Introducing our latest Original Travel recruit, Matt Shock, who's just spent a year guiding throughout Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, lucky guy! We asked Matt to share some of his expert insight into what it's like to be a guide in Africa and what some of his most memorable experiences and most valuable pieces of advice are...
What's Been your Best Experience on Safari to Date?
This is an incredibly difficult question given how amazing working in Africa was on a day to day basis! A big highlight, though, was during a particular Bush Walk in South Africa; we had set out tracking white rhino with a group of guests one morning and had found a fantastic set of spoor from a mother and sub-adult calf, which was still very fresh. Their trail was easy to follow as they very helpfully decided to stick to prominent game trails, only occasionally venturing off into thickets to find the juiciest grass to eat. After being on the trail for about an hour we found some dung which was still steaming! We knew they were close so we told our guests to keep very quiet and follow us through the bush. As we approached (keeping the wind in our faces to not give away our presence), we finally glimpsed them munching away in an open clearing. We began to creep along the ground wanting to get as close as possible... when we got to about 30 yards away we stopped to see if they had noticed us. As we let the guests get some photos of these two incredibly relaxed rhinos, my partner and I were scanning the bush for any possible dangers or escape routes in case things got hairy, and lo and behold, no more than 20 feet away, sat a half-asleep female cheetah! My friend and I almost burst out laughing - we had two rhinos on one side and a cheetah on the other completely coincidentally. When our guests had finally cottoned on to what we were giggling at they almost fainted! A fantastic experience I will never forget.
And Your Weirdest Safari Experience?
Weirdness was a common experience in the craziness that is African safaris, but a particularly hilarious one springs to mind. I woke up one morning on a day off (slightly the worse for wear after a birthday the night before) and went into the kitchen for my morning coffee. Bleary eyed and half asleep, I was busy fixing the broken kettle when I heard a distinctively animal-sounding rustle from the pantry behind me. I instinctively jumped onto the kitchen table as we had a resident honey badger who lived around camp (Frank the Tank) and he was definitely not a morning person. After a few minutes went by with no other disturbance, I gingerly crept toward the pantry (the door had recently broken off its hinges and was lying on its side against the wall). Assuming that my house guest (whatever it may be) was sheltering beneath it, I slowly lifted it while using it as a shield to cover my legs... and what did I find? A huge porcupine having a nap on the floor. Not what I was expecting. To deal with the unwanted intruder I grabbed a nearby feather duster and attempted to wake my friend the porcupine... after a few gentle prods he came around and decided to bristle his quills in an aggressive manner, I responded in turn with a few choice expletives and a more menacing thrust of the feather duster to which he promptly ran into my living room and out into the garden, urinating all over the floor as he went. A delightful parting gift from a delightful but thoroughly weird guest.
Best Tips for First Time Safari-Goers and how to Best Experience it
I think the best tip I could give anyone is to go into it with a completely open mind. Don't expect to see everything you want to on your first Game Drive or even your first trip. I know people in the industry who have been waiting to see particular animals or sights for 30 years and have still not seen them. Be patient, your guide will do their absolute best to show you some amazing things even if it's not a leopard riding an elephant while said elephant sprays water at a lion. Pay attention to your guide and ask lots of questions, your guide will be far more engaging if you show them you're interested! I believe that everyone should try and have a holistic, well rounded safari experience and it definitely should not just be about the Big Five or large animals. Try and learn something about termite colonies or the medicinal uses of local trees, it's amazing what Africa has to offer.
Your Scariest Safari Experience?
My friend and I were taking out another Bush Walk one afternoon, this time looking for lions in the same area we had seen the rhino the day before. After bumping into the rhinos by accident again, and having a fantastic encounter, we proceeded to follow some lion tracks which were a few hours old. Not more than 30 yards off the track from where the rhinos were there was suddenly an almighty roar and a crashing of branches about 40 yards in front of us. We immediately dropped to our knees and raised our rifles (a last resort) and got the guests in a group behind us and told them to stand still and be quiet... However, the problem was, we couldn't see the lion (a bit of an issue as you can imagine). After a few shaky minutes of repeated growling from an undisclosed location we caught sight of a rather large lioness on her haunches in a thicket, tail twitching and not in the best of moods. We decided to give the animal a couple of minutes to calm down and show her we weren't a threat so stood stock still to ease the tension. However, one of our guests decided the lion was only messing with us and took a few steps forward to where myself and my fellow guide were kneeling, rifles still at the ready. Just as I grabbed my incredibly helpful guest by the collar and brought him to the ground in a way that can only be described as lacking the airs and graces of customer service, the unhappy cat charged again. Myself and my colleague braced ourselves for a face full of lion but thankfully our shouting put her off and she stopped again. We decided it was probably time to leave and promptly extracted ourselves (very slowly and very carefully) from the situation and made our way back to the vehicle with a few white faced clients, one with a sore bum and dented pride. A rather hectic afternoon but one I will never forget!
Top Pieces of Kit to Take on Safari
I would always advise people to invest in a decent camera. There is nothing worse than trying to take a picture of a leopard hiding in the grass on the other side of a river with an phone camera! Take your time before you leave on your trip to practice with it and play around with the settings, that way you can capture that split second action at a moment's notice.
If You Could Go Anywhere, Where Would You Go on Safari?
There are too many amazing places to visit on safari; however, the Okavango Delta would have to be top of my list of places to visit. Botswana's commitment to conservation and its 'low impact, high yield' philosophy makes it the premier destination to visit for all wildlife lovers. I would love to do a Mokoro (dug-out canoe) tour along the delta with some local guides, I think this would really put you on an equal footing with the wildlife and give you the ultimate safari experience.
What's Your Favourite Animal to View on Safari?
Without a shadow of a doubt it would have to be elephants. No encounter or sighting is exactly the same and you're always rewarded with a memorable experience. The intelligence that these animals display is, in my opinion, unparalleled to any other animal in Africa. I have watched a herd of elephants dig out a small calf after it fell in a steep-sided water hole. I've watched a matriarch pay homage to a dead family member, playing with the bones and bringing her family members to pay their respects. The way elephants conduct themselves, the communication methods they use and their behaviour towards people are amazing things and I would advise any safari goers to seek out the presence of these gentle giants as much as possible!
Anything You Haven't Seen That You Would Like To?
The list is never ending! Just before I left Namibia on my last stint working as a guide I was lucky enough to grab a quick glimpse of the elusive caracal for the first time, which was a real 'lifer' for me! I would also love to see a successful leopard hunt or see a serval for the first time.