As part of our series ‘Safari Heroes’ we will be meeting and finding out more about our friends and extended family in Africa, catching up about everything from living in the bush, to the fight for community and wildlife conservation through their luxury camps and lodges.
1 Earliest memory of being in the bush?
It must be going on safari to Ruaha National Park in Tanzania with my family in the mid-eighties. I used to spend every game drive riding on the roof of the Land Rover acting as chief spotter. I remember us turning a corner near a bend in the Great Ruaha River and spotting a couple of lions honeymooning; this was my first time to ever see lions. The signal was always waving a hand across the windscreen if one had spotted something; on this occasion I was waving both hands rather furiously, and when the rest of the family saw them as well, I remember the panic of my mother shouting to her brother to drive away so that she could retrieve me safely back into the car. It was very exciting, especially given the incredibly deep and loud noises they made during mating. This sighting probably stands out as one of the strongest childhood memories of being in the bush and being in complete awe of such incredibly large and beautiful animals. From that point on, I was addicted, and I’ve never looked back.
2 Most magical / exciting wildlife experience you have ever had?
Back in November 2005, I was guiding in the Linyanti area of Botswana, and we found a pack of 30 wild dogs at rest in the late afternoon, just before they all arose to start their evening’s hunting. With them, they had around 10 puppies, with the other 20 members of the pack made up of adults and yearlings. Over the course of around 4-5 hours, we watched them hunting and killing impala after impala. This was all going on very close to a spotted hyena den, and all the activity from the dogs resulted in the whole hyena clan rallying and trying to steal kills from the dogs. With such a large pack of dogs however, it was a tough time for the hyenas, and we witnessed a few hyenas having strips torn off them by dogs encircling certain individuals. Once the dogs and hyenas had gone their separate ways, we continued to follow the pack by only the light of the full moon; no headlights or spotlights. Eventually once the dogs had killed another impala or two and run off somewhere inaccessible to us, we stopped for our sundowners/sun-goners at about 9:30 pm. I was in all sorts of trouble with the camp management for being out so late, but my guests were ecstatic, and have become long-term repeat guests of mine. One of the photos taken at this scene made the front cover of the Africa Geographic magazine’s March 2006 edition.
3 Most enchanting experience you have had with the African people?
In April 2004, I was introduced to the Ju/hoasi Khoi San people of the Western Kalahari in Botswana, near the Namibian border. Over the years, I have done many anthropological safaris with them, and have marvelled at their extraordinary appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the natural world in which they live. One of the more extraordinary things to witness is the traditional trance dance whereby the elder shaman, through the draw of the fire, the music of the women and a well-practiced style of breathing, go into trance. On one particular occasion, one of the elders went so deep into a trance that he passed out completely. As we later learned, the other two shamans started “tracking him” through the spirit world via his nxum – his spiritual centre, that spot just behind the belly-button – trying to bring him back to his body. I remember being a little concerned about him, especially when I felt his body was ice cold, lying next to a roaring fire. After midnight, I took our guests back to our mobile camp and off to bed. The following morning, we walked the kilometre or so back over to their camp, and found the aforementioned spiritual traveller sat by his fire alone, with the two shamans who had been tracking him sharing jokes around another small fire. We asked what had happened and were told that eventually they had tracked him down to an area called Gcwihaba, some 50 km to our south. When we enquired with him where he had been, he said he had left his body to take the form of a lion, found that he was hungry and ended up killing a cow. The farmer was alerted to this and came to chase him away, but he found another cow which he killed, and it was during this feast that the other shamans had brought him back to his own body. Thinking nothing of this, other than it being an interesting story, we said our farewells and set off for the airstrip in the local village some 15 km away. Whilst waiting for the airplane, we noticed a commotion happening in the main area of the village and enquired what was going on. It turned out that a farmer from Gcwihaba had just driven there to complain to the wildlife department about a male lion killing two of his cows during the night. My spine still tingles every time I recount that story!
4 Why you love your camp(s), and why to visit?
Having worked in the safari industry since I was in my late teens, with a short break whilst at university, I have learned what works and what doesn’t work. I have guided, managed and run safaris from 1-star up to 5-star standard. I have guided Russian oligarchs, supermodels, and celebrities, and I’ve guided backpackers, gap year students and everything in between. All this experience has fed into the standard and style of camp that I own and run with my wife Charlotte. For me it is my home in the bush, and as such is a home for my guests on safari. It is a place that I want to be, and I have drawn on the best elements of everything I have known in the industry, to make it as welcoming, comfortable and happy a place as it can be. We only set up our mobile lodge in the very best areas for game-viewing, and make sure to not only give our guests the finest possible wildlife experience, but to complement this with a homely, stylish and classic safari camp. Being based in the Okavango Delta also helps a great deal! We set up our camp in some extraordinarily beautiful locations, in the delta, and sometimes when required, we will set up in Savuti and the Kalahari as well. Being able to take our “mobile lodge” anywhere is such a great treat, and is the reason we have so many repeat guests year after year.
5 Favourite member of staff/guide at your camp and why?
This is a really tricky one – I love them all! I think I would have to go for my camp manager Modisa. We started working together when I was a junior guide in my mid-twenties, working under older more senior guides, and he was a junior waiter in his late teens, working under older management. We stayed in touch and worked together on and off over the years until a few years ago when I asked him to come and work for me. He is a great leader and now heads up my whole team, keeping the ship sailing on safari. He has such a welcoming smile and he loves to engage with all of our guests, whether adults or kids. Modisa has this deep laugh which you can hear from the other side of camp, and which makes you smile uncontrollably. He’s also got the loudest snore of anyone I’ve known, so he is forced to set up his tent a fair walk away from the rest of the staff and the guests. Many a morning, guests have woken to ask who was snoring, at which point Modisa laughs and smiles, before apologising and exiting stage left!
6 Favourite place in Africa outside of your camp and why?
It has to be Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. This is where my earliest memories come from, and where I first cut my teeth guiding and managing for the great Chris Fox at Mwagusi Safari Camp in the late 90s. Ruaha is truly beautiful and has some of the best lion/buffalo game-viewing I’ve ever seen. It has grown a lot from my first visits there back in the 80s and 90s. We used to have to drive on to a pontoon to cross the river one vehicle at a time, by pulling ourselves over using a cable, and once inside the park, we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. The pontoon was the only way in and out of the park, until in 1991 when a bridge was erected making it more accessible. One of the finest views I have ever seen, is that from the top of the main hill in the park Kimilimatonge overlooking the wild landscape out towards the confluence of the Great Ruaha and Mwagusi Rivers.
7 In one line, what do you feel is the best way forward for community and wildlife conservation in Africa?
It’s actually very simple; communities and community members need to be financial beneficiaries and guardians of the wilderness and wildlife areas of Africa, as this is the only way that they have renewable and sustainable value in the long-term.
8 Who is your own safari hero and why?
There are many such as Dr. Richard Leakey for his work in anthropology, Col. Jan Breytenbach for his protection of wildlife in the Caprivi strip during the Angola War, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton for his work with elephants, and also for saving my family from a bush fire before I was born. However, the one who stands out is the one I have spent the most time with; Tony Fitzjohn. He started working for George Adamson in 1971 and took over his work in 1989 upon George’s death, moving it from Kora in Kenya down to Mkomazi in Tanzania where he still works today. He is the epitome of intelligently not accepting “no” for an answer in everything he has done for wildlife and wilderness conservation. All too often when working in Africa we are met by “no”, and it is sometimes hard to accept. What I have learned from Tony is that so long as your plans and motives are correct and just, you never accept that “no”. Tony was a particularly vocal advocate of mine when I first moved to Botswana and would constantly check up on me (and still does 15 years on!) to make sure I was fighting the good fight. By learning this simple lesson of his, and following my heart, I have managed to establish one of the best owner-run safari companies in Botswana.
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