28 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Bill Winter: the safari guide

Nairobi-based Bill Winter, 54, who runs a range of high-end mobile safaris in and around Kenya, talks about being a child of the wild, cheeky monkeys, elephant chases and obtuse expectations

By Mike Peake
22 May 2016 | 02:54 pm
  • Bill Winter Safaris offers authentic tours in exclusive settings that take guests as close to reality as possible.


Has the essence of safari changed over the past few years, Bill?

No, it’s still all about good game viewing, but with greater exposure to National Geographic and Discovery, the expectations have changed a bit. People expect to see kills and river crossings on every drive. It’s unfortunate, because safari isn’t about that, it’s about a journey, an experience, it’s almost a discovery of your senses we lose in an urban environment. If we don’t see a cheetah or lion on a game drive it doesn’t mean we didn’t have a great one – what else have we seen and been exposed to? For instance, the way scenery in Kenya changes over short distances is extraordinary.

How did you get into the safari business?

By good fortune. My parents started the company in 1972, so, as a child, I was able to spend all my school holidays on safari. Once I finished university, I decided this was the profession I wanted to follow.

What drives do you offer?

My home and office are in Nairobi, and our speciality is high-end tented accommodation transported in big trucks. The crew goes ahead, sets up camp, then I fly in to the park where the group is. We spend three or four days exploring an area and it’s totally exclusive. Then we move to another location.

How does a typical day pan out?

There’s a wake-up call and a hot drink is brought to your tent, then we gather around the fire for porridge as the sun comes up. Then we’ll go out, come back for lunch, have an afternoon siesta, and there’s tea around 4pm. After, we can then do another game drive, walk, go horse riding or do something else. I like to offer as much variety as we can, so we do things like camel riding, fishing, scenic flights in balloons and even beach excursions.

What are your golden rules for guests?

Be sensible. Just because you’re there, you can’t wander off, especially from one of our mobile camps. Safety aspect is among our biggest concerns. The other thing that people underestimate is the debilitating effects of the sun. Dehydration is a big issue.

What else do guests need to know?

Well, one false perception is that the animals will attack. You’re in your tent and hear a lion or elephants and some people are terrified that they’re going to be dragged out of the tent. It never happens!

Which animal do you admire most?

Elephants, definitely. They are so intelligent. The care they have for their own groups is startling. Lions are really interesting, too. During the day they’re the laziest things on the planet, then as soon as it’s dark, it’s a real Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. Also, people tend to malign hyenas, but I actually rather admire them. They’re a very efficient predator and have a certain charm, if that’s the right term.

Which animals have you come to dislike?

Probably vervet monkeys and baboons because they’re a nuisance if they become used to your presence. Both are highly intelligent and calculating, and constantly trying to figure out the best time to sneak in and steal things or cause total havoc.

What was your scariest animal encounter?

I was out on a walk with a group and some Samburu warriors. We were watching a group of elephants peacefully grazing for 
25 minutes or so. Then, the wind must have changed, so the elephants picked up our scent and one of them came barrelling towards us. Luckily, the warriors had their sticks and they managed to startle her, and allowing us to back away.

If we had an hour for a safari, where would you put us?

The Masai Mara. It’s got fantastic wildlife, perfect year-round climate with no humidity or bugs and a very scenic environment.

Some times, there are criticisms that when safari guests are taken to a tribal village, it’s no longer authentic, and that the locals put on an act. Is that true?

There is some truth in that, but it depends on the guides. There are many cases where pseudo villages are built on the periphery of the park and guides get kickbacks to take guests there. Where we go is more remote and far from the tourist circuit so the villages are real. But they’re not like they were 30 years ago. Some clients – I don’t know where they think time has gone – still expect people to live in mud huts and run around in animal skins. That ended decades ago.

How developed are things?

We’re in an electronic age where there’s good cellular coverage in most parts of Kenya. It’s still a rather incongruous sight to see a herder, who might just have a blanket around his shoulders, holding a spear and talking on his mobile. I’ve been to several villages where people watch soap operas.

Do you ever run into poachers?

About 15 years ago, we came across some elephants that had been killed. It was a disgusting sight – the horror of the scene and the waste. Taking the life of a magnificent animal like that for what, in comparison to its mass, is a small tusk is shocking. But now, in Kenya, the security measures are very impressive, so poachers can’t move around freely during the day.

By Mike Peake

By Mike Peake