Marco Tonoli is the head ranger at Tswalu, where he leads and mentors a team of guides with over 40 years of collective guiding experience, contributing over 12 of those years himself. He runs a well-oiled machine and the respect he commands from his troops is obvious.

He has worked in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa, and has obtained some of the highest guiding qualifications available (including FGASA Level 3 Trails guide and SKS birding). He is sharp behind the camera and whether you’re keen on honing your videographic skills on safari or not this is certainly the kind of ranger you want guiding your experience.

We caught up with Marco and put a few of the usual questions his way..

What’s the strangest thing you have been asked during your guiding career?

“Marco, Marco, what’s that, is that a Buffalo?” Now that might sound like a particularly normal question, but on this specific occasion, I was on my way to the airstrip with guests departing after a 5 night stay in the Kalahari. We must have had seen 500 Blue Wildebeest on numerous occasions where on each and every occasion I was asked if it was Buffalo. On each instance I patiently explained that it was actually a Wildebeest, and explained the differences. By the last morning I was sure that I had gotten through to them and they had it figured out. But on the drive to the airstrip, standing in the middle of an opening not more that 20 metres from the road was a lone male Wildebeests, showing us his profile. With incredible excitement, I heard my two guests in unison shout, “Marco, Marco, what’s that, is that a Buffalo?” I had a chuckle inside and did something that I have never done before and will never do again; I smiled and said “Yes, that’s a Buffalo”. It really wouldn’t have made a difference what I said.

Being a guide can be pretty embarassing…

There is a running joke amongst guides that very often first time visitors to Africa spot a warthog and in their moment of excitement mistake it for something else and scream out “Baby Rhino, Baby Rhino”. We always have a chuckle about this afterwards. On one specific occasion though, I had heard from the other guides that a baby white rhino had indeed been seen in the eastern section of the reserve, and I was the only guide not to have seen it. I was therefore determined to head out that afternoon and find this baby rhino. As we arrived in the general area, I was alert, focused and excited and ready to make my find. A few moments later out the corner of my eye I spotted an adult white rhino. A few seconds later a I a saw a glimpse of the smallest rhino I had ever seen moving behind its mother, and I shouted out “Baby Rhino, there’s a baby rhino”. Everyone shifted in there seats drawing off my excitement waiting to get a glimpse of this amazing sighting. And out it came from behind a bush, tail straight up in the air and two little white tusks protruding out the sides of its mouth. One of my South African guests innocently said “Marco, are you sure about that”. They all then burst out laughing. To make things worse, it wasn’t even a female white rhino. It took me a while to live that one down.

You work in an extremely spiritual part of the world: what’s it like guiding in the Kalahari?

There is an old saying in the area, that if you get the Kalahari sand in between your toes, you’ll always be drawn back. It certainly is true. It’s hard to explain what it is about this environment. Perhaps the vast open landscapes, the exceptionally “Big Sky” country or perhaps knowing that what you are looking at is as it has been for millennia. Everyday I drive back home from the lodge, I overlook a huge open plain with the Korannaberg mountains as a back drop, and every time I still think “Hell, this is a beautiful part of the world”.

As far as guiding out here, well I’ll be honest and say that when I first thought about guiding in the Kalahari, my first thoughts were more along “Eish, can’t be much to see out there”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The diversity of general game is huge. Massive herds of springbok and eland, the biggest lion I have yet to see, a healthy cheetah population and even desert black rhino. And that is just on the larger side of things. If you go down to the smaller mammals, I started seeing things that after 10 years of guiding I had either seldom or never seen before in my life. Bat-Eared Fox, Cape Fox, Aardwolf and porcupine all regular sightings. And last winter I broke my record and saw 5 Aardvark on one afternoon game drive.

The ecology of this area is also fascinating. As it is a particularly harsh environment with extreme heat in the summer and bitterly cold winter nights, the fauna and flora of the area have evolved some remarkable adaptations and strategies to survive. That’s what makes this area interesting.

But the winning contribution to making this an ideal environment to guide in is the exclusivity we have. On 103 000 hectares we have 7 vehicles. In three years I have never had to leave a sighting because there were guides on standby. In fact, if I see another vehicle on Game Drive, I’ll get my guests to take a photo, because they probably won’t see another one for a few days. This exceptionally low vehicle density means that when you head out there, you are likely to be alone in an area, and you have to really apply yourself and what you have learnt in your guiding career, as well as work well and closely with your tracker to find the rarer or larger species. We do a lot of tracking on foot out here, which means you are always right in the thick of it. It’s brilliant. What can I say; it’s a guide’s paradise out here.

What’s the wildest place you have ever been too?

That’s a tough one to answer. In Africa, it has to be Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. You camp right on the banks of the Zambezi River, with absolutely nothing but a thin sheet of canvas between you and the wildlife of the area. Even walking to the ablutions you needed to be on high alert for roaming lions or grazing hippo. The birdlife is also incredible. It was like traveling back in time when rules were few and encounters were wild.

If it’s the most remote area I have been to, I was always keen to visit northern Scandinavia, and in my early guiding years, took a few months off to explore Norway. I went far up north to an area called Trollhjeme, with a backpack, tent, a bag of rice and a fishing rod and disappeared in the mountains for two weeks. I didn’t see another soul for the entire time, and just spent my time exploring and photographing the area. Talk about soul food.

Your most memorable sighting?

When I was working in the Sabi Sands, I had come across a female leopard up in a huge Jackalberry with a young kudu carcass. After a great sighting of her and returning to the lodge with our guests, I made my way straight out there again to get some photos. When I arrived she was on the far side of the tree high up in the branches. I positioned my vehicle on the furthest side of the tree to give her space and just waited. After about 10 minutes, she started to move and made her way amongst the branches straight to the side of the tree I was at. She walked along the top of a branch and when she was about 5 metres away from me, she stopped, looked in my direction and then began to settle down again. She slowly sprawled her self over a thick branch with her back legs hanging on either side of the branch, her front legs crossed over in front of her and her head rested in her paws. At that moment she just looked straight into my eyes and stared at me, almost as if she was acknowledging that I was there, and she was fine with it. It’s hard to explain, but that image was burnt in my mind from that moment on.

What’s the most interesting animal behaviour you have witnessed?

While I was still guiding in the Sabi Sands I had heard some of the other guides say that they had found a dead juvenile giraffe out in the bush. I was quite keen to head out there after game drive to see what the carcass might attract. At first, when I arrived, there was no sight of the giraffe carcass where the guides had explained to me. I searched around a little and eventually found it hoisted up about 5 metres up in the branches of a large Marula tree. It was no small giraffe, and must have weighed in the vicinity of 250-300kgs. When I first spotted it there was a female leopard feasting on the carcass, which just seemed very unlikely that it was her kill, but with a little exploring around, I noticed a large, very full, male leopard trying to deal with over indulgence. I have always known that pound for pound they are the strongest of the cats, but a giraffe up a large tree like that, now that’s just impressive. Respect.

What wilderness area are you most hoping to visit?

Oh, there are many, but sitting at the top of the list, and has been for some time is probably the most extreme opposite to where I am now and as far north as man has actually settled. I spent a lot of time up in Norway a few years back, and since have always been drawn to explore the Islands of Svalbard. It is again the extreme isolation and extreme conditions that fascinate me. Even in such a harsh environment nature manages to support life. I’d love to, and one day will, go spend some time up there with the resident guides to get to understand that environment a little better. Hey, if any of you guides want to experience the Kalahari, I am happy to do an experiential exchange.

Can you share three guiding techniques for aspiring guides?

Well, I have always believed that practicing a high level of empathy is the key to being a good guide. Always put yourself in the shoes of your guests. Imagine having worked hard for a long time saving up to experience something you have dreamed about your whole life. In that situation, what would you like your guide to be like? Then be that guide to your guests.

Remember not everyone comes out to wilderness areas to be inundated with big words and scientific jargon. They did not travel across the world so that you can show them how much you know. People travel to wilderness areas for experience. So give them experience. Get them to feel, smell, listen, taste and absorb the environment they are in. And remember that you are part of that experience, so enjoy your time and share your passion with them, and they will enjoy their time with you.

And finally, well, always be one step ahead of your guests. Keep a watchful eye, or an alert ear for what they are doing or would like to be doing, or any concerns or desires they might have. Then be there to assist or offer a solution to them with whatever it might be. People don’t like to worry when they are traveling or on vacation, so make sure they know you are always there to help.

Great advice. I’m sure you’re guests have considered themselves very lucky. Lastly, the question that guides get asked most often at the dinner table: what was your most hair raising moment?

We were out tracking lion in the Kalahari and we had their tracks go off a road and into a huge block of land. Once we had circled the block and were sure there were no tracks coming out, we headed back to the last tracks and my Tracker Zachs and I went in on foot to see if we could spot them. It wasn’t even 3 minutes and a few hundred metres from the vehicle in a wide open area that I heard Zachs shout “Sy kom, SY KOM”! (she’s coming, SHE’S COMING!) and quickly saw a lioness hurtling towards me about 30 metres away. I quickly cocked and shouldered my rifle and shouted to Zachs to get behind me and not to run, and then kept on letting my vocals work as hard as they could. It was a classic boisterous lion charge with no real conviction, and she stopped about 15 metres from me and started pacing to my left. As I started to back her sister also came out of the bush at a pace straight towards me. I started shouting again and she too stopped close to her sister. I again started to back off a little and managed to get myself caught up in a Black-Thorn shrub. I was trying to rip my arms out of the bush when I heard another typical growl that one never forgets, and the mother of the two lionesses decided to get involved. Now she is a big lioness, possibly the biggest I have seen to date. I kept shouting and managed to get my arm free and move around the Black-Thorn. All three females were now circling around to my left, tails thrashing. It was at this point that I then noticed the big male stand up and start moving towards me with a slower but more determined pace, and that’s when I realized that things weren’t too peachy, and I was in a spot of trouble. I turned to tell Zachs we needed to back off, and when I quickly looked over my shoulder, he was no where to be seen. He must have legged it at the first charge, and that’s what triggered the rest of the charges. I was fuming at this point, but it turns out his actions were a godsend, as with all four lions moving towards me, I heard the Land Rover at high rev’s heading straight in my direction, and Zachs quickly placed the vehicle between me and the lions. I hopped in, and just like that, they had no idea where I had disappeared to, and kept searching around for me, paying no attention to the vehicle.

Read about Marco finding a pangolin here

Watch Marco’s video of an aardvark here

View some of Marco’s beautiful images here

And check out his stunning blog 4elements