The most important ingredient for a great African safari
What is the one secret to having a fantastic, unforgettable African safari experience? There is one often-overlooked ingredient that will determine the success of your safari, probably more than any other ingredient; a good safari guide.
Some of the factors to consider include choice of country and game reserve, season of travel, location and choice of lodge, type of vehicles used for game drives, traversing areas used for game drives, etc. But the number one ingredient that will ensure a memorable safari experience is having a good quality safari guide.
There are many different ways to enjoy an African safari. For those on a tight budget, you can plan a self-drive safari in an accessible national park like the Kruger National Park in South Africa. But for a first time safari it might be best to consider a guided safari with an expert safari guide, such as an open vehicle safari with a specialist safari operator. Or you could fly in and visit one or more luxury safari lodges, where all meals and game drives are included as part of the package.
Benefits of a good safari guide
The benefits of having a good safari guide are hard to over-emphasise. And they become clear when you compare the qualities of a good guide to the qualities of an average or poor guide, and how that affects your experience while on safari.
A poor guide usually has some of these qualities or tendencies: he might have only the minimum guiding qualification and lack experience; he might struggle with English and making himself understood (or understanding his guests). Some poor guides are not enthusiastic, do not enjoy working with people, are lazy and will cut game drives short, or might be disrespectful toward the wildlife and even towards people. It's disappointing when a guide does not communicate much beyond pointing out the animals (either due to lack of interest, lack of knowledge or lack of language ability). Some guides are poor drivers and do not consider the comfort and sense of safety of the guests. They race through the bush to the next sighting, unconcerned about the poor tourists bouncing around in the back. They take chances with elephants and other dangerous game. If a problem arises, a poor guide handles it poorly, gets defensive or aggressive or just goes quiet and sour. His people skills are lacking, he lacks wit and humour and does not respond well to constructive feedback.
What makes a safari guide good?
I could go on, but enough about poor guides! By contrast, a great safari guide will understand what makes a safari special, and make an effort to ensure every game drive is interesting, no matter what the sightings are. He knows how to find the prime sightings, but also does not neglect the general wildlife sightings, and makes you feel like you're in a wildlife documentary with Attenborough himself. He communicates well, is fluent in English and easily gets on with everyone. He keeps the atmosphere pleasant and knows how to use wit and humour to lighten up the conversation. He listens well, and considers the wishes and expectations of clients.
When you're with a great safari guide, you might end up spending more time at certain sightings, because he understands the bush and helps you appreciate what you are looking at. He routinely turns off the engine and gives you time to listen and smell the bush as well. He's not a motor-mouth, but everytime you see another giraffe he seems to have another new story or interesting fact to share about the animal. He is vastly experienced and is able to read and interpret the behaviour of wildlife. This not only keeps you safe around dangerous game like the big five (elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions and leopards), but also helps you to spot certain animals more easily, and anticipate their behaviour so you can get a great action shot with your camera.
He might use the alarm calls of impalas or monkeys to locate a leopard that you would surely have missed if you had been driving around by yourself. He notices things you would never have noticed, like that snake skin hanging in a tree, or the fact that the lion tracks going across the road include those of tiny cubs who are too small to walk far, so he knows they will not be far away. As he stops to listen, he hears the soft calls of the cubs for their mother, from a nearby bush.
He is good at planning, communicating and perhaps even cooking. Conversation around dinner time flows easily, because your guide is also an expert host. He tells interesting stories but is not overbearing or always trying to dominate the discussion. He is equally comfortable with serious debates as he is with telling funny stories, lighthearted joking or sarcastic ribbing. When sensitive topics come up, he is mature enough to avoid offending guests in the way he expresses his own opinions, or by overreacting to theirs.
Great guides are excellent at entertaining their guests, keeping everyone informed and interested, and making every game drive an unforgettable experience. They show enthusiasm for their job and usually have a way with people that make them good company. On top of this they have deep knowledge of and respect for the bush and its wildlife.
An average guide will have some of these qualities (perhaps the bush knowledge) but lack in others (perhaps the social skills). In the end, your overall safari experience has so much to do with the quality of your guide, that it is indeed the most important (and often overlooked) secret ingredient when choosing a safari operator.
You can't always choose your guide, but you can choose an operator with good guides
Unfortunately, at many safari lodges you may not get to choose the specific guide – you will simply be assigned one. But when considering a lodge or safari operator, read some of their online reviews and see what previous clients have to say about the quality of their guides. It could make the difference between a disappointing safari experience and a really fantastic safari experience.
By Onne Vegter from Wild Wings Safaris, a specialist African safari operator with offices in the UK and South Africa.