Deep in the South African bush, as the edges of the day start to fade, I'm learning what makes a safari guide truly exceptional. Exhaustive knowledge, attention to detail, respect for the environment, good communication skills – they're all important, yes. But there's also this: the ability to make a magnificent G&T.
The guide in question is a 29-year-old ginger-haired Zimbabwean named Trevor Robinson. We watch as he first organises his bar table meticulously, each implement placed in its allotted position, before juicing limes with a hand-held squeezer. Everything is done just so. Three ice cubes per glass, a precise ratio of gin to tonic, each drink served with a napkin and snack. It's the most perfect G&T I've ever tasted. It's also a microcosm for how Robinson approaches the whole safari experience. After seven trips to the African continent, he is the most thorough and informed wildlife guide I've met.
Having started out as a tracker for a hunting company, before breaking away to pursue his dream of becoming a safari guide nine years ago, Robinson knows how to read the bush to find those details that really make a safari come alive. Earlier this morning as we drove through Madikwe game reserve, he stopped for the smallest of creatures – an African millipede writhing in the red dirt, a terrapin in a puddle, a ten-centimetre chameleon hidden in a bush. How he spotted them while whizzing by at 40 kilometres an hour, I don't know. But he picked each of them up so we could see their details and hear their stories, rendering them equally as fascinating as the more obviously impressive creatures he also tracked for us, including two cheetah devouring a zebra, a pack of wild dogs preparing for a hunt and a 20-strong herd of elephants crossing a river.
But back to those G&T's. After packing up our sundowner bar, Robinson piles us back into the Jeep with a promise, "I know something you don't know, let's go!" The best safari guides know how to heighten the thrill of a search, and Robinson's energy and boyish enthusiasm is infectious. Suddenly we're all on the hunt, zipping through the night, headlights illuminating the dirt road ahead, before pulling up beside four female hyena. Clearly, Robinson has retained his hunter's bush instincts.
"Hyenas are really weird creatures," he whispers as we peer through the darkness at these infamously villainous animals. "They're often mistakenly described as hermaphrodites because the female labial lips are fattened to look like testicles." There are many facts and figures that are ubiquitous in the safari world, so it's often these more obscure details that you remember most clearly. As we continue observing, Robinson helps us fall for these devils of the African bush. "I love that we're here in these whopping great noise-making machines, yet they allow us these glimpses into their lives, it's incredible," he says. You'd imagine guiding every day for almost a decade would leave you jaded, but Robinson seems just the opposite.
Perhaps he's managed that by fostering his sense of humour alongside his academic expertise, I realise next morning as we head out for dawn safari. When we find a pride of lions lazing in the bushes, along with identifying each by name and age and filling us in on their touching histories, Robinson is brimming with jokes. "The lionesses are like my wife, they're never happy to see the males!" And when we see a group of giraffe, "giraffe are the metrosexuals of the bush, they're never dirty and they always want to keep their shoes clean." Sure, the jokes are a little lame. But they also help us remember facts that would otherwise exit our brains after the first sundowner drink.
By the time Robinson drops us off at the Madikwe airstrip, where a light aircraft awaits to take us back to Johannesburg, we're as sad about farewelling the bush as we are about farewelling this passionate, comical and quirky young man. They say that safari guides can make or break dreams. The best of them, as Robinson has proved, can also help you realise dreams you never even knew you had.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Luxury Escapes.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Johannesburg, then a one-hour flight or five-hour drive to Madikwe. See qantas.com
Luxury Escapes offer an 11-night small group safari taking in South Africa, Zambia and Botswana, including luxury accommodation with Sanctuary Retreats, all meals and beverages, a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, a 'Walking with Elephants' experience and more, from $8,499 per person. See lescapes.com