Isaiah Banda, knows his stuff. He is passionate and knowledgeable about wildlife and has been nominated by guests for the Lilizela Award — South Africa’s best safari guide award —numerous times over the years, winning it in 2014 and 2017.
Newly appointed as Mabula Game Lodge’s Group Safari Manager, Isaiah is single-mindedly focused on delivering a safari experience you will remember for a lifetime.
We chat to Isaiah about how he followed his dream into the bush and his wonderful safari adventures.
Tell us a bit about your background
I was born in Bela-Bela and grew up and attended school there. I’ve always had a love of nature. Field guide courses are expensive so I decided to do landscaping so I could save up money for the field guide course.
I started as a Junior Guide at Mabula Game Lodge in 2006 and carried on with the in-house training so I could continue to the next levels, first in hosting and guiding and then qualifying as a Trails Guide.
In 2014 guests nominated me for the Department of Tourism’s Lilizela Awards, which acknowledges the best safari guides in the country. I won the award twice.
Later, I was promoted to the role of Safari Manager for Lake Kyle one of the sections of the Greater Mabula Private Game Reserve, and now I have accepted the role as Safari Manager of the whole reserve.
Did you always know that you were going to work in the bush?
I used to see guides on TV and think, one day I want to be like that. Sometimes I felt discouraged by the amount I needed to save to do the Field Guiding Course but I never lost interest. I had this dream and I took ownership of it; I said, this is what I’m going to do.
When it’s something you want to do, the learning never ends, you will keep on learning throughout your career.
There was a guide at Mabula Game Lodge named Solly, he worked here for 25 years and never lost his passion. He was an inspiration to me and I thought if he can do it, so can I!
What does a day in the life of Isaiah look like?
It’s very full! I start my day at five in the morning, getting ready for the guest safaris and going into the Lake Kyle (within the Greater Mabula Private Game Reserve) to ensure everything is all right. I like to go there in the morning because I get a chance to find the lions hunting, killing or eating.
Once I’m done checking the fences and my team on that side is happy, I’ll move over to the safari department where I’ll meet with my seniors and the head guide and plan for the day. Throughout the day I check to make sure the guests are happy and that the safaris are running smoothly, then I write the newsletters and do other admin work.
Later in the afternoon, I will go out into the field to take photographs for social media.
What is your best time of day in the bush?
There are a lot of people who like to go out in the morning and in the afternoon but I like to go right in the middle of the day. This is when you see things that you don’t expect. If you are lucky, you will find the wildlife swimming.
I like to choose an area and stay there, watching to see what happens, what comes out. You will be surprised at how many animals and what kinds of animals come out in the middle of the day.
Recently, I sat in a hide by one of our dams, we call it Nyati dam — Nyati means buffalo — I stayed for an hour and nothing came out but just as I was about to go, I heard branches breaking. An elephant appeared by the dam and started swimming and drinking. It was a great sighting.
Is it different to go out on safari by yourself as opposed to going with guests?
When you have guests with limited time, you can’t spend too much time in one place. When you are alone you can spend a lot of time in one place and you then get to learn a lot about the behaviour of the animals.
I can find the wild dogs and spend a whole hour with them or watch them until they disappear. I get to see how they interact with one another and observe their behaviour without interfering with them.
What is one of the most common questions you get asked on safari?
‘Why is the giraffe eating bones?’ Giraffes often pick up and chew bones and when guests see this they ask why. I explain to them that they are not eating the bones, they are just chewing on them for the calcium they provide.
What is the best part of your job?
Being out on safari with guests, especially when they are interested in what we are doing and asking questions. That’s the best part because I can teach them something new.
I also really enjoy the bush walks with guests. You get to experience the bush on foot, experiencing the small things you would miss otherwise.
Once, we came across a male cheetah on the bush walk. Suddenly, he stood up and looked at us directly. He was facing us, not moving and we were about 30 metres from him. I could see that something was going to happen, so I told the guests to move behind a neutral hotspot and to just watch him from there.
I wanted to see what his plan was. I was talking to myself — you never charged me before so don’t try it! But just when I finished that thought, he came running towards me. I was so surprised… but then he ran right past me. I turned around and realised he had not been looking at me at all. There had been another two cheetah males behind me that I couldn’t see. He was charging at them. I thought all that time he was looking at me, but I believe he was trying to warn me that there were two cheetahs behind me. It was an amazing experience.
What are you hoping to leave as a legacy in your new role?
I would like to mentor aspiring guides and help them to become excellent guides. In this way, I also know that there will be someone who will step into my shoes and carry on the work.
What is your favourite animal?
The leopard. If you look back on the history of Mabula, it was one of the animals that wasn’t seen often. If you said you had seen a leopard, but you didn’t have a picture, we wouldn’t believe you!
When I started here in 2006, they were very shy but slowly they started to feel safer around vehicles. The leopard study group that we started on the reserve is helping a lot.
Before, we were looking for the leopards in the trees whereas they were spending time on the ground. After we discovered where and when to find the leopards, we started seeing them almost every day. Now, we see them quite often, even if the sighting is just five or ten minutes.
The leopard is my favourite because you must work hard to see them and when you see them there is a sense of pride. You think yes I found you!
What is your funniest safari story?
We had a big group of guests from the United States which we accommodated on five vehicles. I was driving one of the vehicles and we got separated from the rest of the group. The guests in the other four vehicles all saw lions but we unfortunately couldn’t find them, and it was the same the next day.
Now the pressure was building up, I needed to find these lions because everyone else in the group had seen them and they were bragging about it. On their last morning game drive, I decided to take my group a bit earlier so we would have a better chance of a sighting.
On my way there, just when I was close to where I suspected they were, we got a flat tyre. I called back to the reserve manager and asked him to bring me a spare tyre because I didn’t have one, so we waited for someone to bring one and I changed the tyre. Then just after changing it, I got another flat tyre. So, we had to stop again.
While I was changing the second tyre, I asked the guests to keep a lookout and to tell me immediately if they saw anything.
Suddenly one of the guests exclaimed and I knew they had seen something big. I jumped into the back of the vehicle, on the back seat, on top of the guests — I couldn’t be outside the vehicle and vulnerable if a predator was nearby.
Sure enough, there were lions only metres away — they had killed a wildebeest right in front of the vehicle!
Eventually, we needed to leave because the group needed to catch their flight, but the lions remained. I had to drive away, leaving the tyre and everything behind.
An adult male lion recently received a new tracking collar on the Greater Mabula Private Game Reserve. The operation included the full ecology and reserve management teams.