Frankie La Grange is a guide at Tinga Private Game Lodge, a concession near Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. He tells of the highs and lows in a typical week at work.
Most people think the hardest thing about being a guide is the early mornings, and to an extent they are right! It is never easy hearing the alarm going off at 04h15, signifying the start of another day. But as soon as I have gone through the shower, got dressed and shovelled a quick bowl of coco pops down my throat, the alarm becomes a distant memory and I step out the door to the welcoming sights and smells of a glorious African dawn.
My guests have now been with me for three days, an average stay for international visitors, and this is their last drive. They are here celebrating 10 years of marriage in style, and haven’t missed a drive yet. Unlike many foreign guests, this couple is interested in more than the Big Five, which is great as it means I can show them the small things most people miss. Their apparent indifference to the Big Five could be because we saw all of them in the first day! However, these folk seem to prefer the more unusual species and we have been incredibly lucky in that respect.
The night before we had a rare sighting of an aardvark on the Lake Panic bird hide road, just before we turned back onto the concession. Although we only got to share a minute in the company of this secretive animal, it was a minute neither my guests nor I would have swapped for anything. Even after six years of being a guide, two of those years guiding for Tinga, I have only ever had three aardvark sightings in my life. So each is special.
As always my guests are already awake as I give them their wake-up call. Ten minutes later they are ready and practically jumping onto my vehicle. Isaac, a tracker who came with me when I moved to Tinga from my previous lodge in the Timbavati, is already on board and raring to go. As we head out into the still dark African morning, there is a feeling of sadness that usually marks farewells.
Isaac and I have really enjoyed having them as guests, and it is not long before the wife says she will be sad to leave Tinga and head back to Australia, even though she is going via Mauritius. For her the luxury of the lodge coupled with the beauty of the African bush has enabled her to take a step back from her hectic lifestyle and reconnect with what’s important.
The sober atmosphere lifts as we stumble across three young male lions. The early morning air is still cold enough to make their breath mist up, as they majestically stroll down the road right past our vehicle. These three young bachelors make a strong coalition and have the potential to upset some of the older pride males. Soon they will have their own pride, but this will involve a take over which is never pleasant.
When new male lions take over a pride they will often kill the cubs from the previous males. This brings the females back into oestrous and the opportunity to have cubs of their own. This is always a hard thing to tell guests, but I guess it is nature’s way of ensuring the strongest genes survive.
The rest of the drive was unusually quiet; although we did see a rare herd of beautiful nyala when we stopped for morning coffee and rusks on the concession.
On the way back to the lodge for breakfast we saw no more animals but a number of spectacular birds, including a bateleur and a pair of blue waxbills flying between bushes in a frantic manner. As we stopped at the lodge my guests thanked Isaac and I for all we had shown them. It always brightens your day when you have satisfied guests.
With my next set of guests only arriving on Thursday, this morning I had a lie in – something all guides appreciate. My alarm rudely interrupted my slumber with the roaring voice of an irate Scotchman bullying me into getting out of bed!
With our biannual audit of the concession coming up there is no time to lose. I am part of the eco-department, which is under the leadership of our ever entertaining head guide, and my best friend, Quentin, who reports directly to our operations manager Anthony Marx.
No one likes to disappoint Anthony, or to let our impressive standard when it comes to audit scores slip. However, it’s hard to keep improving on grades which are already at 97.5%, so we have our work cut out!
With the help of a team of trackers, I have grade some of the concession roads. Being a proper “Boerseun” there is nothing I like more than a John Deer tractor.
Even my girlfriend takes a back seat when it comes to spending time with the tractor! There is nothing more enchanting than the low resonating chug of the tractor’s engine as we slowly make our way along the Legends access road.
The trackers remove large stones from the road, as I bring up the rear with trusted Deere. After six hours of having my kidneys shaken, the roads are looking good and even Anthony is impressed. With the impending audit there is a lot of pressure to ensure everything about the lodge is perfect and the roads are now one thing we can remove from that list.
Today I have a bit of maintenance to do, before helping set up our bush-banqueting site for tonight. Last night elephants came right up to the suites and damaged one of the fences. It is the beauty of being situated right on the banks of the Sabie River, we are always surrounded by game even if occasionally it does come a bit too close.
Before long the fence is fixed and I head off with a team to erect the bush banqueting site. Every other night we host a five-star banquet in a special location, either on the river terrace, or in the boma, but my favourite is the bush site. Why live in the bush if you aren’t going to utilise it?
We have a stunning site in a clearing, which we transform into a dining extravaganza. A huge fire is set in the centre with smaller fires in cast iron braziers set around the outside perimeter. Guest tables are set as if we are in the lodge, but decorated with candles and lanterns.
A toilet, braais and drinks stations are all put up and the place is converted from a bush clearing to a banqueting site in a matter of hours. During the day the site looks impressive, but it’s when the guests arrive after sunset when it really becomes magical.
Five minutes before the first game viewer, packed with guests, arrives the guide radios in to warn us. I am on duty with the rifle to ensure everyone’s safety.
Although we have never had any of the big five interrupting a banquet to date, there is occasionally a passing hyena that will make an appearance. My favourite thing is watching the faces of the guests as they arrive at the banqueting site. I don’t think any of them are ready for the spectacle they are presented with.
Over dinner there is always the conversation of what they have seen on their drive or during the stay. Tonight two of our groups have been really fortunate, as they saw our resident female leopard with her cub on a kill. She had just killed a bushbuck when the first group arrived and was in the process of dragging it up a tree. The cub looked on, somewhat bemused.
By the time the second group had arrived she and her cub were feasting in the relative safety of the tree, just in time it seems because as the group left they saw a pack of hyenas heading her way. It’s always great to be working a bush banquet, as all the guests are always so appreciative of our efforts. It makes everything, even the cleaning up, worthwhile.
With my guests arriving at Skukuza airport at 10h00, I have enough time to do the last few maintenance jobs prior to the audit. The audit started today, so everyone’s running around making sure everything is meticulous. It’s actually funny because, as a five-star lodge we always have to make sure things are immaculate; and the concession, as well as the lodge, is in top-notch order. So while the audit shouldn’t be any different from a normal day, the nerves surrounding an inspection make it a lot more stressful.
At 09h40 I make my way to Skukuza airport, just 10 minutes away from the Lodge. As the small plane lands and the guests come out, I always enjoy playing a game trying to guess which of these are mine. This time it was a group from America I was collecting and as they were the only people to be on the plane it wasn’t much of a challenge!
After booking them in, I escort them to their suite. This is always fun, very few people know what to expect when they walk into a five star lodge. Tinga has two lodges, Legends and Narina. Both lodges overlook the Sabie River.
When a guest walks into the suite they often don’t know where to look first, the gigantic four-poster bed, plunge pool, outside shower, decadent bath and spectacular panoramic views over the Sabie River always draws gasps from even the most hardened five-star traveller.
After high tea my guests, six in total, prepare for their drive. As it is their first time in Africa it would be great to get a couple of the big five tonight. As if someone is listening to my thoughts, almost as soon as we pull out of the lodge we stumble across a pride of lions.
Tinga is an abbreviation for Tingala, which actually means pride of lions, so it is always great to see them. As my guests start taking photos, almost on cue three cubs stroll out of the long grass. They are young, definitely this year’s. Two stay close to their mother, but the third is mischievous.
You can see that already, even though it is still so young. It starts playing with the tip of a sleepy male’s tail, as it lazily flicks back and fro the cub tries to catch, clubs and even bites it. Occasionally the male, irritated by the cub’s attention, makes a half-hearted attempt to dissuade the cub from continuing. But his efforts are all in vain as the cub, mesmerised by the black tip, continues totally unperturbed.
After fifteen minutes of talking about lions to my guests they seem pleased with their photos so we move off, giving others the chance to be amused by the cub. After seeing the spectrum of Kruger’s antelopes from duikers to kudus we headed for the old Selati railway bridge, for sundowners. Although the bridge is currently out of use, in times of flood this is how we get our guests, staff and supplies in and out of Legends. We have to use an old pump trolley and it is incredibly hard work to get the guests over the bridge, but the views are incredible and the guests love it.
Often herds of elephant will be wading through the water under the bridge, I am not sure why they always seem to choose that spot. It is a sight to behold, as we go sailing unnoticed above their heads.
This time there were no elephants, but as we finished up with the sundowners a couple of giraffe came down to drink. We watch as these graceful creatures slowly manoeuvre themselves into a position to drink. I tell my guests about their unique physiology, which enables them to have such long necks and incredibly high blood pressure and yet still drink with their head below their hearts without fainting.
Back to the early alarm calls, and it is not easy. However, tonight is bush banquet and this means I will be eating a five-star dinner with my guests, always a pleasure.
My guests sound tired as I give them their wake up calls, so I suggest we go out later, but they’re not keen to miss out on a minute of ‘big five spotting’. We still have four to go, as, although we did see a rhino yesterday it was in the distance – so apparently we can’t count it.
Thirty minutes into the drive we come across a huge elephant bull. He had huge tusks and a rounded head with deeply dented temples, a sure sign of age. Purposefully he makes his way through the bush, occasionally stopping to grab something to eat before moving off.
Guests always have the same response to their first elephant, mine were no different, “wow, I knew they were big, but I never knew how big… they’re humongous, and yet so quiet”.
No sooner were those words spoken, when, with one almighty push the elephant flattened a young Marula tree to our right. The crack of the trunk breaking, gave a couple of my guests a fright with one woman catapulting herself into her husbands lap.
I just about managed to stifle my laugh. As we got back to the lodge my guests thanked me, it had been a productive drive – zebras, giraffes, waterbuck and even a small herd of buffalo.
We saddle up for the evening drive and there is only one thing on my guest’s minds – leopards. The most elusive of the big five, but seemingly common on the concession as every other drive had seen one this morning. Time to go leopard spotting. Unfortunately lady luck wasn’t smiling on me and although we saw some incredible creatures of the night – genets, a bush baby and even a porcupine - no leopards.
My guests didn’t seem to mind too much, especially when we rocked up at the bush banqueting site and were met with the soft flicker of a tea light pathway, guiding us to the fire where waiters took our bar order and showed us to the table.
As my guests depart early on Sunday, today is the last chance for me to find their much sought after leopard and rhino. As the sun broke through, 15 minutes into the drive our chances of seeing a leopard lessened and all my attention was fixed on the rhino. On our concession we have a relatively high number of black rhinos. There are much less black than white rhino in Kruger.
They also are much more aggressive and tend to be harder to spot, as unlike the open plain, grass grazing white rhino, black rhinos browse branches and so tend to be found amongst the thickest bush. Right now either would be nice, but it seemed as if all the rhinos were in hiding. In fact we saw very few animals in the first half of the drive.
It wasn’t until after coffee that our fortunes changed. As we stopped to look at the web of a group of community spiders, a noise alerted Isaac. He signalled for us all to be quiet. We waited in silence for a while. Then out of a clump of sickle bushes strolls a stunning black rhino. Their eyesight is notoriously bad and as there was a strong wind blowing from him to us, he didn’t have a clue that we were there.
Slowly he ambled across the road in front of us, giving my guests more than enough chance for photos. It was an incredible sighting, one that doesn’t happen often and even Isaac and I, were a bit taken aback by this very chilled out black rhino. One down, but no leopard, we did however see another herd of buffalo and more elephants.
There was only one thing on everyone’s mind as we headed off for our final drive, a leopard. The three male lions, I had seen on Monday with my last guests made an appearance.
They were very close to the site where we had seen the pride with cubs on Thursday. My thoughts went out to those three cubs, in particular the mischievous one, I could only hope that their pride was nowhere in the vicinity because these boys were moving with purpose. As spectacular as the young males were, my guests had enough lion photos and wanted leopards.
With darkness drawing in we had the quickest sundowners to date and carried on with our search. After twenty fruitless minutes, I heard over the radio that there was leopard spotted by Richard just further down the Visvang road. The chase was on.
As we drew near, Richard’s vehicle was still there, which is always a good sign. We could see their spots on an old fig tree, a favourite choice for leopards as the soft wood makes it easy to climb.
Perched in the branches there she was, the same female I saw with my other guests, however this time she was without her cub, which worried me. My guests were over the moon, their leopard. She was clearly visible, and although it was pitch black, our spot light illuminated her perfectly and the guest’s cameras went crazy. We spent a good 20 minutes in her company, as she sat up in her tree watching us but seemingly unfazed by our presence.
Eventually she got up, stretched and then with the grace of a Russian gymnast jumped from the tree and disappeared from sight. It was time to head back to the lodge and my guests knew their African adventure was drawing to a close. The mood sobered but the excitement of the leopard couldn’t be quashed.
Just as I gave the call that I was approaching the lodge, eye-shine stopped me in my tracks. Masterfully Isaac manoeuvred the spot light and out of nowhere strolled the most magnificent male leopard. He was in prime condition, his coat glistened and his powerfully built body flexed with every step.
He drew gasps from the guests as he casually strolled towards us. He appeared completely indifferent to us, and continued with his business of scent marking his territory. Once again, the camera clicks could almost compete with sun beetles at their best; two leopards in one night – it was definitely worth the wait.
Returning from the airport after dropping off my guests, there is only one thing left to do before I can join Quentin and Anthony to celebrate a spectacular audit score, 98.6% another improvement, at the golf club. That’s to write this article.
I don’t often get to reminisce over my week, so doing this has been a pleasure. It makes me realise just how privileged I am. I work for a stunning five-star lodge, overlooking the Sabie River, alongside an incredibly dedicated and enthusiastic team of people, and I live in the Kruger National Park.
What more could anyone want? Well a golf handicap below 10 would be nice, but that will only come with practice!
Photos: Katy Johnson, Victoria Watts
By Frankie La Grange