CLOSE
Pieter Pretorius // Image courtesy Nat Geo WILD
Pieter Pretorius // Image courtesy Nat Geo WILD

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Safari Guides

Pieter Pretorius // Image courtesy Nat Geo WILD
Pieter Pretorius // Image courtesy Nat Geo WILD

Once the domain of thrill-seekers and Ernest Hemingway, safaris have officially gone mainstream. In 2014, African Business Magazine reported that Africa’s tourism industry is the world’s fastest-growing. At the heart of its safari industry are the guides who help wildlife-seeking adventurers experience the continent’s Big Five in their natural habitats, and occasionally remove a snake or baboon from their guest quarters. We talked to the team behind Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live about the realities of life in the bush.

1. YOU HAVE TO BE A PEOPLE PERSON.

Though knowledge of the terrain in which a safari guide works—and the animals that call it home—are essential to the job, they're not the most important requirement. “I’ve come across many guides over time who have great knowledge of the bush, great passion for the bush, but they don’t like people,” admits Pieter Pretorius, safari guide and host of Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live. “And that’s not a good start for a guide. Because in the end, the key part of guiding really is working with people … That’s really what a guide does, is enhance the experience for people when they go on safaris.”

“A friend of mine once said that it’s 10 percent of what you know and 90 percent of what you are that makes you a good field guide,” says Stefan Winterboer, a professional field guide and presenter for Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live. “So you definitely have to have a love for people. Also, you’ve got to be a likeable person; you’ve got to be a bit of an entertainer, a bit of a rogue. But you also have to have an aptitude for picking up things in the natural world. So you’ve got to have a naturalist aptitude as well.”

2. IT CAN TAKE 15 YEARS FOR A SAFARI GUIDE TO REACH THE TOP OF HIS OR HER GAME.

“As far as getting a job, there are standards that need to be met before you’re allowed to practice as a guide,” Winterboer explains. “That registration is not too difficult to obtain. However, you progress according to the qualifications that are set by a nongovernmental agency, the Field Guides Association of South Africa, which is a section 21 company, meaning that it is registered as the industry’s voice at a governmental level. And they have a variety of different qualifications that you can get. And it’s knowledge matched with experience, matched with practical application of everything. And you can study for 15 years before you reach the top qualification.”

3. SCIENCE-MINDED TYPES DON’T NECESSARILY MAKE THE BEST SAFARI GUIDES.

“Surprisingly, an in-depth knowledge of ecology and the fearlessness of a Zulu warrior are not prerequisites,” says professional field guide and Safari Live presenter James Hendry. “Ecologists often make poor guides because they bore their guests to tears. Guides who exude bravado terrify their already-fearful guests by getting too close to animals—and they terrify animals for the same reason. People skills and an ability to communicate are skills a guide needs. The rest can be learned from books and mentors.”

4. PATIENCE IS A MAJOR PREREQUISITE.

When asked about the most important characteristics a safari guide must have, professional field guide and Safari Live presented Brent Leo-Smith says, “The main skill required is patience. Patience with people, patience with animals.”

5. THE ALL-KHAKI DRESS CODE IS SORT OF A MYTH.

“As wonderful as it is to be wearing all green and khaki, most animals see in black and white,” says Leo-Smith. “So generally you want to avoid wearing dark blacks and bright whites. Pretty much you can get away with almost every color apart from black or white.”

6. WAKE-UP CALLS ARE PART OF THE JOB.

Like any itinerary-driven venture, safaris run on a very specific schedule. So it’s part of the safari guide’s job to wake guests up in the morning. “If the guide oversleeps, the guests oversleep,” says Pretorius. “We often don’t put alarm clocks in their rooms. Being a guide is really just being a host. As a guide, you’re the first person the guests hear from in the morning, and the last person they see in the evening."

7. THEY SOMETIMES DOUBLE AS RESCUE PERSONNEL.

“One of the most fascinating tasks I’ve ever had to complete was driving a trailer of diesel fuel for a generator through a big storm,” Pretorius recalls. “I mean, there were trees blown over and rivers flooded, and here we were driving through all of this in a safari vehicle towing a massive half-ton trailer of diesel. ... It was almost an hour’s drive under normal conditions. And we were driving in this seriously big thunderstorm. You could hardly see.”

“The most bizarre thing I’ve probably been asked to do is jump into a flooded river to get a rope to the other side to attach it to a tree so that we could ferry supplies by rope and pulley to a group of tourists and rangers who were stuck on the other side,” Winterboer adds. “The only way to get this rope across was to jump into the river and swim it with a rope attached to me. Which, in hindsight, was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

8. MECHANICAL INCLINATION COMES IN HANDY.

As the “go-to person for your guests—from waking people at all hours of the night to dealing with medical emergencies like heart attacks, falls, broken arms, strokes, etc.—if something happens, you get a call and then you figure out a way to handle it,” says Winterboer. “You also have to be mechanically minded. In remote locations like this, if your vehicle breaks down, you have to know how to fix it. Or else you risk getting stuck.”

9. FINDING SNAKES AND SCORPIONS IN A GUEST’S BEDROOM IS FAIRLY COMMON.

“Getting a distress call from your guests to remove either a snake or scorpion from their bedroom is a fairly common but surprising task,” admits Scott Dyson, a field guide and Safari Live presenter. But creepy crawly things aren’t the only uninvited critters who’ve made their way into guests’ quarters on occasion. “When I worked at one of the luxury lodges a few years ago, I got called to a guest’s room to chase away the baboons,” says Leo-Smith.

10. THE DANGER IS MINIMAL.

One of the biggest misconceptions about safaris, according to Pretorius, “would be that it’s dangerous. It can be dangerous. But mostly, it’s a beautiful experience. It’s not a sort of dangerous or scary experience that you live through. It’s a beautiful experience that you are enriched by. Yes, there are lions and leopards and other predators that could eat you, but we are part of their habitat and they ignore us for the most part. And a good guide knows when to bring guests around animals and when to avoid potential bad situations. Reading animals’ behavior is key to succeeding in this role.”

11. GUESTS’ EXCITEMENT CAN BE CONTAGIOUS.

“My favorite part of the job is seeing guests’ reactions when an awesome situation unfolds, or when they realize the beauty of the environment,” says Dyson. “I feed off the excitement of newcomers to the bush. It’s important to feed off their energy. We, as guides, tend to get complacent and get to see the same things every day. But by seeing guests’ reactions, it reminds us of how lucky we are to be working in a place like this.”

12. GUESTS, LIKE ANIMALS, CAN SOMETIMES BE A LITTLE FEISTY.

“Sometimes the animals don’t play along with your plan and sometimes you can have difficult people—especially if you have different groups on the same vehicle,” says Leo-Smith. “Actually managing the dynamics among different people is tricky. Sometimes you can have Americans, Germans, and British people all with very different outlooks on what we should be doing, and you try to make them all friends, basically. I’ve actually had guests try to physically punch each other on safari before, and my tracker and I had to separate them. The one thought the other was asking too many questions and monopolizing the guide’s time.”

13. THERE REALLY AREN’T THAT MANY BUGS.

“Don’t stress too much about the amount of bugs out here,” says Winterboer. “There are not that many. Some people don’t want to travel to Africa because they’re scared of getting malaria or being bitten by something or being infested by swarms and clouds of bugs. And while that can be true in some areas, it’s not true about most safari destinations. It’s not clouds and swarms of bugs here.”

“You do see some really entertaining people arrive with their bug-off clothing,” says Leo-Smith. “I don’t even think they make those things in Africa—these DEET-impregnated shirts and pants—they all come from the States. I think the strangest thing I’ve ever seen is actually a couple of guests from Hong Kong who wore these completely mirrored sun visors. They looked like RoboCop. It came down and covered the whole face.”

14. AMERICAN TOURISTS ARE THE EASIEST TO SPOT.

“You can spot tourists coming from the States a mile away,” Winterboer says. “They’re all wearing these quick-dry pants with the zip-off bottoms and the clothes that never fit them and the most bizarre variety of hats that I’ve ever seen in my life. When in reality, you could just wear next to anything.”

15. THE PROXIMITY TO WILDLIFE CAN BE ALARMING TO GUESTS.

“We get very, very close to animals here in Africa,” Winterboer says. “And it sometimes overwhelms guests who are not used to the fact that all of a sudden, they could be sitting in an open vehicle a couple of feet away from something that could jump in and kill them, or bump the car over.”

“Guests are always surprised by the close proximity that we can get to animals without disrupting them, which is great because guests get much closer than they expected and often that excites them,” Dyson says. “One minute you can be driving, and the next you’re meters from a lion or a leopard. Your heart starts racing. It’s always great to watch the guests’ reactions.” Hendry adds: “Sitting 30 feet from a pride of lions or having a leopard go to sleep in the shade of your safari vehicle is a completely otherworldly experience.”

16. THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF SAFARI OPTIONS.

“Think carefully about what you want,” suggests Hendry. “Wildlife? Luxury? Scenery? Action? Remoteness? There are all sorts of options, from pampered luxury to hardcore camping safaris—each with its own benefit. You could come to a luxury South African lodge, eat Michelin-star food, have a massage after your morning and afternoon safari and then relax next to your own plunge pool with a spectacular view. You need as much physical fitness for this as you do to get out of bed! Alternatively, you could go on a walking safari in Zambia, camping and cooking on fire. It all depends on how much you want to be immersed in the wild and what your tastes are. In short, you can safari like an explorer of old or you can do it like a celebrity.”

17. IT’S NOT A FUN JOB ALL OF THE TIME.

“Obviously when you look at it from the outside, it’s a wonderful and romantic job, with sunrises and sunsets and lions and elephants all around you,” says Leo-Smith. “But there are also flat tires, broken oil sumps, radios that don’t work, staff that doesn’t arrive on time, bad roads, and bad weather. There are just problems sometimes with logistics and keeping it all up and running.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
iStock
iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios