Travel bargains: When it comes to tour guides, you get what you pay for

"In my opinion," Junior says, shining his torch deep into the thicket by the side of the road, "that could be a cat. Maybe a cat."

My girlfriend and I strain to see whatever it is he's talking about. We can't even spot the telltale reflection of eyes in the dark that would indicate there is a creature in there staring back at us, let alone figure out if it really is a lion, or a cheetah, or maybe even a leopard. But hey, Junior is the guide, the professional, so we're taking his word for it.

Eventually there is a faint rustling in the bushes and we catch the flash of a short, bushy tail disappearing further into the darkness. Junior lowers his torch in defeat. "That was a spring hare," he says. "A spring hare."

In case you're new to this wildlife spotting game, there is a marked difference between a lion and a spring hare. One is rare and dangerous, beautiful and highly prized. The other is a spring hare. Safari guides don't often mix them up.

But then, we've been questioning Junior's skills for a while. This game drive in a northern Botswana reserve called Mankwe has been going for a few hours, and thus far we have seen only one solitary animal of interest – a fish eagle – and that was spied not by Junior, or by his assistant Nandos, but by my girlfriend, sitting in the back of the truck.

While this evening game drive was supposed to be instructive in understanding the nocturnal ecosystems of southern Africa, what it has instead taught me is that there are two inescapable truisms of travel: one, you can never guarantee success when you're dealing with animals; and two, even more importantly, you get what you pay for.

A safari is always something of a potluck excursion, but still, you rely on the guide to make it interesting. Junior began fairly  enthusiastically but his excitement levels have been waning with each animal-free minute, to the point where he's now claiming that the glorified rabbit that he found in the bushes might be the king of the jungle.

That's what you get on a cheap game drive. This is not one of those fancy all-inclusive safari lodges that hires the best guides and the best trackers and all but guarantees that it will find you something amazing. Even if there are no big cats in the bushes, those guys will make it an experience.

A few weeks before this I'd been at a private reserve in South Africa, a place called Shamwari, and found out just how good a night drive can be. My guide there, Wesley, had used the animal-free lulls to point out plant life that can cure snakebite, or to shine his torch on hippo tracks mashed into the soft sand below us, or to listen for the calls of night birds.


When you pay a lot of money you don't have to worry about whether you see animals or not – you're going to have a good time.

But this drive with Junior isn't like that. This one cost about one-tenth of the price of Shamwari, and it shows. Nandos is shining the torch into the bushes while simultaneously checking his phone for messages. Junior is driving in grim silence. Fun is most definitely not being had.

Admittedly, this "get what you pay for" thing isn't always the case for travellers. Sometimes the cheap dinner from the dodgy street vendor is far better than the expensive restaurant. Sometimes the basic guesthouse or the B&B is a lot more enjoyable than the soulless luxury resort.   

But there is something to be said for spending money on the experiences that you really want to get right. It means they're going to be delivered by professionals. It ensures people who care will be looking after you. Maybe you won't splash out on your entire holiday, but for a few key activities, spend the cash and get the best.

Or end up with Junior and Nandos. After our "cat" sighting, the drive continues, Nandos carefully studying anything but where his torch is pointed, and Junior with eyes fixed on the road ahead, as we go through the charade of a game drive. At one point my girlfriend thinks she spots a genet, which would be a pretty cool thing to see, but Nandos must have a few extra bars of phone signal because he's deep into a WhatsApp conversation.

Sigh. In my opinion, this could be a waste of time.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

See also: Everything you need to know about going on safari

See also: South Africa - the amazing destinations Aussies don't care about