A peek into a Ranger's Diary

2012-05-30 08:17
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Photos: A peek into a ranger's life

Take a look at these incredible photos by Ranger Diaries editor, James Kydd.

Winter is coming... and you know what that means: time to dust off the old binoculars, haul out the dog-eared map book of your favourite game reserve and get those khakis ironed. As someone once said, it's a truth universally known that once the cold starts creeping closer there really is no better place to be than in the soothingly sunny South African bushveld.

So, in preparation for the winter bush season, we chatted to James Kydd, creator and editor of Ranger Diaries, 2011's South African Blog of the Year, to find out a bit more about game drive etiquette, some wild stories and a little insight into the game rangers' psyche.

Background

Having worked as a guide for eight years, James has experienced a little bit of everything, and created Ranger Diaries as a platform for fellow guides to share their incredible experiences, sightings, and stories.

"I wanted to create Ranger Diaries as a platform to capture the stories that were getting lost in the smoke of the campfire and for the top guides and lodges to promote themselves and interact with the public," he explains.

James' love affair with the bushveld began at the tender age of 6, when his family moved from the midlands of England to Johannesburg. "One of the first things my dad did on returning to South Africa, was to take me to the Kruger National Park. I felt like Max from Maurice Sendack's Where the Wild Things Are and, like most little boys at some point, decided then and there that I would be a game ranger one day."

He started realizing his dream shortly after completing a BSc in Zoology and Nature Conservation. He worked in the Waterberg for two years, followed by a six year stint at Londolozi Private Game Reserve, which he describes as "a phenomenal place with amazing people, history and wildlife, easily one of South Africa's top lodges."

Since getting Ranger Diaries, as we know it now, up and running last year James has left the realm of full-time guiding and now calls Cape Town home. While he still does freelance private and photographic guiding for selected guests under a company called Indri Ultimate Mammal Voyages, he chose the Mother City as his new home due to the incredible natural beauty and easy access to incredible nature experiences. As he points out: "You can be two kilometers from the city bowl and watching the sunrise from the top of a mountain, or kayaking with a pod of dolphins."

1. What would your top 5 (or more) tips for game viewers on a game drive be?

Be respectful: Like walking into a stranger's home you have entered a world different to yours in the city. Have the best interests of the wildlife at heart. Respect any requests your guide may have, no matter how pedantic they may seem at the time: the guidelines are there for the safety of yourselves and the animals.

Observe: when you come across something incredible or fascinating, hold the urge to ask questions or take photographs for a few moments (if you can)...and just soak up the atmosphere of what you are seeing. Too often we watch life go by through a 2 dimensional viewfinder. Be in the moment.

Listen: It always fascinated me how often I might have parked in the Sand River, under a glittering night sky, switched off the lights, and asked for total silence as the fireflies danced around us and a lion roared in the distance, only to have someone break the silence with "Isn't this amazing?". We have forgotten how to use our ears. Your ears will not only add another dimension of enjoyment to your safari; they are also crucial in finding wildlife.

Participate: don't just sit in the back, look forward and wait for your guide to point something out. The guide is sitting much lower than you and you have a much better view than he/she does: if you help look for things of interest you will end up seeing so much more

Be patient: You are not in a zoo. Remove yourself from the world of instant gratification and you'll feel a weight lift off your shoulders. In my experience the guests with the most patience are the ones that are rewarded with the most memorable experiences

Have fun: Interact with your fellow guests and your guide, it adds so much to the enjoyment of your safari. Guides inevitably go above and beyond the call of duty for friendly, grateful guests.



2. And for the game ranger behind the wheel?

Safety first: You have been entrusted with the lives of your guests on a daily basis. Be sharp, focused and prepared for anything. Have all your equipment, your vehicle, rifle and first aid kits in immaculate condition. Complacency is a guide's worst enemy.

Slow down: your guests are to here to get away from the rat race. Guides that spend their days racing around at speed responding to their radio and trying to show their guests the "Big 5" in a day not only show up as amateurs but are essentially robbing their guests of a wilderness experience. Don't be a jeep jockey. Be the master of your own ship.

Be quiet: Don't arrive at a sighting and start babbling out irrelevant facts. Let your guests soak up the atmosphere of what is in front of them first. Let nature do the talking. When you do speak, speak about what you are seeing. Being an interpreter is far more important than being an encylopedia.

See through your guests eyes: Anticipate their wishes before they are voiced. And remember what it was like to see a giraffe for the first time.

Respect the animals and people you live and work with: don't compromise a leopards hunt because you switched on your engine under pressure to get your guests a better view. Spend time immersing yourself in the local culture, especially if you work with a tracker, you will be greatly rewarded.

Think aloud: Get your guests involved in your game plan.

Learn. Always: Spend time with experienced guides and mentors. Never be afraid to say "I don't know."

Trust your gut feel: Your life and those of others may depend on it.

And again, have fun.


3. During your ranger years, did you ever have to deal with really obnoxious guests? And what would top your ranger pet peeves list concerning guest behaviour on a game drives?

Pet peeve #1. The guest that sits behind you and frantically taps your shoulder (or head) when they spot something. Please. Don't.

I think I've been incredibly lucky, and hardly had a bad guest in all my years of guiding. Trust me, I've heard some crazy stories! I think my worst set of guests were from Sandton, Johannesburg. Three men in their late 30's who had never been on safari before (!) had booked in for a one night stay. When I met them on the deck, they said "We're here to see the big 5".

Luckily they were the only guests on my vehicle. We drove out and came across a huge herd of buffalo. "Ok, done here" was the comment after about a minute in the company of the majestic herd. We found a small herd of elephant, which they likewise wanted to spend a minute or so with, and we were very fortunate to find a leopard with a kill. Even here they only wanted to stay a moment. I couldn't wait to get back home, but there was a beautiful sunset and it was the perfect time for a sundowner.

While having drinks the guests asked about trying to see a lion that evening. I explained that there had not been a lion or even a track of a lion seen on the reserve for 2 days, that the other guides had checked everywhere, and that we would try in the morning.

"I'll give you R500 bucks" was the guy's retort. I just stared at him, bemused. I knew for a fact there were no lions on our land. His buddy joined in "I'll double that". A few seconds later a lion roared not too far away. I've never seen my teammate/tracker Freddy pack the drinks away so quickly. To cut a long story short we eventually found the reflection of an eye with the spotlight about 400 metres over a river (our boundary). Freddy and I high-fived each other. The guests claimed we were making it up until the eye started roaring.

They paid up.

4. How should a game ranger deal with rude/careless/disrespectful guests? Is feeding them to lions or crocodiles ever okay?

We prefer to use hyenas, as lions sometimes leave the bones and the crocodiles often leave the bodies to float for some time, which makes the other guests feel awkward..

The best guides often have the ability to turn most of the worst of guests into Cheshire cats. But you do get the odd impossible guest.

Be firm: safety and respect for animals and fellow guests must not be compromised. If they overstep this line drive them back to the lodge and book them on the next flight home.



5. What is the going rate for tipping rangers after a drive? And if there is no such thing, what would you say is too little?

It depends on the lodge, and the experience that the guide has delivered.

Know this: The guides depend on gratuities for their livelihood. Some guides at even the top lodges may earn a salary as low as R2000...the industry in this sense is sadly not looking after its professionals, people who are risking their lives for their guests on a daily basis. The most experienced guides may earn around R10K before taxIt's almost impossible to get a housing loan on this and as a result Africa is losing a crucial cog in her tourism wheel. The average longevity of a guide is a mere 2 years. The model makes no sense: the guide is the make or break of the safari experience. I believe the first lodge to change this mindset will not only get all the best guides but all of their faithful guests too.

6. If a potentially dangerous animal gets too close for comfort what is the general emergency plan, would you say?

There is no set plan: each situation will be different, each animal is different, each day is different.A good guide is free of bravado and ego, and there is no need to push any boundaries. When in a vehicle it is the elephant that would most likely give trouble: but that's a generalisation.

One of my friends had a pride of lions chase a giraffe into his vehicle, the giraffe was taken right next to the landrover, and the neck of the giraffe came down onto the laps of the guests on the back seat.

Another friend has had three close calls with mambas striking at his drivers seat (many safari viewers dont have a door on the drivers side). Another friend was knocked out of the trakcers seat by an impala which the lions killed and started feeding on a couple metre from him while he was lying on the ground bleeding profusely.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to sit tight and stay very still: check out this account of 5 male lions surrounding our vehicle

Being on foot is a totally different story, and maximum respect must be applied: go only as close as you would unarmed. The best guides will try to give you an experience with potentially dangerous animals without the animals ever knowing you are there.

7. Have you ever had any too close for comfort encounters yourself? Please do share!

While guiding in the Waterberg I had a couple of close calls with elephants, one even pushing my vehicle. Looking back on that time I can't believe I was guiding with such poor training and so little experience. Not long after that I underwent the stringent training course at &Beyond Phinda and it changed my guiding career and my life. I cannot stress enough the importance of going with a lodge or company with a reputation for well-trained guides.

On foot: When I first started guiding I was walking (unarmed) through a valley in the Waterberg and heard a groaning noise and something running towards me from over a hill. A young wildebeest appeared at the top of a ridge with four lions hot on its tail. They pulled it down less than 50 metres away from me, and then just stared at me. Got the blood pumping.

8. Having been a ranger, you must have seen a few incredible sights that not many others have - can you name one or two?

Finding a leopard's den on foot with a tiny week old cub, take a look at the Ranger Diaries postabout this encounter.

Watching a new giraffe taking its first steps: watch the video on Ranger Diaries.

9. Can you tell a bit more about Ranger Diaries?

It started in 2006 as my own personal blog, but I wanted to take it so much further. We wanted to capture the tales and footage from wilderness areas everywhere and share them online with the world as a virtual safari.We went live with the new Rangerdiaries.com last June.

Any wildlife guide is free to share their stories, photos and videos on the blog. We're now getting over 80000 page views per month, with 6000 unique visitors monthly and our readership grows by about 150% every two months. It's been a remarkable journey but there's so much more we want to do with the site, it's still a little seed: we're just looking for the right sponsor or partner to help take us onto the global platform we've envisioned.

Feedback from the fans: people love the design (big thanks to designer Tatjana Buisson), the novelty, the authenticity, and of course the content. It was quite a surprise to be chosen as SA's best blog but I think it's an indication that people are craving for a re-connection with nature.

 
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