If you’re searching for an award-winning guide for your next safari, look no further. Having won the South African Tourism Board’s Welcome Award (dubbed the “Oscars of Tourism”) in 2010 and then again in 2011, as well as sweeping the overall Guide of the Year for 2011, Greg was awarded the Africa Direct FGASA Ranger of the Year for Southern Africa 2011.
He took the title after a tough four-day assessment in the greater Kruger National Park, where he went head to head with some of Africa’s best rangers. Together with his wife Riana, Greg now runs Lederle Safaris: specialist safaris throughout Africa with the emphasis on professional guiding and bespoke itineraries. There’s no doubt you will be in very good hands. Greg was an obvious choice for our new Featured Guide, and we caught up with him recently…
What’s the funniest question you’ve been asked as a guide?
Having collected guests at the airstrip, we had a long drive back to camp. On the way we happened across a number of animals on their own – your typical solitary animals like steenbok, duiker etc. – which would often be met with the horrified “but it’s all by itself!”, as first time safari goers tried to understand why, in this wild and dangerous environment, anything would choose to be by itself. I would then explain about the benefits and negatives of both solitary and social systems in animals and which animals are social and which are solitary.
One of the guests (from the States) who was sitting on the back of the Land Rover gave the impression of being as sharp as a beach ball. After checking into camp and the usual lodge protocol and procedures, we headed out on a drive, with Miss Beach-Ball now sitting just behind me, happily slapping me on the back of the head every time she spotted a rock that looked like a rhino or a termite mound that looked like a hippo…and so on it went. We passed a steenbok here, a duiker there, again the horrified, “It’s all alone, can we not help it?” was expressed by Miss Beach-Ball. I would then, again, explain the reason why some animals are solitary and the ins and outs of this chosen isolated existence. We arrived at some large plains, where there were beautiful herds of springbok, zebra and wildebeest, spread out all over the grassy plains, happily grazing together and sharing the advantage of having many eyes, ears and noses, all looking, listening and smelling for danger. I stopped the vehicle to scan around and see what else may be around when, before I could say anything, Miss Beach-Ball asked: “Now which one of these animals is solitary?” This was the last straw and the entire vehicle erupted into laughter. Miss Beach-Ball still battled with what was so funny.
What’s your most embarrassing moment as a guide?
Moment? More like a long list and don’t let any guide fool you into thinking that we don’t all have many moments!
I was doing a game drive in the southern section of the Kruger on one of the private concessions when my tracker and I came across a small group of white rhino. After watching them for a few minutes as they grazed around, I began explaining as to their nomenclature and where the name came from, delving a little into South African history and then back to the rhino. One of them was now facing away from us and I was explaining as to the dynamic of the group and the females being accompanied by their own calves as well as larger calves that have been driven away from their own mothers due to the arrival of a new calf. I was also explaining why the big female I had pointed out (who was now about 60 meters away) was pregnant and how to spot this and what to look for on a pregnant rhino. I was guessing her to be close to full term and that in the next few weeks or perhaps a little more, she would more than likely give birth to a new calf, another individual to boost the previously (and currently threatened) rhino population.
As I rambled on, this rhino cow horns a small bush, rubs her horn over the surrounding ground, drags her front and rear feet in a thorough scraping motion and subsequently marks her territory with what I am convinced was a penis. I kept thinking as to how the hell I was going to get out of this one, especially when my tracker, who had been pointing at the rhino and not wanting to interrupt, was now looking at me with his mouth half open, his finger still pointing at the rhino and a very strange look on his face… Luckily, one of the guests (who had all been very quiet after my ‘experienced’ observations) shouted “lion!” as three male lions came waltzing in to drink from the nearby pan. Talk about being saved by the bell – or lion…
I did confess to my incredible observation skills over a drink later that evening though, much to everyone’s mocking and laughter!
You’ve guided a lot in the Madikwe game reserve: what makes this reserve so attractive to you? What makes it different?
Madikwe is very much a conservation success story, combining the old three-legged pot analogy – one leg in the government, one leg in the private sector and one leg in the community. I prefer to think of it as a four-legged pot as one of the most important aspects is the tourist – the fourth leg – without which nothing would work.
Having brought back all the animals in Operation Phoenix in the early 90’s, it’s been incredible to see a reserve evolve and how all the elements have come together. It’s not many game reserves that can boast excellent wild dog sightings, as well as regular black and white rhino sightings along with the rest of the sought after high profile animals. The lion sightings are hard to beat and it has been wonderful to experience the increase in leopard sightings over the years. A lot of hard work and patience by a number of guides in the reserve is now beginning to pay off. The leopards have always been there but were very skittish, some still sit high on a rocky outcrop and glare at you from 200m away, others are as relaxed as any leopard in the lowveld.
Another great aspect of Madikwe is that the road density is not as high compared to other reserves. This allows for great walking trails in the park without needing to worry about bumping into game viewers.
It is also a very child-and-family-friendly reserve for those wanting to raise a family in the bush. My wife, Riana and I got the Madikwe Eco School up and running for anyone in the reserve with children. Unfortunately it was poorly supported by the other parents in the reserve, but it is still going and hopefully this will change for other parents to benefit from in the reserve in the future.
Tell us about Lederle Safaris…
Lederle Safaris is an inbound tour operator company specialising in Africa as a destination and everything it has to offer. We put together tailor-made and bespoke itineraries for our clients, many of whom request the services of a private guide. We have a number of guides whose services we use but we are always looking for more quality guides, so if anyone is interested, let me know…
What made you decide to go ahead with it?
Our two little girls were at a school-going age and in order to stay within an industry I am very passionate about, it was the logical next step for us. So we’ve moved to Cape Town and we do all our travel arrangements from here. As a private guide now, one need only be near an airport and you can be anywhere in Africa within 24 hours. Tourism is doing brilliantly in Africa, Southern Africa in particular and with Africa to sell, who would not want to do it?
Do you intend to make a life long career out of guiding?
As one starts off on a career path, you meet some incredible people, full of inspiration and encouragement, as well as some negative people. I remember early on hearing a lot of guides complaining about guiding and their guests and the hours of work etc., but I felt that if you have a passion for nature and enjoy people then this is a perfect career, and yes, you can make a life long career from it.
There are few things more rewarding than sharing the contagious magic of Africa with a great group of people. I am also a firm believer in sharing knowledge and have met older guides who are so willing to share, teach and learn with others and this is what will help make more guides seek this as a lifelong career – good advice and career guidance.
What’s the wildest place you’ve ever been to?
The Selinda reserve is a pretty amazing place in Northern Botswana, which I found to be very unspoiled and like an Africa of old. I hope one day not to be in a position to answer this question due to having travelled to so many destinations and there being too many places to compare!
Congratulations on winning the South Africa Ranger Of The Year Award! Was it a tough competition?
Thank you. I think it was tougher than was to be expected. The birding calls and slideshow quiz was always going to be a bugger…Not everyone was from the area and the bird-calls were out of context, like hearing a nocturnal bird in the quiz when its 38 degrees in the middle of the day. So everyone really had to ‘dig deep’ for the opening topic of the competition. The tracking was also challenging, but very rewarding with some great guys doing this part of the competition.
There was also an intimidation aspect as to what was expected of us, as there was always the prospect of falling into the trap of feeling you were being assessed. This was the first time that something like this was done and the organizers are to be commended on a number of points: firstly, for foresight for such a competition to promote this industry and career and also for how well it was organised.
One thing that I believe everyone took from the experience was being able to share ideas, debate and knowledge, as it is very seldom that there is a gathering of so many experienced minds and individuals together – I think we worked it out at about 350 years of combined experience in all the guides and judges together! Who would not want to tap into that?
I think that we all wish that it could have been a longer competition but it is always tough with lodges needing their guides and also the judges being away from their respective jobs and businesses. As the years tick by, I think that the competition will, as the industry has and does, evolve into being something bigger than what was ever imagined, as well as being tougher as the tasks are refined and honed. I’m a judge for next year, which I am thoroughly looking forward to and hopefully the competition will become one of the highlights in the guiding calendar.
Do you think the time is coming that guiding will be considered a profession more than something transitory?
There is no doubt. This is where older and well-established and reputable guides can bring some reputable sway to the change of mindset. We all know what it’s like when on leave where you have drinks or dinner with your ‘professional’ friends or you meet new people where, as guides, you are still seen as enjoying life in a very extended ‘gap’ year – still waiting to settle down and get a ‘real’ job.
Lodge owners who support families growing within their employment ranks, better exposure to the real influence and wonderful work guides do, television not portraying charlatans showing off more ego than ability with wild animals and showcasing some of the great guides that Africa has to offer will all work toward making this a sought after and respected career (better salaries wouldn’t hurt either). It takes a pretty dedicated person to be a guide, with some great skills.
An idea that I’ve had after a recent trip to Botswana is to get more ‘transfrontier guiding’ opportunities – almost like an exchange between agreeable lodges. I think the benefits of this would be vast and the ability to share knowledge and ideas, techniques, stories etc. would only stand to benefit the industry and the continent as a whole – not to mention tourism.
What was your most memorable sighting?
That’s a tough one! A memorable sighting need not be the most rare and unheard of sighting ever.
I had a blind client with his family and I assumed that sight is the primary sense needed to enjoy time in the bush, but I was to be proven wrong.
He was a very positive and up-beat individual with an amazing family. It seemed that for this group, the bush was going to be making as much noise as possible.
It was the middle of winter and our first sighting was a herd of elephant charging in to a well-used pan, shuffling in and trumpeting. After arriving, they were splashing around and making a lot of noise. A second herd then arrived and the chaos increased as the two herds were now jostling for water, babies and adults trumpeting, splashing and just general audible madness!
During drinks, we heard two male lions roaring in the distance after which we went in search of them, where we found them walking down the road toward us. We stopped to allow them to pass, but instead of walking by, they lay down, quite close to the vehicle and began roaring again. They did this a few times for us as the sun went down and then proceeded to walk down the road, scent marking scraping as they went.
The following morning we found a female leopard with a year old cub with the remains of a kill up a big Leadwood. They were both very energetic and were chasing each other around and up and down the tree several times, the sounds of their claws as they climbed and the thud as they jumped from the lower branches onto the ground made for yet another auditory experience.
In their six nights in the bush we had white rhinos courting with all the growls and huffing and puffing, giraffe bulls necking each other and a chaotic spotted hyena clan clash, which was almost deafening. The feeling of seeing a blind man cry is quite something and time spent with him and his family is one of the highlights of time on safari for me.
What’s the most interesting animal behaviour you’ve witnessed?
A few years back I saw a white rhino bull courting and trying to get frisky with a black rhino cow. She tolerated him and his gesturing, even to the point that the bull had his head resting on her back. Then in typical black rhino fashion, she would spin around and smash the much larger white rhino bull back by 40 meters or so, and then the procedure would continue from the start again. He did this several times and then eventually, with his tail up he charged off into the bush with a very mad black rhino cow after him! This was something that had me quite perplexed, but it was very comical indeed.
Can you share three tips for aspiring guides?
Never be afraid to say: “I don’t know”. Information is now very easily accessible with the internet and all it has to offer. You can always come back with an answer instead of babbling your way through an answer, which ultimately ends up embarrassing you and discredits you.
Spend as much time in the presence of experience, whether this is a senior guide, tracker or anyone with more experience than you. This is where you will learn the most, particularly in the field. Books will provide you with a good foundation but it is time with experienced people and experience itself that will ultimately make you a good guide.
Try as best you can to hang onto the emotion and feeling you had when you experienced something in the bush for the first time. The first time you saw a black rhino in the wild, your first leopard, the first time a lion roared close to you, your first charge – anything. If you can, it is easier to put yourself into your guests’ shoes and your empathy and sensitivity to these first time experiences for them will make something good become something great…and remember to stop to view impala – they are amazing animals and guests who have never seen them before will appreciate this too!
What was your most hair-raising moment?
I was taking an agent out on a walk a few years back, when after about an hour or so, we found tracks of a lone male lion. I asked if she would like to track the male and see if we could find him. She was very keen and we had a briefing about what to do in the event of a charge and also that she should stay close, ask if she wanted to take any pictures etc. And off we went…
We had been on the trail for quite a while when we bumped into a white rhino bull who was happily grazing and we skirted around him and left him to his own devices. The male lion’s tracks then became a whole pride of tracks as he obviously met up with them at some point earlier in the morning. There were no young cubs and so we continued to follow the tracks. There were areas where it became difficult to see which direction the pride had moved as the tracks were going in all directions. We eventually figured it out though and continued following the trail. There is a common rule when tracking lions that you must spend more time looking ahead than actually on the trail. A mistake I am sorry to have made…
We came across another area where the tracks were milling around and I was staring at the tracks trying to figure out which way the pride had moved. My client was luckily about a meter behind me when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye…I looked up to see a very angry Kalahari male lion bearing down on us at quite a speed. I chambered a round, stood our ground and yelled him down and he dropped at a respective 12 meters or so. As he dropped down, it exposed the female who was also moving quite swiftly in our direction. She came in a little wider and I repeated the yelling and instructions for my poor guest (who by now had refrained from taking any more pictures…!) and who was (to her credit) doing very well.
The lioness also dropped down very close, both her and the male doing a lot of fly swatting with their tails and growling in a permanent, uninterrupted way. I instructed my guest to grab the back of my backpack and slowly back me out, with me telling her to go slower or faster and that she needed to warn me if there was a hole or any object I could trip over. It was as we took one step backward that 90 degrees to our left there was more movement when (much to my delight), I saw the coalition partner of the first male also coming like a freight train. I then had to take my eyes (and my rifle’s open sites) off the two lions lying 10 to 12 meters away from us, and focus on the ‘new’ arrival. He too arrived with a lot of growling and attitude (I would love to say a lot of dust too, but it had recently rained…).
Now wishing that I had eyes like a chameleon in order to see all the lions, I was further thrilled to see about 10 tawny heads with yellow eyes pop up in the grass about 40 meters behind the first two lions. Some of which (being younger lions) came trotting around in order to surround us or just letting their curiosity and the pride’s confidence get the better of them. Luckily, as we backed out and away from the two males and the female lying very close, it brought the pride together in front of us. We were doing very well and had gained about 50 meters or so when one of the males would decide to charge again, and this would then spur his brother into a charge as well as some of the females, and again we would stand our ground and yell them down and start backing out again, and again the procedure would repeat itself with several lions charging at us when we had gained about 50 meters or so.
The lions had ‘escorted’ us for almost a kilometer (I went back the next day to measure it), when to our right I heard an elephant trumpet. This was not exactly music to my ears as they were very close, but it turned out to be our saving grace as the elephant had heard and sensed the lions and proceeded to chase them off, which allowed us to make a hastier retreat and back to the vehicle, which was still quite a long way away. The guest had done brilliantly in terms of being an incredible back-up for me, but she did say that she thought that she was going to die, although she thought what a great way it would be to go…We are luckily still good friends.