17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Safari Guides
Once the domain of thrill-seekers and Ernest Hemingway, safaris have officially gone mainstream. In 2014, African Business Magazine reported that Africa’s tourism industry is the world’s fastest-growing. At the heart of its safari industry are the guides who help wildlife-seeking adventurers experience the continent’s Big Five in their natural habitats, and occasionally remove a snake or baboon from their guest quarters. We talked to the team behind Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live about the realities of life in the bush.
1. YOU HAVE TO BE A PEOPLE PERSON.
Though knowledge of the terrain in which a safari guide works—and the animals that call it home—are essential to the job, they're not the most important requirement. “I’ve come across many guides over time who have great knowledge of the bush, great passion for the bush, but they don’t like people,” admits Pieter Pretorius, safari guide and host of Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live. “And that’s not a good start for a guide. Because in the end, the key part of guiding really is working with people … That’s really what a guide does, is enhance the experience for people when they go on safaris.”
“A friend of mine once said that it’s 10 percent of what you know and 90 percent of what you are that makes you a good field guide,” says Stefan Winterboer, a professional field guide and presenter for Nat Geo WILD’s Safari Live. “So you definitely have to have a love for people. Also, you’ve got to be a likeable person; you’ve got to be a bit of an entertainer, a bit of a rogue. But you also have to have an aptitude for picking up things in the natural world. So you’ve got to have a naturalist aptitude as well.”
2. IT CAN TAKE 15 YEARS FOR A SAFARI GUIDE TO REACH THE TOP OF HIS OR HER GAME.
“As far as getting a job, there are standards that need to be met before you’re allowed to practice as a guide,” Winterboer explains. “That registration is not too difficult to obtain. However, you progress according to the qualifications that are set by a nongovernmental agency, the Field Guides Association of South Africa, which is a section 21 company, meaning that it is registered as the industry’s voice at a governmental level. And they have a variety of different qualifications that you can get. And it’s knowledge matched with experience, matched with practical application of everything. And you can study for 15 years before you reach the top qualification.”
3. SCIENCE-MINDED TYPES DON’T NECESSARILY MAKE THE BEST SAFARI GUIDES.
“Surprisingly, an in-depth knowledge of ecology and the fearlessness of a Zulu warrior are not prerequisites,” says professional field guide and Safari Live presenter James Hendry. “Ecologists often make poor guides because they bore their guests to tears. Guides who exude bravado terrify their already-fearful guests by getting too close to animals—and they terrify animals for the same reason. People skills and an ability to communicate are skills a guide needs. The rest can be learned from books and mentors.”
4. PATIENCE IS A MAJOR PREREQUISITE.
When asked about the most important characteristics a safari guide must have, professional field guide and Safari Live presented Brent Leo-Smith says, “The main skill required is patience. Patience with people, patience with animals.”
5. THE ALL-KHAKI DRESS CODE IS SORT OF A MYTH.
“As wonderful as it is to be wearing all green and khaki, most animals see in black and white,” says Leo-Smith. “So generally you want to avoid wearing dark blacks and bright whites. Pretty much you can get away with almost every color apart from black or white.”
6. WAKE-UP CALLS ARE PART OF THE JOB.
Like any itinerary-driven venture, safaris run on a very specific schedule. So it’s part of the safari guide’s job to wake guests up in the morning. “If the guide oversleeps, the guests oversleep,” says Pretorius. “We often don’t put alarm clocks in their rooms. Being a guide is really just being a host. As a guide, you’re the first person the guests hear from in the morning, and the last person they see in the evening."
7. THEY SOMETIMES DOUBLE AS RESCUE PERSONNEL.
“One of the most fascinating tasks I’ve ever had to complete was driving a trailer of diesel fuel for a generator through a big storm,” Pretorius recalls. “I mean, there were trees blown over and rivers flooded, and here we were driving through all of this in a safari vehicle towing a massive half-ton trailer of diesel. ... It was almost an hour’s drive under normal conditions. And we were driving in this seriously big thunderstorm. You could hardly see.”
“The most bizarre thing I’ve probably been asked to do is jump into a flooded river to get a rope to the other side to attach it to a tree so that we could ferry supplies by rope and pulley to a group of tourists and rangers who were stuck on the other side,” Winterboer adds. “The only way to get this rope across was to jump into the river and swim it with a rope attached to me. Which, in hindsight, was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
8. MECHANICAL INCLINATION COMES IN HANDY.
As the “go-to person for your guests—from waking people at all hours of the night to dealing with medical emergencies like heart attacks, falls, broken arms, strokes, etc.—if something happens, you get a call and then you figure out a way to handle it,” says Winterboer. “You also have to be mechanically minded. In remote locations like this, if your vehicle breaks down, you have to know how to fix it. Or else you risk getting stuck.”
9. FINDING SNAKES AND SCORPIONS IN A GUEST’S BEDROOM IS FAIRLY COMMON.
“Getting a distress call from your guests to remove either a snake or scorpion from their bedroom is a fairly common but surprising task,” admits Scott Dyson, a field guide and Safari Live presenter. But creepy crawly things aren’t the only uninvited critters who’ve made their way into guests’ quarters on occasion. “When I worked at one of the luxury lodges a few years ago, I got called to a guest’s room to chase away the baboons,” says Leo-Smith.
10. THE DANGER IS MINIMAL.
One of the biggest misconceptions about safaris, according to Pretorius, “would be that it’s dangerous. It can be dangerous. But mostly, it’s a beautiful experience. It’s not a sort of dangerous or scary experience that you live through. It’s a beautiful experience that you are enriched by. Yes, there are lions and leopards and other predators that could eat you, but we are part of their habitat and they ignore us for the most part. And a good guide knows when to bring guests around animals and when to avoid potential bad situations. Reading animals’ behavior is key to succeeding in this role.”
11. GUESTS’ EXCITEMENT CAN BE CONTAGIOUS.
“My favorite part of the job is seeing guests’ reactions when an awesome situation unfolds, or when they realize the beauty of the environment,” says Dyson. “I feed off the excitement of newcomers to the bush. It’s important to feed off their energy. We, as guides, tend to get complacent and get to see the same things every day. But by seeing guests’ reactions, it reminds us of how lucky we are to be working in a place like this.”
12. GUESTS, LIKE ANIMALS, CAN SOMETIMES BE A LITTLE FEISTY.
“Sometimes the animals don’t play along with your plan and sometimes you can have difficult people—especially if you have different groups on the same vehicle,” says Leo-Smith. “Actually managing the dynamics among different people is tricky. Sometimes you can have Americans, Germans, and British people all with very different outlooks on what we should be doing, and you try to make them all friends, basically. I’ve actually had guests try to physically punch each other on safari before, and my tracker and I had to separate them. The one thought the other was asking too many questions and monopolizing the guide’s time.”
13. THERE REALLY AREN’T THAT MANY BUGS.
“Don’t stress too much about the amount of bugs out here,” says Winterboer. “There are not that many. Some people don’t want to travel to Africa because they’re scared of getting malaria or being bitten by something or being infested by swarms and clouds of bugs. And while that can be true in some areas, it’s not true about most safari destinations. It’s not clouds and swarms of bugs here.”
“You do see some really entertaining people arrive with their bug-off clothing,” says Leo-Smith. “I don’t even think they make those things in Africa—these DEET-impregnated shirts and pants—they all come from the States. I think the strangest thing I’ve ever seen is actually a couple of guests from Hong Kong who wore these completely mirrored sun visors. They looked like RoboCop. It came down and covered the whole face.”
14. AMERICAN TOURISTS ARE THE EASIEST TO SPOT.
“You can spot tourists coming from the States a mile away,” Winterboer says. “They’re all wearing these quick-dry pants with the zip-off bottoms and the clothes that never fit them and the most bizarre variety of hats that I’ve ever seen in my life. When in reality, you could just wear next to anything.”
15. THE PROXIMITY TO WILDLIFE CAN BE ALARMING TO GUESTS.
“We get very, very close to animals here in Africa,” Winterboer says. “And it sometimes overwhelms guests who are not used to the fact that all of a sudden, they could be sitting in an open vehicle a couple of feet away from something that could jump in and kill them, or bump the car over.”
“Guests are always surprised by the close proximity that we can get to animals without disrupting them, which is great because guests get much closer than they expected and often that excites them,” Dyson says. “One minute you can be driving, and the next you’re meters from a lion or a leopard. Your heart starts racing. It’s always great to watch the guests’ reactions.” Hendry adds: “Sitting 30 feet from a pride of lions or having a leopard go to sleep in the shade of your safari vehicle is a completely otherworldly experience.”
16. THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF SAFARI OPTIONS.
“Think carefully about what you want,” suggests Hendry. “Wildlife? Luxury? Scenery? Action? Remoteness? There are all sorts of options, from pampered luxury to hardcore camping safaris—each with its own benefit. You could come to a luxury South African lodge, eat Michelin-star food, have a massage after your morning and afternoon safari and then relax next to your own plunge pool with a spectacular view. You need as much physical fitness for this as you do to get out of bed! Alternatively, you could go on a walking safari in Zambia, camping and cooking on fire. It all depends on how much you want to be immersed in the wild and what your tastes are. In short, you can safari like an explorer of old or you can do it like a celebrity.”
17. IT’S NOT A FUN JOB ALL OF THE TIME.
“Obviously when you look at it from the outside, it’s a wonderful and romantic job, with sunrises and sunsets and lions and elephants all around you,” says Leo-Smith. “But there are also flat tires, broken oil sumps, radios that don’t work, staff that doesn’t arrive on time, bad roads, and bad weather. There are just problems sometimes with logistics and keeping it all up and running.”