Navigating the bush with a safari guide

When you embark on a safari adventure, there are a few people who can make or break your experience. One of these is your safari guide.

South Africa’s wilderness offers many secrets that can go unnoticed to our untrained senses, which is why having a safari guide at your side can make all the difference between a good time and a truly exceptional time in the bush.

So, if you’re after more than what you can experience between the pages of a good book, or online, investing in expert-led game drives and walking safaris promises an interactive experience.

But don’t take our word for it. We’ve asked the rangers at the coalface how to make the best of your time in the bush:

Follow the signs

Being on safari with a guide demands that you throw out all the clutter of urban life and tune in to the bush – to its sounds and smells, and subtle signs. “From scat and spoor, to broken twigs, rub marks, early morning dew paths in the tall grass and folded grass blades; these little signs can lead us to animals that you want to see,” says Tenika, a guide based at Finfoot Lake Reserve in the Greater Pilanesberg.

“Don’t forget scent markings like urine, and even secretions from scent and anal glands,” adds Moses, a tracker based at Mjejane Bush Camp, set on the banks of the Crocodile River. “We use our knowledge, and all of our senses to pick up on clues that will help us track game, but at the same time, we need to use our often very dry sense of humour, story-telling ability and total infatuation with the bush and Africa as a whole to elevate your experience too,” he adds.

Encountering animals

There are different rules in different parks, but normally, on a safari, you will be accompanied by at least two people, one to act as a guide and one as a tracker – two pairs of eyes are better than one, after all.

“Leopards are one of the hardest animals to track and find in the bush, but remain my favourite,” says Jacques, a guide based at Finfoot Lake Reserve. “In some of our national parks, it can sometimes be very hard to spot them in one day, even with a high vantage point from the vehicle driving up and down. On foot, you need to physically search for tracks and signs in thick bush and trees. Bear in mind, you can also just as easily have an unplanned stare-down with one too.”

Besides common requests to see leopards and the Big Five, there are plenty of overlooked creatures that can often make a greater impression, from dung beetles rolling across your path, to marabou storks, also known as the “undertaker bird”.

“My favourite animal, which I introduce a lot of my guests to, is the double-banded sandgrouse. This bird has specially designed feathers on its belly, which can absorb water to carry to their nest in the hot days,” says Mduduzi, a field guide based at Mjejane.

“I like the honey badger too. Its body is immune to snake venom and, bearing in mind their body size, they are not scared of lions or leopards. Another strange thing is that they can move inside their own skin as if they are wearing a suit, as a way to defend themselves.”

“Elephants are relatively easy to find. They are very quiet, intelligent animals, but also active most of the time so you can always see them, even during the heat of the day. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Blue Wildebeest,” adds Lodrick, also based at Mjejane.

“African elephants are known to have an incredible memory. They can remember what happened more than 20 years ago and, with that knowledge, they make certain choices like, where they travel for water or if they will pick a fight with their opponent. Elephants practise fighting as calves and with the knowledge they obtain while playing, they then use it when they are older to win the fight, using their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses against them,” adds Tenika.

“Not all encounters are as majestic though. I once caught a Mozambique Spitting Cobra in the lodge and as I was releasing it in the bush, it came straight for me. Luckily, it passed right by me ,just missing my foot. When we left, a Black-chested Snake Eagle came flying in the snake’s direction – we can only assume that the eagle was no longer hungry that night.”

Some camps and lodges offer game drives and walking safaris in the afternoon, but nothing beats waking up with the sunrise in the crisp dawn air. Aside from it being cooler, the animals are usually more active and you’ll get to learn how to decipher the activities and tales of the previous night from the footprints and tracks in the earth.

Embark on specialised morning and evening walking safaris with experienced tracker-guides at Dream Hotel and Resorts’ Mthimkhulu Wilderness Trails set within a 7 500ha private reserve of the Kruger National Park.

– Dream Hotel and Resorts

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