There’s the great big elephant we’re all tired of talking about. You know the one … 2020. The year we all stayed indoors. Six months ago, we heralded the shiny new year, ever-positive. ‘New year, new decade’ and all that. But let’s face it, 2020 just hasn’t been the fresh new slate we were all anticipating.
So let’s talk about the virtual elephant(s) instead. I’m talking about those mighty, real-life elephants (and lions, hyenas, cheetah, leopards and even pangolins and aardvarks) that have been livening up our living rooms thanks to WILDwatch Live. Those elephants have definitely been the saving grace of quarantine life.
If you haven’t been curing the lockdown blues with these twice-daily, three-hour live safaris, you can catch up here. There have been some incredible moments captured, but this has to be my favourite sighting … talk about nerves of steel. And note the two extremely rare white lion cubs – two of the world’s only three naturally occurring white lions in the wild.
So, whether you’re still in some form of quarantine, or whether you’re bracing yourself for some much-needed local travel, this daily dose of Mother Nature is just the kind of uplifting soul food to keep you in that wistful travel state of mind.
The quarantine conundrum
Get to know our WILDwatch Live safari hosts here. How was this team selected? Obviously lockdown happened quickly and with tremendous uncertainty. Our teams that were in the lodges at the time were given the opportunity to stay or to go home – the choice was entirely theirs.
Although no guests could travel to our lodges, the properties could not officially close. Skeleton staff had to remain in order to complete maintenance work, oversee daily duties, uphold training and mentoring, and monitor/protect the wildlife.
Guiding is a demanding career that requires lengthy time away from one’s family, so those guides with children immediately opted to go home and be with their families.
Barney Khoza explains, “Being home during lockdown was great. It was a scary time, suddenly having so much free time and not knowing what the future holds. But it was positive in terms of family time and really getting to know my children. As guides, we don’t get much time with our families, so I’m grateful we had the choice to go home.”
On the other hand, many guides were understandably hesitant to give up those enviable freedoms that come with their role. As demanding as guiding is, in terms of distance from loved ones, the ability to roam freely and explore the land was a driving force for many of our guides to stay behind during lockdown.
“We originally thought lockdown would only be a couple of weeks and the thought of being locked down in a house in the city was too overwhelming. I wanted to have the freedom to be outdoors, go walking in the bush, and be surrounded by wildlife,” Damen Pheiffer admits.
“Lockdown life has been lots of fun,” he continues. “We have a great team and there has been lots of camaraderie. In addition to our virtual guiding, we’ve also had to pull together to hold down the fort. Through this, we’ve learned first-hand just how difficult some of the other jobs in the lodges are, such as housekeeping and repairing lodge landscaping that has been destroyed by elephants. We’ve also been fortunate to do a lot of conservation work with the habitat team – like collaring an elephant – that we wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to observe.”
As lockdown regulations lift, there will be new additions to our virtual guiding teams (which will also give some of the virtual guides that have been working 24/7 for the past three months a much-needed and well-deserved break).
Overnight TV hosts
The journey to become one of our guides is no mean feat. It’s downright gruelling. It’s as mentally challenging as it is intellectually demanding and physically exhausting. Our guides are walking encyclopaedias and their genuine passion and respect for wildlife is contagious.
Beyond the wildlife knowledge, these highly trained guides are storytellers. They are unfailingly charismatic, captivating and utterly charming … but they are trained to engage and interact with people, not cameras.
Put a ranger behind the wheel and in front of guests, that’s their comfort zone. Put them in front of a camera (and then behind the Zoom screen afterwards) … well, it’s a whole new (virtual) world for our khakis and they’re taking to it like ducks on water. Naturally.
“After three years of guiding, it has been really rewarding to get this chance to do something so completely different. I was quite nervous on that first drive, but it has been great fun.” Shaun Marshall admits, “It’s obviously a lot harder to interact with the camera. You don’t get much back from the camera, whereas with guests, you can immediately gauge their interests and reactions.”
Eric Exelby adds, “The first game drive was quite daunting. After having only guided a maximum of six guests per drive for my whole career, it was a strange feeling to know that you are suddenly reaching a new and much larger (but invisible) audience.”
A new reality (for now)
“We’re so used to looking back and seeing the guests on our vehicle and interacting with them, building personal relationships and creating an experience for them,” Nikki Muller elaborates. “In the back of your mind, you know that suddenly thousands of people are watching, but after a few drives, we realised it’s just like guiding and the camera crew are very supportive and viewers interact with their questions. It has been such a great experience.”
Of course, nothing beats the real thing and Nikki is quick to add, “I must admit, I do really miss having drinks stops with guests. Being able to set up an experience for them, to share some small talk and get to know my guests personally. I have missed that interaction, and being able to create those special moments, a lot.”
To maintain that personal touch and authentic interaction, wildlife lovers can book a private Zoom session (for up to six people) after each morning or afternoon’s WILDwatch Live safari to have some one-on-one time with the guide of their choice. It’s a great way to have your questions answered, learn something new and have a laugh with one of these endearing hosts (and we encourage you to bring a morning coffee and Amarula or afternoon sundowner to give it that safari feel).
The wilderness awaits
Dumi Qwabe, one of our longest standing guides, was one of the latecomers to the WILDwatch Live crew. He spent lockdown at home, in the KwaNgwenya community just outside &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve with his (then) pregnant wife and (now) six children. Once their beautiful lockdown baby was born, Dumi returned to Phinda.
“I had such a nice time with my family, but at the same time, you end up missing the bush a lot. I missed the wildlife and the different habitats of Phinda,” Dumi explains. “Luckily my family is only an hour away and I am loving this new challenge of virtual safaris.”
In trying times, we adapt and these guides have truly brought the joy of safari to so many people around the world that are craving the natural world and its wondrous wildlife.
“Life has been strange. We are used to being on game drive each day with guests, and then all of a sudden the lodges became a ghost town with only skeleton staff,” Clive Cowie concludes. “It has been a real adjustment, but we have all used this time to further our studies and improve our knowledge.”
We can’t wait for travel to resume, so that we can share the magical world of safari with everyone again, in person. In the meantime, we’ll see you online (with that sundowner in hand).