South Africa Safari Expedition Leader Interview: Leonard Mateko
Where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Masvingo, a small town in Zimbabwe, close to Great Zimbabwe [stone ruins of Bantu civilization of the Shona, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site].
Where do you call home?
Home is Harare, Zimbabwe; my wife and children live there. We spend vacations and holidays in Masvingo.
When did you catch the travel bug?
As a young boy I saw tourists visiting Great Zimbabwe. I would stop at the park office with my friends and watch them after school. We knew some of the guides at the archaeological site, and we would ask them questions.
How long have you been an expedition guide?
After school I entered into the Zimbabwe guiding program facilitated by the Zimbabwe national parks and did an internship with a safari lodge in the Lake Kariba area. I guided my first multi-country tour in 2005. Since then I have been lucky enough to travel in and experience many parts of Africa, including South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
How many languages do you speak?
I can speak five languages: English, Shona, Swahili, Zulu and some Ndebele. Four of these are local African languages from different tribes and areas in Africa. I also speak a small amount of Afrikaans (similar to Dutch) and very poor French.
Tell us about your job – what do you do?
I look after my clients. When people arrive in Africa, especially first-time travelers to the continent, they are often really nervous. As soon as I meet them off the plane I put a lot of energy into getting them to relax, feel safe and start enjoying the holiday they have paid for. Other skills are also necessary. I can drive light and heavy vehicles; cook a three-course meal on an open fire for twenty people; and apply first aid and CPR if necessary. There are administrative tasks as well, like preparing tour accounts, checking traveler reservations and flight information. You have to be able to multi-task, often under pressure, and maintain a smile.
How do you prepare?
On-going professional education. A good knowledge of fauna, flora, geology, history, culture, astronomy and other areas of interest is of paramount importance. Before a tour I first go over all the information about the trip – the itinerary, the client details, the distances, times etc. I consult the information gained from my previous experiences. If there is an area I have not been to before, I do some research, phone fellow guides who have been there, read guidebooks or use the internet. Once I know all the information is correct and what the clients’ expectations are, I sit down and in my mind I run through the whole itinerary hour by hour.
How often do you go out?
I spend about nine months a year on tours through various countries.
What is your favorite part of the job?
Sharing information and teaching people new things, I find it very rewarding.
Can you tell us about a particularly unique experience you have had with a traveler on an expedition?
I will never forget guiding a group through Kenya and Tanzania in 2009. We were traveling from Lake Victoria and heading to our next stop for lunch, a safari lodge in the depths of the Serengeti plains. We were following our dirt track across the plains and could see a huge black mass up ahead – migrating wildebeest. There were thousands and thousands of them. Our route was blocked as they crossed on their way toward the Masai Mara. We could not do anything but settle down, wait and watch in awe! There are not words to explain the experience. The sounds, the smells, the quantity, the power… just indescribable! It was an hour and a half before the last of them crossed the road and we were we were able to continue on with our journey.
What should people know about traveling to your destination?
Africa is not as scary as people think and it is safer than many parts of the world. One should bring along a sense of humor and be a little bit flexible as the pace of life is a little slower. Double-check visas, vaccinations and insurance before leaving home. The feeling of apprehension you may have leaves after day one – guaranteed. When you step off the plane breathe in the air and experience Africa.
What, if anything, do you recommend that travelers do to prepare in advance of their trip?
Your experience will be enhanced if you prepare by reading up on the areas you are traveling to and through. I don’t mean the guidebooks to see how long it is going to take to get from A to B, or which way is better – your guide will take care of all of that. I mean getting a basic understanding of the history, people and culture before you arrive, things your guide can expand on. If you are going to take photographs be prepared; know your equipment before travel so that once on safari you can enjoy the experience without having to worry about how the camera works. Read your tour dossier carefully and ask as your travel consultants as many questions as it takes for you to feel comfortable – false expectations are a recipe for holiday disaster.
Is there a place you haven’t had a chance to visit yet that you’d like to?
I have heard a lot about Egypt from travelers and would love to go there, see the pyramids and learn about their history and a different ancient culture.