Every safari lover worth her salt wants to spend time in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The landscape is beautiful, with water channels, floodplains and mokolane palms. The wildlife is superb, from elephants, big cats and wild dogs to giraffe and red lechwe. And the professional guides are clued-up and enthusiastic to share the wonders of their environment.
When we visited Chitabe Lediba Camp on the border of the Moremi Game Reserve our guide was Phinley Sankwasa Mwampole, a quietly spoken man with a good sense of humour. Best of all, he was a cub whisperer who could conjure up the cutest baby animals and let us sit in peace to watch them, chipping in with illuminating information on the environment or the animal’s behaviour.
On our first day it was two leopard cubs on what we still consider the best game drive of our lives. On our second day it was a denful of spotted hyena cubs of three different ages. And we all know how entertaining they can be.
His journey from being a child in Chobe to a guide in the Okavango began with a stroke of luck. ‘My brother-in-law was working in Linyanti. I wasn’t doing anything so he invited me to visit for a week.’ Months went by. Then one day his brother-in-law said the company he worked for was looking for staff.
And that’s how Phinley got his foot in the door of the tourism business, first in the scullery washing dishes, then as a waiter and later a barman. ‘One day he asked me if I was interested in guiding. I said, “What you mean by guiding?”’
Once Phinley understood, he thought it was a fine idea. ‘I started moving into the Land Rovers with the guides, listening how they talk with the guests, jacking and changing tyres. Then they sent me out to get a driver’s licence.’ He chuckled, admitting he had to take his learner’s twice before he passed, but nailed the driver’s on his first try.
Of course, he still had lots to learn. ‘You’re not allowed to be a guide without a licence,’ he said. And that means learning everything from the principles of guiding to the nitty-gritties of animals, plants, ecology, geology and even first aid.
After completing the course work and practical training he got his licence in 1990 and followed it up with a few additions like a mokoro licence – a must here in the Okavango. ‘Eventually I became a freelance professional guide who can work anywhere,’ he said. It was a long way from being unemployed or washing dishes.
Phinley’s name is on a brass plaque in the Chitabe Lediba bar, marking his 10 years as a guide at the camp. No doubt a 20-year plaque will soon be added. And in the meantime he’ll make many a guest’s day with his knowledge of plants and animals, his uncanny ability to reveal the most delightful cubs.
* This is part of a series called Voices of Botswana, which shares the stories of some of the people we met on our Botswana adventure. You can find them all in the people category of this blog.
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