Mike Nkuna has been with Lion Sands since 2001 – when Lion Sands Private Game Reserved first opened under the MORE group. With this tenure, it comes as no surprise that Mike is our longest standing field guide. In his time here, Mike has climbed the ranks of the field team – starting out as a tracker and moving all the way up to Assistant Head Guide at Lion Sands Sabi Sands in 2016.
Mike is enthusiastic, calm under pressure, and generally jovial. There are few people on the team who smile as much as Mike. As Assistant Head Guide, Mike spends a fair amount of time in the office making sure the wheels turn smoothly. But, like most of us, his favourite time spent on the job is in the bush, showing the rest of the world this beautiful place where he has had the privilege to live in or near for his whole life.
Mike grew up about three hours away from Lion Sands Game Reserve in a rural village close to game reserves. “There would be the occasional problem with lions and elephants, and lots of antelopes stayed close by, too” says Mike. He loved being in nature. “As a kid, I fell in love with animals. My grandfather encouraged me to love animals. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was employed to look after safari lodges, and also knew the bush well. He taught me tracking. He taught me everything.”
In 1999, Mike completed tracker training at Londolozi Game Reserve. After finishing the six-month course, he came to Lion Sands, where he began his tracking career. He worked as a tracker until 2005 – becoming an expert in animal signs, behaviour, and tracking itself – and then began training to be a field guide from 2006/2007. He learned everything he needed to know to qualify as a certified field guide (back then ‘ranger’) while working at Lion Sands, and began guiding here later in 2007.
Mike has seen the industry change over his nearly two decades of leading safaris. He explains, “Back in the day, it was very formal. There was far less emphasis on photography. And people didn’t know a lot about animals before coming out. This was before people had the Internet at their fingertips. Now people know much more, so as a field guide you need to get creative and learn lesser-known facts to teach your guests something new.”
After almost 20 years at Lion Sands, Mike has also seen what we safari-addicts could only dream of. If we could see the highlights of his sightings, it would surely play out like the best of Planet Earth – births, deaths, mating, hunting, kills, as well as following an individual animal over the course of its life. Mike has a soft spot for the leader of the Southern Pride of lions, ‘Floppy Ear’, who he has been viewing for almost her entire life.
But there is one kind of animal in particular Mike still gets the most excited to see – the leopard. Why? “I just love them. It’s an incredible animal. The way they hunt; the way they operate; their social behaviour. The other day, I watched as a female leopard left her cub to go out hunting. The book will say that the baby stays in hiding and waits for the mom’s return – but this little one was bored, so it came out and was playing.” An incredible sight that would, no doubt, keep even the most seasoned field guide entertained.
When asked about some of his favourite memories of working here, it is touching to hear him reply that they are of sharing experiences with guests. Mike especially loves showing guests the bush on foot, enjoying the walking experience and exploring along the river. He feels it’s a more intimate way of experiencing the bush than from the Land Rover. It is this unwavering passion for sharing nature with people that makes him such an incredible field guide.
Words and photos by: Charlotte Arthun