Frequently Asked Questions
Kian Barker of Shakabarker Tours receives many questions from our guests, not only about the tours, but also about his experiences as a tour operator. Below, Kian has selected some of the most frequently asked questions.
1. Have you ever been bitten by a snake?
Several times - fortunately only by non-venomous snakes like house snakes, pythons and water snakes. Snakes should be respected, but if disturbed, they can be very aggressive. There are certain times when snakes are more aggressive. This occurs when they are changing their skins or feel trapped. During skin changing, snakes tend to strike at just about anything. This can happen even when they are not provoked or hungry. There are a wide variety of snakes in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. In summer there is greater activity by snakes, whereas in the cooler months they tend to hibernate.
When visiting this area, it is best to stick to designated paths and roads. Snakes tend to avoid areas of high human activity. Avoid crashing through the bush to take a shortcut or, if you need to get closer in order to photograph a subject, make as much noise as possible, and move slowly through unchartered bush or grassland. They do not like surprises or to be cornered. Most visitors tend to see snakes in the heat of the day, normally when a snake needs to cross a road or a path. These reptiles are part of our eco-system, and play an important role in controlling the numbers of pests.
2. What was your most scary snake incident?
There were two incidents. Both occurred near the Kruger National Park. I was still a fairly green guide, very brave and ready to impress my guests. In the first incident, we departed on a tour after a wild storm that had blown over a number of trees and scattered leaves all over the reserve. Within half an hour I came across a giant python, at least four meters in length and I decided to catch it. This was my first mistake. The snake was hungry and looking for a snack, such as anything that had been blown out of a tree or that was injured after the storm. The second mistake I made was that I did not notice the thorn tree behind me. In order to jump out of the way of the striking python, I landed up in the thorn tree, with the snake taking a swiping bite that just missed my belly button. I was a lighter shade of pale when I reached the car, and just about needed to change my underwear. After that encounter, I vowed never to attempt to catch a python over a meter long, single-handedly.
The second incident also occurred in the Kruger area while I was consulting and training a couple of new guides. During this process, I was accompanied by the owner of the reserve. Half way through the bush walk, a massive black mamba raised it head and turned towards us. Mambas are remarkable snakes, taking no nonsense and even following their prey. In this instance, a couple of humans in its path presented the mamba with a certain nuisance factor. Fortunately we encountered this snake as it was crossing the road. When I saw the snake, I clapped my hands at chest height to stop everyone and warn them of the extreme danger. This action got everyone focused, and like well-trained soldiers, we all turned on our heels and headed for the horizon and safety.
Mambas are exceptional snakes, in many ways. Part of their diet consists of our feathered friends. When they strike at a bird, they do not necessarily hold on, as they can get injured in the struggle. Often they let go and watch where the bird falls, while the venom takes effect. This makes them difficult to deal with, especially if you have crossed their path and disturbed them. They seem to be able to remember that you interrupted a potential meal, and may act unusually aggressively as a result. Fortunately there are no black mambas in this area!!
3. How long is a tour?
We offer a variety of tours. Over the past few years, we have developed tours to get the most out of each and every environmental activity that is presented in our area. For example, the night drive is three hours long. It starts at 20h00 when we are certain that all the nocturnal (night time) animals are out and about. This trip last until 23h00. After this time, the animals are usually resting; or their activity has slowed down considerably. This night tour is not only about animals, but also becoming aware of how they have evolved to deal with certain conditions found in the dark; especially when it comes to communication, eyesight, smell and territories.
4. Is it safe to get out of a vehicle at night?
So far we have had no bad incidences when stopping at night for our famous hot chocolate and rusks break. Stops are at designated areas along the way. We have a few of these hot chocolate stopping points and while we don't always take the same route, we ensure that our tour passes one of these stopping points. The reason we use them repeatedly is to create a human scent, to familiarize the animal with the presence of humans, so they are cautious when passing a human activity point. Many years ago we had a couple of incidents. Three in particular come to mind. The first was when we were charged by a buffalo, but then I had stopped that night in an area we had never used before. The other two incidents, one being quite recent, was that while stationary, a hippo and hyena walked up to us in the moonlit darkness. The hyena was not a problem as he seemed to be using the road as an access to hunt. The hippo nearly became problematic. Fortunately I noticed the sweating hulk of the hippo in the moonlight and jumped back into the vehicle after fetching a chameleon from a nearby shrub. These encounters are rare, and represent a total for the past 12 years of game guiding.
5. Are "day" animals seen on these night trips?
This is a very relevant question and an interesting one as well. Few animals disappear at night, apart from those that have burrows or nests. Animals like warthogs reverse down their burrows to keep warm as they are almost hairless. They also need to get away from hunting predators. The situation with day animals is more complex than one might expect. Most day animals are crepuscular. This means that they are most active in the early morning and late afternoon and evening. This applies to many of the herbivores, during the periods that surround dusk and dawn, when the vegetation these animals eat is at its most succulent. Eating plants with high moisture content means that it is not necessary to drink too often. Certain of the smaller antelope seldom drink unless there has been a drought. After rain many animals take advantage of the abundance of rain and moisture, by eating a lot more than normal.
6. How long are Sunset trips?
We offer a great Sunset trip that involves a stop at Catalina Bay. This is the first section of the St. Lucia Estuary. It is a great destination for sunsets, as it is the only place where it is possible to see the sun setting over the lake. On the odd occasion, we might be delayed to the point where we are late for a sunset or there is just too much cloud cover. Mother Nature sets the parameters in this area! All we can do is enjoy the sight over Catalina Bay. After this, we head off for a night safari.
7. How many people take these tours?
Our tours usually have no more than ten guests although in our busy season there might be 15 people in our vehicles. The big advantage with our vehicles is that we use Unimogs so there is plenty of space for good viewing. There are certain areas in iSimangaliso Wetland Park where the grass and vegetation are very tall; so being in a high vehicle makes a big difference to visibility for guests. Sometimes we have large groups of guests. In such an instance, we avoid taking everybody, unless they are first made aware that a large group booking has been made.
8. Do you ever get scared or carry a gun?
Generally the animals in this Park are fairly well sensitized to human activity. Each day the wild residents are exposed to people coming and going. Sometimes certain animals may have been fighting, or been injured or attacked by other wild animals. After years of guiding, you develop a sixth sense. This you use to assess the condition and attitude of any potentially "dangerous" animal you are approaching by vehicle. It is always unwise to approach any large animal on foot. If you are on a walking safari, be vigilant and do not expect your walking guide to see everything.
Once I have assessed the "condition" of a large animal, I tend to approach closer by vehicle for a better look. I approach at an angle, and ensure that I have a safe escape route for my vehicle and guests, as well as for the animals. There have been several situations when I nearly "wet my pants"! This has always happened when I have driven around a blind corner or gone into a dip when there is a strong headwind. In these instances, the animals do not hear you and when surprised, they get aggressive. Recently I surprised a honey badger in the total dark on a night drive. At first I could not see the animal as he was right next to the road, in my blind line of sight. This badger was exceptionally aggressive, but four tons of steel and cast iron in the form of a Unimog is no match for a honey badger. The angered carnivore growled loudly out of the dark at the Unimog, his warning growl sounded like a ton of steel chain in a concrete mixer, and I nearly ejected myself away from the noise that came out of the dark. Fortunately we parted ways amicably, in the end the guests getting a good view of this irate badger.
Finally, I seldom carry a gun. In many instances where people have been attacked their guides have had guns. Unfortunately when guiding with a rifle at hand, guides tend to take chances, although I say this with certain reservations. But guiding with a rifle tends to lead to a certain amount of complacency or being over confident. The guide becomes over confident or stops "reading" the animals and gains a certain amount of "false confidence" from his gun. In these instances guides will often access dense areas, when these areas should be avoided. When surprised by any of the big five under these circumstances it is impossible to take control of the situation or escape.
9. Has your Unimog ever become stuck?
Yes, and I am still rather embarrassed about it. This happened a number of years ago on a night drive. It had been a wet summer, and that season we had experienced a wet December. In one particularly heavy downpour we received 594 mm in a 24 hour period. Later in February there was still a lot of water around that had soaked everything. That fateful night we started the tour in the normal fashion, with a detailed introduction about the five eco-systems in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and left town to see what was in the darkened Park. After a few small animals had been spotted, we happened upon a number of kudu. They were gently browsing a short distance off the road. These kudu were browsing in a clear felled area which was created when alien pine plantations had been removed to recreate the natural ecosystem. I decided to get closer, as one of the guests had brought along a fancy camera. As we stopped next to the kudu, I realized that I had made a fatal mistake. We got that sinking feeling. When I looked down at the wheels of the Unimog, I realized we were sinking into a peat swamp. At the same time I also realized that we were also wedged against a log. So trying to get any momentum was useless, the vehicle was impossible to move, even in 4x4 and with the differentials locked and wheels furiously spinning spraying mud in a thousand directions. Rapidly everything turned to slush, and we were trapped in mud up to our axles. At that point the bush became very dark and hostile.
My initial strategy was to get traction, so I shoved all the blankets under the tyres. This did not help as the mud was just too slimy. We did not move an inch closer to the road. My cell phone then proved invaluable! I called my office, and my assistant came with our other vehicle and collected eight of the nine people. These eight had to slush through mud and darkness to get to the safety of the "rescue" vehicle. This rescue vehicle was too small to pull out the Unimog! The ninth person decided to stay with me (maybe he did not want to get his feet muddy). He was a commander in the South African Navy, and decided come hell or high water, he would see this vehicle out of the mud and onto a dry road. When 3am arrived, he bailed. This was after a futile operation of jacking up and lifting the Unimog for over 5 hours to get all the wheels out of the mud. Each time this process was completed, and the vehicle lifted out of the mud, it immediately sunk back into the mud. At 3am, with blistered hands and breaking backs, we headed back for a good dose of coffee (taken intravenously would have been better). We decided we had lost the first round, but the battle was not over. On returning at 4am, we woke up one of the local tree clearing contractors, and bribed him to bring his heavy duty log-pulling vehicle. This time we made sure that there was no off-roading and he stayed on the hard section, and managed with quite a bit of effort to pull the Unimog free of the peat swamp. This was at 6am in the morning. By 8am, the Unimog was washed and on another tour. Once the coffee and energy drinks wore off, we slept for the rest of the day.
10. How long have you been in St. Lucia?
I arrived in 1996. At the time St. Lucia was a just a small fishing village, with little or no eco-related activities. Since then there has been a remarkable turn-around in the profile of this town, and most of our visitors are eco-tourists. Shakabarker was one of the first eco-tour operators in the area. Since then we have seen a huge transformation in the Park. On the Eastern Shores all the alien trees have been removed, new scenic roads have been constructed, better facilities provided and there has been a significant increase in the number of people that visit this Park for ecological enjoyment.
11. What is your favourite animal?
Leopards are phenomenal cats! I often tell guests that there is one thing better than a good leopard sighting. That is two leopard sightings! This is the most enigmatic member of the Big Five, and is highly respected by the Zulu people. It is a master of the bush. Each time I see one, it makes my day or night; even a poor, distant sighting is satisfying. Every guest is happy. Strangely some guests battle to see them, and it can take a little time to point out the exact location. Somehow the disruptive colouration of the leopard confuses the human eye.
12. What animal impresses you the most?
Leatherback turtles. They are massive, benign reptiles. If there was any animal that could be the ancient Mariner of the sea, it is the Leatherback turtle. Leopard are fantastic, but on turtle trips when we have encountered leatherbacks, guests say they had a life-changing experience. These reptiles only appear in the summer months and travel thousands and thousands of km to get to their nesting grounds. But it is at night in the total cover of dark that they come ashore. Do not ask me how they locate the right nesting area. These areas have to be sandy and they generally choose the same area during a nesting season. Females nest about ten days apart, and lay about a hundred eggs per nest. Usually they make a total of ten nests during the year. All this is done with much effort, and surprisingly, their energy is derived from jellyfish!
13. What changes would you like to see in the way we relate to our planet?
There is a lot of hype about "Green Solutions" to save our planet, but we must do it. Each person should select one idea out of ten, and start putting it into place. There is a lot we can gain. It should be seen as goodwill to our planet. Once this behaviour becomes contagious, we will see a change. And we should all live with someone! It halves fuel, water and heating bills and is good for the environment. Collectively you save a lot of natural energy.
14. What would you like to do before you leave this planet?
Make a significant contribution to the way people see our environment, from a blade of grass to a shoal of sardines. We need to respect every living item on this planet. By doing so, it will become a better place. Fortunately we are starting to realize that Earth has a lot of space, that if managed and conserved intelligently, we need not look heavenward for other habitable planets. It is the grass and soil we stand upon that needs out attention and nurturing. Wake-up and wise-up about Mother Earth, tomorrow it may be all destroyed because we were not good caretakers.