Safari guides hold it in their hands to make or break dreams, yet finding a good one can be vexing for the uninitiated. As a native Zimbabwean, Graham Boynton has spent decades on safari, and, most recently, 18 months traveling through the bush with guides in 6 countries to come up with this list of his 25 top safari guides. The guides listed with an asterisk (*) are affiliated with safari camps and may be requested as personal guides if you're staying at that particular camp (there's usually no additional fee involved, though generous tips would be expected). The other guides all work independently, and though some may be able to arrange your entire safari, it's usually simpler to book your trip—and the guide—through a tour operator (see "Your Guide to the Guides"). Rates below represent the cost per person per day.
15 LEGENDARY GUIDES
1. *Keraetswe Bosigo (Madala K)
Little Vumbura Camp, Botswana
Bosigo's nickname is Madala K, which, translated, means Old K. He arrived in the Okavango Delta by mokoro, a type of canoe, with his grandfather as a 15-year-old, and started out as a tracker for a hunting company before breaking away to guide photography safaris. Now in his mid-50s, he's acquired vast experience in the Okavango's Vumbura area. A Wilderness Safaris guide for almost 20 years, he is dry, laconic, and dead smart. He's also very involved in training the next generation of Botswanan guides (email@example.com; $450).
2. Gregg Hughes
SAFARI FOOTPRINTS, BOTSWANA
A biology graduate and former Wilderness Safaris guide, Hughes now freelances mainly in Botswana. He is a superb walking guide, a fact this author can testify to as he once saved my life and that of my daughter's when we were caught up in the aforementioned elephant stampede in the middle of an open plain. He combines academic expertise with immense charm, and although he often guides out of luxury camps such as Jao and Mombo, he enjoys trips closer to the soil. As proof, he's recently completed a three-month motorbike safari through southern Africa (firstname.lastname@example.org; $650).
3. *James "007" Pisetu
DUBA PLAINS, BOTSWANA
Pisetu began guiding at Duba Plains as the camp's first and only guide in 1996. He did all the game drives, nature walks, mokoro trips, and village tours, which gave him a unique and comprehensive knowledge of the area and its inhabitants, both wild and human. When new safari companies took over the camp—first Wilderness Safaris, then Great Plains—Pisetu served as mediator between the local communities and the companies. Perhaps his greatest skill is knowing the habits and behavior of Duba's large lion prides and buffalo herds, the dramatic, operatic interactions of which are the main reason for coming here (email@example.com; $550).
4. Paul Kiprono Kirui
MASAI MARA, KENYA
Probably Kenya's most distinguished guide, Kirui is chairman of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (KPSGA), and one of only ten Gold standard guides (the highest ranking) in the country, not to mention a witty and cosmopolitan companion in the bush. He grew up in the Mara as a Masai herder and knows the ecosystem, flora, and fauna intimately. With the travel company CC Africa (now &Beyond), he established East Africa's first guiding school in the Serengeti. He remains an active Mara guide and is a major activist on vulture conservation (firstname.lastname@example.org; $200 plus shared $290 vehicle cost).
5. Saigilu "Jackson" Ole Looseyia
ReKERO NABOISHO CAMP, KENYA
Thanks to his appearances as a presenter on the British television wildlife program Big Cat Diary, Jackson is Kenya's best-known guide, and his charm and easygoing nature are underpinned by an intimate knowledge of his Masai homeland. As a boy, he hunted animals here with his father, a hunter-gatherer, and by the 1980s he was working as a spotter for his mentor, the safari operator/conservationist Ron Beaton. Now in his mid-40s, Jackson is a partner with the Beaton family in Masai Mara safaris, and remains an active and compelling guide (email@example.com; $500).
6. Bill Winter
Bill Winter Safaris, Kenya
A charming, urbane man, Winter grew up in Kenya and was educated in the United Kingdom and at university in South Africa. He specializes in mobile tented safaris in Ol Pejeta and the Masai Mara and is now taking clients into southern Africa. He says there is nothing better than parking his vehicle in a remote piece of wilderness, brewing up a pot of tea, "and just absorbing the smells and sights of what's going on around you. That's wilderness." (firstname.lastname@example.org; $1,650, including accommodations)
7. Christiaan Bakkes
PALMWAG CONSERVANCY, NAMIBIA
Bakkes is an author, novelist, and guide extraordinaire who, as a game ranger in Kruger National Park, lost his left arm when he was attacked by two crocodiles. He has a biologist's knowledge of the flora and fauna, and a poet's eye for the landscape (one of the highlights of a safari with him is his recitals of epic poems around the campfire). He is passionate about this remote desert wilderness, and although he's now the warden of Palmwag conservancy and not a day-to-day guide, he's always looking for excuses to take guests into the wilderness (email@example.com; $450).
8. Pokkie Benadie
SAMARA GAME RESERVE, KAROO, SOUTH AFRICA
One of South Africa's three Master Trackers, Benadie is a Khoi (bushman) who grew up in the Great Karoo, joined South African National Parks at the age of 14, and helped in the creation of Karoo National Park. What he lacks in formal education he more than makes up for with his personal knowledge of this particular ecosystem and the wildlife. Mentored by Louis Liebenberg, the godfather of the science of tracking, Benadie became a Master Tracker at the age of 40. He is not a registered guide, but visitors to South Africa's Samara Game Reserve can sign up for a half-day training session at the Tracker Academy (just three miles from the lodge), where Benadie teaches city folk the art of animal tracking. His lessons are a rare and precious treat (firstname.lastname@example.org; donation based).
9. *Wilson Masiye and Juan Pinto
ROYAL MALEWANE LODGE, KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA
Masiye is another of the three surviving Master Trackers in South Africa. He's from the Shangaan tribe and speaks little English, so he works, almost telepathically, in tandem with Pinto, the erudite, multilingual, highly qualified head ranger at Royal Malewane, safari lodge to the stars. The couple have guided the likes of Elton John, Paul Allen, and Nicholas Sarkozy; Elton John in particular is a repeat guest. Pinto has also been active in fighting the current rhino poaching scourge (email@example.com; $1,245, including accommodations).
10. Richard Knocker
NOMAD SAFARIS, TANZANIA
Kenyan-born, British-educated Knocker is the first Gold-rated KPSGA guide in Tanzania. He's a founder of Nomad Safaris and guides primarily around Lamai Serengeti, his remote camp in the granite kopjes of northwest Serengeti. As with all the veteran guides, his fireside stories would work as great fiction, only they're all true, and his dry wit adds to the experience. A great walking guide—his preferred mode of safari transportation—he is also a formidable animal biologist and an activist in community conservation projects (firstname.lastname@example.org; $460).
11. Robin Pope
LIUWA PLAIN AND LUANGWA, ZAMBIA
Do not be deceived by his bespectacled, accountant-like appearance: Pope is a real man of the bush, and his knowledge of birds, animals, and flora makes him the best guide in his native Zambia. Honing his craft since the 1980s, he is a legendary walking guide who operates from four camps—Nsefu, Tena Tena, Nkwali, and Luangwa River Camp. He has single-handedly put Zambian safaris on the map, and although he's now based in the capital, Lusaka, he still leads walking safaris with the same passion as he did as a young guide. He's a great birder too (email@example.com; $675, including accommodations).
12. Andrew "Stretch" Ferreira
MANA POOLS, ZIMBABWE
Also known as the Elephant Whisperer of Mana Pools, Ferreira can be seen on many YouTube clips standing calmly in front of charging elephants. A tall, bearded, easygoing man of the bush, Ferreira is a former hunter who has lost the desire to kill animals but retains the hunter's bush instincts. Now he runs his own small tented-safari operation, Goliath Safaris, on the banks the Zambezi River, an area he knows so well that he can easily identify individual lions and elephants. Like Pope and Knocker, he too prefers walking safaris (firstname.lastname@example.org; $610, including accommodations).
13. Benson Siyawareva
NGOKO SAFARIS, ZIMBABWE AND BOTSWANA
A fully licensed guide in both countries, Siyawareva has run some of the region's most significant camps (Little Makololo in Hwange, Savuti in Botswana), in addition to helming his own guiding operation for ten years. He reads the bush brilliantly and is thus an expert tracker. His humor and bonhomie are a delight, but he takes community conservation seriously and believes that the education of African children is key to the salvation of the wilderness. He's based in Victoria Falls, where he is helping to build an orphanage (email@example.com; $400).
14. John Stevens
ZIMBABWE, BUT GUIDES IN KENYA AND TANZANIA
One of the standard-bearers of Zimbabwean guiding, Stevens is a former warden of Mana Pools National Park who led anti-poaching efforts throughout the region. He's most at home in the Zambezi Valley, and prefers walking and canoeing to traveling in a vehicle. Stevens has brilliant tracking skills and is noted for his boyish enthusiasm and unaffected, sweet disposition (firstname.lastname@example.org; $1,250).
15. Garth Thompson
Back in 1983, when Thompson gained his license, there were only eight such guides in the country. Today, he's widely regarded as the best African guide—he's certainly one of the most successful—due in large part to his high energy, boundless enthusiasm, and great storytelling. Though based in Zimbabwe, Thompson guides clients throughout seven countries in Africa, including the Central African Republic. He's currently taking bookings for the 2015 season (email@example.com; $1,000).
10 NEXT GENERATION GUIDES
1. Simon Byron
SAFARI FOOTPRINTS, BOTSWANA
Byron is one of the Safari Footprints triumvirate (with Gregg Hughes and Matt Copham). Born and raised in Botswana, he's another guide who knew his calling from childhood. He's earned a master of science degree in environmental science and is a passionate conservationist who has set up a conservation and education trust in his homeland. During his university days, he guided for Wilderness Safaris during holidays, so he knows their Botswana camps intimately. He's charming and friendly and wears his intellect lightly (info@safarifootprints .com; $450).
2. *Florence Kagiso
KWETSANI CAMP OKAVANGO, BOTSWANA
Kagiso graduated from the Botswana Wildlife Institute at the top of her class--she was also the only woman in her class. Soft-spoken and knowledgeable, she developed a love of wildlife in early childhood (she resisted her parents' urging to pursue a career in fashion design). Her understanding of the mammals of the delta is outstanding, and she can identify every bird that flits past as she drives her boat through waterways of the Jao Concession (firstname.lastname@example.org; $450).
3. *Kitso Lademo
LITTLE VUMBURA, OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
One of the youngest qualified guides working in the delta, 26-year-old Lademo has spent the past few years guiding at Little Vumbura, an area he knows like the back of his hand. Like many Botswana guides, he is a keen birder, not to mention a quietly impassioned conservationist who passes the message on at local schools (email@example.com; $450).
4. *Charity Jemutai Cheruiyot
KICHWa TEMBo/BATeLEUR CAMP, MASAI MARA, KENYA
Jemutai is one of just four female guides in the Masai Mara. A member of the Kalenjin tribe, she grew up in the Rift Valley wanting to be a travel consultant but was offered the opportunity to train at &Beyond's guide camp in Tanzania. Her passion for wildlife, she says, was learned from Paul Karui (see above). Jemutai reads voraciously and has a fine grasp of animal biology. Her favorite time in the Mara is in the months after the Great Migration when it is quiet and the grasslands are recovering (firstname.lastname@example.org; $600, including accommodations).
5. *Wilson ole Kasaine
PORINI AMBOSELI CAMP, KENYA
Kasaine has a very traditional Masai background: He's one of 24 children, and his father is a distinguished tribal elder who killed lions and leopards to protect his family and property. Sadly, economic circumstances prevented Kasaine from going to university, but his first love was the bush, and today he guides guests in an area that is barely ten miles from village where he was raised. His eyesight, hearing, and tracking ability are second to none—even among his fellow Masai (wilson.kasaine email@example.com; $310, including accommodations).
6. *Johnson Ping'ua ole Nkukuu (Ping)
MARA PLAINS CAMP, KENYA
Ping, who grew up in the Mara herding his father's cattle, has been guiding for 15 years and is head guide at the Mara Plains Camp—a dream come true. As amiable as he is knowledgeable, he has a great affection for hyenas, which he claims are misunderstood and demonized, and rates the Olare Orok Conservancy, where he guides, as the best cat viewing in the Masai Mara. His favorite quote is a line from William Wordsworth: "Nature does not betray the heart that loveth." (firstname.lastname@example.org; $385)
7. Humphrey Gumpo
Widely considered one of Zimbabwe's top young guides, Gumpo grew up in the Kariba area, trained under the brilliant Spike Williamson, and cites Williamson and Garth Thompson (see above) as his inspirations. Gumpo, who passed the exacting Zimbabwe guiding exams with flying colors, also has his river guiding license and led Wilderness Safaris' canoe trails at Mana pools for four years. Listening more carefully to the bush, he says, has made him a better guide (humphrey@ humphreygumpo.com; $600).
8. Paul Hubbard
Because Hubbard's area of specialty extends far beyond wildlife, he's quite possibly the most left-field inclusion in this listing. The 31-year-old is a polymath who grew up in rural Zimbabwe and graduated with a master of science degree in archaeology. He's immensely knowledgeable in a number of subjects, from the Matabele War and the local architectural history to the San rock art and the archaeology of the spectacular Matopos Hills. This last, a World Heritage Site, is well worth visiting for its dramatic landscape but even more so for the privilege of being guided by this brilliant young man (email@example.com; $300).
9. Ant Kashula
PRIVATE GUIDED SAFARIS, ZIMBABWE
Academic, tracker, and engaging companion, Kashula scored the highest marks ever in Zimbabwe's exacting guiding exams. He holds a master's degree in environmental and geographical science, and believes that getting out in the bush on foot is the best way to embrace the wilderness. He will guide anywhere—his small safari company operates in 12 African countries—but his area of preference is the Zimbabwean lowveld. Kashula is an academic with unique people skills, making him one of the most impressive guides I've traveled with in recent years (ant@private guidedsafaris.com; $400).
10. Beks Ndlovu
HWANGE AND MANA POOLS, ZIMBABWE
Born near Hwange and educated at an elite private school, Ndlovu went straight into guiding as soon as he could. He guided and ran camps for Wilderness Safaris for years both in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and has won many guiding awards, including the full Professional Guides License in 1998. Now the owner of luxury tented camps in Hwange and Mana Pools, he still guides select groups at his camps and is one of the most informed wildlife guides you'll find on the continent. Ndlovu is internationally traveled, yet his soul is still in the bushveld (firstname.lastname@example.org; $1,000).