By Brian Jackman
How vividly I remember my own first footsteps in the bush, tiptoeing with thumping heart through the three-metre-tall adrenaline grass (so-called because you never know what is around the corner) in search of lion.
But I knew I was safe because I was in the company of Norman Carr, the Zambian game warden who reinvented walking safaris 50 years ago.
Most of the time your guide is there to interpret the natural world in which he grew up, a bush-wise genius who can read animal tracks, be an inspirational source of knowledge on everything from elephant behaviour to the secret world of the termite mound.
Here is my pick of the very best, based on personal experience.
SOUTH AFRICA: JUAN PINTOThe best guide in South Africa has to be Juan Pinto, director and head ranger at Royal Malewane, the glitziest game lodge in the Kruger lowveld.
He works with Wilson Masiya, a master tracker, making this keen-eyed duo the finest guiding team in Africa. Born in Johannesburg, Pinto got involved in raptor research in the Kruger National Park while at school.
His guiding career began in 1993. He had become head ranger at Thornybush, a 13000-hectare private wilderness adjoining the Kruger’s western boundary.
Here he helped Liz and Phil Biden build Royal Malewane, which opened in 1999 and has been attracting the world’s celebrities ever since.
Besides tracking down the big five for the likes of Elton John and Nicolas Sarkozy, he is a hugely talented photographer and speaks four languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Tonga.
He holds South Africa’s SKA qualification (Special Knowledge and Skills – Dangerous Game) as well as senior tracker status.
Where to find him: Royal Malewane Safari Lodge.
SOUTH AFRICA: POKKIE BENADE
Known and respected in conservation circles throughout Africa, Karel (Pokkie) Benade was born in 1963, on a farm in the Great Karoo.
He grew up helping his father look after the sheep, setting traps for predators.
This provided him with an education of a very different kind – learning the ancient art of tracking and the secrets of the veld.
At the age of 14, he joined South African National Parks (SANParks).
At the age of 27, he was discovered by his mentor, Louis Liebenberg , “the man who wrote the book” on tracking. Soon he became a junior tracker and was given the job of following the park’s reclusive and potentially dangerous black rhinos.
At the age of 40, he became a master tracker – one of only three in the country to be recognised by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.
Where to find him: Samara Private Game Reserve.
ZAMBIA: GARTH HOVELL Garth Hovell from Zimbabwe learned such guiding skills as dealing with crop-raiding elephants and buffalos there. He finished his apprenticeship at 21 – the youngest to do so – and now splits his time between Zebra Plains, in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, and a new guiding venture in Panama.
Now 37, he has guided all over southern Africa and tracked tigers in India, as well as plying his trade in the wilder parts of Malaysia, Russia and Australia.
Where to find him: Zebra Plains Safari Camp.
ZIMBABWE: STEVE EDWARDS
The bear-like owner of Musango – a 12-bed luxury safari camp on an island in Lake Kariba on the edge of the Matusadona National Park – was warden there for many years. He is also chief guide, leading his guests on walking safaris while Wendy, his wife, runs the camp.
He joined the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management in 1972 as a cadet ranger based at Victoria Falls.
Twenty years ago, he set up his own safari business and finally built Musango – the camp of his dreams.
His other abiding passion is palaeontology; he recently discovered a fossil site in Matusadona with four species of dinosaur.
Where to find him: Musango Safari Camp.
NAMIBIA: GARTH OWEN-SMITH
Garth Owen-Smith has the look of a desert prophet, which is not far from the truth: his has been a voice in the wilderness, crying out to protect the Kunene Province thirstlands of north-west Namibia.
For years he championed the rights of the indigenous Himba, Herero and Damara people, pursuing his dream of allowing them and their livestock to live in harmony with Namibia’s desert-adapted wildlife.
Today, with his partner, Margaret Jacobsohn, he spends much of his time at Wereldsend – a desert oasis. Every year he leads small groups of clients on 12-day “limited edition” tours, taking in Cape fur seals on the Skeleton Coast, rare black rhinos, desert-adapted elephants in the Hoanib River Valley, and the remotest part of the country along the wild Kunene River.
Where to find him: Kunene Conservancy Safaris. © The Telegraph