African safaris are usually at the top of most people’s bucket list when it comes to wildlife viewing.
Africa’s many national parks, reserves and conservation areas number amongst some of the most stunning locations on the planet and are home to an astonishing variety of wild animals, ensuring that a wildlife safari will undoubtedly be a major highlight of any trip to the ‘Dark Continent’.
Of course, the best safaris have three things in common: remote, wildlife-rich settings; luxurious accommodation; and – most importantly – outstanding guides. And it is this last factor, particularly, that has underpinned the success of luxury boutique safari operator, Sanctuary Retreats, according to Michael McCall, the company’s Director of Sales Australia, NZ & Asia.
“Investment in our guide training program has long been a priority for the company, because we know that good guides are essential for ensuring that our guests have the best safari experience possible,” explains Michael. “After all, it’s their knowledge and expertise that are going to ultimately deliver those memorable, out-of-this-world sightings.”
However, getting the balance right between safety, ethics, and delivering exactly what the client wants can sometimes be challenging. Says Michael, “Our guides undertake regular training sessions where they can learn from each other, as well as discovering new techniques in tracking, reading animal behaviour and natural history.”
“The rationale behind the Sanctuary Retreats training program is simple: to create world-class safari guides, rather than simply drivers of land-cruisers. We really want our guides to have the ability to tailor safaris around each guest’s specific interests, using well thought out and communicated plans in order to help deliver the best and most rewarding experiences for them.”
As Michael notes, each guest is different – whether they’re new to safari with no preferences, or a seasoned veteran with a precise species or event they want to see. So, it’s important for guides to be able to gauge and understand their specific interests, and to offer carefully curated, personalised experiences accordingly – and preferably ones that will hopefully tick off everything on their list.
As a key part of their training, Sanctuary Retreats’ guides also take it in turns to spend several hours in the ‘hot seat’, putting new techniques and ideas into practice on game drives. The benefit according to Michael is to provide guides with an opportunity to learn from one another and discuss the pros and cons of their approaches in a balanced and thoughtful exercise. “We also encourage debate amongst guides and trainers, so that each individual comes to their own conclusions, rather than simply being told how to do something – they need to understand for themselves why certain techniques work while others do not.”
He adds, “Another important facet of training involves actually getting out of the vehicle as it provides a completely different perspective and allows guides to really understanding the wilderness. During these exercises, guides can learn more about tracking wildlife, including identifying and aging any tell-tale signs of life, and also understanding an animal’s ‘personal zones’ and sensitivities. While not all of our guides will lead walking safaris, this on-foot training has a positive effect on their vehicle guiding.”
Sanctuary Retreats’ guides also undertake regular knowledge exams to test their naturalist expertise, including the ability to identify different birds from their song.
Of course, while skills can be trained, and knowledge gained, character and personality cannot. And Michael notes that these are traits the company’s current guiding team has in large measure as evidenced by the extensive and glowing testimonials from past guests.
“Emanuel had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the animal and birdlife of the Serengeti and of the ecology of the whole area. He had an inexplicable and probably innate skill in spotting animals and birds at amazingly long distances. I particularly wanted to see cheetah, and, over the 5 days, Emanuel came up trumps. We had 14 sightings of individuals and groups. It was almost unbelievable!” – Guest, Sanctuary Kusini, Tanzania.
“Lena, our guide was absolutely the best guide we ever had in our 5 trips in Africa.” – Guest, Sanctuary Baines Camp, Botswana.