An African safari is a spectacular experience any which way, but a good guide is the key factor that can turn your holiday from sublime to divine.
Only in a handful of other adventure holidays are you and the guide are so closely associated. Typically, he will be the warm, welcoming person who greets you when you land, and will waft you away in his jeep to the campsite.
He will stay with you throughout during game drives, walks through the bush, at sundowners and mealtimes, serving wine and talking about a variety of topics and at the end, your last glimpse of the bush as your small plane takes off, will be of him waving affectionately, both arms raised, as only someone who has become a friend can.
After spending many a fortnights in the desert, savannah, thorn veldt and delta regions of Africa over the years, I’ve come to appreciate these African stalwarts, for they are a breed apart.
Recognition and deep knowledge of the local flora and fauna, the understanding of animal behaviour and the workings of nature and familiarity with the lay of the land are not the only pre-requisites for the job.
Jack of all trades
The best safari companies put their trainees through the wringer. The ones that make it, must be able to track on foot (walk upwind into a lion pride), be adept at shooting (in case the lions get interested), have the ability to take the vehicle apart and fix it (should they back it into an aardvark hole).
They must know enough about photography (should the client want pictures other than back lit ones), be paramedics (reconnecting your hippo bitten arm during a canoeing jaunt on the Zambezi), good story tellers (conjuring up images of dramatic kills as your third hour comes to a close by a bird less water hole).
They must be energetic and enthusiastic throughout (keeping you enthralled every minute of the 18-hour day), well mannered (resist the urge to laugh out loud when asked where, in the African savannah would be a good place to find tigers), and very attentive to his guests (especially the Americans, lest they say, “You gotta be kiddin me. For this I paid hundreds of dollars a day!”).
The blueprint of intensive guide training was formed in the 1970s by Dave and John Varty of Londolozi, a well known private game reserve in South Africa, and today most reputable safari companies invest huge amounts of time and effort in training their guides.
In the bush, it is wonderful to see one’s enthusiasm outstripped by the guide’s. Ian McCall at Selinda, Botswana, would drop his knife and fork mid meal, bundle us into his jeep no matter how late it was, to investigate the sounds of the lion-hyena fracas. When asked where he’s heading on vacation, Ian’s destination would always be another game reserve.
Conservation-minded guides win your respect as they assiduously avoid creating fresh tracks on the ground, when they allow skittish animals a good flight distance, and stick to park regulations. Lloyd Camp, based in Namibia, drove us to a place where two huge elephant tusks lay on the ground. We held them in our arms. “This could be my pension,” he joked, as he lowered them back on the ground. “We remove nothing from the bush. Not antelope horns, porcupine quills, or even feathers. Those tusks will just sit there till they turn to dust.”