The Intricacies, Difficulties and Absolute Wonder of being a Safari Guide

The Camping Files: Chrisna Greeff
April 24, 2018
A road trip to heaven down the C27
April 24, 2018
Text and photographs: Johan Fourie in Namibia.

There are many things that can make or break your safari experience. Terrible weather, inconsiderate fellow travellers, bad planning etc., etc. If you’re a self-driver and camping, those things are largely within your control, but if you are travelling with a tour company or visiting lodges the one thing every avid traveller will agree on is that the most crucial person involved in making your safari and stay a winning scenario… is your guide. Safari guides carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Not only are they often responsible for the experiences of their guests – dealing with difficult personalities along the way – but their playbook of knowledge and how they portray and display the country to their charges will also directly influence the guests’ experiences. It is the jokes, insider info and titbits of information passed on by your guide that you will take home with you. Precious memories to be cherished for a lifetime.

So what does it take to be a guide? Maybe if you have some insight into the ins and outs of their tough job you’ll appreciate them all the more! TNN spoke to Johan Fourie, the Training Manager of Wilderness Namibia, about what it means to be a guide and the training process that aspiring guides go through to become the know-all, have-all, fix-all, do-anything and everything superheroes they need to be.

Waterberg trip looking at tracks and dung
Namaqua Chameleon

For starters a little background information on guiding and the qualifications required in Namibia. There are four recognised guiding qualifications in the National Qualifications Framework. National guide (Level 4): involves extended tourism experience in a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Apprentice guide (Level 3): national guides in training. Local guide (Level 3): Working in one particular geographical area, for example at

a lodge in or around Etosha. Transfer driver (Level 2): moving guests between point A and B; naturally a driver will share some information but transferring guests is not guiding in the formal sense. These qualifications consist of specific unit

Common barking gecko

Guides are sometimes also mechanics…

standards some of which are compulsory while others are elective. With each level the depth of scope and the number of unit standards increase.

Various companies in Namibia, in tourism and other sectors, offer guide training on-the-job and/or in-house. Wilderness Safaris is an affiliate member of the Namibia Training Authority, one of the only registered tour guide training providers in Namibia.

Wilderness Safaris works very closely with the local communities close to their various lodges. The company recruits individuals who already have a basic knowledge of the area, are able to speak English well, have good reading and writing skills, are over the age of 24 and in possession of a driver’s licence or at least a learner’s licence. An outgoing and friendly disposition is of utmost importance and candidates must be able to shoulder the responsibility of taking guests into remote areas.

Guiding is a profession dominated by men, but some of the best guides are women. The reality is that there are difficult aspects to guiding. Much of your life is spent away from home which can be hard on a family. While out on the job the hours are long: every day starts well before sunrise and ends only after dinner. The magic of a Namibian sunset or sunrise on a daily basis is such a wonderful experience, however, that it often makes it all well worth it.

The best part of guiding is being out in nature, sharing natural ecosystems and telling visitors about Namibia’s unique environment and all its various nuances, and how the environment and people interact. As a guide you will realise early on that we play an integral part in the enjoyment, understanding and interactions of our guests and their appreciation of the areas we take them to.

The guide training process often starts with a series of entry level courses as an introduction to guiding. Groups of potential guides are taken out into nature and exposed to the work of being a
tour guide in the field. Trainees often come directly from local communities, or they are staff members in safari camps who have expressed an interest in guiding and have the required qualities

to become a good host. Guides are not just hosts, however. They are expected to have a wide scope of knowledge and skills and they need to have the right disposition and abilities. Necessary knowledge includes a firm grasp of the natural sciences, including geology, geography, fauna, flora, ornithology and astronomy.

Also essential are history, current affairs, customer care, preparing meals, archaeology and, of course, a good knowledge of the land and its people. Great guides have in-depth knowledge of everything, from tiny little beetles all the way through to the largest mammals. They also need the skill to pass this information on to their guests in fun and interactive ways.

Guides are sometimes also mechanics...
..and definitely need to know what to do in sandy situations...
On-the-job training: the 15 minute tyre change challenge
Comon barking gecko

To be a guide you need to be able to identify plants as well as discuss them and their various uses
and value. You need to know the gestation period of each animal you come upon as well as their weight and the length of the animal’s horns. Not only do you need to know everything, but you must also be able to contextualise this information and describe the often unique behavioural and physical adaptations of species in Namibia in order to make the nature experience special for guests.

So once you are an expert in all things biological, geographical, astronomical and then some, you need to learn the essential skills that you will often need in your toolbox. Such skills include tracking elephants in the north-western river systems, or joining the Save the Rhino Trust trackers with your guests to view rhino in the Palmwag concession area.

We also train our guides in hospitality skills, like being able to set up a great sundowner – no sunset is better than when enjoying it with a wonderful gin and tonic in your hand.

Furthermore, guides need to be able to look after their equipment and vehicles and be excellent drivers that can take the required care. At Wilderness Safaris we focus on smaller groups that are more intimate; vehicles generally carry six or fewer passengers. In these situations, our guides will focus on trying to tailor the outdoor experience to the interests of the guests they have on tour.

Guests have just as wide a variety of interests as the guides themselves. Some lovebirds and only want to focus on that, while others want nothing to do with feathered creatures but crave to see the large tusked or horned ones or those that roar. As a guide, your job is to understand their interests, some of which you will know beforehand, but the rest you learn as the trip unfolds.

It’s essential that a guide has a passion to work with people. In general, guides develop a deep interest in nature and in the areas they take guests to. Some will become specialist guides, focusing on birding or photography, or become more adept at the history or geology of a place.

Training tour
Studying hard: Guides are are expected to have a wide scope of knowledge and skills and they need to have the right disposition and abilities. Necessary knowledge includes a firm grasp of the natural sciences, including geology, geography, fauna, flora, ornithology and astronomy.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE GOLDEN RULES TO GUIDING:

  • Be a custodian of your environment and respect the areas you visit.
  • Leave only footprints, take only pictures.
  • Find a balance between entertaining your guests and looking after the areas you visit.
  • The best guides also ensure they have fun with their guests: tell a good story and entertain.
  • Focus on the most interesting and visually appealing sight.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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