Mike Karantonis is a name many of the guides of the last fifteen years will know by reputation. The kind of guide that makes his guests want to return to Africa time and again to enjoy her wonders in his company. The kind of guide that his peers aspire to be like. To the lodges he worked for he was worth his weight in gold considering the repeat bookings he helped generate. He was awarded the Munyawana Ranger of the Year award in 2004, and the AndBeyond Ranger of the Year in 2007, and is the brain-child behind the Africa Direct/FGASA South African Safari guide of the Year competition. He is now dedicated to privately hosting safari tours around Africa with his guests, and you can request him to be your guide if he isn’t already booked up for the year!
We caught up with Mike for our latest interview…brace yourself and make sure you read it to the end!
Mike, what’s the strangest question you’ve been asked as a guide?
I had just collected my new guests from the airstrip and on the relatively direct trip to the lodge we were fortunate to come across a white rhino cow and her calf which was a wonderful treat seeming everything was a first for them. The little cameo from these two massive prehistoric looking animals was gracefully accepted and well imprinted in their minds as it was their first wildlife encounter. We had a wonderful afternoon/evening safari and dinner was entertaining because of some great company and their introduction to Africa was complete. The early morning safari always is special as all of the chess pieces move while we are asleep, and the excitement to go and see who made what has changed is tangible. So off we go and on one of the best early morning routes from where I was driving there are the remains of a rhino bull that had been killed by an elephant almost a year before. As I came around the corner and there it was as large as life with the bright white of the bones gleaming at us, everyone asked at the same time Â“What is THAT!?Â” As we slowly approached the calcified fossil of a skull and the carÂ’s engine was killed, one of my guests asked: Â‘Is this the same one that we saw yesterday on the way from the airstrip?Â”! I donÂ’t know how I didnÂ’t burst out laughing and I took a few seconds to stabilize my thoughts but… it had to be clear to anyone that this skull had been there for ages and there is no way on earth that something could get to this state over-night. I guess the image in my guest’s mind was that the mercilessness, harshness and efficiency of nature in Africa had the capabilities to do just that, totake a 2000kg healthy white rhino and have it diminished to bleached bones by morning!
Your most embarrassing moment as a guide (if it isn’t still coming….)?
It has to be when I was training. As we all know, the trainee guides are asked to do all the errands around the lodge as we are an extra pair of hands that donÂ’t have guests to look after. I was cutting a road at the time and they radio-called me to say that I had to link late arrivals to their game drive. I rushed back to the camp to lend a helping hand. I was terribly excited as we as trainees didnÂ’t get too much exposure to guests (which is our ultimate goal as a training guide) and I was about to take guests out on my vehicle, even if it was just for half an hour or so. I met them in the car park and off we went. I established the position of the guide I had to meet up with and decided on my route. As we got on to the main road I saw a large piece of plastic lying in the middle of the road so I pulled up alongside it. The Land Rovers at that time didnÂ’t have a door on the driver’s side so I figured I could easily lean out and smoothly whisk it up in a cool, rough, rugged ranger fashion… forgetting that I was a trainee. I depressed the clutch, held on to the steering wheel with my left hand and leant out at a fair stretch to collect the plastic. My foot slipped off the clutch and with the popping of the clutch the car jerked and I fell out the landrover pretty much onto my head in front of all the guests. So I stalled the car, fell on my face and collected a piece of plastic for my efforts. The guests laughed the entire way to their guide and I am sure the story they told to the rest of the group that they had been teamed up with was the perfect ice-breaker!!!
Beautiful! I think we all have a trainee story like that somewhere in the recesses! You were the creator of the new SA Ranger of the year competition: what inspired you to start this project?
I know what it is like to work 16-18 hours a day for 49 days in a row, stay smiling and get R3500 for your monthly salary! ItÂ’s not easy and there are very few thanks given around in such a competitive, hustle and bustle industry. So many times before anyone could even think of saying thank you for all your hard work you would have a new set of guests given to you and off you went with the 5 star $40 000 trip expectations on your shoulders giving it your all so that they will come back. It is a very thankless job relative to the workload one takes on, so because I know what that feels like I wanted to try and find a way that I could say thank you to the guides out there for all the hours they put in, all the smiles they give at 04h30 in the morning, the family and relationship time they sacrifice and for being great ambassadors to our country and wildlife.
Another reason why I did it was to try and get some exposure for our profession because there is an incredibly diverse opinion of what we do as professional guides. I wanted to give the general public a solid and refreshed platform of what we do and how professional so many of the guides out there are. We do not all wear copper bracelets up to our elbows on both arms, smoke in front of our clients, point at a lion and sit cleaning our nails then wheel-spin off to the next member of the big 5 and on our return to the camp hit on the cute guest and ignore the rest! We actually love what we do, we are actually very good at what we do, we take pride in how far we can take ourselves. This industry is growing to such a degree that for those who have it very close to their heart they can make a wonderful career out of it…it is no longer some gap year job!
The competition within the industry is very intense and this therefore often builds walls between camps and even friends are sometimes not allowed to meet, or people think we are breaking down each otherÂ’s brands over a beer! This has over time segregated and almost created animosity amongst guides about areas and brands and I wanted this to break those walls down and try and mentally repair all the damage that has been done. I wanted some of the top guides to be together all wearing the cap with the logo of their lodge/home on their heads. When last did all the major players of the industry all sit around a fire at night and tell stories and learn from each other? Maybe 20 years ago? I always remember wishing with all my heart that I could be a fly on the wall when all the big names were together. The things I would learn and the stories I would hear would inspire me for many years to guide so that maybe one day it would happen to me.
A fantastic idea and a great competition! Now, the question most guests ask their guide… what’s your most memorable sighting?
There are so many that mean so much to me for different reasons… the one that sticks out was when I was assisting with the pangolin research in the Sabi Sands. We had left the lodge at around 19h30. We drove for about half an hour until we found the signal of the pangolin that we were looking for (we had fitted them with transmitters for those that think I am mental) and this particular one that we had to work with for the night was a really big male. I was so excited as he was the most relaxed and impressive of all the pangolins we were working with. We had triangulated his co-ordinates and had a pretty good idea where he was. We collected all our gear and started walking. It is always a special thing walking though one of the most predator dense areas on the planet at night, and it often turned out being a very long night for reasons I am sure you can conjure up yourselves! We actually didnÂ’t have to walk very far until we found him this time, maybe about three kilometres or so but still an exciting three nonetheless! And there he was, as magnificent and chilled as always. So we followed him for a while, taking soil samples of where he had dug and how deep and what species of ant, distances, etc. Then came a moment where he was about ten metres away from me and he started to walk towards me. Iain told me to stand still as I wasnÂ’t looking, I was jotting stuff down on the clipboard, and IainÂ’s comment made me look up. He was walking straight towards me, so I slowly moved the clipboard behind my back, stood dead still and just watched. He stopped at my feet, stretched up a little higher than normal on his back legs with his cute little nose running though the hair on my legs. I stared into those tiny beady eyes and thought how unbelievably amazing his face was. While I was admiring his face, a little break of pink changed my point of fascination and his tongue started coming out, and it came and came and cameÂ… this incredibly long tongue was waving around in the air and I had no idea how long it actually was. He was touching around my calf muscle investigating what this thing was in his way. He slowly retracted his tongue, dropped down to his normal position of walking and carried on around me like if what he just encountered didnÂ’t excite him in the least. Me on the other hand: I was freaking out!! I was so amazed at what had just happened and wondered how many people can say that they had a wild pangolin taste their leg in the middle of the bush at night on foot!?
I’ve only ever seen one pangolin in all my years of guiding. And it certainly didn’t taste my leg. What’s the wildest place you’ve ever been to?
I would say the papyrus swamps in the GMA north of the Busanga floodplains looking for Sitatunga.
And the most interesting animal behaviour you’ve witnessed?
I have been so richly blessed with so many amazing interactive sightings that it is impossible to choose one! I will just go with the most recent to help me make a choice! We were in a sighting where 3 lionesses and a male were patiently wearing down an injured buffalo. Regardless of the major injuries to the buffalo it still had a lot of fight left and every time the lions attacked it would violently retaliate giving the lions something to think about and re-strategize. After several attempts to finally pull the buffalo down, the buffalo started tiring and crossing the point of no return. When we had all concurred that if the lions attacked again, it would surely be the final act, an elephant bull arrived on the scene. This made it a little uncomfortable:elephants hate lions, so we gave the whole scenario even more space than we had already given them. The elephant chased the lions off as expected and stood guard over the badly injured buffalo. Normally elephants are intolerant of anything that comes into their space. This time however the elephant stayed close to the buffalo with curiosity and pity. Every time the lions advanced the elephant would chase the lions off which in turn gave the buffalo great rest time to gather strength for when it was once again left alone. After a few hours of this the bull had more important issues to take care of like keeping his stomach happy and headed off into the bush never to return. The lions took no more chances and made very short work of the buffalo thereafter.
A guide with your experience must have had a few close calls: what was your most hair raising moment?
It is not something that I really chat about much but I will share it because of how it changed my guiding career due to its harsh reality.
We had viewed a herd of elephants on the morning drive and at that time of the year their movement was like clockwork. If they were at a certain point in the morning, they would almost definitely be at a specific place by afternoon. I wanted to view this herd of elephants on foot with my group of guests because they were young, keen walkers and interested in something a little different. I knew that if I went to this particular road by 14h30 in the afternoon I would see their tracks crossing at the elephant path where they always cross as they head through the forest to be at the dam by approximately 16h00, so if I left early for drive I would have the reserve to myself and catch them on their way through the forest. So I did just that, I left early and, out of protocol and even though I thought my calls on the radio would fall on an empty reserve, I radioed that I was zoning (restircting) the particular area that I wanted to walk in. I did surprisingly receive a message back on the radio from a senior guide that had had the same idea! He called me and said that he already had the herd and they were about to leave. He gave me the details of where the herd was and they were busy making their way out. He said that he would meet me at the big torchwood (a magnificent Ballenites tree that we all knew so well in that area because of its size). So I stopped at the elephant path and started waking in from there. I noticed that he hadnÂ’t started from where I expected which confused me. I followed the tracks knowing that they were heading past the massive torchwood as this was their regular route to the dam.
We arrived at the impressive giant tree and the other ranger and his guests were not there yet. So we quietly sat, listened and waited for him and his group to immerge from the forest. We sat for about ten minutes and we couldnÂ’t hear a thing. It was in one way fine for me as I knew that the herd was over forty strong and I would definitely have heard them if they were close and if I couldnÂ’t hear 40 elephants inthe forest then we were waiting far away enough. All of a sudden the silence was broken with a blood-curdling trumpet from almost 500-600 meters away, which in a forest is far! It was followed by a shout from the depths of the ranger’s lungs and finally ending with a gunshot! I immediately told my tracker to quickly escort my group back to the car so I could go and see if I could find out what was going on and see if I could be of any help. I ran through the forest as quickly and as quietly as I could in the direction of the gunshot. I knew I was really close when I saw the back end of an elephant heading east away from me, it never saw me, so I kept on going with my heart in my mouth. It wasnÂ’t more than another 150 meters before the ranger jumped out in front of me and said: “Mike, I have a dead guest and I have shot an elephant, I need your help.”
I peered over his shoulder and there lay a body surrounded by his fellow travellers and alongside them was a massive beast on its lifeless side. I helped manage the other guests by taking them away from the two bodies and looking after them while the other ranger took care of the emergency procedures. Once other help arrived, I left the area as I also had frightened and concerned guests to tend to. I radioed my tracker to find out where he was so that I could meet up with them. When I came out of the forest and saw the car, I climbed into the passenger seat of the vehicle, told my tracker where to take us and as we left I tried as hard as I could to hold back the tears as my guests immediately started bombarding me with questions. I put them off until we got to the place I wanted to be, kind of like a waypoint of sorts, and told them what had happened and how we were going to deal with it on our return to the lodge. It stayed with me for years how quickly things can change and how responsible I actually am when I am in the bush with my guests. I look at my rifle in a very different manner and walk in the bush in a much more mature way ever since that day and I think everyone else should too without having to endure that type of experience. We are out there to be a part of nature, not to push theboundaries.
Hectic. That is an intense story Mike. I had heard part of it told before when I was a training ranger. I know so often in these situations the finger is pointed at the guide when sometimes the circumstances may be beyond his or her control. It also underlines the importance of sharing stories and knowledge like this with each other, and the worth of keeping experienced, well trained guides in the profession. Phew. Speaking of passing on the knowledge, can you share three guiding techniques for aspiring guides?
One. I would say that most important is that guides wanting to pursue this as a career mustfirst and foremost understand that this is THE SERVICE INDUSTRY!!! We are here to serve! We pour wine, we take guests to the curio shop whenever they want, even if it is during your nap time, we make sure they have the right coffee order in their room, we fetch and carry, take walks in the bush, we give give give and serve serve serve! If you are not up to doing this then donÂ’t bother wasting everyoneÂ’s time. The trainers, your peers, the guests. People pay a lot of money, travel a long way and dream about this for a very long time and they do not deserve to have all of the above wasted by being with someone who doesnÂ’t want to be 100% there for his or her guests. So my first bit of advice is: get the picture of what is expected from you (which is A LOT) then make a decision so that you donÂ’t set yourself up for disappointment.
Two. Always smile, be well groomed and when you ask your guest: Â“How are you?Â”…mean it!
Three. Show a genuine interest in what your guest talks to you about. You are not the only one on their trip that is supposed to be listened to. Be a good listener as well as a great story teller, it gives you great balance as a good guide.
Lastly, What makes Africa Direct different?
The great emphasis on the guiding element. It is not often where a tour operating company almost only chooses establishments that have great guides and amazing wildlife experiences as a priority because that is what guests really come here for, is the wildlife. DonÂ’t get me wrong, the lodge, the food, the service etc is of criticalimportance to our clients but at the end of the day, we want them wowed out there in the field more than on any other part of their stay here with us in Africa.
If you’re interested in a guided safari experience with Mike, checkout www.africadirect.co.za.