15 things I learnt training as a safari guide

14th August 2014   •  By James Bailey

This article, written by James Bailey, originally appeared on the Getaway Blog on the 14th August 2014.

If the internet had been around when I left school I’d have found out how easy it was to become a safari guide. But alas it was not the case: instead I waited some 20 years for my mid-life crisis to take hold.

It was a tough call leaving my London life behind. I was living in a great flat in a place called Southfields, aka Saffa-fields given the number of South African inhabitants. I shared with a good friend and worked as Head of Communications at The Science Museum, arguably the best science museum in the world. But this was not enough: I had to live my African dream, and it was now or never.

After completing my training as a registered field guide, I worked in Northern Kruger as a back-up trails guide. This was incredible: it meant I was able to spend six months walking in a pristine wilderness area accumulating hours and encounters with dangerous game. There was not one day that I didn’t learn a boat load about wildlife, guiding and myself, here are just a sprinkling of them.

James Bailey describing elephant behaviour to one of his guests

A crucial part of training as a ranger is being able to teach what you’ve learned to the guests you’re guiding. © Chris Davies

1. Animals can’t read

The first thing I was taught was that animals do not read the safari guide text books and as a result don’t know how to behave. Therefore as a guide I was taught a few “get out of jail” phrases such as, “they usually do…”, “generally speaking, the elephant will…” and so on.

2. Walking trail guests are a special sort

In addition to working at EcoTraining’s Makuleke camp I walked as a back-up trails guide for Wilderness Safaris. This was a “wow” moment for me: I was getting paid to walk in the African bush. It wasn’t the wild animals that made the experience – it was the guests. Over a three night trail there is no getting away from them so it’s important that they’re a good bunch. Fortunately, over seven trails, each and every guest was a gem. I guess this was down to the fact that to sign up for a walking trail you have to be a certain type of person. Luckily I like the typical bush walker.

3. How to approach dangerous game on foot

Understanding animal behaviour is critical, as is determining subtle changes in wind direction. For the latter I keep a sock of ash in my pocket, a quick shake of which tells me which way she blows. Other important factors are the sun, escape routes, cover, elevation and the comfort of my guests. Sometimes an approach is not required as the animal does all the work. On one trail we’d stopped for a break, a couple of the guests excused themselves to answer the call of nature. No sooner had they gone when they returned. The facilities were already occupied by elephants. We got ourselves into a safe position to watch.

4. Birding isn’t as tough as I first thought

I pretty much wrote myself off when it came to birding. I was overwhelmed by the 900 species in the book. But now I’m taking a different approach. I’m switching my bird book to one that covers just Kruger National Park. This will reduce the number of birds to choose from quite considerably. For those not convinced about birding it comes with an unexpected benefit called “the leopard”. Offhand I can think of three occasions when we’ve been peering into bushes looking for birds when instead we’ve found leopard.

Leopard resting peacefully in a tree

Spotting a leopard, or any dangerous wild animal on foot is an incredible experience. Even after spending a year in the bush, you never take encounters like these for granted – they’re something I’ll always remember.

5. It’s not hard to make a difference

Earlier this year I helped out with a community programme called Children in the Wilderness. This was incredibly rewarding, I just wished I could have done more of this work. The children came from the Makuleke village for a four day tented-safari where they learned about wildlife and crucial life skills such as respect and teamwork. Almost immediately I realised just how scared they were of elephants but after a couple of days of elephant PR the original fear of the elephants had been replaced with respect and awe. So much so that when two bull elephants came through camp all eight children sat with me in the sand watching the elephants feed no more than twenty metres away. The transformation was incredible.

6. Learning the names of guests is just as important as knowing the animals

I really struggle when it comes to remembering names, especially when they’re not as simple as Emma or Johnny. Not knowing someone’s name makes it difficult to engage them on a subject, and if I can’t do that I fail as a safari guide. When possible, I find out people’s names before they arrive. On one occasion I’d done this and had all the names cracked before the guests arrived. However, I’d been misinformed and on the third day Shelia’s husband told me that she was actually called Shirley.

7. Saying goodbye to guests can be tough

When on a walking safari I would spend almost every hour with my guests so it’s lucky that in general they’ve been a good bunch. However, this intense and concentrated period of bonding means that by the end of the trail it can be quite tough to say goodbye. They probably feel worse as they are leaving the bush to head back to the city. I instead stay in the bush to greet my new guests that afternoon. At this point I sometimes begin to feel guilty as if I’m being unfaithful to my previous guests.

James Bailey with guests on a walking safari in Makuleke, Kruger National Park

Bottom line: guiding is fun. You don’t meet many guests who aren’t excited and awed by what you’re experiencing every day. Their enthusiasm is infectious. © Chris Davies

8. Natural noises don’t prevent a good night’s sleep

I never tire of the many things that go bump in the night. Back home in London I would wake to a police siren, a drunk shouting or a baby crying. But out here the sirens are hyena, the drunks are aardvarks and the babies are of the thick-tailed variety. Rather than making me grumpy these noises simply put a smile on my face. In fact I’d lay in bed willing a leopard to start its “sawing” contact call.

9. Every day spent in the bush is worth one and a half days elsewhere

It’s not only driving a Landy through river beds or tracking elephants on foot – there’s work to be done too. This comes in many different forms including unblocking drains, painting and fixing tyres. There’s a lot to be done, so we get up nice and early, so much so that even when I’m on leave it’s rare that I’d sleep much after five. Bush living is a great way to get the most out of the day. During the summer I would be back from a four hour activity before those in the city had even started work. For me, a day in the bush is worth one and a half days elsewhere.

10. Tracking tricks

Knowing that my middle finger is 8cm long, roughly the same length as a warthog or porcupine track, is useful when it comes to identifying spoor. Looking at the distance between hoof prints can indicate the animal’s body length and shoulder height. Elephant tracking is good fun and isn’t hard. An elephant will place its heel down first, which creates a compacted back to the track before then kicking a little bit of sand forward which indicates the direction of travel. If all else fails simply lean out of the window to look at the dirt road and “mmmm” in a knowing way.

11. Snaring is indiscriminate

The bush is a wild place where life and death is a daily occurrence. On many occasions I’ve come across a sick or injured animal. Generally we leave them to Mother Nature but when it’s a result of a man we intervene. Snaring is indiscriminate, I’ve seen buffalo, impala, zebra, hyena and even elephant affected. When this is the case we inform the KNP rangers who decide what should be done, recently I was asked to put a snared impala down. This part of the job is not what I signed up for; but it was a relief knowing that, when needed, my rifle went bang.

James Bailey making a hasty but orderly retreat during a walking safari in Kruger National Park

You never know what to expect on a game walk. It’s vital to keep alert and calm in tricky situations. Sometimes a hasty (but orderly) retreat is required. © Chris Davies

12. With my senses alive I became far more curious

Senses that I rarely used in the city come into their own in the bush. The smell of popcorn alerts me to the scent marking of a leopard. Stopping to listen for a tell-tale rustle or the breaking of a twig can avert a nasty accident – once I followed up on a strange sound to see a leopard drop out of the tree in front of me. As a guide it pays to spot things: one trick is to scan right to left, the opposite to what I would naturally do. Feeling the temperature of dung to determine how far ahead the elephants are is useful. I get quite a reaction when I push my index finger into the poop and then suck the adjacent finger.

13. Walking through the bush is always exciting

I’m not an adrenalin junkie with no wish to throw myself out of a plane or jump off a bridge. Instead, I settle for the kick of walking through the tall golden “adrenalin” grass of the lowveld. Doing so puts my senses into overdrive to avoid bumping into the big and hairy. However, sometimes it’s not possible to avoid a close encounter, on many an occasion an elephant or buffalo has appeared from nowhere. Understanding the animal’s body language is key when deciding what to do, this often had to be done in a split second whilst my heart was pounding.

14. How to never get lost in the bush

For someone with a terrible sense of direction, it’s amazing that I’ve never been lost in the bush. Early on in my training I was given one face-saving piece of advice. “Never say that you’re lost, simply say that you’re temporarily disorientated”. I didn’t understand this, but one day it made sense. On my first game drive I was heading back to camp after sundowners when I ended up at the wrong end of the reserve. I took a deep breath and radioed camp to announce, “I’m temporarily disorientated.” This immediately took the stress out of the situation as the guests loved the quirky phrase.

15. Nothing compares to sharing my experience

It was not the stunning bush dinners under the Milky Way, it wasn’t when I sat in the sand under the shadow of two six-ton elephants, nor was it tracking lions through palm thickets or seeing leopard on foot. None of these came close to the enjoyment and thrill that I got from guiding members of my family. This is something that I’ll treasure forever, the look on their faces when the penny drops as to why I’d given up my career and moved to the bush.

Get involved

If like me you’re on the verge of a mid-life crisis, then consider training as a safari guide. It’s cheaper than a Porsche. I did the professional safari guide course in the Makuleke Contractual Park in Pafuri, which is one of the most beautiful places in South Africa. There are other courses too, take a look at the full range in the Courses and Events section, it includes everything from my year-long FGASA accredited course, to shorter courses on tracking and birding.

And if you want to know how to tell the height of an elephant from its footprint, or just laugh at some of the tracking mistakes I’ve made while training? I’ve put a few tracking tips and stories together here.

If you’re interested in training to be a safari guide, you can read all about my year doing just that. Each of the daily posts are listed on the Safari School blog posting.