Guide, friend, mentor, legend - safari history with BHS

Matthew Franklin looks back on an almost-decade-long relationship with Brett and BHS Safari Company, which has seen him grow from a conservation student, in Africa for the first time, to a qualified safari guide in training under Brett’s mentorship. From hilarious to hair-raising encounters, Matt has explored South Africa’s best safari destinations alongside his friends and family, and what he has written about his experiences is a testament to how impactful a BHS safari adventure can be. This is a look back at his safari history with BHS.

Here’s part 1 of Matt’s series, starting right at the very beginning…

2013 – Charging elephants and screaming bushbabies

I first met Brett back in March 2013 with African Conservation Experience (ACE). It was my first time in Africa, and I could not wait to start this adventure along with my father, Gary.

Brett joined us after our first week and he was instantly the perfect addition to the group. We were so impressed with his knowledge and skills in the bush. Alongside Brett, we had some fantastic guides supporting us, namely Don Bird, Laurie O’Donnell and the late, great Gavin Paul.

One of the greatest memories from this safari was when Don was driving with Brett in the passenger seat. We came across a large breeding herd of elephants around dusk, and they were not too happy to see us. After a tense stand-off we decided we had to move past them to get back to camp. About halfway through the herd, we heard a bellow from one of the females and then Don put his foot down. We were bolting down the road with the elephant running alongside us through the bushveld; trees and bushes were getting crushed left, right and centre and all I could think to myself was, “must go faster.” Suddenly, the elephant lowered her head and swung towards us. She missed the car by centimetres and was subsequently following behind us. Again, all I could think was, “must go faster!”

Over a time, she got tired and backed away and we got into camp safely. It was one of the most exciting and exhilarating moments of my life and sparked a huge passion for being in Africa.

Brett took us from Mapungubwe to Pafuri for an overnight stay before driving down through Kruger National Park and then finishing off in Hoedspruit. As we made camp at the Pafuri gate we slowly drifted off to the sound of the bush and our fellow students snoring peacefully around us. At 02h00, we were suddenly woken by a blood-curdling scream. I remember saying, “what on earth is going on, is everyone ok?” With that and a whole lot of confusion from both tents, as none of us has made the noise, we heard a half-awake response from Brett saying, “it’s a bush baby, go back to sleep.” And with that, there was an outburst of laughter and relief, and we all went back to sleep.

The next day, we set off into Kruger. It was incredible; never had I seen such a wild, open area full of life and wilderness. It’s a feeling I will never forget and has stayed with me to this day.

Finishing the tour after living the dream of being in South Africa and making some great friends, I knew I would be back one day to show others the magic of this amazing country.

2014 – Mapungubwe and the art of tracking

I stayed in contact with Brett over the following year and decided to organise with him to stay at Don’s place again, but this time I took my friends Joe Woodcock and David Smith. It was amazing to see Brett again when he picked us up at OR Tambo airport to start the mammoth drive up to Mapungubwe and start our newest adventure. The drive up was hilarious. As Joe and David slept, Brett and I caught up and talked the whole way.

It was fantastic to see Don again as he greeted us at his camp, signifying the adventure had truly begun. Of course, we had our classic sleep-out in the bush after a few days, but before that we had to uphold the tradition set out by my first trip: we had to watch Ghost in the Darkness before heading out. As expected, Joe and David offered to stay up all night to keep watch allowing myself, Don, and Brett to sleep the whole night through. It worked like a charm!

It was an uneventful night with only a kudu coming through camp, but with a lot of twig-snapping and bush-rustling to boot. But the entertainment, as always, came from David. As he finally grew tired and threw himself onto his fold-out bed, it collapsed up around him, leaving the rest of us in hysterics, unable to move let alone help him get out of the mess he had got himself into!

We loved to go for walks – most of the time walking straight from camp – seeing what tracks we could find and seeing how far we could follow them. One morning, we all woke up at 02h00 – there was no noise, no smell, no reason for us all to wake up, but we did. Looking at each other in the darkness, we all knew instinctively not so say anything but all of us were listening intently. Over time the feeling left us, and we went back to sleep. Once morning broke, we went for a walk around the camp to see what was around during the night, and what we saw explained everything. There were the biggest, most pronounced male leopard tracks I have ever seen right outside our building on the other side of the fence, so we decided to track and follow where this leopard went after spying us through the fence and moving on.

We followed him for a few hours, stopping at places where he had rested and sprayed. It was the most amazing experience, learning from Brett so much about the art of tracking and seeing the environment in a different way being on foot. I can not express how fulfilling this was and how much we all enjoyed it.

Later during that week, we took the car to go look at the Mapungubwe Game Reserve and learn more about the ancient cultures that once used this land and lived among the animals for thousands of years. We had an incredible encounter with a bull elephant in musth, as he walked towards us along the main road, nowhere for us to turn or move out his way. Brett positioned us perfectly on the side of the road as he came moving towards us, swaying his massive head and trunk in an intimidating manner. He got closer and closer with no sign that he would move out of our way. We held our ground and watched silently as he got closer and closer, at the last possible moment he decided to walk around us and stop at our side just to see what we would do, then moved on his way into the bush.