Top Myths about being a Guide

Lawrence Steyn delves into a couple of myths about being a guide, what it means, what you can expect, and how to be great at guiding.

1) You have to be experienced to be a great guide

Although experience is vital when it comes to animal behavior, understanding your guests and maintaining a safe experience does not mean that those with limited experience cannot be great guides or that they cannot have educated insights into a situation.

I will never forget the day I got a lesson on the stars by an 11-year-old boy from India who was on his first safari experience. It was humbling. He knew so much yet his knowledge of the southern hemisphere was completely limited. I sat and lapped up every story he had and to this day it was one of my favorite lessons from any teacher in the bush.

Photograph © Marie Schmidt

The other aspect to remember here is that guiding is a rather diverse field where one can be an expert in one field and still be a complete novice in another. For example, ask me a question about birding and I will no doubt have an answer for you, but ask me about soils and I may just stumble around with no real insights.

So, playing to your strengths is really important because we all have something we are good at and there will undoubtedly be a place for your skillset as a guide. Just remember that you can always learn something new even if you are the very definition of a bushperson. You never know, you may have an 11-year old teach you a thing or two.

2. You have to be a people person to relate to your guests

Guest interaction is what being a guide is all about. You need to connect with your guests in order to create a valuable experience as well as to maintain their safety. So it would only be natural for the more introvert prone to feel that this may be the case, but it’s not.

Guiding is so subjective and because of this, even an introvert can host an amazing experience in the bush. For example, I worked in a lodge where there was one gentleman who was known for being the quintessential extrovert. Often at times, you could hear the whole vehicle singing at the tops of their lungs and having a genuinely festive time. But I wasn’t that kind of a guide. I loved stopping and turning the vehicle off just to sit in silence or hosting walks where we did not speak once for the entire thing.

Photograph © Christoff Els

Both sets of guests had completely different experiences from completely different guides but they both loved their time at the lodge and I feel it comes down to one thing: connection.

Guests can see their guide’s connection to the natural landscape and they feed off that. As well as sharing these moments, they can create a strong connection between the guide and their guests. Used effectively, this connection can truly create magical experiences no matter what the guiding style.

3. Guests only want to see the Big 5

Ok, so there may be some truth to this. But guests that only want to see the BIG 5 usually do not know what the bushveld truly has to offer them and often it is up to the guide to bring out their guests’ natural curiosity.

One of the greatest lessons ever taught to me was the concept of linking. Where the guide finds parts of the bush that links to the animal in question. For example, showing guests the rub marks on a Marula tree. Explaining what the tree is and how elephants love their fruits links perfectly into the original mission of finding an elephant while still showing your guests something they may not be aware of.

By doing this you can build up hype before seeing the animal, or simply get the guests to see something new and unique that may end up being their focus for the remainder of the trip.

Photograph © Christoff Els

4. 5-star lodges are the best places to work

5-star lodges have to be one of the most desired places for a guide to work and who can blame them. The animal sightings are great, the lodge itself is of a high caliber and the guests will tend to be ones who like to tip more, but that does not make working at that lodge better than a lodge with fewer stars.

Simply put, lodges have their own unique charms about them, from the way of life in the staff village to the natural landscape it resides in. There is always something special about a place that managed to survive in the wild. This means it ultimately comes down to who you are as a guide and what you make of the experience working at a specific lodge.

I love working in environments that connect me with wild spaces on a more intimate level and it is often why I opt for walking safaris where we all sleep in tents and have a far more rustic approach to a bush experience. It’s all personal preference, so don’t be afraid to try something different or adventurous.

Photograph © Christoff Els

5. Guiding is only for locals

There is no easy way to put this, but locals tend to have an easier time getting employed as a bush guide. This is mainly due to the visa issues that most foreigners have to work around and is not an indication of their skill set or competency as a guide.

That being said, being a foreigner has immense benefits in the guiding world and I feel it can be one of the most underrated skills that a guide can have. This is relatability. A guide that understands their guests, knows their culture, and is easy to connect with, is often a more relatable guide and one that tends to have a far greater impact on their guests’ experience.

It is all about playing into your strengths and that means that not all great guides are local. It also means that by being a local guide you can improve your guests’ experience by getting to know the cultures that are foreign to you.

Photograph © Andrew Corbett

6. Guiding can be lonely

It is not often something that we think about when becoming a guide, but the potential to be feeling slightly alone in an environment based around isolation can be a little concerning for some.

The long and short of it is that when we find ourselves in an environment with limited connection, we can put ourselves in a lonely space. But living in the bush can actually be one of the greatest experiences of your life. For starters, you are surrounded by many like-minded individuals who are relatable in some form or another because you both chose to work in an environment that celebrates wildlife. The other aspect to consider is the animals that you will connect with. The more time you spend in an area the better you will get to know your animal counterparts and in time you can form quite strong and meaningful connections with these amazing animals.

7. Guiding has a limited career path

One of the more controversial myths to talk about. It can be quite scary to become a guide especially if you are pivoting from a pre-existing career. You may ask yourself how far can a guide actually go and to be honest, a lot further than you may think.

There are many ways to view this, but in terms of career path, it is quite literally what you make of it. Some are happy being in a standard guiding position for their career whereas others diversify. Some start a more media-focused journey or look at private guiding and some may even leave the guiding world altogether. Now I know what you are thinking, if you leave the guiding world that would mean the career path is limited. But it’s the network that you generate as a guide that ultimately determines your career path.

Some of the most successful people I know started as a guide. They built up strong relationships with their guests and because of this have turned their careers into profitable and rewarding ones. There is genuinely no limit to your path here and just like the field itself, it is about your skillset and what you are willing to put in to create your version of success.

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About the Author: 

Lawrence Steyn is a former EcoTraining student on our Apprentice 55-day Field Guide course.