Trip report, Okovango Guiding School
Neil Aldridge learns what it takes to be safari guide with the Okavango Guiding School in Botswana
The rhino lifts her head. She is so close I can hear her munching dry leaves. The tip of her magnificent horn now seems taller than the stunted mopane trees within my reach, any protection I may have hoped they would offer clearly inadequate. I hold my breath, hoping she hasn’t heard us…
At such close quarters a frame-filling photograph would normally have been a formality. I had the chance to return home with a stunning portrait and an equally compelling story. The trouble was that my companions and I had stumbled upon Africa’s most unpredictable and grumpy heavyweight, a black rhino with a calf to defend, not the more approachable white rhino – and we were now in dangerous territory.
Even if you have a guide with a rifle as protection, such situations raise ethical questions about whether a dangerous but endangered animal should be shot to defend a photographer who chooses to make a picture instead of a safe retreat.
Though we are downwind, making it less likely that the rhinos will pick up our scent, I know that, at this close range, the click of my camera’s shutter could shift their attention from a leafy dinner to us. I shoulder my tripod and signal to the guide that it’s time to leave. We retreat silently, watching every step in the crackling-dry leaf litter.
Signs of change
This encounter in Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy is not an isolated case. All across Southern Africa, safari guides are changing the way they interact with rhinos. Johan van Jaarsveld from the Okavango Guiding School (OGS) in Botswana explains: “It used to just be that guides would not track black rhino on foot. Now, many guides won’t actively track white rhino with guests either. It’s just too risky.”
The reason for their increased caution is the current poaching epidemic, which is decimating rhino numbers. Today, every living individual is precious. A guide’s responsibility to protect his or her guests from dangerous wildlife puts rhinos at risk of being shot should they react badly to a walking safari group’s approach. It’s also argued that regularly tracking the animals on foot for tourism could habituate them to humans, making them easier targets for poachers. Today, many walking guides no longer focus exclusively on providing high-adrenaline encounters; they prioritise their responsibilities as conservationists.
Refreshingly, it isn’t just a handful of more experienced guides who put the welfare of rare species first. Johan tells me that, when his latest cosmopolitan crop of students at the OGS came across fresh white rhino tracks, belonging to animals recently reintroduced to the area, they carefully weighed up the ethics of following them. “We had a debate,” he explains. “Though it would have been a good tracking experience and amazing to see the rhinos, we concluded that it just wasn’t right to go after them in case our presence put them in danger.“ Johan’s students had clearly learned the first rule of wildlife guiding – always put the animal’s needs before your own.
Students training to be safari guides on dedicated courses, such as those offered by the OGS, inevitably develop the deepest understanding of wildlife they see every day in their outdoor classrooms. Yet the fundamental lessons of guiding – putting the animal first, understanding the species and its behaviour, checking wind direction and knowing the limitations of your clients – are transferable to wildlife anywhere in the world. This may explain the high number of international students currently on African guide courses.
Keen to understand what motivates Johan’s well-travelled students, in August I joined a course at Kwapa camp in the Okavango Delta. Kwapa is a rugged tented camp and training facility attractively located amid leadwood and jackalberry trees on the edge of the Okavango River. Here, the sole native student, a young man called Thabo on a scholarship, is outnumbered six to one by his British, French and Dutch counterparts. But, as I quickly learned, these are no tourists.
In just four weeks, experienced professional guides such as Johan prepare the students for a career conducting guided wildlife experiences. Their training is comprehensive. In an outdoor classroom, students learn how to identify trees, how to recognise bird calls, which snakes are venomous, why an owl in flight makes no noise, what elephants do to keep cool and everything in between. Valuable practical skills such as reading tracks, recognising dung, handling a rifle and driving a 4x4 safely on challenging terrains are also practised during daily excursions.
Guide for the day
Each day, Johan chooses two students to lead the excursions under his supervision. As we set out on an evening drive, it is clear that our young leaders – Mark and Esther – are eager to show off their new skills to a fresh audience. As he drives along, Mark, a banker from Holland, points out a herd of fleeing kudu, but it is when we get out to walk beside a waterhole that the pair’s training is truly revealed.
“An elephant has just passed through,” says Esther crouching low, her hand circling a huge, round footprint in the soft sand. Eyes skimming left and right, she reads the ground as easily as a newspaper. “Ostrich and impala, too.” I look where she’s pointing. The ground beneath our feet is covered in the telltale tracks of all the animals that have come to the waterhole to drink. Looking at the abundance of perfectly preserved prints, I realise that this combination of fine Kalahari sand and the waters of the Okavango River makes the Delta a prime location to learn how to track wildlife.
And it isn’t only animal footprints that Johan has taught his students to identify. A cluster of short, fat, cigar-shaped pellets stacked on top of each other like waffles provides little challenge. “Porcupine” states Rajesh, a recently qualified psychiatrist from Manchester, without hesitation. “See how they’re connected like tiny pork sausages,” he explains to me.
As we walk on in single file, each of us secretly hoping that a herd of elephants will come down for one last drink before dark, Johan takes up position at the head of the line, rifle in hand. Dusk in the African bush can be mesmerising in its beauty, but it can also be unforgiving. There are numerous stories of unfortunate guides who lost focus during a quick sundowner drink or cigarette just as an opportunistic nocturnal predator – a lion or leopard – began its nightly hunt.
Before returning to the vehicle, we pause by a huge tree in which Johan saw a sleeping lioness just the day before. Deep grooves in the bark of the trunk reveal where the cat hauled herself into the branches and I find a few strands of fur where her coat snagged. Johan watches his students pore over the signs, piecing together how the lioness moved around the tree and calling out their discoveries to each other. This was learning – Africa style!
After a dinner of kudu stew prepared by the in-camp chef, most of the students resist the urge to spend the evening beside the fire and retire to their tents to study. The final exams are close.
The OGS recently incorporated the widely recognised FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) course into its training syllabus, alongside the local BOTA (Botswana Training Authority) qualifications and its own programme. The addition gives students wishing to work as guides more opportunities outside Botswana. But what of those that aren’t aiming for a career in an African lodge?
As the flames die and the shrill call of the camp’s resident scops owl pierces the night, I ask Mark and Laurent, a French travel agent, about their reasons for coming to Kwapa. Though neither of them intend to work as a safari guide, they hope to put the skills they have learned to good use in their own careers. Mark tells me that he will be able to track and identify wildlife for visitors to his local nature reserve in Holland, while Laurent will use his newfound knowledge to advise his safari-going clients.
Even though only about 30 per cent of students on the OGS’s training courses go on to work as professional guides in Africa, the experience clearly gives them all unique skills that can be put to myriad different uses. It also encourages them to become ambassadors for conservation and ethical tourism around the world.
The next morning, as I leave Kwapa Camp, I realise that one of the professions with the most to gain from guide training is, in fact, my own – wildlife photography. As more and more photographic safaris are launched and the marketplace becomes ever-more crowded, photographer-leaders who have trained as guides can offer their clients a better calibre of experience, their in-depth understanding of animal behaviour providing the best image opportunities, while ingrained ethical standards ensure that neither the wildlife – nor their clients – are put in jeopardy.
And, though you don’t need to do a guiding course to know that a one tonne black rhino with a calf can be dangerous, it might help you to appreciate why some moments are best treasured in the memory, and not on film.
Okavango Guiding School (OGS), Botswana enjoys exclusive use of the Kwapa region of the Okavango Delta. A small number of courses also run in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Accredited by the Botswana Training Authority (BOTA) and FGASA, the OGS offers a range of courses throughout the year, each lasting up to four weeks. Its sponsorship programme supports the training of a local guide on every course.
1. Always put the welfare of the animal before the desire to get closer. Ensure that by approaching, you are not likely to provoke a response that may harm your subject, such as forcing a predator to abandon a kill or separating an animal from its herd or family.
2. Know the animal you’re tracking. Anticipate its behaviour and look for telltale signs of stress or anxiety. If you spot any, move away. Ideally, leave your subject as calm and relaxed as you found it.
3. Move in single file. This reduces the outline of the group – and therefore the perceived threat – as you approach your subject. It also eliminates the temptation to talk to one another and so helps to make a quiet approach.
4. Keep checking the direction of the wind. Find some fine sand and scuff your toe into it or pick up a handful and let it fall through your fingers. The fine dust will drift longer in the air giving a clearer indication of which way the wind is blowing. Wind can change in an instant, unexpectedly putting you in danger.
5. Plan your exit route from any potentially dangerous sighting. When walking in on an unpredictable animal such as a rhino, always ensure you know what to do should the worst happen. Identify a nearby tree to climb and stay alert.
6. Never, ever run! Most animals can run faster than you over short distances (even hippos) and this is rarely the most effective escape strategy. For many species, such as lions, standing still, shouting and making yourself look as big and intimidating as possible is best.