Guiding the way

Andre van Vuuren spent 18 years as a self-drive guide while operating the popular and well-known Explore Africa. But his relationship with Africa extends well beyond that.

Andre has done a bit of farming, run a commercial fishing operation and even completed a solid stint in the corporate world. Leisure Wheels spoke to him about his most memorable adventures and his favourite spots in Africa.

What was your first job?
I grew up in the bush and spent my first two decades in what was then called Ovamboland, right on the border between Namibia and Angola. My first job, which I got at the age of 19, was to literally put up the border between Namibia and Angola. I was given a bakkie, a truck, a crew and loads of wire and wooden poles. We would spend Monday to Friday putting up the wire fence, but elephants would trample it almost as quickly as we could put it up.

The powers that be believed that every herd of elephant had one troublemaker in its ranks responsible for inciting this behaviour. It was rubbish, of course, but a bunch of us were tasked with finding and shooting the instigator in every herd. I was young and inexperienced, so I did what they told me, at least for a while. Pretty soon, though, my conscience got the better of me and I convinced them that this new plan couldn’t work. The problem was that the fence was on a natural migration route that elephants had been using for ages. They weren’t malicious. Eventually the whole idea of erecting a fence was abandoned.

How did you get into guiding?
After studying and working on a game farm, I eventually ended up working for a bank. I slowly climbed up the ranks and had a steady but rather boring job. I heard that one of the bank’s clients was in financial trouble and needed to sell his safari company. I ran the company for two years while still keeping my bank job. Eventually, though, it became clear that I needed to choose. That’s when Explore Africa started. I ran the company for 18 years, and eventually sold it two years ago.

Andre leading a long (and dusty) convoy in his 80-Series Land Cruiser. Andre leading a long (and dusty) convoy in his 80-Series Land Cruiser.

And what do you do now?
I’ve got my fingers in a few pies. I’ve got a guest house in Pretoria, and a PostNet in Port Alfred. I’ve also got a new safari company called Fly Africa Safaris, which focuses on fly-in safaris, as well as guided trips within South Africa. A lot of people don’t have two or three weeks to dedicate to a long self-drive trip, so I try to provide short but impactful experiences. For example, we let guests fly into the Serengeti for a few days, experience the wonders of the place for a few days, and then fly out.

What vehicles have you used for your safaris over the years?
I used Defenders early on. After that, I did some 4×4 driver training, for which I was supplied with Mitsubishi Colts, so I drove those for a bit. I then had an 80-Series Land Cruiser. When the Cruiser had around 500 000km on the clock, I sold it and bought a Nissan Navara. Many people thought it was a bad idea for a guide who travels to places like the Serengeti and racks up 80 000km a year to use a Navara. They said it wouldn’t survive. Well, it performed impeccably. I never had any issues, so when it was time to replace it, I bought another Navara, which I still have today.

Any particular favourites?
I loved those old Colt bakkies. The Colt was pretty basic and the cabin was a bit cramped, but it was capable and reliable. Another favourite is the Navara. It’s such an underrated vehicle. Any scary moments on your trips? There have been plenty of scary moments, and they have almost always involved wild animals. I’ve learnt an awful lot about animal behaviour over the last few decades. Most importantly, I’ve learnt that wild animals are unpredictable, and we should never get too comfortable in their presence. We’re in their environment, so we should be respectful and keep our distance.

Any particular highlights when you look back at your career as a guide?
Watching the wildebeest migration as it reaches the Mara River certainly stands out. It’s incredible to see the animals crossing the river and the crocs taking aim at them. The chaos and frenzy of the scene is unbelievable. The bat migration in Kasanka National Park in Zambia is another highlight. Around 10 million bats descend on a small patch of earth every October. When you lie on your back and look up, these bats cover every inch of sky. It is astonishing. Finally, I have a particular fondness for Kilimanjaro. I’ve climbed it three times and summited it twice. I climbed it with my eldest son, and promised my younger one that I would climb it with him at some stage, too. I plan on going back very soon.

How would you define the term adventurer?
An adventurer is someone who looks to the horizon and pushes the envelope. An adventurer is someone who does what others only dream about. It’s also about a sense of curiosity; a need to know what lies beyond every bend in the road. My aim as a guide has always been to take people where they couldn’t go on their own. I wanted them to feel that sense of adventure, to be outside their comfort zone.

What advice do you have for armchair travellers looking for a bit of adventure?
Get out there and do it. This continent offers some truly amazing spectacles that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.