The True Skill of Guiding as told by a Professional Safari Guide

These days, guiding and becoming a Professional Safari Guide no longer means, simply getting the tan, driving the big 4 x 4, and heading home during your two weeks off, to tell everyone that you are a “Game Ranger”.

A blog by Professional Trails Guide Devon Myers

Guiding as a Career

Guiding is a serious job. It is a fantastic, honest profession that we can be proud of and passionate about. The sooner we start to take our job seriously, the sooner the safari industry will start to see Guides for the true professionals that they are.

Like most professions, guiding requires a mix of both knowledge and skills. Over time, both will build with experience gained.

Knowledge is vital and one would hope that as a guide furthers their career, they would end up with a relatively large amount of it, covering a wide variety of subjects.

Having said this, even the most knowledgeable guide is completely incomplete if they do not possess the ‘skills’ to deliver that knowledge in a digestible manner, in the correct way, to the correct people, at the correct time. Guiding is about people and the way in which we make them feel.

Knowledge Acquisition

For a guide to acquire the same level of knowledge as a 10-year ‘naturalist’ will take 10 years. It is far better for that guide to learn the skills needed to acquire knowledge, keep it and build on it throughout their career, rather than to try and force-feed a huge amount of information quickly into their heads.

For example, a new guide in training needs to learn how to use binoculars efficiently and get onto the bird quickly, looking at the ‘general indication of size and shape, plumage, flight pattern, behaviour etc…’ and become well versed with a bird book. This would help a Guide to be able to identify new birds and build a great birding life list as they continue a career. This is far more productive than having them try to drum birds into their brain ‘parrot fashion’.

In a previous blog, we spoke about the skills and roles of a Trails Guide. Now we will be focusing on the skills needed to deliver an enjoyable vehicle-based game drive. A great vehicle guide will be able to use the finer, soft skills that reach far beyond the more simple skills of remembering your guest’s names, 4 x 4 driving, talking to the rear, managing sightings, the understanding of good photographic opportunities and how to get your guests the best shot. After these more basic skills have been mastered, the finer soft skills will take a bit more practice. Having said this, even with plenty of training, these finer skills will take a great amount of time and effort for most guides to get a grip of.

These soft skills are vital as they pertain to the delivery of a phenomenal guided experience for tourists, in an ‘interpretive’ way of letting nature do the talking, as opposed to a ‘guide on the stage’ approach. They are based on facilitating a subtle reawakening, rather than a generic “rack ‘Em & stack ‘Em” experience.

Guiding Skills

We must remember that even though a safari guide might have built a great deal knowledge spanning many different and interesting topics, they need not spew all of their knowledge at once on the unsuspecting tourist, who might not have come on safari to earn their doctorate on soil profiles.

Rather we should make the effort to gauge the various interests of our guests, so not to waste their time as we launch them into a lecture on the different species of Thatching Grass, when all they wanted, was to enjoy the wind in their hair and the sun on their face in a beautiful, natural space whilst searching for what actually interests them.

Our role as a Safari Guide

Our role is not to ‘be the experience’, but rather to carefully facilitate a connection with the natural world by providing opportunities for nature to speak for itself and to assist people to understand it.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t provide guests with an educational experience based on their interests, but rather choose the correct subject for the correct guests at the correct time before we ‘educate’ all of our guests, on the grazing value of grasses.

These skills do not ‘make’ the Guided Experience, but rather serve to greatly enhance it. Most of these finer guiding skills are very subtle and will not be noticed outright by a guest, but rather, almost ‘subconsciously’ noticed and go a long way to improving the experience that we offer them.

All of our guests have different levels of safari experience. Some have been on safari many times before, whilst other guests are doing a safari for the very first time. We can only expect to deliver a personalised, tailored experience to our guests if we know what they are hoping for and work towards managing their expectations in a realistic way.

So often guides can be heard using the cliché expression, “there are no guarantees of what we will see, this is Africa”, only to conduct a game drive in a way that totally contradicts this very same phrase.

Our safari guests are well educated and intelligent. Their safari time is precious. They prefer to be informed of a realistic plan. We cannot expect them to be happy whilst being rushed around on a safari vehicle, without being included in a game drive plan and the search for the animals they hope to see.

We should try our best not to get caught up in the ‘Surprise, Surprise’, default guiding style. This style of guiding does not lend itself to a tailored, personalized experience, based on each guest’s different interests and safari experience. It quite often leads to a disappointing safari, as it is based on ‘smoke and mirrors’ rather than the ‘realism’ of a wilderness experience.

An example of this ‘Surprise, Surprise’ guiding style would be as follows:

A safari guide heads out on a game drive with a new set of guests. These guests have just arrived at a certain game reserve and are very excited for their first game drive in a new place.

The guide hears a broadcast over the two way radio of an established lion sighting in an area quite some distance away. The guide thinks it’s a good idea to surprise the guests by showing them some lions. All of a sudden the guide picks up the speed and starts to head in the direction of the already established lion sighting, without informing the guests of his plan, as the Guide is worried that the sighting may have disappeared by the time they reach it.

Rushing past interesting animals such as Zebra and Giraffe, whilst trying to act like all is normal, the guide briefly mentions to the guests about a set of fresh tracks of White Rhino along the road (a fairly rare sighting this specific reserve), only to rush past, continuing hastily on their way to the amazing ‘surprise’.  Arriving at the lion sighting, the guests find two other vehicles packed with other tourists, parked right close to some lions, fast asleep in thick bush, with very little view of the lions.

The proud guide turns to his guests and says, “Wow, look everyone, lions!”

Lioness Pridelands

Unknown to that guide, these guests have recently arrived from a safari in the Okavango Delta, having seen more lion than they could have dreamed of, even seeing lions hunting buffalo. The one animal these guests have never seen before however is a White Rhino.

The guide, not knowing what his guests are hoping to see and then pointing out fresh White Rhino tracks, whilst rushing quickly to a guaranteed sighting in order to ‘tick the Lion Box’, has led the guests to think that they might be rushing to a sighting of White Rhino.

However due to the fact that the guide has not informed the guests about a plan of what they are doing or where they are headed or understanding these specific guest’s prior safari experience and what they might be hoping to see, has rushed them uncomfortably, passing many interesting things to a ‘surprise sighting’ that quite literally falls flat.

This is naturally a complete let down for these specific guests. All that was needed from the guide was some simple ‘think out loud’ transparency and the even more simple chat about, “where have you come from, what have you seen before and what are your interests on this safari?” This is just one example of how ‘surprise, surprise’ guiding does not work. The examples of this are endless.

We should never resort to the ‘Surprise’ default style of guiding, just due to the fact that we might struggle to manage our guest’s hopes and dreams into realistic expectations.  Safari guests can be very understanding and would appreciate the honesty and enjoy the realism.

Guiding Skills

But, what if we could give them more than they were expecting? Much more!  A world-class Safari experience delivered by ‘Safari Guides’, not ‘surprise jeep jockeys’.

A safari experience tailored around each guest’s specific interests, using well thought out and communicated plans in order to deliver a better, more realistic experience.

We need to remember that if, tracking and searching for animals is interesting to us as guides, that it will surely be even more interesting to our guests. We need to include our guests in this “treasure hunt” otherwise the pure lack of realism will make it feel like a zoo.

The Guest

Naturally, we often have different guests with different interests, expectations, hopes and different levels of safari experience all sitting on the same vehicle. A great guide, who is well versed in the finer, soft skills, should be able to deliver a guided experience that caters to each and every guest in the group, making them feel that the guide has given each guest a personal, tailored safari, specific to each of their interests.

We should strive to be better, work harder and care more. We should avoid turning a safari, into a secret production, but rather work on facilitating a connection between the wilderness and the people that have come to participate in it. So, let’s get rid of the ‘smoke and mirrors’, ‘lectures’ and ‘stage shows’. Let us not be actors and showmen. Let us be Guides!

If you want to learn more about the EcoTraining Professional Field Guide Course, have a look at the video below.