time. He offers no further information about the giraffe. You have lots of questions to ask, but decide that getting a good photo is a priority. "Got lots of giraffe pics already," you hear from the front row, making it clear the safari veteran sees no need for further photos and doesn't want to waste too much time here. Meanwhile, you try and get a good photo and some video, but you haven't got the best view from the back row. Unfortunately, the guide fails to notice this and doesn't ask if he should move the vehicle into a better position. Being on your first game drive, you also don't think to ask. The guide leaves the vehicle's engine running, spoiling the peace and the sound of your video, and it soon becomes clear why. Less than a minute after stopping, and without warning, he drives off again while you are still busy taking video. You're far too nice to say something, so you keep quiet and hope you will see another giraffe soon, so you can ask your questions then and get a better video. You exchange another frustrated look with your partner.
Suddenly, in a clearing, you come across the elephants the guide spoke about. A small breeding herd is slowly feeding and making their way toward the road. There is a well-used bush path that some of the elephants are walking on, and the guide stops right across the path so that the elephants are coming right towards you, with their babies! This is going to be fantastic, you think. This time, the guide does switch off the engine, and explains some things about elephants. It's difficult to understand him because apart from his broken English, he mumbles a bit and looks away from you while he talks.
The next moment you get the fright of your life as one of the elephants trumpets loudly and starts charging towards the vehicle, which is blocking its path. The guide shouts at the elephant and slaps his hand on the door of the vehicle, which seems to work because the elephant stops and rejoins the herd. Good, you think while trying to calm your nerves, now at least the guide can move the vehicle because clearly, our vehicle is in the way, the elephants want to use this path and cross the road here. "Stupid elephant," the guide mutters, but he makes no effort to start the engine or move the vehicle. He also makes no effort to calm his guests and explain what just happened and why. He seems irritated with the elephants and pulls out his mobile phone to check for a signal so he can text his girlfriend.
During your drinks stop, the guide stands off to the side to smoke a cigarette, but the smoke still blows your way and spoils the clean fragrance of the bush. He checks his phone again and makes no effort to make conversation or get to know his new guests better. You're not the complaining type but the whole experience so far has been ruined by your guide. You decide to have a word with the manager when you get back to camp.
The manager is sympathetic but unable to put you with another guide. He promises to have a word with your guide. The next day, it becomes clear that he did have a word with your guide, who clearly did not appreciate that. For the rest of the safari, he remains distinctly unfriendly, uncommunicative and cold toward you, and his behaviour hardly improves. By the end of the trip, you deeply regret that you got stuck with this guide from hell.
What to do?
In part 2 of this blog, I will tell you the other half of the story - what it's like to have a phenomenal safari guide. But to end this sad tale on a positive note, let me give you some tips about how to avoid this kind of situation, and what to do if you are not happy with your guide, or experience any of these fictional incidents in our story above.
- Firstly, do your homework! If possible, try and find some reviews about the guides. Most lodges and safari operators use a variety of guides, but those who are committed to consistently high standards tend to employ better quality guides and train them better. This is because these lodges and operators understand the difference that a good safari guide makes, and the damage a poor guide can do to their brand. So check out their online reviews and choose a safari where you have a good chance of getting an experienced guide who is highly regarded by previous guests.
- Communicate your expectations early on, even during the booking process. If you would like to request a specific guide (perhaps based on reviews from other guests), feel free to ask but understand that logistically it is not always possible to be assigned a specific guide. He or she may be on leave during the dates of your safari for example. Or already booked with other guests.
- Be friendly to your guide and work on building a good relationship early on. Let him know your interests and what you are hoping to see.
- Don't be shy to speak up. If you did not hear him clearly, ask him to repeat, please. If you cannot see from where you are sitting, ask him to move the vehicle. If you need a bathroom break, don't suffer in silence, just let the guide know. If he forgets to switch off the engine at a sighting, ask him politely to do so. If you see something interesting you would like him to stop for, you can ask him to stop! Even if it turns out to be just a rock.
- Ask lots of questions. Most guides are not like the one in the story above. Most of them love their jobs and love to share their knowledge about the bush and the animals, but they repeat the same things so often to many different guests that they don't always remember what they have shared with you and what not. So your questions will help steer their explanations. (And guest questions are always interesting! In a future blog post, I will share some of the most interesting and hilarious questions asked by guests on our safaris).
- If you do have issues with your guide, have a quiet and friendly word with your guide first, away from other guests. Let him know what is bothering you and communicate your expectations in a friendly, diplomatic way. Most people are very open to constructive feedback and prefer that you come to them first rather than run straight to the manager.
- If the situation is not solved by talking privately to your guide, don't hesitate to discuss your issues with the lodge manager. If you're on a safari with no manager present, call the head office number or emergency number and explain your situation to your consultant or to the boss.
A final word
This story is obviously an exaggerated, fictional, worst-case-scenario narrative of what could happen if you have a guide from hell (and a difficult fellow guest to boot). Rest assured that this is not common, and you are not likely to have this kind of safari experience. So don't be put off from your upcoming African safari! We'll paint the brighter side of the story in part two of this blog.
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.