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Featured guide: Gavin Lautenbach

Gavin started guiding in 1997 in the Lowveld around the Kruger National Park before moving to the world-famous Phinda Private Game Reserve.  Thereafter he spent some amazing years in the Sabi Sands as a head guide, trainer and mentor at Londolozi.

He is an expert birder and is a highly talented photographer. He is highly respected amongst his peers for being passionate about uplifting the standard of safari guiding where ever he works.  He loves tracking, walking safaris and getting his guests involved in practical jokes on his colleagues, which is why one of my career highlights was reversing the windscreen wiper water jets on my Land Rover and soaking him and his passengers in a drive by shooting.


What's the most scenically spectacular place you've seen?
Ethiopia. It has such a diverse landscape from the highest peaks to the lowest points in Africa: the Danakil Depression, rugged escarpments, volcanoes, crater lakes and incredible wildlife all make for a very special place.


If you had to recommend only one safari for a guest, where would it be?
This is a tough one to answer but I think there is something about the migration in East Africa which if timed correctly is one of the greatest wildlife experiences on earth.

What's your favourite lodge?
I don’t want to sound biased on this one but I would have to say Londolozi. For me it’s simply about the game and I don’t believe there is a better property that produces such consistently good game and where the guides have such freedom to ensure that their guests have the best possible wildlife experience.

The strangest question you've been asked as a guide?
I remember starting my afternoon game drive at Londolozi Varty Camp. I had new guests and stopped for a few minutes at a dam just outside the camp. While I was pointing out hippos, kingfishers, crocodiles and crakes a guest asked me if the water was tidal. I wasn’t sure I had heard the question right so trying not laugh I asked her to repeat the question. She looked me straight in the eyes and said “is this water tidal?” For those that don’t know Camp Dam is about 200 kilometres from the ocean. I said to her “As in the ocean, gravitational pull and the movement of water?” and again she said confidently “Yes”. That was the final straw, and everyone on the vehicle including her husband burst out laughing, setting the tone for a fun two days.


You've spent much of your career as a guide trainer...
I was very fortunate to work for AndBeyond where they place a huge emphasis on training. I worked with some of the best trainers, trackers and guides in the industry. I was given an opportunity to pass this knowledge and experience on to others and it was something I enjoyed immensely. It helped raise my game too and it kept me in check. Trainees are constantly watching, and are quick to question so I used it to help me become more professional and consistent. I am still passionately involved in training and relish any opportunity to work with guides of all levels.

What are a few of your pet hates about trainee guides?
* Being late. There are no excuses for being late.
* Guides that busk (pretending you know when you actually don’t) when they are training will do it when they are guiding.
* Guides that do not know the answer to a question, telling their guests they will get back to them and then not doing it.
* Not making the most of opportunities.


Describe your worst guest experience..
At one of the lodges I worked at I was called in by management to take over another guide's guests as they were not happy with their guide and tracker. It is an awkward place to start a safari from but after getting an update from the ranger I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be fun. I spent a day with the guests and everything seemed fine. I had just got a drink and met the guests for dinner when the trouble started. The camp manager took the brunt of his rage, his complaints were petty and unjustified, he was rude and insensitive and it upset the staff who were staring in disbelief. The lodge had gone out of its way to do everything it could to please these guests and yet frustratingly nothing was good enough. It was a perfectly timed rant as a more senior member of staff walked in as he was demanding a full refund. The air was now tense; the guests that he had brought along for the journey were now clearly uncomfortable and terribly embarrassed. The senior manager told the guest in no uncertain terms not to speak to the staff like that EVER and to make sure his bags were packed in the morning and to leave the property at his earliest convenience. She bid them good evening, turned around and walked off. Unfortunately I still had to sit for dinner which I can say wasn’t too pleasant the silence was more than awkward. This seemed to be the way he travelled though. Sadly he was given a full refund and we later found out he had tried the same trick at other camps he had travelled to.


Can you share some guiding wisdom with aspiring guides?

 * Often novice guides don’t understand the importance of their job. People have paid enormous amounts of money, travelled thousands of miles to be on safari, and most importantly their dreams and expectations rest firmly in their hands. So forget the khaki, the Land Rover and the .458 and remember your job is to make sure the guest has the best possible safari experience you can create.

• Communication is essential in all aspects of guiding. Speaking clearly, facing guests when you are talking to them, telling people what is happening throughout the safari and listening is a critical part of communication so listen to your guests both in verbal and non-verbal communication.

• Professional tools for professional people. It’s simple you are a professional you need to have the right tools to do your job, good binoculars, a collection of field guides for visual aids, laser pointer for the stars, scorpion torch, and anything else that will add to the quality of your guests experience.

• Story-telling is a wonderful technique to help guests understand whatever it is you are trying to convey, you will keep their attention for longer  and they will be far more likely to remember what you are saying.

• Momentum is a tough concept for novice guides to understand, it’s also hard to teach. It is a difficult concept to define but it does come with effort time and from spending time with more experienced guides. Ultimately it’s not frustrating your guests on a safari for e.g. your guests really want to see a leopard and you are stopping every five minutes to show them a bird which they are not particularly interested in.

• Managing guest’s expectations. You need to find out why your guests are there, what made them decide to come to your lodge and what would the like to see or experience. You then need to adapt and tailor make a safari experience for all your guests, not just the ones you like. With time and experience you will hone these skills and will make a significant difference to the quality of your safari. 

• Respect animals and show some sensitivity, give them the space they need. Within the industry it is becoming the norm to get as close as you can to animals you spend time with whether it’s to film, photograph or because your guests asked you to. You are in control of the safari experience so ultimately the responsibility is with you to manage your guests and the distance you keep from these animals. It doesn’t take long for an image or video to go viral on YouTube or various social media platforms with close calls or actual attacks so don’t let it be you. There are thousands of videos on YouTube showing the questionable ethics of guides throughout Africa.

Your most embarrassing moment as a guide?
Too many to choose from but I would say losing my three front teeth. We had a big night at Phinda Forest Lodge and on the way home from an eventful evening I ran into the back of a vehicle and managed to leave 3 pearly whites on the road. That was at about 2 am and I only got to the dentist at about 11 the next day. The dentist had to do a rushed job because I had to get back in time for the afternoon safari. I arrived back just in time, walked on to the deck to meet my guests only to have everyone laughing and staring at my yellow, bugs bunny teeth. I decided to let my guests in on the story, tears rolled down their cheeks and I never heard the end of it. Embarrassing for me, funny for everyone else.

Why do so many guides leave the industry often such a short time in the career?
Many guides leave the industry because I don’t think they intended to be there very long in the first place. I am all for guides coming through the system and guiding for 2 or 3 years and then moving on. What they lack in knowledge and experience they certainly make up for with their energy and enthusiasm. For other guides I know there is the financial frustration and they head back to the city to find a “real job”. Unfortunately it is a low paid industry, one that is founded on love and passion; the very emotions people use an excuse to keep salaries at a level where a majority cannot afford to live the dream. So instead they exchange it for a late start in the rat race.
 
What is your most memorable sighting?
One of my all-time highlights was watching a young male leopard drown an adult male nyala. It had rained early in the morning; I had some photographers who made a good call not to go out in the drizzle. As soon as the rain had cleared we drove out and found a young male leopard who was heading towards a water hole. We were hoping to get some photos of him drinking but we ended up getting more than we bargained for. While he was drinking he heard something and made a quick move to try and conceal himself. There was nothing, so he just lay down next to a game path and remained motionless. A male nyala nervously poked his head over the embankment close to the waterhole and looked thirstily towards the water. He started down the embankment and I remember thinking he has to see the leopard out in the open. Well, he didn’t. When he drew parallel, the leopard exploded and launched himself onto the nyala and landed precariously in-between the horns of the bull. The antelope stumbled, trying desperately to remain on all hooves, smashing into a nearby thicket; he then stumbled backwards and the leopard started losing its grip, sliding down to the area just below its neck. The weight was just too much and the nyala slid backwards through the mud into the waterhole. The nyala landed on top of the leopard, the leopard still did not let go and possibly now couldn’t as the nyala remained firmly on top. It seemed like ages... probably more so for the leopard... before this muddy and saturated cat came up for a gasp of air. It was probably the only time in my life when I thought a leopard was ugly. The much needed oxygen shifted the balance, and the leopard transferred its weight forcing the nyala under the water, the flurry of hooves desperately trying to gain purchase but the mud just wouldn’t allow for it. I was amazed to see this young leopard actually using its front quarters to pin the bull down under the water. Sadly the breaths of the antelope became shallower and the desperation to break the surface waned until it no longer took in air. Death is always sad and in this case it had been such an incredible sighting that I supposed we had hoped for an amicable end. It was incredibly quiet once the nyala had been subdued; questions of what next were suddenly on my mind. The hoof of the dead animal broke the surface of the water which frightened the leopard and he hissed madly at what he thought was a hungry crocodile. Not a ridiculous thought as a lioness had been taken by a crocodile in this same waterhole a few years previously. We laughed hysterically, his paranoia subsided and he realised he had better get out of the water and back onto the more familiar ground. We had non-stop entertainment as he struggled, slipping and sliding and hissing at any appendage that broke the surface close to him. An hour long struggle ended with the carcass being dragged to a nearby bank where he groomed himself into a respectable state before starting his well-earned meal. 

What was your closest call?

For Gavin's most hair-raising moment follow this link:

http://www.rangerdiaries.com/diaries/diary.html&diaryID=602

If you could start your career over is there anything you'd do differently?
• Everyone tells you to keep a diary, to write down the amazing stories, the funny questions that people ask you. I never did and sometimes I wish I had.
• I never thought I would own my own business one day and so never prepared for it. Treat your guiding career as a small business, think of yourself and as an entrepreneur and all the decisions you make and the actions you take will directly influence your business. Investing in yourself and your profession will help you reap the rewards later on in your career. There are brilliant examples of guides who have led the way by operating at an extremely professional level which allows them to continue to guide in the most spectacular eco-hotspots around the globe without compromising their financial freedom.


What's the most interesting animal behaviour you've witnessed?
I have been very fortunate over the years and have seen some incredible sightings. Watching an elephant give birth at Londolozi from start to finish is probably my most privileged moment in the wilderness. Having found an elephant cow and calf on an afternoon game drive, the mother seemed to be in some sort of distress. My tracker Solly Mhlongo turned to me and said I think she is going to give birth. We watched her water break and then it wasn’t long afterwards that she gave birth. I was amazed was how quickly it all happened. Other than the birth, the reaction of the herd was fascinating as they all trumpeted and congregated excitedly around the calf. It seemed to be a special moment for them, a celebration if you could call it that. Definitely one of the highlights of my career.

 


Gavin is a professional guide trainer for Essential Guiding, as well as a private host guide for Mammoth Safaris. A safari with Gav and his wealth of experience and stories will be more than memorable, and he’ll keep you on your toes!

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