Missing the point

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Grant Reed, of Letaka Safaris, considers what it is you really want to get out of your safari

Over many years of guiding and guide training I have heard the mantra “the guest is always right” repeated over and over. But does the guest always know what is right for them?

Many of today’s safari goers want a “real African experience”. Through their research they are often overwhelmed with information – which property has the largest tents, the most luxurious spa, the most impressive infinity pool, and so on.

So begins the misguided concept that coming to Africa is all about seeing five large animals and being pampered with luxury. This is further driven by constant social media feeds and amazing wildlife documentaries.

The bottom line is that for most guests, when booking their Africa holiday through a respected tour operator or travel agent, the animals and accommodation are going to be awesome regardless. What is much more difficult to portray is the actual experience.

So the average person arrives on safari thinking that in order for their trip to be a success, they must see ‘the Big Five’ (a term that I abhor). As a result, many guides – having been trained to understand and meet the needs and expectations of their guests – will race around on one high-speed radio chase from one sighting to the next, ticking boxes. But, is this really what people from frantic city and corporate lives actually need from a safari experience?

Here lies the crux of the matter: the actual experience. So far, everything we have discussed has been visual. Ask yourself, how does the flash of a leopard dashing across the road 300 metres ahead of you enrich your safari, or is it merely a box we are ticking? Surely waking at night with an elephant feeding near your tent, or listening to the visceral roar of a lion, are far richer experiences?

How do you share the smell of the first rains or the quiet solitude of a vast wilderness in a brochure or on social media?

This is where it becomes the guide’s responsibility to educate their guests and to give them an experience they did not know they wanted. It is tough to be that guide at the brunch table when the inevitable competitive boasting of the morning’s conquests begins. When your comeback to “where were you for the leopard sighting?” is about “experiencing tranquillity and listening to the dawn chorus of birds”, you quickly lose their attention.

But consider what it is that brings people back to Africa time after time? People talk of the Africa bug. It bites you and you get infected with something unseen that makes you want to return again and again.

I am not suggesting you ignore the Big Five. But Africa is the birthplace of our species and the vast majority of us have completely lost our connection to the planet. I believe reconnecting with Africa and with nature re-establishes a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose, perhaps even of returning home.

Of course wildlife is a part of this experience, but I would urge you on your next safari to take some time to connect, to walk barefoot through the sand and breathe the African dust deep into your lungs.

Grant Reed and his brother Brent are the founders of Letaka Safaris, which offers mobile safari options in Botswana. They also established the Okavango Guiding School.

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