NAPLES, FL--(Marketwired - Dec 13, 2016) - An African safari can be a profound awakening; a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Decisions about which national parks to visit and when to visit them are key to the best wildlife viewing experiences, whether the goal is to see the Great Migration, the elusive leopard or an endangered rhino.
And the decision to have a professionally trained, experienced guide leading the way is just as important to the overall experience.
"The average first-time visitor assumes every camp or lodge has adequate guides," explained Intrepid Expeditions VP Andre Steynberg, a former Zimbabwe "Guide of the Year," based in Naples, Florida. "We always emphasize the importance of the guides. We help our travelers focus on the camps that have the best guides, are in the most ideal locations and are consistent with their budget preferences."
As Steynberg explained, standards for professional accreditation of guides vary dramatically from country to country across Africa, with each setting its own standards. Most safari camps employ certified guides who have fundamental knowledge of the African bush in their specific geographic areas. However, some camp operators are quite effective at retaining guides who have more experience. These camps place greater emphasis on guides having higher credentials, broader and deeper knowledge, and superior skills at engaging, educating and caring for guests.
For some, expert knowledge of photography may be paramount. Internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer Jack Kenner, whose photography has appeared in Time, USA Today and on exhibition at the Rockefeller Center, understands this very well.
"Guides can make or break your safari," said Kenner, who made his first excursion to Africa 25 years ago, and who now works through Intrepid Expeditions to take adventurers in search of photographic trophies. "Not only do they find the animals, but I rely on them to put me in the right place at the right time in order to capture the perfect photograph."
Yet Simon Gluckman, founder of Intrepid Expeditions, knows not all travelers on safari are primarily focused on photographing animals.
"Many want to learn how to track animals or identify birds by their calls. Some want to learn about the night sky. Others want to understand the social behaviors of animals or how indigenous people and animals coexist. Conservation, too, is a hot topic," said Gluckman. "The better guides have authoritative knowledge and understand how to share their insights in entertaining ways."
With literally thousands of camps scattered in and around parks throughout the continent, the real challenge is how to find the best property to make an African adventure the trip of a lifetime.
The short answer is to rely on the people who know.
- Talk with planners who work with camp operators on a daily basis.
- Read their online reviews.
- Note the professional safari guides they use.
Tour operators, like Intrepid Expeditions, specialize in creating tailor-made safaris. These are custom-designed adventures that cater to travelers' specific interests, such as photography, hiking, fishing, culture, food/wine and sustainable conservation.
However, as Steynberg, who now works with travelers to plan and arrange their dream African safaris, further explains, "Some travelers have specific interests on safari, such as hiking or canoeing. And for some, we may recommend a 'specialist guide.' Often, however, a highly reputable 'generalist guide' will provide a great experience. If your guide understands the bush, you are in for a treat. After five days on safari, you'll likely see most of the animals on your wish list," he said. "And at that point, a great guide will begin to help you see and unravel the hidden story in front of you by explaining the sights and sounds, and interpreting wildlife behavior. For example, is the troop of vervet monkeys calling vociferously along the riverbank because there is a crocodile hunting, a leopard drinking, or a snake hidden in the upper branches?"
This was the case for Gwen and Flinn Maxwell of Memphis. The couple recently returned from a 23-day trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya that utilized both resident camp guides and specialist guides.
"Without question this was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of our lives. As a child, I had my head buried in National Geographic. Our trip brought those images alive," said Gwen. "Every one of our guides was informative, knowledgeable and super friendly. It was like they matched them for us."
Flinn agreed. "Every one of our guides was first-class, just outstanding. They were all extremely knowledgeable about the land, people and cultures. We wanted to see the wildlife, be physically active and fish, but to also learn as much as we could. The resident guides certainly complemented each other, and added so much to the overall enjoyment of the trip. When it came time to track animals on foot and by canoe, and then when we went fishing, it became obvious the specialist guides had a higher level of knowledge and expertise."
Gluckman concluded, "On safari, you may be with your guide eight hours or more per day. A good guide is going to be able to keep you interested. They're explaining the communication - what the elephants are saying. If things are slow, they may spot a rare bird or discuss animal behavior or migration. Look for tour planners that can place you with guides who will keep your whole party engaged, interested and informed and make every activity an unforgettable experience."