The number of wildlife photographers have increased multi fold in the last one decade. Thanks to FB, Insta and other social media handles, people are wanting to become more popular. There is nothing wrong in this. It is the general psyche of any human to feel happy when he or she gets ‘Likes’!!
One should be determined to learn and better the skills. I too started as a person who was highly salaried and could afford the high end equipments. But, there was only one difference between just affording people and me. I decided to learn every day from my seniors not only about photography but also about animal behaviours. I also spend a lot of time on YouTube and Google trying to understand what the photography jargons meant!!
After these two decades of travel, i have realised, the most important person one should have in the safari jeep is a very knowledgable driver/naturalists or guide. So how does one select the best person available?? Interesting question!!
(pic - our guests anxiously waiting for the best driver/naturalist!! )
I first thing i see in this person is his/her love towards nature. How much does he/she respects wildlife. Yes, i know for a fact that they earn their livelihood from the jungles, but do they compromise and push the animals just to ensure a good shot!! Do they disturb wildlife, just to earn the extra nickel!! Do they cook up stories, lie to the clients about the animal movements just to sweeten the situation!!?? These things are very critical before one decides on the right person.
The second thing i see, is whether the person has been born at the same place where he has been guiding. Was his parents or grandparents involved in any such similar activity. Has he been assisting any good drivers/naturalists of the past during his younger days. Has he/she gone though any certified naturalists course ( this is especially for the guides and not so much for the drivers ). How friendly this person is towards other drivers in the park.
The third interesting thing i look forward before selecting this person is whether he/she refers to the old time great photographers? Does this person respect the guests and refers to them and narrates stories about their favourite sightings during the past visits. This is a very critical soft skill one must possess to score high on the customer delight.
The fourth and very important character i look forward is the photography knowledge of these people. Do they understand the basics of photography, do they know about light, have they used or they been using cameras to click pictures. And when do they start to click ( THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ). I would be personally happy with a person who does not carry his/her camera when accompanying the guests. But the social media pressures have made them fall a prey cos they need to sell themselves.
The fifth and the most important character i look forward is the knowledge levels of these people on the flora and fauna of the particular jungle. Yes, today’s safaris are mainly focussed on Big cats and larger mammals. But one needs to be highly knowledgeable and patient when spending time with the guests to explain about the other species of the jungle. This will completely change the way the guests think about a trip into the forests.
Finally, does the person believe in conserving what is left behind. Does he/she help the forests dept by giving them clues of unwanted movements by villagers, poachers. Do they contribute to the welfare of the forest guards and their kids schooling etc. Does one voice out his concerns against the officials he/she thinks what is done is not right??
There is a commercial angle to this entire subject. Who ever it might be, they make their living out of this. So how much one know, how much one compromises, how much one works towards delighting the guests are very critical as mentioned earlier. Karnataka, in South India has done a very good job on training the guides, drivers and naturalists. This is bcos the Govt has monopolised the entire jungle safari experience. This is not the same across India or at any other part of the world. It purely depends on the self interests of the person to become a good driver/guide.
( in the pic, Basavanna, standing in the centre is one of the best naturalists from Jungle Lodges and Resorts, Karnataka. As mentioned JLR has one of the best naturalists and drivers across the country. Prassana , Shivanand, Viji, Chotu, Afsar from Kabini, Kiran, Pradeep, Natraj, Ramesh, Mudhu, from Bandipur are some of my favourites.)
After the process of selecting a good guide, we as guests need to spend quality time to understand the terrain, learn from him/her, give them the space to get our pictures. I have many a occasions seen guests demanding from the word ‘go’. This puts off any person and finally we as guests do not get what we want. The relationship goes sour!!
When i go through this rigours selection, we start to filter and get to the final list of the best guys. But this takes time and experience to get to this level. After two decades of my travel, we have finally got the list of the best guys. But they do come with a price. The price is their high demand from other customers. So we book them well in advance. We book them atleast six to eight months in advance for all our tours. This ensures that our guests get to do the tours in peace. Another important feature in our tours , is that we spend a lot of time with these guys to train them on photography and soft skills. This has helped them a lot to build their personalities and respect among the guests.
I would take this opportunity to mention the people with whom we are very comfortable with. I would go by destinations. I know for a fact this is quite subjective , but in general and the feedback we have received from our guests and the comfort level we have while traveling, has made me share this list.
The first person is Irshad. He is my most trusted driver at Corbett Tiger reserve. He comes from a family of foresters. His Dad and Uncles have been serving the forests department. From a very young age, Irshad has had a great love towards nature and wildlife. He does not stop learning. His tracking abilities are second to none at Corbett. He keeps a tab of everything which goes around and he discusses only about wildlife with the other drivers. He is very disciplined and this nature of his has made him very popular among the guests visiting the park. There was one incident which made me respect Irshad and his tracking skills. One fine winter morning when i was with him on a private safari, we headed out to track a Tigress which had made her territory at the grass lands. She had the habit of crossing the grass lands in the night in search of food and return to her den early next day. There were about 19 jeeps loaded with other guests. As soon as the forest rest house gates opened, all the jeeps went towards the grass lands as everyone that morning had heard alarm calls. The alarm calls of the deers are still being heard from the FRH. All the vehicles are on a single file driving very slowly, scouting for the Tigress in the tall grass. Irshad,all of a sudden stopped the jeep, turned and started to move in the opposite direction. I was taken by surprise. I have a good habit of not questioning the drivers during safaris. Though i really wanted to check why he was doing this, i kept quite. After a while he took me to a road which is know as Thandi Sadak, which is a road parallel to the road where all the jeeps were lined up. He stopped the jeep, and asked me to get ready with my camera. Like a cub who follows his Mother’s instruction, i put my camera on the bean bag and started to look through my view finder. In hardly three seconds the Tigress appeared, posed for just a couple of seconds ( pic below ) and crossed the road into the bushes. After five minutes, all the other jeeps rushed to the spot to get just the pug marks!! During breakfast, i had quietly asked Irshad, how did he know that the Tigress had crossed the grass lands. He said, with a smile on his face, “ Sir, just hearing the calls doesn’t do any good, you need to watch for the lead deer. She was facing the other side of the grass lands. I knew the Tigress was on her way home”. I saluted him and continued our safari.
The other person is Khajan from Corbett. He is a silent killer. He does not show any reaction, but silently works his way to get his guests to have the best sightings. His Monolisa smile keeps him going through out the day. One fine morning when the jeeps were chasing a huge tusker on the grass lands, Khajan, turned towards his left and started moving his jeep slowly. I couldn’t resist. As i was with my guests, i asked , ‘ Khajan, the tusker is walking towards the river, but why are you taking a left?”. He said, “Saab, these guys are pushing him, so he will take a longer route to reach the river and we will get the best shot of the elephant with the Sun in the BG. Anticipation at its best!!
Naina, our driver from Corbett is very chirpy. But he knows his way around. He has got a special knack of diverting others and getting to gain the right position. This is a very debatable point, but for the guests who are spending a great amount of money and time, this is very critical!!
Then , there is one more Khajan!! It is like the ‘Peter’ of Mara. One out of every five drivers at Mara will be called Peter!! This makes life very difficult to get the right Peter. Coming back to the younger Khajan, his passion towards wildlife is excellent. His only ambition is get the best sightings for his guests. He does this with so much of respect for wildlife. I have never seen him pursing a pregnant tigress or trying to show nesting birds. The way he positions his jeep for us to get the shot is amazing. He waits till the last minute, allows the animal to move and then moves the jeep so quickly for us to click. Both these guys are known for their vehicle positioning skills.
Ranthambore like Karnataka, has one of the best set of guides. One gets to learn so much about wildlife, the landscape, the animal behaviour from them. Chandrakanth, Hemraj Meena, Vijay, Kapil, Sathish Upadhyay are a few commendable ones. I have always wondered and amazed to witness their punctuality. Winter mornings are very cold and summers are scorching hot at Ranthambore. But never during my visits, i have had these people report a minute late. In fact, they would arrive half hour before the guests come to the reception. Their knowledge about this part of the world can be borrowed by any encyclopaedia. Though they know that the guests visit the park for its Big cats, they ensure to make every safari so memorable. Over the years, they have really learned about light and photography. They have all assisted the International photographic groups on assignments. They take pride in their jobs. When i’m there with them, it is purely learning time!!
In the park of Bandhavgarh, my favourites are Ravi and Sunil. Both are exact opposites. Ravi is one of the youngest driver cum naturalists i have ever met. His love towards wildlife is seen in a very few humans. He can give a formula one driver a run for money with his driving skills. The best thing i love about Ravi is, he does not listen!!! This is a very important character one should have when he is confident of doing his job. He knows Bandavgarh like his back of his palm. Being a part of the younger generation, he has skilfully formed a group which shares the movements of big cats at Bandhavgarh. This makes things easy for him to drive when he is with his guests. And when he feels that an animal is being little pushed, he will be the first person to leave the spot and not only this, he will ensure that all the drivers move away immediately. He is definitely the sweet heart of the forests guards and the guests at the park.
( In the above pic, Ravi is on the left of you , and happy guests behind!! ) On one occassion,the way Ravi braked, turned directions, sped up to a place where we found the Tiger with her cubs on a kill can be never forgotten by me in my life. It was the drag mark of the deer, he picked up one early morning. Never we have come empty handed when travelling with Ravi.
Sunil on the other hand is very calm, very mature and a silent killer. He listens to all but will decide for himself!! He too knows his way around. The way he arranges the logistics without any frustration is commendable. He and his team have never let us go back without getting to visit the best zones, even when there is a huge crowd waiting to book the safari on current booking basis. He has his own fleet of cars which he provides to the guests for transportation from the nearest airport and railway stations. He is truly my Man Friday at Bandhavgarh.
At Sundarbans, a man who beats them all is Mritunjay. What ever may be the time one reaches the boat, whether it is early morning or late night, he makes it a point to explain about Sundarbans. He gives his speech and then only allows to have our dinner when we arrive. He has eyes that can match a telescope in this terrain. How did he manage to sight this jungle cat two kms away, from a swaying boat still remains a mystery to me and all of our guests. I’m sure the it was the cats territory, but to sight it from such a distance was a feat very few people can achieve.
Monu Dubey of Pench tiger reserve is another person whom i love traveling with. This young lad has shown many of his counter parts on how to become a successful business man. At his age, very few think the way he does. I have never seen him loosing his cool. From just being a driver at the start of his career, he is now a proud owner of a fleet of vehicles and a home stay at Pench. He knows what the customer wants, especially the photographers. The hospitality at his home stay has been praised by all of our guests. Here the food takes the first position!!!. Like Ravi and Sunil of Bandahvagarh, Pench is Monu's home ground. He has a photographer’s eyes. His pictures have won many accolades. He is a combination of both Ravi and Sunil. His business acumen is very appreciable. He is one person who does not fear any officials. I remember he was the one who started the Dharna ( non violent fight ) against the officials to do an enquiry about a tigress which died mysteriously.
I owe a lot to Monu for waiting patiently on a very hot summer morning near the family of the monkeys. I knew the young ones at play would provide me with a good opportunity, but waiting on a summer morning at this junction was no joke. I got one of my best pictures, which has won many accolades.
When it comes to Maasai Mara, things are different. Here all the vehicles are fitted with wireless, and this makes communication between the drivers very easy. So if there is any sightings or action happening one gets to know. The plains of Mara make it more easy to sight the wild animals, unlike in India where the forests are very dense. But Maasai Mara has its own difficulties. The sheer size of the jungle makes it very difficult for one to cover the entire plains. And most of the time, drivers seem to be in a rush. I have come across a lot of them who are constantly on the radio, and try to go every where, which is not the right thing to do. They do it just to satisfy the guests who are new to this place. Sometimes the drivers are too slow and do not move from one place. For example, to wait near a pride of lions in mid afternoon is a complete waste of time, cos none of the lions would wake up. One should know when does an animal be active. This is very critical in Maasai Mara. The knowledgeable ones, which we work with are trained on this and are very experienced.
Very few tourists know that there is a gradation which happens to the guides and drivers of Mara. There are three levels or categories. They are Bronze, Silver and Gold. These levels are awarded to the drivers/guides with regard to their knowledge levels of the flora and fauna of not only Mara but the other Kenyan parks. Finding a Bronze guide isn’t that difficult, but it is extremely difficult to get to the Silver category. Imagine Gold!!! As far as my knowledge goes, i think there are only two or three people in Mara with a Gold category.
My favourites drivers at this park are undoubtedly Dikirr Mosses, Empaps M Sayialel and Sayialel Jackson. Both the Sayialels work for a conservancy and Dikirr is a freelance driver who owns his fleet of cars. There are many of them at Mara who are brilliant at their work. But for me these three guys always top the list. Very few times, i have heard them talk over the radio. Their knowledge about the flora and fauna of Maasai Mara is beyond excellence. Their passion and love toward their jobs make them top my list of the best guides. I would relate Dikir to today’s Virat Kohli, Empaps M Sayialel to Mark Waugh and Sayialel Jackson to the yesteryear Rahul Dravid. All three had different styles of batting but all three are rock solid!! I’m sure the cricket lovers will now understand!! But you know what, all these three guys are football lovers.. :)
There are many more of these Few Good Men!!!
I have been very fortunate to have met them in my life. And it is because of these gentlemen our guests have always been happy.
By : chandrashekar k www.travelunbounded.com