Friday, May 30

Sabi Sand

A selection of photos taken in Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve  (please click on photos to enlarge).

A handsome young male

The African Wild dog

Sunset over the Great Escarpment

Thirsty African buffalo

A hot night, cool sand

Thursday, May 29

Early Days

The Olifants River

Back from my 10 day, 3 back to back safaris on the 13th. Exhilarated, fulfilled and feeling so totally alive! Yeah, tired as well – being behind the wheel of a large minibus for approximately 4,500km in 10 days would make anyone a little tired!
I got a bit grumpy on Day 6 – tiredness and a slightly challenging situation to deal with all contributed to me descending into a grouchy, little hole of impatience. I apologized later in the morning and I don’t think I spoiled the day too much for the family – but boy, kids can hit the nail on the head with so much damned accuracy!! On Day 7 I woke feeling much more sane and equitable, and after my 2nd attempt at a joke for the day at about 6.30am, little 6 year old Sunaina, said “yippee, a smiley day today! I love smiley days!!” Don’t need to tell you how humbled and ashamed I felt! 
Male baboon

What a fascinating 10 days – the wildlife as always – more detail later – but the clients – couldn’t have asked for a more diverse and interesting set of people.

Safari number 1, was a 3 day whiz to the far north of Kruger and back. I had a really nice mother and daughter from Baltimore, Maryland
Female nyala

Despite the challenges of getting really good wildlife sightings in the thick mopani forest and bush of northern Kruger, they enjoyed everything we did see and we shared some real adrenalin rush moments together – when the very large, mature, bull elephant changed it’s mind about crossing the road 50m in front of us, and actually walked down the road and passed us so close we could actually have touched him if we had leaned out of the window! He paused & looked at us as he passed & I swear none of us were breathing for that few seconds just in case we made a noise! And then only a short while later, the old buffalo bull who got fed up with us kerbside crawling as he was going on his peaceful way parallel to the road (about 20m away) so he turned and gave us a little mock charge – what a fright we all got – despite the fact that we were in no danger at all.
(I also learnt a lesson from that (one is learning all the time in the bush) – as guides we are not supposed to disturb the animals at all, and I shouldn’t have tailed him for as long as I did! (But I also think he was just being as grouchy as I was a couple of days later!))
The African lion - Panthera Leo

My second safari, was a total contrast – a couple from Mumbai, India with their 6 year old daughter. It was a 4 day safari, and I had to set up my little tent for 2 of the 3 nights due to lack of other cheap accommodation in Skukuza Rest Camp.

Don’t mind camping if it is for more than 1 night. It appears that none of the other guides take tents if they have to camp. They either sleep in the vehicle or on the ground next to the vehicle – neither option appeals to me I’m afraid, I’d rather spend the 20 minutes in the evening and on the last morning getting the tent up and down. I take just the basics – 1 tent with fly sheet, 1 self inflating mat & my sleeping bag (+pillow). I’ve found that I am quite comfortable and generally sleep well and I usually park my tent close-ish to the communal ablution block – having such a small “footprint” means that I don’t have to stick to the marked out camp sites. The main drawback of having to camp is that I don’t have access to my own fridge (all rest camp huts / bungalows, no matter how small or basic always provide a fridge) so I have to be in and out of the client’s fridge (& personal space) quite a lot.
Giant kingfisher

To get back to the people – it was really interesting to be able to expand one’s knowledge (by however little) of a massive country that one always has fixed, stereotypical mental images of. D worked in a small Investment Bank specializing in Equities (they have 3 regional and 1 national stock exchange(s) in India!). R worked from home and has been making all the desserts for a large Mumbai restaurant for the last 10 years. English was their home language and they told me that the size of India’s middle class is 350 million! (and total population is 1 billion!!!) They travel overseas every year and so do most of their friends. But the max speed limit on Indian main roads is 80kph and when I asked why – they replied “because they have so many pot holes”. I had to laugh – I had done my usual jokey spiel about the pot holes you get in the roads from Belfast through Lydenberg to Phalaborwa.....

The only real challenge I had with this safari was that the parents had been to East Africa on their honeymoon, and I felt that they might be disappointed with Kruger.  But we did have some awesome sightings during the 4 days and they assured me at the end that they had enjoyed the safari (not good enough for me – I want all my clients to have a incredible experience…….. – I think that I will have to manage my own expectations, and get a bit more “real” if I don’t want to get too stressed out by this job!)

African buffalo

Safari no. 3 was yet another total contrast – people, rest camps and animals! My clients were 5 Danish TV journalists / documentary makers who had just attended a 5 day Documentary conference in Johannesburg, and now were taking 10 days off to see a little of Africa. They all understood English reasonably well, but like previous clients I had had from Slovakia, the small difficulties in communicating made it more of a challenge for me to tell them as much as I could have about the bush, animals and so on. They were also quite focused on seeing the “big 5” and appeared to be totally not interested in all the other stuff. 
That’s what I thought until the very last morning when we stopped on the banks of the Letaba River for 20 minutes and spent some quiet time watching the hippo, water buck, impala and fish eagles! They all loved that!! The big draw back of the shorter (3-4 day) safaris is that it is just not possible to stop many places (if any at all) for 20 minutes to “just enjoy”. But, in the end, it was a real pity that we never saw any lion – as after all, how can you say you have been on safari in Africa and not seen lion?
Elephant crossing the Letaba River

Well that’s all for now – have been at home for 13 days – far too long – getting to feel quite lazy and as much as I miss being in the bush, I’m having to push myself a little to get organised for my next 5 day safari which starts tomorrow! Jo’burg has turned quite cold in the last couple of days but Kruger should be a lot warmer (how awful to be one of the poor “foreigners” who are having to live out in the open after being beaten, intimidated and forced to flee their homes, however humble, in the squatter camps on our city’s outskirts).

Friday, May 2

the beginning of a new life....

Tomorrow is the 51st anniversary of my birth and yesterday was the first anniversary of me chucking in my corporate, urban-jungle lifestyle and setting off for misty horizons.
The first 3 days of May will forever be a most auspicious time of the year for me, I think!!

Yesterday I had a delicious lunch and lazy afternoon with a couple of good friends at a luxury country hotel hidden away in the Magaliesberg (Magalies Hills) north west of Johannesburg, and tomorrow I will be spending most of the day driving 2 safari clients 600km north to a Rest Camp in the far reaches of Kruger National Park.

Yes! I am now officially, and have been for 3 months, a safari guide (and for at least 1.5 days of each safari also a “tour” guide). And I am loving it!

The company I work for is based in eastern Johannesburg, very convenient for both leaving the city for Kruger NP and for me as I only live about 3km from where they have their office. They have 3 other guides also working for them and we predominantly do 3-6 day safaris to Kruger. However, there are sometimes variations and last weekend I took two clients first for 3 days to Sabi Sand Game Reserve (on the border of Kruger) and then on a day trip to the Pilanesberg National Park. We also have a variety of Rest Camps that we stay in at Kruger, so no trip is identical to the previous one! The exception is the last day of any safari as we always do the “panoramic” route through the Eastern escarpment / Northern Drakensberg range, so that may just begin to get boring after a while.

As the guide on any of these safaris I am responsible for almost everything except making my clients beds! I drive them to Kruger, take them on wildlife / game viewing drives around Kruger (routes planned by myself), tell them about the animals, birds, bees, trees, geology and anything else I can think of; hopefully see the “big 5”; and then when we are back in camp I cook & serve both brunch and dinner (and of course do the washing up afterwards!). Our company specializes in “small groups” – between 2-6 people at a time, so in theory 1 guide can cope with all the work.
Hopefully once my “routines” are a little more established, and I know Kruger NP a little better, my days may be a bit shorter, but at the moment they start at 4am and don’t end much before 10pm.

The toughest part of the job up until now has been prevaricating about my rather, so far, limited experience in Kruger. I am not allowed to look at maps or any other aids in front of the clients and I have to imply that I have masses of experience! Well I have – but not in Kruger National Park – so I spend most of my evenings after putting my clients to bed, reading books on Kruger; planning the routes for the next day, memorizing the maps and so on. It is already getting a little easier thank goodness.

I would also recommend that in future, none of you take me on at a game of poker! This job is 90% about dealing with people and I am getting really excellent at keeping a straight face, no matter what is going on! I must say though, that is one aspect I am definitely enjoying, meeting new people all the time and getting to know them just a little.
The other absolute pleasure of course is being able to spend days at a time in Kruger National Park (or some other wildlife reserve) looking for and watching the animals, birds, insects and so on – what an office to have!!!!!
No trip has been the same, and what one sees always changes from day to day – so there are always surprises (all pleasant so far, except for some of the car & equipment problems I have had!) None of my safaris have been without any challenges but all my clients have appeared to be very happy so far (and that’s the other really great thing about this job – immediate feedback!).

I have started wondering why I didn’t start doing this a hundred years ago – I feel as if it is my calling. But I do know why – the pay is pretty awful – so it’s just as well I spent a few years putting some savings to one side before I started as a guide.

One does NOT do this job for the money, but it is incredibly enriching in so many other ways.

Last weekend in Sabi Sand, while being driven by one of the rangers from the Lodge we were staying in, I had my best EVER sightings of lion, buffalo, wild dog and leopard. At sunset we were parked 4m away from 4 adult male lions who were just sleeping off their meal of buffalo, when they decided to make their presence known to all and sundry, far and wide, and all four started roaring together – words fail me – all I can say is that tears sprung to my eyes it was so awe inspiring.
We also spent an hour the next morning with a young male leopard (who had an impala kill up in a tree) and his mother who was resting in the bushes below. Needless to say, I was able to get some really good photos.
The wild dog were also incredible – we spent over ½ an hour watching a pack of 14 dogs gambol about and then eventually just flop down in and around the road we were on. They are so incredibly rare now that this was a real privilege.

My trips into Kruger Park itself haven’t had quite the same level of intensity on the wild life side, but every safari has had it’s highlights:- at midday the leopard walking across the road in front of us, the African Giant Snail seen on the road early one morning; the Martial and Brown Snake Eagles swooping over the river banks; the Water Monitor Lizard stalking around the water hole; the large troop of baboons entertaining us with their antics in the middle of the road; the Dwarf Mongoose trekking from one lair to another carrying their babies in their mouths; the baby giraffe with it’s wonderfully fluffy horns; the 4 baby elephants chasing and playing with each other and literally prancing around in the khaki weed……………

 Well, I must start signing off now – I have 3 safaris back to back over the next 10 days – although March / April has been a quiet couple of months for the company and I have had nice 2-8 day breaks between safaris up until now – my bosses want me to get a taste of what it will be like during the busy season (frequent back to backs and very few breaks in-between) so they have given me everything that is going at the moment. Apparently this is just so that I am sure that this is really what I want to do– little do they know me – anything that sounds like a personal challenge ………….