The third in a series of blogs where we get the inside track on safaris in South Africa from the perspective of the guides on the ground. Ross Couper from Singita safari lodges shares his experiences in South Africa's Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands.
What is the weirdest thing you've ever encountered on safari?
Working out in the bush, I must admit that we are often spoilt with interactions that never cease to amaze. I have been fortunate on a few occasions with unique sightings that I will recall for many years to come. One incident in particular that comes to mind was a battle that took place between two kudu bulls. The battle lasted for five days as they had interlocked their horns so much that they were unable to free themselves. On the fourth day, one of the kudu's had succumbed to being killed by two hyenas who were now feeding on the carcass. The other male kudu stood watching the ordeal take place as the entire clan of hyenas joined in the feeding frenzy, with his horns still locked. By the fifth day, he too had become a meal for the hyena clan. It was truly an emotional rollercoaster to watch these two male kudus battle it out for days and succumb to such a death. Throughout the 5 days that I stopped and watched the two kudu bulls, I always hoped that as I turned the corner arriving back at the scene that they would not be there and both of them would have freed themselves in some miraculous turn of events.
Your scariest moment while on safari... and how do you stay safe on safari?
I cannot say I have had a scary moment; definitely a moment of being surprised but that is inevitable out in the bush. I can recall when I had been tracking a lion with my tracker only to realise that we suddenly walked into a buffalo bull sleeping in the riverbed that we were unaware of. On one particular occasion I remember that whilst viewing a herd of elephant in the river, during a guided walking trail, a male leopard had been watching us from a rocky outcrop behind us, I only noticed him after a few birds started to alarm to his presence. That was surprising indeed! After we had we all turned to look at him on the rock he realised that he had been seen and awkwardly slunk behind some thick bush. What an incredible experience that was for my guests, in particular those who had never seen a leopard.
If you couldn't be a safari guide in Kruger National Park or Sabi Sands, where would you go?
It's tough to say - I always wanted to guide in the Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sand Reserve and the opportunity arose to work for Singita, which has lodges in both of these parks. Working in both areas has been extremely rewarding. There are many reserves that I would like to visit, however, I don't think that there would be any other company that could offer me an opportunity like I have had with Singita. So for right now, I am extremely blessed.
Is there anything that you haven't seen or experienced on a safari that you'd like to?
There is a long list. As an avid photographer I would like to capture a number of scenes that occur in the wild, however, it's about being at the right place at the right time. I have only seen a pangolin once so that would be right up there on my list, particularly as my last sighting was at night and it was tough to see anything.
Which safari animal fascinates you most and why?
I have a great affection for leopards. Their beauty is mesmerizing and it is one animal in the wild that you could never go home with a terrible picture or memory of.
Best safari moments?
I have been fortunate and I can positively say that during my 7 years of guiding, I have been at the right place at the right time on a few occasions.
Out of all the sightings that we as guides do get to encounter, I must admit that the most rewarding experience for me would be the ones that are difficult to explain and on most occasions the sighting leaves everyone spellbound by what just happened. I will mention one sighting, otherwise I could be writing here for a while! It was a late afternoon drive and for the most part it had started out rather quiet as it was a hot day. As we progressed south through the reserve I heard over the radio that one of the another vehicles had found two sub-adult cheetahs. This was a special sighting as we do not often encounter cheetah in this area and I had a feeling that they would definitely be moving soon so this was worth following up to see. We arrived at the right location and were delighted to see the two cheetahs lying in an open area of grass, quite typical habitat for a cheetah. As another vehicle approached the sighting the guide noted that he had seen something in the grass approximately 100 yards from where the two cheetah's were lying. It's quite normal for there to be animals nearby, but it's always good to have a look as it could be a potential prey species and it would be good to know ahead of time if the cheetah started showing interest in moving in that direction. The confirmation on the radio came through that it was three servals. A mother and two sub-adults. This was highly unlikely to see on safari, particularly in this area with high densities of large predators. The three serval were noted to be relaxed and un-perturbed by the vehicles' presence. After viewing the serval, we returned back to the cheetah. Suddenly, the serval caught a rodent in the grass and the noise attracted the cheetahs' attention. With a bolt of lightning, the two cheetah swept across the plains after the serval. We stood motionless thinking that the poor serval had seen its demise. Then all of a sudden they broke cover from the bush where they disappeared and stopped in front of our vehicle.
I have had the privilege of taking out many celebrities and many of them were down to earth and easy going, quite different to what people expect from celebrities. I had a great experience a few of years ago when I was working as a freelance guide. I was introduced to Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley who were my guests for the next 4 hours. It was an incredible afternoon and they were incredibly talkative with lots of questions. This would definitely be a highlight in my career.
Best tip for a newbie safari-goer?
Travel with an open mind. You will be blown away by your experiences and will soon be returning to indulge in a new-found treasure in Africa.
Best tip for an old schooler?
Visit new destinations within Africa as many of them are very different. Log the species that you have seen through a checklist and continue to use it throughout all of your safari experiences. You will be amazed at what you miss without keeping it close and keeping track of what you have seen. Capture your memories and share your experiences with family and friends.
Safari trends you've seen over the years?
Photography has changed over the last 10 to 15 years with the introduction of digital cameras and now with more mobile phones and tablets taking just as good images. That would be one of the biggest trend changes; many more people are wanting to get a photograph of what they've seen. Smart tablets have featured a number of times on my vehicles as it's a versatile electronic device when you are travelling to preview the web and keep track of what's happening at home and share your photographs. It allows people to engage very quickly with the outside world, but doesn't let it detract from your experience of being in the wild. Break away from the norm and avoid using the device daily except as a camera. The safari experience 20 years ago was a lot less luxurious; it was more about engulfing yourself into the wilderness by having the fire as your television and the sounds of the bush in surround sound around you. I think it's important to take time during safari to take it all in.