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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Elephant In The Room

There’s a great big elephant we’re all tired of talking about. You know the one … 2020. As country after country went into lockdown and game reserves around Africa emptied of travellers, travel operators began wracking their brains for creative ways to keep the safari dream alive.

“We explored how we travel through our senses and captured curated recipes, music, books, documentaries and videos that brought travel to our guests,” explains &Beyond CMO, Nicole Robinson. Buoyed by the warm reception of its campaign, &Beyond’s next step was to launch virtual safaris in partnership with WILDearth, a broadcasting organisation. The twice-daily sessions – from 5h30 to 9h00 in the morning and from 15h00 to 18h30 in the afternoon – capture the live action that happens each day on safari.

The WILDwatch Live broadcast is filmed at various destinations, including &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve, which borders on the Kruger National Park, and &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. These are combined with feeds from Djuma Private Game Reserve, Karongwe Game Reserve, Tswalu Kalahari and even Kenya’s Masai Mara. The feed is monitored on a live basis, with the scene switching from one reserve to another so that there is always something interesting to see on the screen.

The response to the content has been overwhelming, with viewers worldwide tuning in to the virtual safaris on YouTube and Facebook, with South African viewers now even able to enjoy the drives on DStv, channel 183. Some favourite sightings have included a pair of extremely rare white lion cubs – two of the world’s only three naturally occurring white lions in the wild.

“Watching from the hills of Sri Lanka, living my best life and planning my next trip.” 

 – Facebook user from Sri Lanka commenting on a WILDwatch Live broadcast

Lodge lockdown life

As lockdown happened quickly and at a time of great uncertainty, the team of guides that remained at the &Beyond lodges found themselves unceremoniously becoming WILDwatch Live safari hosts. Although no guests could travel to the lodges, staff remained to continue maintenance work, oversee daily duties, uphold training and mentoring, and monitor/protect wildlife.

So, while many of us were restricted to the confines of our homes, some of the guides felt a driving force to roam freely and explore the land and chose to remain in the bush. Guiding, however, is a demanding career that requires lengthy time away from one’s family. It is as mentally challenging as it is intellectually demanding and physically exhausting. The guides are walking encyclopaedias and their genuine passion and respect for wildlife is contagious. And so overnight the guides who remained at the lodges became overnight tv hosts.

Damen Pheiffer, a guide at &Beyond Phinda, says that lockdown life at the lodge has been lots of fun: “We have a great team and there has been lots of camaraderie. In addition to our virtual guiding, we’ve also had to pull together to hold down the fort. Through this, we’ve learned first-hand just how difficult some of the other jobs in the lodges are, such as housekeeping and repairing lodge landscaping that has been destroyed by elephants. We’ve also been fortunate to do a lot of conservation work with the habitat team – like collaring an elephant – which we wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to observe.”

One, two, three…action!

Beyond the wildlife knowledge, these highly trained guides are storytellers. They are unfailingly charismatic, captivating and utterly charming … but they are trained to engage and interact with people, not cameras.

Put a ranger behind the wheel and in front of guests and they’re in their comfort zone. Put them in front of a camera (or behind a computer screen) and it’s a whole new (virtual) world.

&Beyond Ngala guide, Nikki Muller: “We’re so used to looking back and seeing the guests on our vehicle and interacting with them, building personal relationships and creating an experience for them. Now, in the back of your mind, you know that suddenly thousands of people are watching, but after a few drives, we realised it’s just like guiding and the camera crew are very supportive and viewers interact with their questions. It has been such a great experience.”

“Good evening from Arizona, USA! Thank you to all the guides and camera crew for providing this awesomely beautiful journey. I am enjoying the magnificent views from Africa. Thank you for taking me along.”

– Facebook user from the US commenting on a WILDwatch Live broadcast

Of course, nothing beats the real thing and Nikki is quick to add that he missed his guests who come from far and wide to experience the magic of Africa. “I miss having drinks stops with guests. Being able to set up an experience for them, to share some small talk and get to know my guests personally.”

To maintain that personal touch and authentic interaction, &Beyond soon brought in the option to book a private Zoom session for up to six people after each morning or afternoon’s WILDwatch Live safari to have some one-on-one time with the guide of their choice. It was a great way to have your questions answered, learn something new and have a laugh with one of the hosts. 

Funding ongoing conservation needs

Recognising that the virtual safaris were filling a need and also acknowledging the need for a source of income to fund the ongoing conservation needs of the reserves, &Beyond took the concept a step further, expanding the range with private online experiences that offer a greater level of personalisation. There are numerous conservation needs and projects vary according to where the need is the greatest at the time, however, with all the virtual activities that are charged for, 100% of the profits go towards either Covid-19 relief for local communities, habitat, sustainability, and conservation initiatives or local fundraising activities.

Wild child

Helping to grow a new generation of conservation-minded travellers, &Beyond guides are also hosting the WILDchild TV: Becoming a Ranger series, which includes fun and entertaining activities and information for children. While the separate episodes are pre-recorded, there is also the option of booking live Q&A sessions aimed specifically at children, providing young viewers with the opportunity to have all their questions answered. &Beyond rangers also give tips and advice on activities for children to do at home.

Combining the growing need for more personal online connections with the opportunity to raise funds for conservation, &Beyond has also added a range of virtual experiences that can be booked online. These include informative Q&A slots on the Protect Our Planet series, hosted by conservation experts, live cooking and cocktail demonstrations, as well as yoga and meditation sessions.

Recognising that the best stories take place around a campfire, &Beyond is offering a podcast series that ranges from conversations with wildlife and conservation experts to informal chats about life in the bush.

Wild facts

·        Since launching on 1 April, there have been a total of 1,918,055 views on YouTube.

·        942,194 hours have been broadcast on YouTube.

·        On average, each game drive is enjoyed by between 3,000 and 6,000 virtual travellers.

·        The most views on a single game drive was 15,568.

·        About 45% of viewers come from South Africa, followed by the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Australia.

Authors: Kasia Sliwa and Claire Trickett

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