Everyone likes to read about good experiences and we are pleased to say most of our field guide experiences have been good and it does not give us pleasure to write about our bad experiences - but we think it's important that wildlife photographers know what they could be faced with when on a guided safari, even at 5-star lodges.
The field guide can make or break your safari so if you are unhappy with the person you have been allocated to ask to be moved to another vehicle with another guide.
We are using Madikwe Game Reserve for the sample pool as these are the safaris that are our most recent. Other parks certainly also have their fare share of the good and bad field guides!
Over a 12-month period (September to August) we experienced 18 field guides at 11 different Madikwe lodges, of which 5 (28%) were Excellent, 6 (33%) were Average and 7 (39%) Terrible in terms of working as a team with their guests, finding animals, complying with their clients requests, going the extra mile and the overall safari experience.
Guests are paying a high premium when visiting these up-market lodges and they expect to go home with above-average photos but, from our experience, they have a 72% chance of being disappointed!
Of the 7 bad guides, one has subsequently been fired, so this uncaring, arrogant attitude soon catches up with these bad and ugly field guides! Two have resigned and another two have got jobs at other Madikwe lodges. (There is high staff turnover, especially with field guides, so many lodges don't do proper background checks before hiring as they are desperate to fill the position).
We were together on the game-drive vehicle in Madikwe with an elderly couple from the UK. They wanted to see elephants and we had no special animal requests but we did ask to stop for sun-downers / coffee at scenic viewpoints – nothing too demanding in terms of requests. The field guide agreed to both requests.
On the first game drive we were the last vehicle to join the loc (location) at the four cheetah brothers.
We were near Luke’s view but stopped alongside the road on the way back to the lodge. The sunset wasn't great so we were not too worried.
The next morning the sunrise was superb but the field guide stopped again alongside the road with the sunrise behind trees – our first wasted opportunity! We then went to see some sleeping lions at Tau dam that were called in.
The lighting was bad on the lions plus they were sleeping so we photographed close-ups of paws and other lion body parts.
The field guide boasted to us that he usually goes to Tau dam in the mornings so he would have found the lions instead of another ranger. He also told us that he likes to find his own animals and doesn't like joining sightings that other guides have found.
He then took us to see the four cheetah brothers AGAIN!
That afternoon we went to look for the pack of five wild dogs when a call came over the radio that they were not near the den but were hunting near where the cheetahs had been the day before. We joined the other vehicles and followed the dogs through the vegetation.
Our field guide drove very fast through the bush and didn't care that the lady from the UK had an injured leg and he proceeded to crash through the dense vegetation, over boulders and through dongas and the four of us had to hold on very tight. None of us guests enjoyed the ride and it was obvious that the field guide was the only one who did.
The sun had set and the dogs were running so we were never going to get sharp images, even if they stopped, which they did do briefly and we had to shout for the field guide to stop so we could grab a few shots otherwise he just wanted to keep racing to get in front of the dogs.
Even the other guides had left the wild dogs and were headed to their sun-downers spots but our cowboy just wanted to keep chasing aimlessly.
The sunset was magnificent and again, we were close to Luke’s View when we saw the wild dogs but he decides to stop for drinks on the western runway instead of the viewpoint so another opportunity wasted.
Upon returning to the lodge the lodge manager asks us how the drive was, both Jenny and I tell her it was "NOT GOOD" and the field guide drove "TOO FAST".
She does not respond to us but she did have a chat to the guide as we saw them huddled in the corner out of ear-shot.
The next morning on drive four we are joined by three American guests who want to see lions. We leave the lodge at 05h06 and get a call at around 05h20 that a male lion has been located at Vleeschfontein waterhole.
Our guide tells the person calling it in that he won’t be joining
him as he wants to “ry rustig” (Afrikaans for 'drive slowly'). I think he was
reprimanded for driving too fast the day before so he does this on purpose to
spite us but it’s the American guests that he is depriving, not us – we've seen
many lions before.
We then stumbled across the cheetah footprints in the road and our guide was trying to track them. He couldn't tell where they had gone so he stopped the vehicle, got off and proceeded to try and track them by foot. Another field guide did locate the cheetahs and called the sighting in so here we are sitting in the abandoned vehicle while all the other vehicles are rushing past us to the cheetahs.
Our guide heard that the cheetahs had been located and came back to the vehicle. We then took third standby. We are now watching the same 4 cheetah brothers for the THIRD time! The guests from the UK were not impressed and neither were we.
Guess what he said to us? “I would have found the cheetahs”!
But he didn't, and he did not find them the previous 2 times either nor did he find the lions or the wild dogs.
When we got back to the lodge I asked the guests on the other vehicle what the lion sighting was like. They said the lion had been drinking at the waterhole and then they followed him for a while when he got very interested in a hole in the ground. He sniffed around it, peered inside but then walked off. A few seconds later a warthog with her babies dashed out the hole! (Another photo opportunity for us wasted).
At the coffee stop the guests from the UK asked if he could take them to see some large herds of elephants that afternoon at Tlou dam – the same request they had made on day one that he had not filled. He agreed but said that we would also be “tracking lions” as the American guests wanted to see lions.
The UK guests then said to us “I hope we don’t have to endure another boring one and a half hours of following tracks and smashing our way through the bushes”!
At breakfast I asked our field guide if he knew there was a lion at Vleeschfontein and if so why he didn't take us there – he simply walked away without answering me.
I think that he feels his tip will be bigger if he can impress his American guests with the whole tracking, bush-bashing experience yet if he was paying attention to the UK guests and us, he would realise this did not impress us and that he won’t be getting a tip. Maybe he does realise this and so he is now focusing all his attention on the Americans?
That night we photographed a leopard drinking at the lodge waterhole. The next morning, our last morning at the lodge, we asked him if he would like to see the image. He says ‘No I saw it on Facebook’. He’s jealous that it wasn't one of his sightings!
This field guide is the typical Jeep-jockey / Cowboy / Rambo driver and when Jenny told the manager this the answer was "well some guests like the wild rides"!
He boasts that he finds all his own sightings and that he is a better field guide than his colleagues at the lodge but over three days finds only impala, kudu, zebra and wildebeest by himself – all the predator sightings we had were found by other guides.
Even though he brags about finding his own sightings he seems to be in love with his radio as he is constantly on it, caressing it and chatting to his buddies at neighboring lodges. As a result he seems oblivious to his guests behind him.
By ignoring some of the sightings that are called in (because he likes to find his own stuff) he is affecting his guest’s safari experience.
He also boasted that "I know the south-west of Madikwe like the back of my hand" and as a result we endured four drives in succession along the same routes – even the guests from the UK commented that they can recognize some of the trees and that the routes are getting boring.
They also complained that the cheetahs that were seen three times in a row was a bit much. Each time he got the call for the cheetahs we would ask him what the cheetahs were doing (they were static every time) and the answer was "I don't know".
This demonstrates that this field guide is totally self-focused and does what he wants to do, regardless of what the clients requested.
This was our second visit to this lodge and he knew we were there to capture photos for our Madikwe eBook and to make his lodge look good but he simply did not care.
This field guide can be likened to the glory-boy soccer player who wants to score all the goals but isn't nearly as gifted as he thinks he is and as a result misses the goals (sightings) more often than scoring and loses the match (ruins the game drive and makes sure the clients don’t come back) but all the while he keeps boasting of his superior skills.
Most guests won’t complain at the lodge – they are on vacation and don’t want to spoil their holiday. When they get home, however, they will tell their friends and family, post a bad review on TripAdvisor and maybe email the lodge GM/owner.
We therefore suggest that the lodge management sort it out before the unhappy guests leave the lodge. In this particular case management knew we and the UK guests were not happy yet they chose to ignore us.
Behind the scenes they may have spoken to the guide but that was too little too late and did not help our frustration. On the last morning we and the UK couple stayed at the lodge and did not go on a game drive - we had had enough.
Fortunately not all field guides are like this guy. Ironically one of the better field guides we have experienced is based at the same lodge this bad field guide is at and that’s why we don’t name the lodges.
The field guides do move around and he may be at another lodge in 6 months’ time. The purpose of this article is to let you know, as a wildlife photographer, what you could experience and if your stay is just a few days at this one lodge and you get this guy then you have wasted your valuable time and money.
If you do get a cowboy field guide ask to be moved to another vehicle or, if the lodge has a waterhole, rather skip the game drives and sit at the waterhole - we have had some amazing sightings at the lodge waterholes. Many animals drink early morning and late afternoon - when the game drives are out!
We are tempted to say you should therefore only go on photo safaris where the field guide is accompanied by a professional wildlife photographer but these can be expensive and if we look back at all our safaris, there are some humble people who try hard to please their guests, and here are a few of them from Madikwe and the Kruger Park...
We will keep adding to the above list as we experience the good and bad field guides.
Should you decide to visit these lodges just make sure you request these specific guides. Keep in mind they may have moved on to other lodges so you'll need to find out where they are based.
"Having a passion for the region itself and having to know about all dynamics, water holes and ideal roads for a period of 6 years - I wish I had this guide on my first trip already!" - Morkel Erasmus, Secunda, South Africa
"Mario and Jenny take you to places that are not always visited, and their descriptions of the more remote camps will allow you to make an informed decision without wasting time and money" - Bob & Sherry Shepardson, DeBary, Florida, USA
"Your time and money are valuable and the information in this book will help you save both." - Don Stilton, Florida, USA
"I highly recommend the book to anyone visiting Etosha National Park to photograph the animals - or anyone considering an African photography safari in the future." - Anne Darling, Cognac, France
"As a photographer and someone who has visited and taken photographs in the Pilanesberg National Park, I can safely say that with the knowledge gained from this eBook, your experiences and photographs will be much more memorable." - Alastair Stewart, BC, Canada
"This work is so much more than an eBook, because it is also a guide, a tutorial, an inspiration and a must-have for anyone interested in wildlife photography" - Findtripinfo.com, USA