Guide, author and consummate storyteller Peter Allison has been shepherding tourists around the African bush since 1994 when he came to the continent on a “short trip” and never ended up leaving. More than 20 years later and three books on, Allison is now launching his own “brand new safari company” with a “bunch of old friends” (Dave van Smeerdijk and Colin Bell) called fittingly Natural Selection. “We’re looking to wind the clock back a bit just in terms of having a safari focused on wildlife and guiding as opposed to the thread count of the sheets, or the butter that was just made this morning from a buffalo in Italy,” says Allison from England, where he and his wife have just welcomed their first baby. With properties in Botswana and soon Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa, Allison spoke to us about the importance of being a good storyteller, the traits of a good guide (they’re hiring!), and the most hair-raising moment of his career thus far. Edited excerpts:
In your book Whatever You Do, Don’t Run, you say a good safari guide has many stories to tell, a bad safari guide has even more. How big a part does storytelling, particularly the ability to spin a good yarn from the most boring sighting, play in being a good guide?
It’s certainly not innate in me, I was an incredibly shy child, but once I was in the bush I would jump up and down in my seat in enthusiasm. It was such an opportunity for a suburban boy from Sydney that I was gushing out stories probably to the detriment of my guests. You realise when you’re telling a story you can see people fall asleep, when they burst out laughing, so you start learning what works and what doesn’t just through empathy. And that’s why the campfire is such an extraordinary place to tell a story – around a dinner table these days people are checking their phones, and around a campfire they’re a captive audience because if they walk away they’ll be eaten by a lion.
Is it possible to make a herd of impalas sound interesting? How do you do it?
I think it is. The best thing to do is not give them everything all at once, eke it out, start with asking them what’s the most common thing they’ve seen, actually ask the guests why they’re successful. As much as a guide should be a storyteller – and I only learnt this later on my career – let the guests tell their stories. Ask the guests why they think impalas are so common, which leads to birthing strategy, allogrooming that lightens the tick load but you don’t need to give it all at once. Something I used to do on night drives – and this is something I learnt from another guide and modified to make it my own — on a moonless night, just switch off the vehicle, all of the lights, even on the dashboard and just say we’re going to sit still for a minute and imagine you’re an impala and know there are lions hunting you, and a python under the bush you’re standing next to, imagine that for one minute. Initially people feel so claustrophobic because it seems silent, then they start hearing all the sounds and realise just how noisy the night is and hear the snap of a twig, the rustle of dry grass, the call of an owl and their imaginations run wild.
Then switch on the light and ask them who respects impalas a little bit more, and all hands will be raised. Also don’t restrict stories to the campfire, make them get out, make them touch things, don’t just get out yourself. That’s a way to get them engaged especially when they’re bored or disappointed.
And since you’re hiring, what are you looking for in a guide?
The most important thing is being storytellers and not just having something I call parrot syndrome – I detest this, I find it quite demeaning for instance when a waiter comes and describes a wine to you and they say it has elements of grass and peach and they’ve been taught to say the words without knowing what it means. I think it’s unfair to give people these words they don’t understand. Guides should come to us with personality – you can’t teach them personality, but you can teach them about animals. We’re looking for characters, we’re looking for people who will make it memorable.
In one of your books, you say you rarely remember the undemanding, accommodating guests who don’t throw much of a fuss. It’s the characters who endure – any special ones you still recall vividly even after years?
I want to reiterate that most of the guests are fantastic and they’re there for all the reasons you’d want them to be there. I was lucky to be a guide when the average guest was a wildlife lover.
Today they have horrific bucket list syndrome. Then you got people who were incredibly difficult who didn’t want to be there – the reluctant spouse. I once had a guy, he was German, I don’t know what role he played in his normal corporate life, but from the get go resented a young guy having all the power. He was the sort if I said ‘don’t touch this’, he’d touch this.
It reached the point where I set up a coffee break in a beautiful area overlooking a big lagoon – there were hippos and crocs and an island with lechwe who had been trapped there long enough that they started producing albinos. The biggest croc I had ever seen was in this lagoon, 14 or 15ft long. I looked over the vehicle, I think his name was Pieter as well, and he was standing right at the water’s edge, I said ‘Come away from the water’, he actually tensed, planting his feet in the ground to be defiant. I’m not a confrontational person, but I stormed over to him, just to grab him by his collar and drag him away, and as I did I saw a croc on the far bank going in the water, and making a beeline for him. I grabbed him by the collar – he wanted a full on physical fight, his wife saved me, she had seen the croc and came over and started slapping him. That’s the only time I’ve enjoyed domestic violence.
Do you ever look back and think guiding “back in the day” was better than it is today?
I think the sightings are better today, we’ve got better and better at habituating animals. We’re seeing more of these smaller and rarer animals. We’re far better conservationists than we used to be. The downside is we get people who are arriving for the luxury of the setting rather than the luxury of experience. With Natural Selection we want to bring back luxury of experience as the focus. We’re not going to beat you each day or make you feel discomfort just for the old days’ sake – you’ll have hot and cold running water, we’ll have good wine because we all like it, the food will be great, but it will be cooked over a fire, and not some dessert with a sugar sculpture over it.
Do you have any guiding techniques to share with aspiring guides?
This was advice given to me by a very old friend of mine called Richard Field, and Rich said to me once — and I love this and wish it was my own — most guides act as if Africa is their girlfriend or boyfriend and they have this exclusive relationship with it, but a guide should be a matchmaker. You’re trying to get people to leave with their own relationship with the bush. It leads to making sure people get out and are touching things, letting people engage all of their senses, not just their eyes. Remind them they’re in Africa, make them feel like it’s less of a screen they’re observing. The job is to create these relationships so you can create a love affair to make them want to protect the place you work in.
As far as hair-raising moments go, you’ve had plenty – being stalked by a lioness, a leopard walking into your room, walking through a minefield. Have you had any recent scary moments when you’ve thought “uh oh”?
The most frightening thing was when I had a guest and they mentioned a snake they had seen and they couldn’t identify it, it was night time, so I went to my room to get a snake book. We were out of torches so I had one of those paraffin lanterns, my room had a bolt latch, the door had warped, so I had to fiddle with the bolt to open it. I went into my room, grabbed the snake book and took about three steps. Through the weak beam of my lantern, I could see my tracks going to the room and see other tracks going over the top — it was a lioness.
It was that moment, three or four steps back to the room, that is as scared as you will be, when you don’t know or can’t see. If the lion had charged me then ok you know what’s going on, but that moment of awful anticipation is definitely the most scared I’ve been.
Can you give us your essential Africa book list for guides or people who just like going on safaris?
I recently read a great one that’s gone completely under the radar, Between Man and Beast, about an early French explorer who went to Gabon and became the first man to bring gorilla skins to the UK. It’s a great book about early wildlife and perceptions of things like gorillas.
Africa Bites by my friend Lloyd Camp is another great one. For something that’s not very fun King Leopold’s Ghost, harrowing but essential reading. You need to read that if want to know about Africa’s forgotten moment in history.
I love the writing of Alexandra Fuller, Tony Park for shit blowing up, The Scramble for Africa for straight education, a very dry read but a great book to understand why colonial borders were put where they were put.