The guides’ tales – close calls and memorable moments with the wildlife
Let’s preface the ‘close call’ part of this article with the fact that our guests travel to camps and lodges staffed by a wonderful collection of experienced and enthusiastic guides who will steer you through the bush with great knowledge and care. While we might travel to Africa once a year or once in a lifetime, those living and working in the bush co-exist with the wildlife and do occasionally have slightly hair raising, as well as downright unusual, moments. Some are quite comical while others veer into the more adrenaline fuelled territory. We’ve been chatting to guides and camp staff and thought you might enjoy this collection of standout memories.
Big cats seem to feature heavily with everything from leopards in the staff quarters to lions in the boma. Jason Nott from Ultimate Safaris in Namibia had a transformative encounter with a lioness in his early teens. ‘I have many fond memories of lion encounters, especially when out in the field with Flip Stander who now runs the Desert Lion Project, but there is one that will always stick out in my mind. We were on a school trip hiking through the Palmwag concession, and decided to take a major detour so we could have a swim in some natural springs. We were hot and approaching the spring quite fast as we made our way up the gorge where it was located. The closer we got, the more lion tracks we saw, and all of a sudden there were lion cub tracks too – lots of them. Before we knew what was happening, there was a rustle in the bushes and a female lion came charging out at us. As she approached us, dutifully standing in a line as instructed, we just froze. She hit the brakes and skidded towards us and, as the dust settled and my eyes cleared, I saw the head of a female lion directly in front of me, just an arm’s length away. As she stared me straight in the eyes, my outlook on lions changed in an instant. She walked up and down the line disdainfully then made her way back to the bush where, after collecting her cubs they all ran off into the distance. This was when I realised what great and magnificent animals they really were – and I was just 13 at the time!
Dutch Kasale a guide at African Bush Camps in Botswana remembers leading a walking safari ‘when we surprised a lioness at her den with very small cubs. In that situation lions will never run away but defend the area and cubs. She charged us – frightening the guests who didn’t believe she would stop. It was difficult to control the guests and, at the same time, intimidate the lioness so she would back down. My back up guide was very brave and stood his ground with me. Finally, the guests calmed down which gave us a chance to slowly retreat from the area.’ It’s one of the more alarming stories, but a great example of how incredibly skilled these guides are at managing difficult situations.
Nicholas Gaunge, guiding at Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, describes as ‘a very well-behaved lion’ the big male he remembers ‘heading directly to where we were sitting with guests. I raised my hand and he stopped so I got up to see his reaction. He looked at me and turned around and walked away.’
Elephant stories abound but this, from Deb Tittle one of Zambia’s finest walking guides, is a gentler version than some. ‘A teenage elephant left its herd and walked purposefully up to my vehicle. It proceeded to sit down in front of us and put its front feet and trunk in the air. We were laughing so much that the guests only managed one slightly blurry photo of the event between them.’
Steve Edwards at Musango Camp in Zimbabwe also had some fun with a young elephant when a baby walked up to the Land Rover and fell asleep against the wheel. ‘We couldn’t move until she woke and walked off’, he says.
I’ve included the final in our elephant trio just because the way Jason Nott tells it made me smile. ‘While making my way around a bush to relieve myself, I found myself face to face with an elephant which clearly had the same intention. We made eye contact briefly, then both turned away to complete our intended tasks before heading off again in our separate directions.’
Baboons can be a real menace. They’re quite brave and seem to enjoy creating havoc in and around camp as Nketsang Dhsio an administrator at Khwai Bush Camp recalls. ‘I once encountered a baboon that was destroying things in the main area. I ran towards it to chase it away, but instead of it running away it chased after me. I got such a fright I screamed until a guide, who was nearby, fired a rifle into the air to scare it away.’
Steve Edwards reckons he and a walking party were once mistaken as baboons when crouching down at a spring. ‘Two sable bulls walked right up to us and stopped to drink just one metre away – that was quite extraordinary.’
Here’s a salutary tale about doing as the guide instructs when close to hippo, which can be notoriously grumpy. Steve Chinoi was on a walking safari close to Kanga Camp in Mana Pools when his party came across a hippo with a new baby. ‘It caused great excitement among my guests who were taking photos and filming. When one guest wanted a better picture they came out of full cover. The hippo mother saw the guest and came charging full on. I kept everyone safe but it had become a dangerous situation. We laugh about it now and I still share jokes with those guests about the hippo experience!’
Scaling a tree to get out of harm’s way is, occasionally, a necessity. But Steve Edwards wasn’t expecting the charging black rhino to fall asleep underneath the tree in which he’d taken refuge. ‘We missed brunch that morning,’ was his wry comment.
Work in the bush for long enough and you can accumulate a fair few stories from hippos interrupting white water rafting to charging elephants, all of which Albert Muchemni, whose 20 years’ guiding has included stints as a mountain bike guide on Mount Kenya and ten years at Borana, has experienced. His most recent encounter was being charged by a rhino ‘and its horn went through my door.’ Two decades of experience shows in his summing up with, ‘all was well,’ he says, ‘the only injury was a dented Land Rover’.
Among memorable moments for all the right reasons, Jason Nott recalls an adventure into Namibia’s stunning Damaraland region while based out of Onduli Ridge. ‘I had convinced my guests that we should go out on an ambitious all day search for desert lions. In reality we had almost zero chance in finding them, but we set off relatively confidently and, around midday, found some fresh lion tracks. We followed these with great enthusiasm and were rewarded with an amazing sighting of three females in the vast desert landscapes. We had now wandered further than most guests on a wildlife drive and had a long trek to get back to the lodge. However, we were rewarded with even more amazing desert sightings along the way, starting with a mother rhino and calf, followed by a herd of 12 elephant in the open. We’d achieved pretty much the perfect combination of the most exclusive sightings available in the area. This showed us all how amazing the desert can be and confirmed that having an adventurous spirit and a degree of over-confidence can pay great dividends.’
Deb Tittle recollects another extraordinary moment when ‘two guests were lucky enough to witness the birth of an elephant with me on a walking safari. We were only 50 metres away from the cow with an unobscured view. That was really special’.
This rather lovely story comes from the legendary Zimbabwean guide Stretch Ferreria, who runs Goliath Safaris from a shady spot on the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools. ‘Over the past six years I have built up a relationship with three individual hyenas. The first was an old female I named Hilary who would come and sit with me every evening at my personal boma. She came back every season and a pattern developed despite my being out of Mana for six months. Hilary then started to bring her daughter who I named Helga and she did the same thing, gently lying by my feet, or nearby, less than a meter away. Hilary sadly got old and developed cataracts, then one season she stopped coming but Helga took over from her mum. She later brought her young son Helmut. Helga was there last season but Helmut either was taken out by lions or found a mate and moved to another part of the park as we did not see him. In recent years I have allowed one or two of my old returning guests to come and visit with Helga. More often than not the ladies have been reduced to tears at how gentle and special she is.’
Sometimes you don’t even need the wildlife to create memories of a lifetime. We particularly loved this one from Nina Scott at Tanda Tula in South Africa. ‘We’ve enjoyed many wonderful moments with our guests but I’ll share a story with you that exemplifies the kind of connections that are so often made around the dinner table here. A few years ago, regular guests of ours were sitting across the dinner table from another couple and were discussing their military backgrounds, entertained by the similarities of their experiences. When one recalled the name of his commanding officer the response from across the table was “what did you think of him, and where is he now?” The former replied he’d always seen his peer as a personal mentor, but that he’d lost touch with him some 40 years ago and had no idea where he could be today. There followed the marvellous reply, “you are sitting opposite him!” At which point all the guests exploded into applause, hugs and tears all around – it was remarkable. The two couples remain great friends to this day.’
Here’s another that didn’t need any help from the wildlife but left an indelible impression on Karisia’s James Christian. ‘We had an elderly guest on safari, with rugby friends from his youth, drinking late into the night. Unfortunately he stepped off a steep embankment and fell some distance into the river below. We managed to quickly haul him out of the stagnant and stinking water and were relieved that despite the big drop and his age, he was totally unscathed. It seems the whiskey had lubricated not only his best judgement but also his limbs and body!’
Guests’ questions can also linger long in the minds of safari guides. One that particularly amused James was a guest asking if elephants ate ants. ‘I laughed out loud,’ he says, ‘imagining the largest land mammal slowly vacuuming Africa for ants. Despite misconceptions,’ he continues, ‘guests that ask crazy questions tend to be great fun on safari. This particular lady was hilarious and we laughed for ages about her superb question. What counts most on safari is not knowledge, but rather enthusiasm and humour.’ Jason Nott backs this up with, ‘there have been many strange wildlife questions, but one of the best would have to be when we were watching a herd of zebra grazing in Etosha National Park and I was asked “are zebras carnivorous?”. I struggled to keep a straight face and dutifully answered “yes”, then relented and proceeded to have a good laugh with the guest who had asked.’
Sometimes it’s the guests who get the last laugh – and this, from Dale Jackson at Tanda Tula is a classic. ‘I was guiding a very charismatic older lady in her early 80s who had a wicked sense of humour and loved a tall glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I remember meeting her on arrival and offering her my arm to disembark the transfer vehicle and she was very grateful for this gesture. She was fairly fit but I continued to assist her throughout her stay whether it was helping to gently pick her up and place her in the safari vehicle or walk her back to her tent in the evenings. She seemed to get slightly “weaker” as the trip went on and eventually I found myself at her side virtually the entire day assisting her throughout camp. Her sense of humour and ability to consume wine never faded but the penny dropped on her last evening after dinner. I had just walked her back to her tent and she asked me with a twinkle in her eye “if I wouldn’t mind tucking her in”. She had completely played me for the three days leading up to that point!’
These stories could go on for pages and pages. If you are interested there are some highly entertaining books offering a great glimpse of the life of the safari guide (our recent blog of Africa books to read in lockdown has some good suggestions). Don’t be put off by the more alarming tales, as Dale Jackson at Tanda Tula says, ‘I have been in a couple of tense situations with animals over the years but I can count these encounters on one hand. I feel safer here than most cities worldwide.’ We would wholeheartedly agree, and this bunch of charismatic experts is a tremendous bunch with whom to share time with in Africa’s great wilderness.
We hope you have enjoyed these tales from the safari guies. If you have been inspired to think about planning a safari do get in touch. Our team of experts have travelled widely throughout Africa. They can offer expert advice on every type of safari holiday. Chatting to people by phone or email is what we do best. We listen, we explain, we answer all sorts of questions even those you didn’t know to ask, and finally we make suggestions. If this is your first time to Africa or your twenty first, we have a team standing by to help make the planning easy and the journey the best ever. Please get in touch whatever stage you’re at.