Phill’s big red beard was one of the first things I noticed as a training ranger at &Beyond’s Inwazi course. Sitting in the corner like a Zulu chief with his hands on his knees, dipping his head silently at the passing trainees. That’s about the most serious I’ve ever seen him. His name is synonymous with laughter and highly enjoyable safaris. And his 13 years of guiding, mentoring and training at some of Southern Africa’s top lodges (including Phinda, Ngala, Nxabega and Kwandwe) are testament to this. He is fluent in German, a highly skilled walking guide, and an avid photographer, and now leads tours privately across the continent under the banner of Phill Steffny Safaris.
What’s the strangest question you’ve been asked as a guide?
One day, we saw a huge bull stop in an open area, and start to urinate. Everyone watched, and half way through, I was asked (quite innocently but sincerely) by one of my guests – “Phill, is that a male?” It took me a while comprehend what I’d just heard, especially considering the 2 metre long, 27 kg appendage dangling from between his legs. I went with “yes”.
Your most embarrassing moments as a guide?
Some of the more embarrassing things seem to happen fairly often, and the more it happens, the greater the shame. Getting stuck in really stupid places and having to ask the general manager, chef and once even a receptionist, who all happened to be ladies, to please bring another vehicle and tow rope to pull me out of the mud/sand or off a log that I just didn’t see… no-one seems to let you live those moments down. Ever!
[Phil shifts uncomfortably and looks like he’s hiding something]
What is the value of having a private guide (like yourself) on safari (in addition to a local guide)?
There are some incredible guides living and working at the lodges, some for many years, but unfortunately the turnover of lodge-based guides is fairly high. I’m sure some would disagree, but being a great guide is a constant journey – the longer you do it, the more experience you gather, and this is where one of the most valuable factors comes in when utilising a private guide. Typically, people that have chosen this as a career dedicate their entire lifetime to professional guiding, both throughout Africa and the rest of the world.
A private guide is not only beneficial when it comes to interpreting a wildlife experience; the added value of having somebody to deal with all of the logistics and potential hitches that are bound to happen on any safari, definitely enhances a guest’s experience. Also, the ability to try and deliver exactly what your guests are expecting is also enhanced by continuity and the relationship that builds from the beginning of a trip.
Having a private guide in some of the more remote parts of Africa where guides aren’t fluent in English is obviously a huge bonus, especially when it comes to interpreting wildlife experiences. I love photography, and it gives me great pleasure to help my guests get the best out of their photographic safari.
Do you have a most memorable sighting?
Of the many the one that stands out would certainly have to be while on a walking safari. We were following a herd of buffalo, and a single cow was lagging behind. At first we thought she may be injured, or ill, but on closer inspection with our binoculars we realised that she was actually in labour. We managed to get into a safe position, and witnessed the entire birth of her calf, while we were on foot.
If you could go back to the start of your career, is there anything you’d do differently?
I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever! I have loved every single moment of my career. Maybe in another life I would have skipped school entirely and started guiding even earlier in life!
What’s the most interesting animal behaviour you’ve witnessed?
Each time I watch a spider hunting wasp carrying off a huge baboon spider, I’m amazed by how powerful this winged predator is! The gory details of the wasp laying its eggs on the paralysed body of the living spider for the larvae to eat their way through, leaving the vital organs until the end to keep it alive for as long as necessary, never fails to give me the shivers. I’ve seen some incredible sights during my time in the bush, yet this one always grabs my full attention.
Where’s your favourite wilderness area?
I believe a wilderness area should be exactly that: as wild as possible. I sometimes get the feeling that a lot of wilderness areas have almost missed the point….. too many lodges, too many roads. If there’s one wild place that I think of immediately, it would have to be Sossusvlei, in Namibia. Just check it out on Google Earth: quite literally, there’s nothing else there! It’s wild, and in its own way unbelievably beautiful and majestic. Truly uninhabitable for most species, including man. If you get lost or stuck there’s a very good chance you won’t make it out. That, to me, is one of the main criteria that determines how truly wild a place is.
What’s the best lodge you’ve been to?
My favourite lodge is in Zambia, in the very far eastern corner of the Lower Zambezi National Park. It’s a camp called Old Mondoro, a tiny camp on the banks of the Zambezi River, really rustic (very comfortable too!) with incredible game viewing. The scenery is stunning, the staff are some of the finest I’ve ever met, and they really do go out of their way to make sure you have the very best of everything. Their refreshing flexibility means that you can do what you want, instead of having to stick to a schedule of fixed meal times and activities that can so often be the case. If you look up “hospitality” in the dictionary, you’ll see Old Mondoro as the definition!
That’s quite a compliment from a guide who’se seen so many of the top African lodges! If a guest could only go on safari once, and had two weeks, what would you recommend?
The ultimate once-in-a-lifetime ten-day safari ….mmmm…so many to choose from! I would say a well-rounded Botswana experience is very hard to beat. If you are only going to do it once, the absolute priority would be game viewing, and a very close second, accommodation and warm, welcoming hospitality. A combination of Duma Tau in the Linyanti Swamps, with huge herds of elephant and buffalo, wild dogs in camp, fantastic general game and unbelievable birding would be a great start. Then a few nights at Mombo: absolutely remarkable predator viewing and general game viewing, plus a spectacular camp too. Then I’d round it off with a water-based camp somewhere in the Delta. Xigera is beautiful. I love Botswana, having lived and worked there myself, there’s something about it that makes it by far one of the best wildlife experiences I can think of.
Can you share three guiding techniques for aspiring guides?
Listen carefully to your guests’ requests. Involve everybody on the vehicle, not just select few. And as far as I’m concerned the most valuable technique would have to be thinking out loud, keeping everybody in the loop and involved in your plans on a constant basis.
What was your most hair raising moment?
I’m not too sure how many of you have read about my mountain bike encounter with an enraged male lion, when I had nothing but my cell phone for defence! Being charged by lions while on an armed walk with a tracker or partner is never a fun experience, but being continuously charged by an absolutely furious male lion who I managed to frighten off a kill while on my bike was definitely the most hair-raising experience of my life. Not only that, it definitely ranks high on my list of embarrassing moments, as I was rescued by a game drive vehicle full of guests, who certainly didn’t expect to see me in full spandex cycling kit, shaking from a very close encounter! Not at all heroic. But very hair-raising. Probably for the guests too, come to think of it…
If you’d like to go on safari with Phill Steffny, send us a mail and we’ll put you in touch.