The best guides are the best story tellers. That’s why we’re featuring Jon Morgan. His guests could spend a whole day on safari having only seen the rear end of a dead impala and he’d still have them struggling for air through tears of laughter (with a champagne glass in hand, that is). Seeing nothing on safari with Jon is unlikely though. The guy boasts a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and eleven years of guiding experience in some of Africa’s top lodges including Ngala, Phinda, Mala Mala and Londolozi where he was both head ranger and guide trainer. He’s the guy that gets given the difficult guests at a lodge, and turns them into repeat guests. He currently manages a conservation campaign to combat the surge in rhino poaching, and works as a private host safari guide. And if he has it his way, will guide for the rest of his life.
You get asked some pretty strange questions as a guide. Spit one out for us.
While driving through the Northern section of Londolozi where the plains are interrupted by some majestic koppies (hills) one of the guests on the back pointed and said to me in her drawled Texan accent “Jaaaahn, how dy’all put them rocks there?:. The koppies in question are probably a hundered metres high and comprise around 700 thousand tons of rock. I looked back over my shoulder and smiled gently at her as I realized that she thought the entire reserve that we had been driving around in for two days was some sort of Disney theme park which had been specially crafted for their adventure. One of the few times in my life I was left speechless.
It can be just as embarrassing being a guide sometimes though…
My most embarrassing moment as a guide….it happened not long after I started guiding in the Sabi Sands. My mate Ralph and I had both been in the same buffalo herd sighting and had seen a baby buffalo nudging its mother. What the calf does to get the mothers milk flowing is to walk from directly behind her and head-butt her in the udder. Back in camp, just before our guests came through to dinner, we both found ourselves a bit thirsty and ready for a fun evening around the campfire. We decided to do a little buffalo re-enactment in the bar store room. I lined up six shots of whisky and was standing with my legs slightly apart bent forward at the waist, my mate kneeling behind me on his hands and knees, nudging me between my legs from behind and making baby buffalo sounds as I said looking over my shoulder at him “Ralphy boy, beg for mamma’s milk”. That’s how the guest found us as he opened the store room door.
Priceless! It’s wild out here in Africa! Speaking of which, what’s the wildest place you’ve ever been to?
The Selinda Reserve in Northern Botswana has a true wilderness feel. Its incredibly remote, if you don’t fly it takes you twelve hours to drive into it from Chobe, your closest major destination. It’s a fascinating landscape with the spillway linking the Okavango to the Linyanti an area the water is flowing through for the first time in twenty years. It’s one of the few places in the world where lions regularly prey on hippo, and sometimes even elephant.
Another really wild place I’ve recently visited is..
Kafue National park in Zambia, and that to me was like going to an outstretched version of the Okavango Delta. Incredibly big open spaces and in the hour and a half flight from Lusaka to Kafue, the last hour is over a forest where there’s no human habitation, just wilderness all the way.
Which wildlife destinations are highest on your wishlist?
The first is the Central Kalahari, I just need to go back there, I was last in that magical place as a teenager and it’s time to return. I’d also dearly love to go and see Mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
You’ve been to lodges all over the continent. What’s the best lodge you’ve been to?
I really enjoyed Lake Manyara Tree Lodge in Tanzania, it’s a very different lodge with these big radical rooms. The main structure of the lodge is really fun and they go out of their way to make the best cocktails I’ve ever had on a safari. As a lodge experience Ngala in South Africa gives you a really good wilderness feel that a lot of other South African reserves don’t manage. The reason for that is that it has a very limited road network, so guides and trackers spend a lot of time on the ground tracking for game. It’s an awesome reserve to conduct a walking safari on.
You’re very involved in rhino conservation. Tell us, where do you see the rhino situation in ten years time?
Tough question! Well, at the moment we are working on one solution which is educating the end user in Asian countries like China and Vietnam. We need to decrease the demand or create a perception that it’s not cool to use the horn. My personal feeling is that it’s not a mass use product, that it’s very much the top dogs who use it: consider the street price that rhino horn is fetching. So if we can address that issue and the people that are driving that market and take them out the equation then I think we’ll go back to early this century where poaching was a handful of animals. I think we’ll see more of an expansion of South Africa’s rhinos, re-popoulating Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe. Central Africa has no rhino, Tanzania only has rhinos left in the Ngorongoro crater: it would be great to see them reintroduced en masse into their former home ranges around Africa. And that’s a ten year program.
Is that a reality?
If I think about what humans have been able to accomplish if they put their minds to it, I think it’s totally within our reach as a species. This is not a ridiculous ask. This is also not some tiny toad disappearing from a pool in a secluded mountain range. this is a massive, iconic land mammal. This is a case of getting people to work together towards a cause and we can do it.
At the end of the day I feel very optimistic about the situation, I know it’s getting people down but fortunately for us in SA it hasn’t (yet) reached a point where numbers being poached are exceeding the growth rate.
Do you have three guiding techinques to share with aspiring guides?
Firstly, as a guide working with a tracker my recommendation is to spend as much time as possible with your tracker outside of the job. Go see his home and hang out in his village, go on holiday together, teach each other constantly, it may be reading, writing or how to use the internet. If you get to a situation where you and your tracker work really, really well together, it gives the guests a much better experience and guests can see that relationship very clearly.
Secondly, develop and ear for the sub-context of what guests are saying and what they want, (reading them) and guessing what extra things you can offer them to crate their ultimate holiday, especially since for many this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and it is your duty to give them the best experience they can possibly have.
And lastly get yourself a very good pair of binoculars, it can make a massive difference to your experience as a guide.
A tip I wish I’d listened to at the beginning of my guiding career!
Lastly: it’s a pretty thrilling career you’ve chosen. What was your most hair-raising moment?
I was walking into a an area of thick bush with my tracker and a trainee ranger looking for lions. We had, as usual, left our guests in the vehicle so we could follow the pad prints on foot. Looking back I must say we weren’t as focused and on-the-button as we should have been. We heard something plop out the tree right next to us. Initially thinking it was a bird, the seriousness of the situation dawned on us in a very short space of time as it turned out to be a little lion cub not three metres from us. As we watched it run away through the grass the heads of the pride simultaneously raised from around us in the grass.
Three lioness and a male charged us at full speed. We couldn’t really see the male due to the thickness of the bush (we could hear him alright) but the three lionesses gave us eight minutes of pure hell. We were jammed into a cul-de-sac of branches and bush and had nowhere else to go. The lionesses would hurl themselves at us and stop just under two metres away, while my tracker and I threw a barrage of sticks and stones at the oncoming nightmare. We soon ran out of stuff to throw and resorted to hurling sand into the eyes of the snarling, roaring, howling lions. In the meantime, the poor trainee squashed up against the thicket behind us was trying to brake a hole through the branches to provide us with an exit. I was almost pushing their noses away with the tip of my rifle. My tracker was super religious and I’d never heard a single cuss word leave his mouth, but the foul things that he was screaming were enough to unnerve me on their own!
The trainee broke a hole through the thicket behind us. He went through, and my tracker followed, holding me by the belt so he could guide me through it backwards while I faced the lionesses. I got most of my body into it, but then there was this big tree trunk that came across the small of my back. The only way to get under it was to duck down into a full crouch, and every time I did this, all three lionesses would come charging to the entrance of our little tunnel, so I’d have to jump back out swearing and shouting and waving the rifle and then take a step or two back and try to crawl under a bit quicker. This see-saw motion between us happened six times before I found a gap I could squeeze under in time.
Our ordeal was finally over.
And the guests?
Shame, when we got back to the vehicle there was this poor family of guests: the mother and the daughter were crying, and the father and the son were quite white, (and looked as if they had wanted to cry too). They had heard the whole thing, they had heard lions roaring, and us swearing and shouting and screaming. The father even tried to drive our Land Rover to come find us but there was a big watercourse that had prevented him from getting to us.
At the end of the guests’ stay they get a feedback form from the lodge. Somewhere in my cupboards I still have the little feedback form that the guests filled out with a picture that the son and daughter had drawn of them in the Land Rover with the words BOO HOO written on it, and some stick figures of the three of us with “@%!!$!” coming out of the speech bubbles, and the stick lions charging us. I thought, head office doesn’t need to see this form, we’ll keep that…
….and the poor trainee?
Andrew went on to become the head ranger at Phinda Forest Lodge. A little while after he went tracking black rhino with my brother and nearly got speared, so he doesn’t go walking with the Morgan brothers anymore!
Find out more about Jon, who also tailor makes guided safaris around the continent, at Jonmorganguiding.com