South Africa’s Most Qualified Guiding Team

2nd rifle guide Nicola Bargiacchi and lead guide Andre Fourie head a trail in Thornybush woodlands

Professional guides are the key ingredient of any walking safari. Whenever we set out on foot in a reserve in South Africa, we’re in the hands of people with all the skills and experience to keep us safe and to share a fascinating interpretation of the natural world. These skills don’t come easy, and in Walking Safaris of South Africa, we explain the demanding requirements that must be met before qualification to lead trails in areas with big game, and how standards and certification in the private sector are administered by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA).

As with any profession, experience counts, and in guiding that means veld experience – years of mentoring and thousands of close encounters with potentially dangerous game. While guiding standards are excellent in all the venues covered in the book, the top private lodges can afford to employ the highest qualified guides, and there is no better example of this than Royal Malewane in Thornybush Private Game Reserve in the Greater Kruger.

There are ten trails guides covering the two Royal Portfolio properties in Thornybush, and six have achieved the highest level FGASA Trails Guide certification, which comes with the rather cumbersome title of “Special Knowledge and Skills Dangerous Game”, or SKS(DG) for short. To get an idea of what it takes to reach that level, read this summary on the FGASA site. The guides are also all expert trackers at various levels; tracking is undoubtedly one of the earliest skills developed by humankind, and still one of the most challenging to master. Tracking and guiding are distinct skillsets, and very few people can become truly expert at both. Those who do so are recognised with the title FGASA Scout – there are only a dozen or so in the whole of Africa, and one, Juan Pinto, works at Royal Malewane.

What does having South Africa’s best qualified roster of guiding talent mean for guests?

It offers an enriched safari experience, with more flexibility in activities. Exploring by vehicle is always core – after all it offers opportunities to get very close to big animals and take the best photos. But when all the guides are trails qualified, guests don’t need to feel trapped in the vehicle. For example, when out on a morning drive, if the fresh tracks of leopard are spotted, with a qualified guide and tracker it’s possible to get down and follow the spoor for a while.

It also means having the choice to venture out at dawn to explore on foot, to soak up some of the guide’s bush wisdom, to walk in silence amid stands of marula trees, or sit awhile atop ‘Aloe Ridge”, taking in the Drakensberg views. Or having the opportunity to spend time in the veld with a Master Tracker, one of the great African wilderness experiences. And guests will also find that the most experienced guides tend to have the most entertaining trove of campfire stories.

While Royal Malewane has always had well-qualified guides, it is only recently that walking activities have taken off. Head guide Ryan Jack says that the guides themselves enjoy being able to practice all their skills, and simply like leaving the vehicle for a while. “It really switches on the senses – we hear more, we smell more, we see all sorts of smaller things. And maybe it’s a response to the pandemic, but we find our guests are more keen to spend time on foot these days.”

Walks at Royal Malewane – which are inclusive in rates – typically last from 1.5 to 3 hours, depending on guest wishes and conditions. A nice option is to walk for a couple of hours between the main lodge and Farmstead properties through a mixed veld of tamboti thickets and open grassland, pausing to spy on any morning visitors at a large watering hole. Breakfast can then be taken at either destination, before return by vehicle.

Walking has a nice fit with the “slow safari” philosophy, and Royal Malewane has a “stay 6/pay for 5 nights” offer until 15 December 2021. Special rates are also available for SA residents – contact reservations@trp.travel or 021 671 5502 to find out more.

Talking to Joe James

Cheetah in Kruger National Park

Walking Safaris of South Africa includes many photographs contributed by Joe James. A resident of Florida, USA, he and his wife Deb are regular visitors to South African parks. We interviewed Joe to find out what it is that makes the long journey so rewarding, and what tips he can offer for other visitors.

Joe, you have a great love for South African walking safaris. How did that start and why do you like them?

JJ: We did our first bush walk as a morning walk on our first trip to Kruger.  We left out of Lower Sabie and almost immediately after we started walking we heard a lion calling not far away so we all piled back in the truck and headed off in hot pursuit.  Our guide found where the tracks crossed a service road and we all got out and followed.  We tracked that lion for almost an hour before losing them at a small river crossing.  Later that morning we hiked to the top of a koppie for the morning snack then tracked a rhino that we found.  The excitement of being out on the ground, following tracks, learning about spoor and seeing the environment from the point of view of the animals really got us interested in bush walks so our guide recommended that we try a Wilderness Trail on our next trip.  When we returned in 2015 we ended up booking two:  the Wolhuter and Sweni Trails and loved them both.  We now do at least one trail every trip and usually two.

Watching elephants on the Wolhuter Wilderness Trail

What is it about the Kruger Wilderness Trails in particular that appeal?

JJ: I think that Kruger’s Wilderness Trails are the best value for money in the Southern African safari scene, hands down.  The guiding is on par with the best private lodges.  All of our guides have shown an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush and have been consummate professionals.  The guests tend to be experienced safari travelers so they tend to be more interested in getting beyond finding the “Big 5”.   

We love the chance to slow things down and learn about all the things you miss from a car such as how to tell the difference between black and white rhino tracks.  How to tell how long the tracks have been there.  When you can follow a predator’s tracks to try to find it versus when it’s too dangerous to.  Then the chance to end the day sitting around the camp fire, under the Milky Way listening to the bush at night.  You literally would pay 4-5 times that or more for a similar experience at a private reserve and the only difference would be the beds are a tad nicer, the food a bit fancier and you don’t have to bring your own wine at the private reserve but other than that the experience will be the same.

Do you have a favourite Wilderness Trail in Kruger?

JJ: The Wolhuter Trail is our favourite because of the camp water hole.  It is so close to camp you could throw a rock from the viewing bench and hit the water and it’s constantly busy.  From camp we see elephants daily, pretty much all day long.  In addition, we have seen rhino, buffalo, all the usual plains game, hyena visit almost nightly and we have even seen lions and on our last trip a leopard.  Because the camp fence is at most waist high and in several places more suggestion than barrier the wildlife roams freely through camp so it’s a true wilderness experience. 

One night I heard a noise after everyone else was asleep so I walked to the “fence” with my torch, turned it on and had an entire lion pride staring back at me in the dark.  We looked through the gloom at each other for what seemed like an eternity before they all turned as one and trotted off into the darkness.  The other great thing about the Wolhuter Trail is that the two lead guides, Steven and Moses, are two of the best I’ve had the privilege of sharing a trail with and if you are lucky to have Steven when you are there he’s really big into setting out trail cameras and it’s a real thrill to see what came to visit in the dark while everyone was asleep.

Wildlife spotting close up at Wolhuter Wilderness Trail camp

Have you travelled in other wilderness areas around the world? How does South African wilderness rank in your view? 

JJ: Yes, mostly to the U.S. and Canadian Rockies as well as Alaska.  I would say the biggest difference is that our (U.S. and Canada) parks were established for scenic beauty with wildlife protection being secondary.  In terms of numbers of game, there is no comparison.  The wilderness areas in the Northern Rockies and Alaska are vast and sparsely populated with game due to the long, cold winters.  The numbers and variety of wildlife in South African wilderness areas and Kruger in particular are truly mind boggling in comparison.

Have you any tips for taking photos on wilderness trails?

JJ: I try to focus my Wilderness Trail photography on the experience of the trail and not on wildlife.  You will almost always get better wildlife pictures from a vehicle so I really use the trail to train my lens on the interaction between the guests and the guides, scenery, tracks, smaller insects and birds and the camp itself.  My biggest tip is to bring a wide angle, fast lens and tripod for taking night photos around the camp fire.  Those have turned into my favourite Wilderness Trail photos as the night sky in Kruger is just spectacular under a new moon.

As you have returned many times, what items have you added to your travel kit?

JJ: People definitely need to either buy or rent a good, telephoto lens of at least 400mm and preferably 500-600mm and learn how to use it properly.  The small kit lenses or worse, cell phones just aren’t suitable unless the animal is right next to the vehicle.  As far as smaller kit, sandals for wearing around camp, a nice sweatshirt as the nights can get quite chilly and a good torch for checking out the waterhole at night from camp.

For Joe, a good telephoto lens is a must for wildlife photography

Do you have any tips for International visitors who may be hesitant about a self-booking and self-drive in South Africa?

JJ: Just go to South Africa!  The South African National Parks are truly hidden gems and in my view the best kept “secret” if you could call it that in wildlife travel.  They are exceptionally well run, the staff have always been professional and friendly to us and we just love visiting them.  The accommodations are more than adequate and for the price are great value.  We have never felt uncomfortable or unsafe while driving in South Africa and especially while in Kruger NP.  In fact, having driven in Asia and Central America I would say the roads there are far more dangerous than any we have driven in South Africa.  The value for money that SANParks and in particular Kruger offer is unmatched.

Deb and Joe James in the Kruger National Park. All photos credit Joe James.

Walking Safaris of South Africa is now on sale in the USA via Amazon and can be ordered via any local book store.

Walking Safaris of South Africa now shipping in the USA

This week, Walking Safaris of South Africa started shipping from the US distributor, and can be ordered via any book store. As well as the US, the book has distributors in South Africa and the UK, and for trade orders please contact us for the distributor details.

For readers outside these countries it is easy to buy: order via any Amazon site or via UK book sellers such as Blackwells of Oxford and Book Depository, who have good international shipping rates. Click below for a list of some of the online bookshops that sell Walking Safaris of South Africa.

New Walking Safaris in South Africa

It’s wonderful to see new guided walking safari options in South African reserves, as walk operators respond to the demand for more active “experiential” travel. When researching Walking Safaris of South Africa, it was a challenge to keep up with new trails, as every few months saw another launched. Then the pandemic resulted in a big pause, and reserves and operators entered survival mode.

April is when the peak walking season comes to the Lowveld, which is where the great majority of walking safaris operate. Happily, almost all have weathered the crisis and operators are reporting good bookings from domestic visitors.

In today’s Sunday Times (paywall), Hlengiwe has a double page feature that covers new trails in six reserves in every corner of the country. There’s also a mention for the rebuilt Bushmans Wilderness Trail camp in Kruger National Park, which is due to reopen before the end of May 2021.

Walking Safari 2021 Specials for SA Residents

Mashatu Game Reserve

As summer heats and rains abate in April, the peak walking season begins in the Lowveld. It promises to be a good one, as the prolific precipitation has given us brimming pans and dams. While the denser vegetation can make walks in some areas more challenging, guides know where to steer to more open terrain.

Autumn is also a lovely time for walks away from the Lowveld, including in Cape reserves. There, multi-day walks will run until the end of May, but day walks from lodges will continue through the winter months.

Part of the visitor influx to private walk operators is driven by attractive special rates this year for South African residents, with some offering over 50% off previous season prices.

Here’s a round up of some good deals, with the page number from Walking Safaris of South Africa indicated. We will keep this post updated as new offers come to market in 2021.

Walk OperatorPageSA Resident Special Offer
Rhino Ridge6340% off: from R3580 until 30 November 2021, walk included. Min 2 night stay.
Jocks111R4525 including walks
EcoTraining113EcoQuest course at R12,190 until end 2021
Pafuri Walking Safaris115R2240 until 30 September 2021. Min 2 night stay.
Pungwe125R1990 until 30 June 2021
Tanda Tula128R25500 for 6 adults, exclusive use Field Camp
Africa on Foot135R2500 for both Klaserie Camp and Wilderness Trails
Mtomeni137R700
Legacy Hotels153From R2225 (walks extra)
!Xaus Lodge155R2500
Sanbona160R4000 until camp closes end April
Gondwana162Pioneer trail R8950 for 3 nights until camps close end May
Shamwari172Explorer camp R3850 per night. Min 2 night stay.
Hlane177E790 for double cottages & walks included free (usually E120)
Mkhaya178From E1923 (min 6 in group), walks E415 pp
Mashatu180Mashatu will open on 1 April with SADC specials (Note: closed for Easter due to government restrictions)
NOTE
All prices are Per Person Sharing Per Night except where noted.
Some offers are open to SADC area residents – enquire with operator.