Recently in South Africa I keep seeing how a traveller’s experience of a place is transformed by a good guide. All I can see around me now are forested hills, innumerable shades of impenetrable green. Yesterday David Letsaolo, one of two bird guides at Kurisa Moya ecolodge in the Limpopo province in northern South Africa, took me walking in this rainforest – so pristine that at its heart is a tree featured in Thomas Packenham’s Remarkable Trees of the world – a 2,000 year old Cassonia that it is impossible to pass without being drawn to rest your palm or wrap your arms against its trunk.
Walking alone through this forest is an awe-inspiring exercise in feeling joyously small, but with David as my guide its complex riches unfold. He constantly picks out the different bird sounds, directing my gaze towards Knysna Louries, Narina Trogons and a host of other beautiful creatures hidden amongst the multi-dimensional labyrinth of branches. Where I hear just alien ‘birdsong’, David distinguishes the individual melodies, whistling their songs back to beckon them closer.
David is widely recognised as the best bird guide in South Africa, yet he was born in a poor rural village practically devoid of trees. As a teenager he was a gardener, and luckily one of the people he worked for recognised his love of birds and gave him binoculars. He now sits on the board of Birdlife South Africa, and trains up people from his community as guides, encouraging them to use their skills finding animals to make money from tourism rather than risk prison as poachers. He develops permaculture gardens and plants indigenous trees in local schools. And he leaves his mark on countless mesmerised tourists, as he translates an undecipherable forest of sound into a celebratory conversation between twin spots and touracos, olive thrushes, greenbulls and whoever else is singing their presence through the trees that day.
Learning from the past
Before coming here I stayed a few days at Fugitives Drift, a remarkable lodge built near the site of two key battles in the histories of Britain and South Africa. Best known in Britain is Rorke’s Drift, immortalised in the film Zulu, where a small band of British soldiers held out for several hours against thousands of attacking Zulus. Less eulogised in the UK is the battle that took place a few miles away that morning and resulted in the biggest defeat of the British empire at that point – Isandlwana. For years the Rattray family that owns Fugitives Drift has sat with elders in the local Zulu community and scoured imperial archives to piece together the many interpretations and events of this epochal day. Their guides now recount these stories not just to remember the past, but to nurture our understanding towards better, shared futures.
Isandlwana today is an empty hill shaped like a sphinx and dotted with cairns of white stones. The stones mark where 1500 British soldiers were slaughtered one sweltering december? morning under a total eclipse of the sun. We sit among these stones clutching cups of coffee as our guide tells the battle’s story, and this silent place echoes with the sounds, feats, tragedies and victories of that day. By the end everyone has shed tears at least once. Our understanding of the battle, the actions that led up to it, and how it has helped shape the futures of two countries are profoundly enriched. But it’s more than that. For the rest of our stay our conversations, often with strangers, keep coming back not just to this conflict – but to conflict in general, as we talk and think about warfare, its impact on the men and women who fight, and why it carries relentlessly on to this day.
I have been twice, and both times it provided one of the most thought-provoking experiences I have had while travelling. Too often we assume tourists only want to see happy faces, and a charade is enacted to gloss over darker truths. Next year is 100 years since the start of World War One. Judging by the scale of Flanders Tourism’s presence at WTM last month, the promotional efforts will be huge. I hope the guides are as sensitive and knowledgeable as those from Fugitives Drift – for then the impact on many thousands of tourists could be enormously powerful too.
It’s the way you tell ’em
But you don’t need a 100-year old war or a 2000-year old tree to tell a good tale: you just need a good storyteller. Thankfully, they are all around us. Tripbod connects tourists with local people keen to reveal the secrets of the places they live. Storymap films the people of Dublin telling their city’s tales, and weaves them into an online map of the city. Unseen Tours won an award at WTM for empowering homeless people to work as guides and offer their unique perspectives on the streets they know best.
It is said we only protect that which we love. When a guide tells us what they love of a place, its people, its past, its birds – its stories – they perform an act of preservation through sharing. Ensuring that tourists encounter good guides is therefore one of the most powerful things that responsible tourism can do.