As I described in my previous blog post, my husband Chris and I recently returned from a safari to Botswana and Victoria Falls. As a member of the Africa Adventure Consultants team, I’ve long known how special a safari experience is. But the phenomenal guides and wildlife experiences I had on this trip reminded me once again just how important safari guides are to your overall experience. Ensuring you have great guides, versus just good ones, will make all the difference to your trip.
A good safari guide will drive you around the wildlife area and identify the species you see along the way. They will be available to answer questions you have, sometimes referencing guidebooks they’ve brought along for the drive for guests’ benefit.
A great safari guide will track animal behavior and movement, using their skills to find wildlife and give travelers the best possible sighting. They will use the clues around them, such as animal tracks in the dirt or the specific type of bird chirp they hear, to identify what animals are in the area and how to find them. They will also share what they see and hear with you so you have a more well-rounded game drive experience.
During our time in the Linyanti region of Botswana, our guide MP also became our teacher. When it was safe to do so, he would get us out of the vehicle and explain the tracks he saw in the sand, describing their shape and distinguishing marks. He’d point to a track and we’d shout out which animal print we saw and which direction they walked. On one of our stops, a small herd of elephants crossed the road in front of us, the last turning her head to us and flapping her ears as if to say hello. Had we not stopped, we never would’ve seen these gentle giants from that vantage point.
MP also wouldn’t just name the different plants we saw but would show us the differences in their leaves or explain what plants were responsible for the gorgeous smells wafting through the air. For those who have gone on safari in Botswana, does the smell of wild sage transport you back too?
On our journey back to camp after a thrilling game drive complete with mating lions mere feet away, he stopped the vehicle all of a sudden. “Do you hear that?” he asked our group. My fellow game drive friends and I heard nothing uncommon. Unidentified birds chirping and other wildlife sounds had become Botswana’s beautiful soundtrack to us. But what was commonplace to us held meaning for him as a top-notch safari guide.
Squirrels in the tree next to us were alerting him that there was a snake in the nearby tall grasses, completely hidden from the road. Pulling out his binoculars, he spotted the snake tucked under foliage. He identified the species instantly (no guidebook reference needed for him!) and knew that the small snake posed no threat to our group. He exited the vehicle slowly, did a walking visual inspection of the area and then motioned for us to exit and view the snake from a safe distance should we wish. He could’ve easily driven past the area without mention, but instead he went above and beyond to provide a well-rounded game drive experience.
Great guides will also try to anticipate where an animal is moving so that they know where and how to position your safari vehicle for a great wildlife shot. I saw this firsthand on the Chitabe concession in Botswana. My guide Phinley has been guiding on this land since 1998. The land and the animals that live there are part of him and he’s able to bring their stories to life after his lifetime of firsthand experiences. He was so in tune with a lioness and her two young cubs that he could anticipate where the family was walking. After first seeing the three lions in an area of tall grass, he moved our vehicle further away in the field. At first I was skeptical. Why were we way out here when the other safari vehicle who had arrived at the sighting after us was still way back there near them? I wanted to see the cubs! But then his intuition paid off and it was clear to me why we were exactly where we were. From the tall grasses, out walked the proud mother and her two four-month-old cubs. They walked down an open path, setting up a beautiful scene for us. While we got to enjoy the lions in the open walking directly towards us, the other vehicle was still driving from their initial spot and had to park behind us.
Like our guide MP, Phinley was also an expert at using the clues around us to find wildlife. Because he is guiding in the concession daily, he knew there was a pregnant lioness somewhere. He tracked her prints in the dirt for a bit, but then lost them when she moved to grass. He stopped the vehicle and surveyed the area. High on a tree in the distance he spotted a baboon and followed the baboon’s line of sight to an area to our right. We slowly started driving, stopping every so often to check on the baboon’s position. Sure enough, the baboon was watching the lioness just as Phinley predicted.
Another time he spotted impala running in the distance and followed their path backwards to find a pack of wild dogs. He had seen the pack eating the night before and correctly predicted that they weren’t hungry enough yet to work hard for the kill that day. Instead, he knew we had some time to spend with them before they moved again.
All safari guides, regardless of experience and expertise, may use guidebooks and reference materials to answer your detailed questions. Nobody can know everything, and it can also be helpful for travelers to see a close-up photo and read scientific details about the species they are seeing! But one thing that sets a great guide apart from an average guide is how much information they know by heart. They likely won’t need reference materials for most of the questions you pepper them with.
One of our guides described the difference in guide training between what the country of Botswana requires versus what his company requires before they’re in the field working. He said a guide must identify at least five bird species based on their call to pass the country’s guiding test. However, to complete guide certification and work at his camp, he was required to know at least 50 bird species based on their call. Great safari guides also regularly complete refresher courses and network with other top guides to share insights.
Great safari guides are also personable and friendly. They don’t just spend their days spouting off facts about flora and fauna. They take the time to get to know you and form personal connections. We discussed our backgrounds and cultures. We shared pictures of our kids with each other. We had inside jokes. They knew what our sundowner drink of choice was, how we took our coffee and asked how our meals in camp each day were. We had wonderful guides at each camp we visited, and even though our time at each place was short, Chris and I left each camp feeling like we had made a new friend .
So how do you ensure you have a great safari guide on your trip? Here’s what our Journey Specialists recommend:
If there is one thing that sets Africa Adventure Consultants apart, it’s our outstanding guides. We use local guides on all trips, providing the best combination of expertise and entertainment — all with a distinctly local flavor. All our guides have many years of experience and an extensive knowledge of, and passion for, the areas in which they work. Many of our guests return to Africa to be guided by a particular guide with whom they have built a relationship.
In addition to generalist safari guides, AAC can offer specialist guides — men and women who have gained specialized knowledge in mountain trekking, ornithology, astronomy, paleontology, photography, botany and anthropology.
Our team of Journey Specialists are experts as well, designing safari experiences based on your interests. While we can never guarantee a wildlife experience, there are some areas and camps that are better suited for specific species and some camps that are known for exceptional, or not so exceptional, guides .
Not all safaris are created equal and, in many cases, you get what you pay for. Are you willing to pay more to get the best guides available? Great guides push a good trip over the top, but mediocre or bad guides will do the opposite. Two camps might look similar online in photos, but it’s the things you can’t see that really make the difference and might cost more, including well-trained guides. Great guides are also supported by competent in-camp staff, including mechanics. Our team ensures that the vehicles used for our guests are regularly serviced and are in good condition, so your game drives aren’t hindered by a bad vehicle.
The more you engage with your guide, the better trip you will have. Don’t be shy about asking questions; they want to share their knowledge with you! Great guides are also great storytellers, weaving their experiences together to give you a more well-rounded safari. Developing a friendly relationship with your guide while on safari will only enhance your overall trip, giving you insight into the land and wildlife, but also people who call the area home.
Photos courtesy AAC Marketing Manager Beth McCabe