By Lucia van der Post

The Financial Times
November 19 2005

It is a funny thing about safaris but when my friends ask me – as they do all the time – where they should go on safari, scarcely one of them ever asks about the guide. They ask about which country they should go to; which are the smart lodges; which serves the poshest food. They ask about the weather and where is best for spotting the big five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo ) but no, never the guide. And yet the right guide is almost more important than anything else. He (for I haven’t met a female one yet) can transform what could be just another holiday into a life-changing experience.

It’s not until you’ve been to Africa, until you’ve walked through the bush with an inspirational guide such as a John Stevens, a Garth Thompson, a Richard Bonham or a Calvin Cottar, that you begin to understand not just how vital they are for your safety but also how they can illuminate the experience, give it significance and meaning, lift the thrilling encounter with wilderness and wild animals into something you remember for ever.

What has brought this to mind is that Suzie Cazenove, who with her friend Henrietta Loyd founded Cazenove+Loyd in 1993, has just brought out a book called Licensed to Guide. In it Cazenove brings alive the compelling allure of the African bush through the stories of the guides she chooses to profile. These are not the only guides in Africa – they happen to be the ones she knows. I’m lucky enough to have been out in the bush with many of them and reading her book reminded me of what I owe them all, of the magical experiences I’ve had all over Africa, which their knowledge, their courage, their enterprise and commitment made possible.

There’s John Stevens, one of Zimbabwe’s most respected guides who is now, for obvious reasons, working in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. He not only knows every single bird and beast, he can tell you about the parasitic plants and the dung beetle. You just know when you’re out with him that if by some hideous chance something went wrong John would make it as right as he could. When you come upon lions he knows exactly the safe distance to keep that allows you to observe them quietly and respectfully but he also knows when it’s time to leave.

I’ve been in the bush with Garth Thompson, whose knowledge and love of elephants (if you have a taste for esoteric information ask him to expound on green penis syndrome) is extraordinary, and I’ve seen how precisely he, too, judges the distance to keep, how carefully he watches for the tell-tale signs such as ears going back (much more alarming than when they’re full-out, which usually means a mock charge) or the tail twitching.

Drifting down the Zambezi on a canoe with him, watching the fish eagles fly and the elephants coming down to drink, is one of life’s distinctly memorable experiences.

Then I’ve been to the wilder, lonelier reaches of the Masai Mara with Calvin Cottar and stayed in his magical camps that bring back the glamour of 1920s safaris. We’ve walked up the high hills and sat by the side of the Grometi river watching the awesome spectacle of millions of wildebeest standing on the edge, both terrified and yet impelled to cross the crocodile infested water.

There’s Nigel Perks, who can take you on a mobile safari throughout the Serengeti, stopping wherever the mood and the animals take you, and Richard Bonham, who will take you fly-camping on the banks of the Rufiji or walking in the wilds of the Selous. There’s Robin Pope down in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley. Not a guide I’ve ever been out with but whose walking safaris, in the tradition of the great Norman Carr, are already legendary.

In Botswana I’ve camped in some of the wildest, most isolated places on earth with the Dugmore brothers and still remember Roger Dugmore’s determination to track down one of the hardest-to-see animals in the bush – an antelope – for us.

But there’s also Ralph Bousfield with his Jack’s Camp, and two other wonderful guides, Map Ives and Mike Myers, both of whom know and love Botswana, its people and its land.

The best guides are tied deeply into specific corners of Africa, which they get to know intimately. Men such as the Bayei guide Mothupi Morutha who not only knows the Botswana bush but comes from one of its fascinating tribes, which has plied the waterways of the Okavango for hundreds of years, so he is able to tell stories of his people and their history, which brings yet another dimension to the experience of visiting the land.

In Kenya the legendary Jackson Looseyia, son of an Ndorobo hunter, who learned the ways of the bush by stalking lion, giraffe, impala (strangely the hardest of all) and other animals, bridges the world of traditional tribal life and western expectations brilliantly.

Cazenove’s book not only brings you tales of some of the best of Africa’s guides but it is also a salutary reminder that while the bush may be thrilling, it’s also potentially lethal. It’s not a place for amateurs. It’s very telling that all the best guides treat the bush with the utmost respect. They know precisely how close to animals it is safe to go. They don’t do daft things such as sleep in unzipped tents in lion or hyena country or dip their toes into murky rivers or wander round at night without the utmost care.

It’s not enough to know every bird and beast, insect and flower; they need too, as Cazenove puts it, to be “an excellent host, organiser, mechanic, good shot, conversationalist, paramedic and mind-reader”.

A great guide can make even the empty bush seem alive. I well remember being in the Kalahari with Izak Barnard of Penduka Safaris. There was precious little to see – the odd jackal or antelope seemed all there was. Izak still made it a magical experience – he talked about the praying mantis andthe dung beetle, he dug up roots and showed us the moth-pollinated night lilies popping open as the sun went down.

When you’re walking on foot in the bush – the best and most thrilling way to experience real Africa – then the calibre of the guide may be the difference between life and death (as Richard Bonham puts it “you hope never to have to use the gun but one day, sooner or later, you’re going to have to”). They have to have natural authority so that even the most arrogant banker realises that here is somebody he has to obey. Come the moment and the danger – walking, say, into a breeding herd of elephant or a pride of lions – if the client doesn’t do exactly as he’s told then it could spell disaster for all.

If you’re thinking of your next African safari, take it from me, you might do very much worse than start by thinking seriously about your guide and then planning your entire safari around him. If you haven’t yet been on safari and you’re wondering what the fuss is all about, Cazenove’s book will make you long to be there right now.

‘Licensed to Guide’ by Suzie Cazenove £29.95 from most good bookshops