THE BUSINESS OF FIELD GUIDING
The tourism industry is one of the most demanding industries in the world. Basically you are doing everything you can to satisfy people's expectations; people who have paid a lot of money and expect the best. For many safari goers, their first trip may well also be their last thanks to a struggling economy and inflation. In my time as a guide, an overwhelming majority of guests were visiting as part of a trip of a lifetime: a honeymoon, a 40th birthday. This is the pressure under which most tourism based establishments work: how do you make everyone's trip, a trip of a lifetime? The answers are legion: 100% commitment, courtesy, professionalism, cleanliness − the list is endless. It is not an easy job!
There are many cogs in the tourism machine, most of whom receive little to no recognition for their daily sacrifices. The next time you spend a night at a fancy establishment, spare a thought for the cleaning staff, the waiters, the scullery and the countless office-folk that made your booking possible. In the lodge industry however, one role stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is a role that has the ability to make or break a guest's stay. With hosting duties, it is not unusual for a field guide to spend as many as 16 hours a day in direct contact to your assigned guests. Those guests' experiences are therefore directly affected by the quality, enthusiasm and dedication of their guide. People come to the bush to learn about the environment and spend time among creatures that they have admired since childhood. If the food and accommodation is not up to scratch, a stay can still be rescued by a great guide. First impressions count. This is why many lodges send their guides to meet their guests directly off the plane. They are ambassadors not only of the company in question, but also for the country. It is imperative that they look the part, their transport is clean, they are punctual and that courtesy is observed at all times. Guides work long shifts, sometimes two months or more without a day off but fatigue levels are unfortunately irrelevant. It is not the guests' fault that you are tired, you still need to give each and every visitor the same high level of service from start to finish! Guides are a jack-of-all-trades. But one aspect trumps all others: a great guide is a people person. Sure, an in depth knowledge of the natural world is a must, but if you cannot communicate with people, the information soon becomes extraneous. A simple question: would you rather go on a game drive with a scientist who knows everything but is inaudible, rude and unmotivated; or with a newly qualified guide that has much to learn but whose enthusiasm is infectious? Facts and figures are wonderful but unless they can be quantified and moulded into an entertaining story, a guide will lose his guests' attention quickly. In my opinion, a guiding position is 70% people skills, and 30% knowledge.
A guide is on call 24 hours a day. During my time I have responded to many a guest's call during the dead of night, including being asked to remove a baby crocodile from their room (although this turned out to be a gecko!), to change lightbulbs and, as all guides are required to hold a first aid qualification, even the occasional medical complaint! It really is a job in which you give everything! But, for the right person, it is the most rewarding job in the world. Where else can you play in the bush for ten hours a day and share those experiences with total strangers. The bush has a great way of breaking down social and economic boundaries and those brief experiences can forge friendships that last a lifetime.
A guide is an ambassador for the environment. We live in an over-populated and deteriorating world and the small areas that remain as pristine refuges for the surviving animals need to be protected. The best way to do this is by raising awareness; by infecting the general public with the need to do their part. Most visitors have zero knowledge of the intricacies of the tapestry of life and being immersed in it by a good guide can be life changing! Sure, the ‘green' movement is not for everyone but if we can open the eyes of just 1% of the tourist that flock to see South Africa's great biodiversity, we have made our difference. This is job of a guide.
So, what then has the role of a guide brought to the industry in recent years? Simple: they have made the natural world understandable for the masses. People tend to fear, or at least, avoid things they do not fully understand. A guide is there to bridge that gap between the city dweller and his/her ancestry. The desire to spend time in nature is strong with all of us, but a guide is there to facilitate and resurrect that relationship; to pollinate guests with knowledge, understanding and passion. But most importantly, to do it via personal attention. That's the business of field guiding.