Named ‘Top Safari Guide’ at the 2018 Wanderlust World Guide Awards, Garth Hovell is the real deal, with guests calling him “the best – hands down”. Born in the Eastern Highlands of what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the 43-year-old caught the wildlife bug early.
Aged five, he went to boarding school in Melsetter National Park (since renamed Chimanimani), and was fascinated by the wardens. “I would watch these guys who seemed so connected with nature and the environment around them, and I just knew I wanted to be like them,” Hovell remembers. Animal encounters were the norm in the wild school grounds. “One day, I was running along a road sloping up a hill with my head down and I heard a snort. I looked up and there was an eland bull standing above me on the road. It jumped right over my head and ran off into the bush,” he recounts with glee.
During the school holidays, Hovell’s miner parents – who moved to Botswana when Garth was 10 years old – took the wildlife-obsessed boy to national parks all over East Africa. And even when his parents couldn’t travel, Hovell wasn’t sitting at home. Expat family friends would take Garth with them on holiday. “Everyone knew I loved the outdoors and that I was handy around a camp. A good kid to have around on safari,” he laughingly recounts.
Upon leaving school aged 17, Hovell and his classmates were all faced with the choice of university or an apprenticeship. For the hands-on teenager, the decision was obvious, and he moved to Victoria Falls to work towards his safari guide qualifications. When he passed his Guide’s Proficiency Exam in 1998, he was the youngest person ever to attain what was then the world’s most elite guiding credential. “ That year, 32 of us took the exam and only three of us passed,” Hovell says with pride. The culmination of a four-year apprenticeship, passing this exam licensed him to walk unaccompanied with a rifle in any national park in Zimbabwe.
But as the political situation in the landlocked country deteriorated and tourist numbers declined, Zimbabwe’s elite guiding fraternity scattered. Thanks to the reputation they enjoyed, they were highly sought-after all over Africa, and the world. Many, including Hovell, who had moved to Zambia, set up training and licence schemes, running guiding qualifications throughout the continent. “I was on the Guiding Examiners’ Committee for the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks,” he says.
While working in Zambia, Hovell started to spread his wings. “thee season was short, and in the off-season I was guiding all over the world. I worked in Australia, Russia, Malaysia; I did two seasons in Ranthambore in India.” As well as tracking tiger, one of Hovell’s favourite animals for its sheer power, size, elegance, and majesty, it was in India where Garth met Lindsay, a Californian whom he would later marry and return with to Zambia.