Craig Van Zyl
Born in Zimbabwe, Craig Van Zyl is a professional safari guide with close to 20 years experience guiding clients. His main interests are the behaviour and body language of animals in Zimbabwe's National Parks. It's this interest and his character that led him to host the Karina, Wild on Safari show and be one of the three guides chosen for the Big 5 Challenge, both shows shown on Animal Planet. He writes, "I love what I do and it's as much for the animals as the people I take. I have a passion for elephant, and have spent many years in their close proximity and hope to spend many more years doing the same."
Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in wildlife? At what stage did you realise that you wanted to become a guide – who and what were the influences which led you to begin training?
I grew up here in Zimbabwe and don’t really remember I time I didn’t love the outdoors. We lived on a small farm outside of town and perhaps the lack of other children around mean the outdoors were are great companion. As to guiding, it was really the easiest way to be in the bush. I have always found that hunting did not sit easy with me, which was the other option here. I suppose that my early days with a guide called Garth Thompson were most influential.
After qualifying as a professional guide, when and where was your first walking safari with clients and what were your thoughts? If you were to give yourself feedback, how would you rate the walk and your performance?
I have been walking in the bush for most of my life. If ever my friends and I would go to the bush or on my own, I would take walks and this was years before I became a guide. So I suspect becoming a guide meant that I could do it with the worry of being caught. I suppose that doing it the way I did meant I had to be extra careful and perhaps this has allowed me to guide with out any major incident.
How has your style and approach to guiding developed over the years? What is the most important thing that you wish a client to take away from their safari with you?
I don’t like to think I have any particular style. I very much see myself as an interface between nature and the guests I take on trips. With this approach I have found you are letting nature determine what we experience more than trying to create something in an environment we have little control over. Perhaps this approach leads to a greater appreciation of the wild.
What are your top five guiding destinations? Why?
So to ask me which are my favorite places is like asking me to put one of my children in front of another. I like to walk, and I love elephants. Perhaps with this in mind, there are areas that are good to walk in such as Mana Pools, Matusadona, Gonerezhou and are all good for elephant. Perhaps I would add Hwange to that list, it's not a great area for walking but is a wonderful place to be with eles.
Aside from Zimbabwe, which is your favourite country to guide in and why? How different is guiding outside of Zimbabwe? What are the restrictions placed upon you which you don’t have in Zim?
Apart from Zimbabwe my other favorite place is Zimbabwe. Where else do you have the freedom to walk where ever you like? There is not an elephant path I may not follow. I do guide outside of Zimbabwe a few times each year. This is because there are a few families I safari with extensively and have the privilege of having an open book as to what we do. So such travels are an adventure for me as well as for them. Perhaps the enthusiasm that a budding naturalist has for something new provides them with satisfaction.
The biggest task I face guiding outside of Zimbabwe is to find other people or areas where it's not about showing off. I don’t like fancy camps, hotels, (high end lodges), in the bush, as they detract from the wildlife and location - hoteliers in charge of guides, this is the wrong way around. Unfortunately safaris are very expensive and this is a consequence of that, so all too often good areas are ruined by these places.
How many safari destinations in Sub Saharan Africa have you not yet visited and of those, which do you really want to go to and why?
There are animals and places I would like to see. I do not have a list. I am going to do a trip up to Ethiopia this year, to see Geladas and a Simian wolf. I will definitely think of something new when I am there.
For a client who has a lot of safari experience under their belt, who wants to escape the crowd, where would you take them and why?
I don’t like guiding where there are lots of people around, nor in areas where you don’t have the freedom to do what you want. So I feel any guest who has spent a considerable amount of time on safari will have a similar opinion. Unfortunately, good wildlife attracts people. Fortunately there is a solution: walking; there are only a few people who do it and I don’t mean a nature walk, go tracking. Most national parks are huge and I hardly ever bump into people on a walk and if you do they are like minded. So to answer your questions it’s more a case of what you do than where. Have a private guide, a safari is about freedom.
How has the Ebola issue and media reporting affected the safari industry in Zimbabwe and elsewhere that you guide and what would you like to say in response?
As to ebola I don’t eat bats and it is rare. It is closer to to Europe than it is to here, so it's just through being misinformed that we worry about that. It's annoying how reactive people can be. Malaria is dangerous and kills millions.
What happened to Zimbabwe’s safari industry during the country’s turmoils? In terms of guiding, how were you personally affected? How have you noticed safari tourism recovering in Zimbabwe? What are some examples of positive recovery and how do you see things developing in the coming years?
Yes the industry has taken a big knock. The upside is we have had some of the greatest wildlife destinations to ourselves. I hope for the many people who make a living out of tourism that it improves. I have seen it pick up over the last three years.
In your opinion, which of Zimbabwe’s parks and wilderness areas need most investment and why? From where should such investment come from? NGOs? Government authorities? Safari operators?
In my opinion, poor people poach, rich people hunt. So to make people in areas around our parks better off would stop a great deal of the loss of wildlife. If wildlife does not make a profit in Africa, should we not put people on that land so they can raise their families? No sacred cows in here. Safari operators bring money which is good. NGOs have money too, but in my opinion, once more they are often misguided and disappear after a while. A tourism industry that is successful and does not impact the parks too much in the form of lodges and hotels is possibly the best answer.
Tell me about the elephants of Mana Pools: why are they so important to you? What was your involvement in collaring Boswell and what is the future of the big tuskers there? How concerned are you for them with regard to poaching, or trophy hunting? Does collaring offer enough protection?
Over the years in Mana we have had many great elephants. Come back after the off season and another good chap is missing. They live as long as guides do, so where are they? We should have 20. Then the stories would come out, poached, killed by hunters, killed by parks. Eventually, I was sick of it and thought the story needed telling. So I teamed with a friend and we have a made a 3 part documentary on this. This is nearly edited and you can see a promo if you google “the Last Great Tuskers”. (Matt's note: a preview is available here.) Part of this is to collar and identify some of the special elephants, Boswell is one of them. We have had many like him, some far more special. I had a bull who would come to visit and take my luggage or eat the salad off my plate. These bulls are special, Boswell is one of them. He is alive now and we would like it to stay that way. Collaring I hope will keep him alive. I have been given a lot of flack about the collar and how it affects the aesthetics of a photo. To us guides he is a friend and one we want alive. He is just one of many but I hope we can use him to create awareness. Elephants are being killed at an alarming rate.
Whilst guiding, what instances of poaching have you experienced? Where? What did you see and how did your clients react?
Because we walk in areas no one else goes we often find poached elephants and on occasion rhino. Its not a a pleasant experience and is a dampener on a that day. I suspect guests feed off what we emotions we show as guides. It's not a pleasant thing, but its real.
You have your own aircraft which you use to transfer clients between destinations: why did decide to take your pilot’s licence and when? How important is flying in your life?
I liked flying so that’s why I learned to do it. As a consequence it has given me and my guests the freedom to fly where and when we like. I suspect as is the case with most guides we like to be in control.
You have published a book entitled “The Bush Matters” – tell us about the project and why it is so important to you. What came first, an interest in guiding or interest in photography and how has the latter developed?
I am sorry to say, I have taken a lot of pictures over the years and thought it would be a waste not to use some of them. This is what initially got me going on doing a book. I shoot mainly in black and white, so did a black and white book. The theme of the book is what is important in the bush, hence “the Bush Matters”
You have recently featured in a TV series entitled “Cracking the Code.” along with Nicola Kellerher. Tell me about the series and how you became to be involved. What was it like being part of a television production? What other TV shows/productions have you been involved with and in what capacity?
Cracking The Code is a show on the body language of animals. It has just been edited so am not sure where it is going to air etc. We did a series a few years ago called Karina Wild on Safari. I took a bit of flack for doing what seemed daring with animals. I would have to explain myself, that if you could read the animals behaviour it was perfectly fine to be so close or what ever the case was. This led to the producers coming up with the concept, so in the show we try and explain some of this as compared to us as people.
You’ve been a guide for many years: how do you maintain enthusiasm for being on safari especially when returning to familiar places? What does being in the wilderness mean to you?
I am very fortunate in that I take a lot of the same people on safari. We have become great friends over the years and have so much we can compare to and laugh about. I suppose it is being able to read what makes people happy and it is that which gives me a sense of satisfaction. Plus nature never ceases to amaze me. I also try and not spend too much time on safari or else it is easy to become tired.
If you hadn’t become a Safari guide, what would have been your career choice and why?
A vet. I've always had a passion and affinity for animals. I actually studied animal science and grassland science at University.
Thanks Matt and all the best, Craig.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.