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An Interview with Grant Reed

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  • 18 August 2023
An Interview with Grant Reed

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Grant Reed, co-founder of Letaka Safaris and star of National Geogarphic's Safari Brothers alongside his brother Brent. He is widely considered one of Botswana’s top guides, and when you meet him in person, you can see why. At 6'4, Grant cuts a lean figure, with the well-worn hands of naturalist and a voice that imparts a reassuring sense of authority. If you try to imagine an expert safari guide, you're probably picturing Grant Reed. But his path to becoming a guide wasn't always so clear cut.

I talked with Grant about how he came to be where he is today, from his colourful childhood collecting lizards in the Magaliesburg Mountains to the surprise turn of events that led him to move to Botswana.

When did you first take an interest in wildlife?

It’s a multi-generational thing. My grandfather was a very keen amateur ornithologist, and he ringed probably over 50,000 birds in his lifetime. He would capture birds, put rings on them, recapture them - and he actually had the first ever ring returned. It was returned from Helsinki in the 1950s, and it was the first proper evidence we had that our migratory birds from Africa migrate into Europe. He did a huge amount of study and research. It was in the dark days really when we knew very little about birds. He was also a very serious herpetologist; suffered quite a few snakebites - which Brent and I went on to follow in his footsteps many years later.

And my father was an avid naturalist. At five years old I was walking around with a backpack on following my dad on trail. He used to take people on weekend walks, teaching people about wildlife, birds, trees, ecology etc. It’s kind of always been in our family, and my kids are the same. It just seems to run through the generations and through the genes.

What was it like growing up in the Reed household?

All of my friends who came to our house thought we were a pretty strange family. There were tanks and tanks of snakes in our rooms, and my mother had several near heart attacks when an escapee snake would come out from underneath the couch. Or she’d open the freezer and there’d be some dead animal in there that we’d put in there for later dissection or taxonomy. So I think we were a pretty strange family, but to us it seemed pretty normal.

Was there a moment where it went from being your family’s interest to being your interest - where you said to yourself: “this is something I want to continue”?

As much as my father was a very avid weekend naturalist, back then there weren’t really careers in the bush - it was very difficult to make any money. If you had kids and you wanted to put them through university, working as a game ranger was not possible. We grew up out in the country with massive vast expanses of farmland and wilderness around us.

…But I think, it was watching Jock of the Bushveld when I was about 10 or 12 years old – a fantastic movie about one of the very early pioneers through southern Africa, and his dog. There was a moment in that film - watching this guy running across the African plain with his dog – it was at that moment I think that I decided I actually wanted to live in the bush. I didn’t want to work in towns and be a weekend naturalist, I wanted to basically be absorbed in the wilderness and I wanted it to be completely immersive

Paint the scene for me.

I’m going back now – I hope I remember it correctly! It was an aerial scene of the lead actor running with his Staffordshire, running through the African Savannah, with giraffe and zebra in the background. And as he was running, and the dog grabbed hold of his rifle strap, and he was swinging the dog.

And the background music was one of my favourite songs – ‘Spirit of the Great Heart’ by Johnny Clegg – which is a really amazing African song about living in Africa. And I think the combination of the scenery, the music, the camaraderie, you know, the guy and his dog, it just painted a scene for me of what I have loved my life to be like.

[You can watch that scene for yourself here - . I can confirm – it is an excellent soundtrack]

What is it that you really love about the wilderness?

What I love most about the wilderness is probably quite different to a lot of other people. I really love the tranquillity. I love getting away from everyone - it sounds a bit strange as a professional safari guide, it sounds a little bit antisocial - but when I’m with a group of people that are my guests, I feel like I’m alone in the wilderness with my little tribe.

And then the other thing that really fascinates me is the biodiversity. I’ve never been one who is inspired by the big cats. You know, the leopards and the lions and the wild dogs they’re awesome to show people, they’re wonderful animals to talk about, but I’m actually far more interested in dragonflies and frogs and snakes and the smaller stuff. If I’ve got my own time to go into the bush, that’s where I delve into. I don’t go and track big game.

I’ve been very lucky having spent the last almost 30 years guiding in Botswana, so I’ve had immense opportunity to see all these big animals and spend a huge amount of time with them - so my personal pursuit is the little stuff.

What sparked your interest in biodiversity and ‘the smaller stuff’?

It’s very interesting when I think about “why did I become interested in all these things”. There were not kids when I was young that were interested in lizards and frogs, etc.

Funnily enough, my interest in biodiversity evolved from my fascination with snakes.

Every living moment I had, I would be out in the field catching snakes. We had window bars in the house to keep burglars out, and I would sneak through the bars when my mother locked me in the room to do my homework. I knew that I was locked in for an hour – she was a physiotherapist, I knew she had patients – so I would run onto the nearby hillside and start turning over rocks to find lizards and frogs for my snakes. And of course, by catching more snake food in the wilderness, you then find more snakes, and then you have to build more cages, and then you have to find more snake food! And so every moment of the day is taken up.

But then you start really looking at these things. A lizard’s not just a lizard anymore and a frog’s not just a frog. And then there’s certain frogs that become very special to you and they’re not snake food, only these frogs can be fed to snakes. So I started learning about all the other species based around feeding my snakes, and keeping other animals, and feeding various insects to them. I think that’s what broadened my interest from being very much focused on snakes and birds as a kid.

So you grew up in this household where you had a lot of snakes and animals around, and you came from this legacy of great wildlife enthusiasts – how did you then get into guiding?

It was never really my intention to get into guiding. In fact, as a conservationist my desire was always to be a game ranger. I wanted to work with animals, I wanted to protect animals, I wanted to be involved in anti-poaching, water provision, looking after vast tracts of land and being involved in the conservation aspect – and never the tourism aspect.

In fact, as young conservationists, we used to call people who drove tourists around “Jeep Jockeys” - it was a derogatory term that we used for all safari guides. Because they were not into conservation, we never really considered it a serious pursuit.

But I got yanked a hard left in life.

My goal was always to be a game ranger in Kruger National Park. I grew up in a country that had some seriously terrible legislation regarding the local black people. And at the end of the apartheid era, to set right the wrongs of the past, they bought in legislation called affirmative action. Affirmative action basically required the Kruger National Park to no longer hire young white people. It was a difficult pill to swallow - as much as I understood why they did it – having my life dream ripped out from underneath me.

Back then, I was in the lead up to my trails qualification: you become a trails guide for five or ten years, then you become a section ranger, and hopefully one day you become chief section ranger, then you retire somewhere on the Kruger National Park. So that was my life vision, that’s where I was on my way to.

When that carpet got ripped out from underneath me, I heard about an opportunity in Botswana, to become a guide for a company that was doing some pretty amazing exploratory stuff into the depths of the central and southern Kalahari. So I jumped at the opportunity and when I came up I was amazed. When I really got into guiding, I realised that actually it was the most unbelievable opportunity.

I was always chasing around as a conservationist: you’re on your way here in a hurry, you’re on your way there, you’ve got to get this done, you’ve got to get that done. There’s never time. You see a leopard and you almost drive over it because you’re on your way somewhere, because there’s always a deadline. And so actually being paid to sit and really observe these animals and learn about them – I was very pleasantly surprised. I soon became addicted to being a guide.

We no longer use terms like “Jeep Jockey” – but I far prefer guiding on foot: I’m not one who loves to spend all my time in a vehicle anyway.

So it was never really my intention to become a guide – but I’ve been such a happy guide.

What made you want to stay in Botswana?

It was the combination of the remarkable ecosystem and just the fact that you could be alone and go get lost. It’s such a vast expanse, it’s hard for people to really understand. It’s unfenced from the Okavango, through the Chobe, into the Caprivi strip of Namibia, all the way to central Africa. So there’s this free movement of animals: you’re part of a greater meta-wilderness area that stretches all the way to the Congo. And I think that’s what really got me.

My intention was to stay for a year in Botswana: I’d been offered a really amazing opportunity up in Kenya. But I got nine months into my contract here and actually called up the guys in Kenya and said “listen, I’m sorry, I’m just not ready to leave”. And they’ll scatter my ashes here. I’ve lost my heart to the place.

It’s also got I think some of the most amazingly kind and respectful people. The Botswana nation are such gentle people. It’s a really amazing place to live and to raise a family. It’s an incredible country.

How did you end up starting your own company?

So I arrived in Botswana in 1995 and started guiding mobile tented safaris for another company that had been around for a long time. After I had been guiding here for about a year my brother contacted me; he was in the UK working in the IT boom at that time. He came and did a 10-day safari with me through the Okavango and Chobe, and at the end of the safari he sat me down and he said:

“Listen. I’m not going back to England. You are going to get me a job as a guide, and I’m having all my stuff shipped back over.”

I contacted a few different people and Brent got a guiding job for one of the other mobile safari companies. We guided together for about five years, bumping into each other all over the place in the bush on our various safaris.

One day we were sitting down under a tree somewhere in the middle of Savuti, we cracked a beer and we decided that actually we’d like to do this for ourselves. So we threw the idea around a little bit.

I’d been approached by a few investors previously, who suggested doing my own thing, and I didn’t want to, to be honest. I kicked back against the idea because I loved not being anybody’s boss. The freedom, it’s unbelievable – when you head out there as a guide and there’s nobody to tell you what to do, you just make it up as you go along. So long as you bring your vehicle back and you’ve got happy guests, life is good. I actually kicked back against the idea of starting my own business for quite a few years.

And then it just felt like the right time. Brent and I decided we would do it. We got together when we got back to Maun and we registered a company. And Letaka Safaris was born.

Final question: what does ‘Letaka’ actually mean?

The word Letaka is the Setswana word for “Reed” and it was never really a name we picked for ourselves. When Brent and I arrived in the delta some 28 years ago, being tall and skinny and having the surname Reed, they just automatically dubbed us the Letaka Brothers. When rumour got out that we were starting a Safari company, people already were talking about “Letaka Safaris” so we kind of adopted the name.

It was never really something we thought about, and I think if we’d known anything about SEO and all these fancy things about web searches, we may have put up a bit more resistance. But the name stuck, it fits, and it’s quite unique to us.


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