For Bill Drew and Sasha Maggs, every day at Abelana Game Reserve is an adventure. We may not have guests at the moment but patrolling the reserve and continuing the important task of keeping the reserve’s wildlife familiar with game viewers is all in a day’s work for this intrepid Abelana River Lodge guiding duo.
Originally a chef by trade, Bill was born and raised in County Cork in Ireland and first came to South Africa in 2003. “I was always into wildlife and loved watching David Attenborough documentaries as a kid,” explains Bill. “When I moved here, I spent four years living on the neighbouring property to Abelana so got the know this area exceptionally well,” he says. “I knew I wanted to become a guide as soon as I arrived in South Africa and fell in love with this magical wilderness,” he adds, looking out over the Selati River.
It’s a dream that took the next 10 years to achieve, as Bill (38) slowly graduated from cheffing to guiding, doing his guide’s course in 2013. Since then he has worked hard to gain additional skills, getting his trails and lead rifle qualifications that enable him to conduct walking safaris. “I’m passionate about walking,” says Bill. “And especially love tracking rhino.”
He’s been with Abelana since March this year and says it’s wonderful to be back in the area that he originally fell in love with almost 20 years ago. “It’s a very special place, this,” he says. “The contrast in topography is amazing, from the river here to the koppies, and the incredible trees are just outstanding, especially the rock figs and the baobabs,” enthuses Bill. “There’s also lots of history here – – apparently the sangomas from the Mashishimale community used these koppies to come and pray to their ancestors. They are sacred places.”
For 26-year-old Sasha the path to Abelana took a very different route. From South Africa’s Mother City of Cape Town, she’s always been passionate about nature and decided to study it at university, getting a BSc in biodiversity and ecology at the university of Stellenbosch. She then decided to travel for a while, teaching English in South Korea and Hong Kong for just over a year before becoming excitedat the idea of guiding.
“I saw a friend in SA posting amazing things on Facebook about a safari guide’s course she was doing and I thought that would be amazing, so I applied, was accepted and returned to SA to do my guide’s course,” says Sasha. “As part of my course I spent a few months on one of the larger game reserves in this area doing my practical placement, and when I heard about Abelana, I took the opportunity to spread my wings and moved here in April this year,” she adds.
“I’d never been on a game drive in my entire life before deciding to become a safari guide,” she laughs. “I just took a chance on the fact I might love it and I was right. I do.”
It was strange for her to have a new job with no guests though… “It’s given me the chance to learn the area without the pressure of getting lost,” she laughs. “And I have Bill to practice my guiding skills on!”
“It’s nice to be here from the start,” says Bill. “It makes an enormous difference because we are helping to build something special. Although there are no guests due to the lockdown restrictions, we are playing a vital role by traversing the reserve each day and habituating the wildlife to the constant presence of humans. As a result, we are beginning to have incredible sightings as the animals become more used to us being around,” he explains.
“We spend time tracking the lions every day, andnow we’re working on the elephants. We have a small breeding herd in the area of Abelana River Lodge and they are becoming used to us. We’re also seeing our new rhinos regularly too,” says Bill. “We’re out every single day, for the whole day,” says Sasha. “We’ve seen some amazing stuff – Cape clawless otters, brown hyena, springhare, lots of leopards… It’s wonderful. This job is truly incredible, I am learning so much and getting so much knowledge that will help my career going forward.”