Tour leader interview with Will Fox South Africa safari

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Leopard yawning and (inset) Will Fox
Leopard yawning and (inset) Will Fox (Photo by Steve Slater)

Leader interview: Will Fox - South Africa safari

Originally from the UK, Will Fox is now based in South Africa where for the past decade he has devoted his time to wildlife conservation and leopard research. He and his wife, Carol, set up their tour company in 2007 to break away from the standard safari rhetoric and offer guests the chance to experience the real African bush.

Known as a bit of an expert cat catcher locally, for recreation Will gets involved with catching big cats for conservation projects. "It takes skill to catch a leopard without hurting it," he says. "We don't catch them in cages and it gets your blood going when they come at you, but you've got to do something to stay alive, haven't you?"

Our guests see the most stunning viewpoint of the whole trip when they first arrive at Black Leopard Camp.
They've driven from Johannesburg airport, so are a bit shell-shocked from travel and have only been on the road, so they don't really 'get' Africa yet, then we pull over the top of a hill and there below it is this magnificent vista of African bush. It's mountainous with valleys and absolutely no humans - nothing there but our lodge surrounded by incredible colours and views that stretch as far as the eye can see. It still takes my breath away now.

African bush
African bush (Photo by Diriye Amey)
The three most important things to have in your daypack are a camera, binoculars and hat. But, safari isn't all about sight and is a very sensory experience.
What we do on our guests' first full day is ask them to wear long clothing and take them out into the bush. We sit them singly, 40m apart, then they're blindfolded and given hearing defenders and a pair of gloves to wear. What they have exposed is smell, then I come back 10 minutes later and take the gloves off so they have touch; 10 minutes later I take the hearing defenders off, and then leave them a further 10 minutes before the blindfold comes off. The first thing most of our guests do is look around to orientate themselves and then immediately shut their eyes again because they were enjoying using their ears so much. It's a sensual experience that builds layer by layer and encompasses everything that our trips are about. We use it as an avenue for our guests to get a better understanding of animal behaviours and the bush, and to open up the bigger picture for them.

Tara Pirie is head researcher of the INGWE leopard research team and is running our research camp doing a PHD with us - she is what I'd call the 'Jane Goodall of leopards' and is an incredibly interesting character.
She lives out in the bush and is absolutely dedicated to the leopard cause; everyone that meets her is taken aback by that first meeting with her - not only because she's very knowledgeable, but also because she's FGASA-qualified (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa). All the guides in South Africa have to be FGASA-qualified and level 3 is the highest you can achieve. Not many people achieve level 3, but Tara has and is the only foreign female with that level of guiding qualification. I've met hundreds of interesting characters since we've been coming out to South Africa, but Tara is exceptionally friendly and an excellent host, always taking guests on walks and chatting openly at meal times.

Cultural misunderstanding happens, and when it does it's often funny.
In the area around the Kruger park where we go, the local people are Shangaan people and in their language 'thank you' is 'inkomu', but in Zulu, which is widely spoken in South Africa 'inkomo' means 'beast' or 'animal' - although we brief people on how to get it right, of course they get it wrong and there's always that one guest who accidentally calls one of the lodge staff a cow while smiling at her thankfully when she clears his or her plate. It's the faux pas that makes us laugh the most, although we probably shouldn't, and it's always a private joke between the lodge staff and us; we can see the staff giggling and the plates jiggling as they walk away, which makes it even funnier.

This sounds a bit corny, but it's true: the highlight of any trip for me is seeing people's sheer amazement and enjoyment at seeing wildlife close up. It's like giving a present at Christmas.
I think people really underestimate the effect that seeing wildlife up close and personal will have on them. It's an emotional event for a lot of people. Another highlight is returning to the campfire at night and revisiting the day's sightings. Everyone chats together and they always expect that for me it's just old hat, but it's not; sightings are incredible for every individual, every time. I sat with a herd of elephants very recently and witnessed movements and behaviours that I've never seen before.

Watching elephants
Watching elephants (Photo by Brian Snelson)
The word 'camp' conjures up the biggest misconception about our trips.
A lot of people hear 'camp' and envisage some sort of Boy Scout jamboree where you've got rough tents and are living on the ground scratching round for grubs! Of course, in terms of South African safaris, the word means something completely different and a camp is just a term for a lodge, which can be really luxurious. We go to lodges and camps, but camp accommodation doesn't mean a bucket out the back, they're actually really comfy and well kitted out.

As with most of the things we do, the souvenirs from our trips are a little bit quirky and different.
We like to get our guests involved in the conservation side of things, so one of the things we ask them to do is make a plaster cast of a leopard's footprint - we use them in our research programmes anyway, but this way guests get to track the leopard, cast it's paw in plaster of Paris and then take that home. That's a better souvenir than anything you could buy in a shop. Leopard's paws are about 4 inches in diameter, which is pretty big, but if you were to cast a lion's paw, you'd be looking at taking home something dinner plate sized.

Leopards particularly are spontaneous animals. If you ever hear a guide saying any words after the phrase 'a leopard will', that guide doesn't know what he's talking about because a leopard will do what it wants when it wants.
When I was learning more in-depth about leopards, I once asked a trainer what I should do if a leopard came at me and he just said: "give it something", meaning my arm. You can fairly well be sure that it's not going to hurt you unless you're doing something to annoy it. They'll move away and give you a warning, but my god - when they come, they come.

Leopard (Photo by Diriye Amey)
My top survival tip? Don't run!
I often get asked to take people on bush walks and once took three couples out with me who had come on holiday together. I explained that we wouldn't be likely to see any of the big and furries on a walk, but if we did and I gave the nod, the instruction was just to freeze and stand completely still. We came across a rhino sleeping under a tree about 40m away and one guy wanted to take a photo, so I brought him up to a safe place, but it soon became apparent he hadn't muted the 'beeps' on his camera, so the rhino jumped up and this guy threw the camera down and legged it! The rhino, frightened, ran in the opposite direction, and my guide found the runaway guy a good kilometre away hiding in the bush! Back at the lodge he got the mickey taken out of him by all of his friends - everything you could have done wrong he did it. He took it well though.

Rhino running in the opposite direction
Rhino running in the opposite direction (Photo by flowcomm)
There have been a few heart racing times for me, especially working with leopards, but there's one particular event that sticks in my mind.
I'm not great with snakes, I'll tolerate them, but I'm not a snake-lover, and in my downtime I like to go mountain biking through the bush. I was cycling along and I came across a trail with something black lying across it, so I hammered the breaks on and it turned out to be a huge black mamba. These things can stand up two-thirds of their length and it just stood at my eye height staring right at me. All you can do then is play statues - which is the general instruction with African wildlife, except in the case of elephants when occasionally you have to leg it - luckily, the snake backed off. It was frightening at the time, but the funniest bit for me was that you hardly see anyone in the bush, so after I'd made my escape I was riding along screaming words that I shouldn't have been screaming and bizarrely, I rounded the corner to find a lady walking with a guide. I must have looked like a lunatic.

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