I have been hugely fortunate over the years (not that many years, you might say, considering I’m 31) to travel extensively across Southern Africa and to spend a large amount of time in this region and its premier wildlife reserves. I first travelled out in 1989, when I was 18 months old, and I’ve headed to Africa pretty much every year since then, living there between 2005 and 2017.
Three Great Guides: Highlights of My Recent Trip to Botswana
This blog was written by James an ex-safari specialist who was an invaluable member of our team for 3 years. Here, James writes about his trip to Botswana and the three great guides he met.
I must admit that, when I was a boy, I enjoyed the rather mechanical aspects of going on safari perhaps more than the wildlife and environment. I loved the southbound long-haul flight from London, seeing how different from the English countryside the outskirts of Johannesburg appeared from the air. Changing to a smaller airliner to hop across to Zimbabwe or Botswana was more exciting still, and flying in the smallest of passenger aircraft that finally deposited us into the bush was the most thrilling experience by far! This is probably the main reason why I became a pilot, and I still enjoy all of these elements of the trip!
Once on terra firma we would be greeted by our guide, normally alongside a bashed-up-looking Land Rover, which in my mind was just the way it was supposed to be! From my time in Zimbabwe, I have very fond memories of the guides deliberately navigating bumpy and challenging parts of the road to make me a happy young boy! I also loved the boat rides and canoe trips on the Zambezi, and the mokoro excursions in the Okavango. Of course I was interested in the magnificent animals and the environment too, but somehow not quite as much as you would hope!
During my recent travels, in May this year, I found I had a new appreciation of the wildlife and environment (as seen in my ‘Trees of the Okavango’ blog - coming soon). Another aspect of being on safari that I really appreciated was the great guides that I had the pleasure of spending time with on the way. Being allocated an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide can make the difference between a good safari and a superb safari!
The fact is that wildlife, especially in the wildest areas such as you find in Botswana, comes and goes in natural cycles. There are some very busy game-viewing days when great sightings seem to happen around every corner, and some quieter days. On the quiet days, the best guides intervene and really know what to do. Some guides are so good at shaping your experience and absorbing you in the natural world that you forget you haven’t seen any of the ‘champagne’ sightings.
As far as I’m concerned, quality guiding is all about reading the crowd and engaging them with some storytelling on those slower safari days. Whilst some guides are naturals at this, for others it takes experience – that’s why, on the whole, the more experienced your guide, the better equipped they are to deliver. That said, experience counts for nothing if the enthusiasm has faded. So this is where I believe fresher guides can step in and really make up for their relative lack of experience through knowledge and enthusiasm.
The fact is that, just with everything else in life, the safari experience is what you make of it! That’s why, even if it is a quiet day for game viewing, a great guide will effortlessly fill in the gaps. Before you know it, the game drive seems to have been filled with all of the champagne sightings you were hoping for, even if the only animals you actually spotted were a hornbill and a bachelor herd of impala (both of which can be interesting in their own right).
Back in May, I had the pleasure of going out on game drives, walks, and mokoro excursions with many excellent guides. I would love to write about them all, but that would make this a very long blog indeed. I am a fan of doing things in threes, so here are three of my favourite guides from the trip:
Bee at Shinde
Bee has been guiding for Ker & Downey for 33 years. He is softly spoken and full of wisdom. I was lucky enough to be the only guest on his vehicle, so I got to know him quite well. I lived in and around the Okavango for 5 years and I’ve travelled throughout the country, so our conversation flowed. I really like the looks of surprise I receive when I explain that I know the hidden and sometimes obscure villages that are home to many of the people who work in the camps. With Bee, I found out that he has his own farm in an area I know well, just outside Maun.
We discussed local culture and then moved on to Bee’s experience. I discovered that he has personally guided no fewer than three of Botswana’s presidents, the most recent being Ian Khama. It was great to hear about those experiences, including how down to earth the rulers of the nation of Botswana appear to be. Bee showed me as much of his home (the Shinde Concession) as he could over the short time I was with him, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The beauty of this area, matched with the game viewing and water activities on offer, is superb! Shinde Camp itself is beautifully located and very well looked after, as are you.
G at &Beyond Nxabega
Whilst getting to know Bee at Shinde, I found out about some of his eight children. One of his kids wants to be a pilot when he finishes school, and another is a guide at &Beyond’s Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp. This was excellent news, as a few days later I was due to arrive at this camp and I hoped to see him. He actually greeted me as my guide! G came across as a more modern version of his father. He has the same ease of conversation, quiet but knowledgeable, and he showed me around with the same calm energy that his father possesses. It was wonderful to see how G has followed in his father’s footsteps and how he is helping to share the Okavango with guests to the area.
On a side note, at Camp Xakanaxa (‘Camp X’, if you find the full name a bit intimidating), I was very happy to be greeted by my first ever female guide in Botswana. Lexi was very enthusiastic – and from the interactions she was having with her colleagues, I think the head guide will have to work hard to keep his job! She was certainly not shy, that’s for sure! On this occasion she was only helping to link me up with another guide as she was supposed to be having some downtime, but I’d really like to go on safari with her next time I’m at Camp X.
John at Camp Okavango
When I arrived at Camp Okavango, Desert & Delta’s famous property based in the middle of the Delta, I didn’t know quite what to expect. I hadn’t managed to visit this camp during my time working as a pilot in the Okavango – however, I always wanted to land a plane there as it has one of the last remaining grass airstrips in the Delta, and I love landing on grass strips!
The beauty of Camp Okavango is that you arrive by plane, and then it’s just a short walk to the lodge. That is luxury as far as I’m concerned, and it also gives you the indication that you’re going to have a walking, boating, and mokoro-based safari.
John was my guide during my stay on the island, and I was taken aback by just how impressive he was. He lived on a neighbouring island when he was a boy, and he’s grown into a man who is supremely comfortable in this, his home environment. The main reason I was so impressed with him, though, is his excellent communication skills, despite the fact that he only knows a handful of English words!
Through facial expressions, body language, and gestures, John brings everything, great or small, to life – and he’s a fantastic storyteller. It was truly special to be able to spend time with him, someone who has been guiding for 38 years, and to share his wonderful part of the world!
Overall there is one word that pretty much sums up what I hope for in a guide – character! If your guide has character then generally you want to spend time with him or her. They light up your experience with storytelling, interesting facts, humour, enthusiasm, and their personality.
Spending time with many ‘bush personalities’ was a huge part of my safari this year. It’s great to know that my clients will be looked after by such good people, not just at their accommodation but also when out on safari activities. I always want guests to have amazing animal sightings, but if things are a bit quiet I also want them to have an all-round exceptional experience like I did. My aim is for clients to have, firstly, loads of great game viewing, and secondly, loads of character-filled guides to maximise their experience of being on safari!
If you are interested in planning a safari to Botswana, you can call us on +44 (0)20 8547 2305 or if you would prefer to talk to an expert, don't hesitate to contact us here.