By Amy Cherry
Mark Tennant is one of Africa’s most talented private wildlife guides, founding Journey Wild. It took 15 years with the wildlife, but he’s been kissed by a cheetah while filming his television show Mad Mike and Mark that aired internationally on Discovery’s Animal Planet. The experience was featured on Carte Blanche, a South African investigative journalism television series, and posted to YouTube.
“It is one of the highlights of my wildlife career, but it moved into our inner-space, it wasn’t the other way around,” he said on the television show.
Mike Penman, featured in the show with Tennant, died in 2018.
Tennant’s keen, sharp eye as a private tour guide, with decades of experience under his belt, means he can spot wildlife, you’d most certainly miss with your amateur eye.
“What I’ll do is, I’ll say: ‘See that, talk about it later. See that,’ and I’ll point out things, and then when we get back to camp, I then talk about it, and it puts it into perspective.”
While many of us may save for years for bucket-list trips to view wildlife on safari, this was an every-weekend adventure for Tennant, who grew up in Johannesburg.
“We used to go on holidays to all the wildlife areas because Johannesburg’s wildlife is accessible,” he said. “You get in a car and you’re two hours away…and you’re looking at lions. You’re four or three-and-a-half hours away from the Kruger Park, and you’re looking at another species. I was with people this morning, that took two hours to get to the New York Travel Show, and they live in New York….I can see a lion, if you gave me two hours from Johannesburg, I can show you a lion.”
He’s been lucky to propel his weekend wildlife adventures into a distinguished career as one of the biggest proponents of wildlife in the world. His message–visit Africa and view wildlife in order to save it.
“I’m here…in America to promote travel to Africa, so I don’t really care where you go, if you go to Kenya, or Tanzaia, or South Africa…I just want you to come to Africa.”
The best place to see wildlife, according to Tenant, is in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the greater complex of Tanzania grasslands.
“It’s about 25,000 square kilometers of grassland, and the reason why that is the most productive wildlife area is because the soil can get nutritional value from the old volcanic rock, and that increases the lime and the protein base, and that allows the animals to move in bigger numbers. Because there’s no fencing, you have this natural migration, a 12-month migration, and in that area, you’ve got about anything between 1.4 and 1.6 million wildebeests and about 450,000 zebra,” said Tennant.
Usually, people who go on safari are looking for the “Big 5”, derived from hunting terminology as the five most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt.
“The leopard, the elephant, the buffalo, [the lion,] and the rhino–that’s the first lure. So we try to show you the big five, and we hope it becomes like a drug in your life, and then you want evolve past that and start looking for the smaller, more interesting creatures,” said Tennant. “You must remember, all animals, all the creatures in the world are all fighting the evolutionary race for survival, so a little mouse is successful just like a lion is.”
But the animals aren’t as dangerous as you might think, Tenant said with a sneaky smile–one only someone who’s been kissed by a cheetah can have.
“He’s evolved on the African plains with humans, so his evolutionary process…so we’ve evolved through the lion’s behavior, and they behave and do what they do based of our behavior. So lions have learned that the upright being of man is a dangerous species, so it’s my ancestors that keep me alive today, walking around Africa,” he said with a thankfulness.
For first-time safari-goers, Kruger National Park in South Africa can be a good compromise.
“The Kruger Park is an amazing place to go. The reason for that is it delivers the ‘big five’ faster than anyone else. In fact, they do a better job of achieving just the big five, but once it gets beyond the big five, you’ve got to move to another area, and the thing about the Kruger Park area is they’ve got a lot of five-star, luxury lodges, and when a first-time traveler comes to Africa, that’s really important that you don’t want to take them too far out of their comfort zone.”
Talking with Tennant is like a historical land geography lesson, but one you want to pay attention to.
“South Africa is exactly like America–except with some wildlife. Our hotels are as good as anything you’ve got in America, our restaurants are as good as anything you’ve got there. Our medical facilities are exactly the same. You must remember South Africa is an advanced country. The first heart operation…was done in South Africa, not in America. One of the problems with Americans is their lack of knowledge on Africa. When the Europeans first drew maps, they drew themselves big and they drew Africa little, but it’s the other way around. Europe is little, and Africa is big. So because the way the maps were drawn by the Europeans, we’ve got an interpretation that Africa is much smaller than it is. The United States of America is smaller than our biggest desert–the Sahara.”
Any visit to South Africa must include a trip to Victoria Falls and a stop in Capetown–but if wildlife is what you’ve come for, then Tennant advises you to get out of your comfort zone and travel to East Africa. In the Maasai Mara and Tanzania, you’ll see more wildlife than ever.
“East Africa’s got much more wild life than southern Africa for a number of reasons. The first reason is soil plays an important factor–they’ve got a better quality soil, it’s because of its volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, and then the rainfall, they’ve got a higher rainfall than us, so that produces more grass, so there’s more food. Then southern Africa is pretty fenced up. Fencing is a negative thing for wildlife, but that’s the sacrifice, but it allows us to be more modern. But East Africa is a great wildlife destination–but you make a few sacrifices there; you don’t have as good as medical facilities, and the road system isn’t as good, but there’s more wildlife.”
He delves into the Great Migration–something visitors on safari can see year-round–but you’ve got to have a little luck, or a good guide like Tennant on your side.
“If you go to the wrong area, you could be a couple of hundred kilometers away from the animals, and there’s nothing you can do because there’s no tire roads, it’s all off-road, and you just can’t travel those kinds of distances in that short period of time.”
So the best places are the southern tip of the Serengeti in February and March–and that’s when all the baby wildebeests are born, and there’s a lot of predators chasing them.
And then while they’re down in the southern part, the northern area, the grassland is resting, and when the animals turn up the western corridor and get back into the Maasai Mara, they stay there for four months feeding on the grass, and that’s really, really dramatic, because they’re crossing the river with some of the biggest crocodiles in Africa, and they’re trying to do it in safety in numbers, and that’s a really, really good time; however, everything has a sacrifice. The problem there is the better the wildlife, the more people that are going to be there, so that is the the sacrifice–you’ve got to deal with the crowds.”
February is one of Tennant’s favorite times to view wildlife in the southern part of the Serengeti.