Everyone returns from Africa a changed person. Often they come home with stories such as falling asleep to the sound of lions roaring or the indescribable colours of an African sunset. But not many people can say they met someone like Spokes. Before I set off on my Botswana in Depth tour, I had heard stories around the Peregrine office about this incredible tour leader. It appeared he was something of a legend, and I was about to find out why.
There were just four of us on my particular departure, a two-week journey through four of the country's national parks. Being part of such a small group meant we had a close connection with not only Spokes but our cook, Washington, and the camp assistant Madu. We all travelled in the same vehicle and there was lots of time for one-on-one conversations.
My favourite part of the day was the evenings, when we would all sit around the campfire and chat about what we'd seen. We'd take it in turns asking Spokes different questions and he loved to tell stories. These were made more dramatic by the fact they were often accompanied by the sound of elephants trampling through the bushes nearby.
Spokes grew up in Chobe and trained as a mechanic, but he always gravitated towards the animals. "After a hectic day at work I would drive out to see the wildlife," he said. "That's where my passion came from." Spokes worked hard to get his professional guide's license but made a promise to his boss that he would keep working as a mechanic until the completion of his course. That was 17 years ago, and taking guests on safari is now his full-time job. "If I'm on safari 150 days out of the year then it's a good year," he said.
On the first night, Spokes explained that each day he would wake us early for our game drive. "It will be a pleasant greeting, either 'Good morning' or 'Knock knock'. But perhaps it will be more effective if I simply let out a big growl." It didn't take long to get used to his sense of humour. When I asked which animal he feared the most he simply said, "Let me put it this way, I don't want to be killed by a crocodile - the funeral service wouldn't be complete because I wouldn't be there."
Spokes celebrated his birthday while we were on the tour. "I'm a Leo, which explains my special connection to the lions," he said. "I can always tell when it's close to my birthday because something exciting usually happens." Naturally we were expecting big things. And Spokes delivered. On Day 9 we were the only vehicle in sight when two male lions decided to come along and bask in the sun. Spokes explained that just like humans, animals also have a comfort zone. "Sometimes when a lion is relaxed, tourists are tempted to get closer. But if you break the comfort zone they will react. We must respect them. They will warn us if they are uncomfortable and the reaction is usually in their tail. So I watch very closely."
During his career as a guide, Spokes has worked in both permanent lodges and on mobile safaris. He discovered early on that mobile safaris were what he wanted to focus on. "To me it's boring to go to the same area each day. I like to move around. Every park has something different to offer. Nxai Pan is wonderful for spotting ramsbok and springbok. The Delta itself is fascinating, with the different habitat and animal behaviours. Savuti is a lot more historic with its outcrops of rocks, and in the front section of Chobe you are guaranteed to see many wild animals."
Spokes also has a natural affinity with his guests. I wrote a diary during our trip, and one particular entry reads: 'I love that Spokes actually wants to share his stories with us. He wants to sit around the campfire with us and talk and drink wine and laugh. We aren't just a bunch of paying customers. We are, in his own words, his guests.'
He told us that he makes a point of listening to all his guests' questions. "If I don't know the answer, I like to go and read about it so I can teach them. I read a lot and I am always learning. At the start of the safari I like to ask my guests for their expectations. I write them down in a notepad, so that if you want to see a leopard I will try to make that happen. I also like to make sure the guests are happy - I try to give them time to relax, because if you push them too hard they will get tired."
I feel very blessed to have spent two weeks in the company of such an incredibly generous and knowledgeable guide. He genuinely loves his job with Peregrine and to see Africa through his eyes is something I'll never forget.
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