Ever wondered what working as a safari guide is really like? We ask award-winning Abercrombie and Kent guide Garth Hovell about his 25 years of tracking dangerous wildlife in Africa...
Garth Hovel was the 2018 winner at the Wanderlust World Guide Awards, taking home first place for Top Safari Guide.
Born in 1975 in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and raised in Botswana, Garth grew up with a passion for wildlife and adventure, and has achieved some of sub-Saharan Africa’s toughest guiding qualifications.
Over the last 25 years he has led hundreds of people on tailormade safaris – and many of them return to travel with him time and again. Garth now ventures all over the world to lead trips for his repeat clients, but his first love will always be Africa.
It was in eastern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and I used to watch the park rangers work. I always wanted to be one, as their understanding of nature was to be in harmony with everything. But government jobs weren’t an option back then.
I was 12 when my family moved to Botswana. There were a lot of expats there who didn’t know what they were doing, so they’d invite me on safaris to help make fires, put up tents and all the rest of it.
You get paid nothing, work long hours, and for months you’re not guiding, just fixing cars and skinning animals. It seemed pointless at the time but, years later, I realised the foundation I’d had.
To be a professional guide in Zimbabwe, you need to have killed at least two elephants and three buffalo as part of the Problem Animal Control programme. I understand it’s necessary – I had to euthanise animals caught in snares, and one of the elephants I shot had stepped on a mine, which blew its foot off. But I didn’t like doing it.
I’ve been attacked by an elephant before. You get to know if a situation is and isn’t dangerous; often guests don’t even realise there was a threat. But I’ve also had people think they’re being attacked when an elephant is just flapping its ears to keep cool.
I tell guides to always have an escape route. They should constantly be rehearsing things in their mind, saying to themselves: ‘if this animal runs at me now, what am I going to do?’
The Great Migration provides a good snapshot of humanity. Some you see blood-lust in their eyes, others are crying; some are in awe and wonder, others are scared. When watching wildebeest and zebra cross the Mara, that’s when you see the lot.
If networks are your only spotting tool, you’re going to suffer. The best guides learn to track. You watch an animal’s movements, observe its habits, learn the area, so that when you follow its tracks, you can visualise what it’s doing and why.
Guides ask each other ethical questions all the time, such as whether it’s right to rev an engine to get an animal to react for a photo. A few years ago, cheetahs started starving in the Serengeti because animals learnt that if you saw a 4WD, chances are there was a cheetah behind it. But guides wouldn’t leave them alone, and they’d go without kills for weeks.
Mountain gorilla numbers have now gone above 1,000 for the first time, and you see the effect it’s had on Uganda and Rwanda. It’s one of the great untouched wildernesses.
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