According to John Aves, a Briton who manages the female guide team, “The ladies have developed quite a tough skin as far as that’s concerned. They stand up for themselves. They give as good as they get out there.”
There are more similarities than differences between the male and female guides in Botswana. They complete the same rigorous schooling. They are paid equally. Their days begin and end in darkness, starting about 4:30 a.m. until well after the sun sets. They cite the same reasons for choosing their career path (a love for wildlife and a desire to work in nature).
The Chobe guides require flexibility, however. Since all 17 are mothers, they receive maternity leave and go on longer family visits. Women tend to have children young in Botswana’s traditional culture, where generations of family typically live together in the same village. The guides have deviated from the norm in many ways by not staying at home. These trailblazers say their families are supportive of their career path, but admit that many of their parents and older relatives don’t realize the full effect of what they are doing.
“Have you noticed that many of the chefs are men? So things are flipped,” Ms. Moremong said about gender roles, adjusting her magenta scarf dotted with white elephants.
Midday, Ms. Moremong switched from driving a cruiser to steering a 20-foot boat. She maneuvered one of the lodge’s electric boats down the Chobe River, where both crocodiles and hippopotamuses can be deadly, toward an area favored by savanna elephants.
Earlier in the day, a group of elephants tried to teach two calves to swim in the shallows. One jumped in with a cry, skinny legs flailing. The other refused to budge, eventually sliding down the bank on his stomach only after his mother coaxed him for several minutes with her trunk. On this afternoon, the herd was gone, replaced by a lone male elephant bathing. (Elephant herds are matriarchal.)
Ms. Moremong expertly steered the boat through other vessels’ wakes, so it wouldn’t rock or splash. We passed by the Caprivi Strip, a panhandle in Namibia, crossing back and forth into Namibian waters as we cruised by troops of baboons and seemingly endless water lilies.
Botswana’s tourism industry is heavily focused on conservation, a concept echoed in environmental initiatives at the lodge, like its recycling plant that handles 95 percent of the lodge’s waste, a closed circuit water treatment plant and an on-site biogas plant (the building itself is made from recycled glass bottles). In addition to the electric boats (similar to wide, flat pontoon boats), the property has one electric Land Cruiser and three electric Land Rovers, with plans to convert the remaining seven Land Cruisers later on.
Later in the day, on an afternoon safari, we coasted quietly along dirt roads through the national park with Ms. Moremong behind the wheel of the electric Land Rover. Dozens of grazing impala blocked the road. With their slender, elegant bodies forming an indistinguishable sea of tan and white, hopefully keeping them safe from predators, they didn’t register the vehicle without its engine sounds.
“Over there, by the bush. What is it?” Ms. Moremong asked, in her usual playful manner, while we waited. A yellow-billed, hornbill bird, about 1.5 feet tall, popped its curved, sickle-like beak out.
She drove on sand tracks into forests of mostly teak, the temperature dropping beneath the thick tree canopy. The loose ground surface bled from yellow to red to orange and back beneath the Land Rover, tough even for a four-wheel drive. When the vehicle got stuck, Ms. Moremong reversed and tried a slightly different angle instead of doubling down. She remained calm and confident, clearly having maneuvered this many times. In the meantime, she pointed out skulls along the route: a hyena (died in a fight), an elephant (died of old age). Cat tracks, most likely a leopard or lion, crossed the tire marks, but they were old.
Trees bore the telltale signs of elephant damage: leaves stripped by their trunks, bark scraped off while sharpening tusks or scratching itchy hides, entire trees uprooted by tons of force. Soon we spotted the culprits near a watering hole. Six elephants trekked through the forest in a line, two babies safe in the middle, frantically trying to grasp their mothers’ tails with their trunks for security. The littlest one looked to be about six weeks old and the larger one was around three months old. A straggler, who stayed too long at the watering hole, was in her teens. As panic set in and she ran to catch up, Ms. Moremong deadpanned, “Teenagers are a problem.”
Later, we stopped at a designated area for sundowners, a happy hour safari tradition stemming from the British colonial era. (Last year was Botswana’s 50th year of independence.) The guides transformed their vehicles into tables with the help of a picnic blanket, some snacks — nuts, game jerky, pretzels, all separated into decorative tins for a nice flourish — and a cooler full of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks requested by guests.
The women entertained their guests with adventurous stories of rogue leopards watching them from trees or entering the park’s public bathrooms. Off in the distance, the baboons called to each other, laying claim to any food people left behind. Suddenly, their barks and grunts turned to alarm calls.
“I hear a wa-hoo so let’s get going,” Ms. Moremong said calmly, while she moved at lightning speed. It was dusk, when the larger animals come out to hunt.
In 1968, this diverse ecosystem became Botswana’s first national park. Today, it has one of the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa. Thanks to its abundance of wildlife and proximity to Kasane Airport, Chobe is a popular destination for international travelers. Its roughly 4,500 square miles are strictly regulated and protected.
Outside of a national park, guides have more flexibility when it comes to tracking wild animals. Guides with this amazing skill can look at animal prints on the ground and determine what created them, how long ago the animal stepped there and what direction it was headed. Within park limits, they must stay on mostly unpaved roads to do the tracking. The park is full of giraffes, zebras, antelopes, elephants, buffalo, hippos, crocodiles and birds, so visitors are guaranteed to encounter wildlife. However, when animals don’t care to be seen, they won’t be — and a guide has to find a way to entertain her passengers.
The female guides, many guests insist, shine in these instances, effortlessly taking the temperature of the group and anticipating their moods. They regale the guests with facts about the park while they scan the landscape. Over time, they each developed an appreciation for the park’s colorful birds, which are always around and often overlooked.
According to the Chobe guides themselves as well as non-guide staff members, the male guides in Botswana excel in the thrill of the wildlife chase, while the female guides are more adept at focusing on the details and the comfort of the group. The women are both criticized and complimented for their lower level of aggression in their approach to chasing wildlife. Even though they know what wildlife is nearby (and how to get to it), the hunt is often relaxed and meandering, resulting in pleasant surprises instead of a full-throttle chase.
In the pre-dawn darkness of the morning game drive, Gomotsang Modibu, 41, stopped outside the gates of Chobe Game Lodge as another guide headed in. Spotted guinea fowl raced off the road in clunky, diagonal spurts as we drove through the tall grasslands. In her raspy, quiet voice, she sang out, “Chobe chickens,” whenever we passed them, laughing heartily each time at their hectic scampering. It was the same tune she used to sing out “elephants” whenever we approached a herd.
It is customary to wave whenever you pass someone in Chobe, but drivers wave a little more enthusiastically at Ms. Modibu, who estimates that she knows around 80 percent of the other guides in the park. Known as Mod, she said her male colleagues were very encouraging when she became a guide nine years ago, “outside of a few rude comments.”
She drove into the quieter areas of the park, strategically heading to places before other cars arrived or long after they had left. While we stopped to admire the giraffes, hippos, buffalo, antelope, elephants and baboons, she pointed out all of the exotic birds that would go unnoticed otherwise: cape turtle doves, hornbills, little bee eaters.
It was a serene, sunny day in the northern part of the park. African Monarch butterflies fluttered about as giraffes drank from watering holes in the distance, bending awkwardly like tripods on the verge of collapse. The blue sky reflected off the water, creating mirror images everywhere.
Ms. Modibu considers herself to be on speaking terms with the animals she sees every day. She sees them as her colleagues.