In this definitive guide to the job of Safari Guide, I explain what a safari guide does, what makes a good one and most importantly, how you can train to become one.
I draw on my own story of giving up my job in London and heading to South Africa to train and become a qualified safari guide. This guide features examples, links to providers and videos to bring the subject to life.
If there are any words that don’t make sense or you don’t understand please check the Safari Glossary (coming soon).
A safari guide is the person who leads the guest experience when on a safari. They interpret animal behaviour and will talk about other natural elements that they and their guests see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
The safari guide is a custodian of the natural environment and acts as a link between nature and the guest.
Here’s a video to explain what it is like to have your office in the middle of the African wild surrounded by all your favourite animals. Here’s a closer look at what it takes to become a safari guide.
A safari guide is also known as a field guide, in fact the association that overseas the guiding industry and awards the qualifications to become a professional guide are known as the FGASA, the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.
FGASA, the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa, is the association that sets the standard for the level of professionalism in the guiding industry in the form of:
A game ranger manages the game reserve or national park. They ensure that the conservation area has biological integrity so that it works as an ecosystem.
As well as conservation management, they are responsible for many things including road maintenance, anti-poaching, erosion control, water supply, fire management, population control, alien plant management and research.
For further information check out the official website of the Game Rangers Association of Africa.
Back in 2012 I went to South Africa to spend two weeks volunteering on a couple of reserves where I undertook a range of game ranger tasks including wildlife monitoring and fire management. Here’s a blog I wrote at the time describing my experience with Enkosini.
Rangers are referred to as being on the front line of conservation. They are responsible for protecting the designated area where they work. This may be a private game reserve or national park. They are charged with protecting wildlife and natural resources.
Rangers are known for their anti-poaching role, particularly in the protection of rhino, elephant and gorilla. They also undertake anti-snare patrols to combat subsistence poaching.
Here’s a blog post which I wrote just before heading out to South Africa for my training. It explains the underlying cause of the surge in rhino poaching which went from 13 in 2007 to 1,004 in 2013. Here’s another blog article detailing the latest figures on rhino poaching.
Criminal gangs backed by wealthy foreign investors are making poaching big business in Africa. British soldiers are hoping to tackle the issue by helping rangers trying to save elephants and rhinos in Malawi. Radio 1 Newsbeat reporter James Waterhouse travelled to the country to join bush patrols as they look to stop a practice which has long threatened many species across the continent. Source: Radio 1 Newsbeat
All safari guides do fundamentally the same thing, they lead the guest experience by interpreting the natural environment. However, guiding can be broken up by modes of transport. A typical guided experience will be vehicle based.
You also have guides who specialise in walking safaris, these are trails guides. Additionally you may have guides who lead canoe safaris and horse back safaris.
A good safari guide is passionate about nature, engaging and inspirational to their guests. They are respectful of the environment and will make its protection their priority. They know the facts but will not just regurgitate them with no context, instead they apply them to the situation to explain animal behaviour.
They are prepared, will keep you safe and manage expectations to avoid disappointment. They bring all aspects of the ecosystem to life so in the absence of the Big-5 your safari will be an incredible experience.
Twenty years ago when I left school there was no internet and therefore only a limited opportunity to find out about doing a safari guide course as a gap year.
But now school leavers or career breakers have no excuse. There are a plethora of suppliers out there that can be found through a simple Google or a select few can be found here.
Throughout my yearlong experience of training as a guide and then working as one I kept an account, if you want to get a truie understanding of everything involved please take a look at Safari School.
On returning from Africa I wrote a number of blogs about my experience, this is probably my favourite as it provides an overview in the 15 things I learnt while becoming a safari guide.
To become a safari guide / field guide you will need to undertake a course and take the assessments accredited by CATHSSETA. A list of suppliers that are also accredited by FGASA can be found on their website. As well as qualifying as a guide you will need a valid first aid certificate to practice.
I’ve detailed a few training providers within this article including the provider that I trained through.
Based on my experience and preference here are a few things to look out for when choosing your course:
The curriculum for each level one field guiding course is the same wherever you go or at least it should be as it will be built around the FGASA syllabus.
There will be a series of lectures and field activities. My recommendation would be that while lectures are important you can’t underestimate the power of getting out into the bush. So opt for the ones that major on the practical such as drives and walks.
Some safari guide courses offer a whole year. This isn’t a full year of lectures and practicals in the field. Instead the second half is spent on placement as a qualified guide.
This can be just as fun if not more so. If you’re looking at trying to forge a career out of guiding then ask some direct questions as to what can come of your placement.
Only after you’ve been away and spent time in the pristine wilderness and then returned to civilisation do you understand how disruptive a phone and an internet signal can be.
I would urge you to opt for a camp with no signal. Even if you don’t want to spend all day checking Facebook, email and chatting on your phone others in your camp may wish to do so.
If needed the camp probably has a sat phone or a two way radio so there will always be the opportunity for incoming and outgoing messages.
There may also be phone runs so you can get signal to upload emails, blog posts and download messages from home. The latter is great because it’s not a rushed two liner status update, instead it is a considered letter like in the olden days full of news and something to look forward to.
I enjoy cooking and at times I can be quite good at it. However, most professional safari guide courses are full on so you don’t want to be spending time locked in the kitchen when you could be studying or simply recovering from a hard day in the office.
I would thoroughly recommend a course that doesn’t require its students to do the cooking. That being said taking it in turn to braai is good fun. But as soon as someone has a pop at your technique, usually a South African, hand them the tongs and sit back.
The bush is your classroom so living in an unfenced camp means that you are gaining knowledge 24/7 for six weeks at a time.
And believe me there is a lot that you learn as you hold your breath whilst an elephant gently brushes your tent whilst feeding.
Even walking back through the night after a few beers at the camp fire can bring plenty of lessons – the colour of a nyala’s eyes in comparison to a leopard’s.
If you can, opt for an unfenced camp. But be careful, follow the advise and stick to the rules.
In this episode of Safari Stories, Jomi and Hadley of Trunks and Tracks talk about the safari guiding courses they did as well as some of the many courses available today. If you want to spend more time in the bush, immerse yourself into nature, learn from the best or simply take a break from city living, this podcast is a must listen.
Your office will be the African wild outdoors, your meetings will consist of encounters with animals of all size and shape. Your job description is one of many valuable roles! A guide, teacher, friend, game warden, doctor, storyteller and sometimes even a cook for your guests, each day is never quite the same. Find out more in the short blog, why become a safari guide?
There are a number of suppliers that offer safari guiding courses, enrol in one to make safari guiding a career or an educational and unique gap year / career break experience.
The courses provide a nature-based educational adventure for school leavers and those of any age seeking new perspectives in life.
EcoTraining positions itself as the pioneer and leader in safari guide and wildlife training in Africa. They have the history to back this up as several practising safari guides established EcoTraining in 1993.
I can personally recommend EcoTraining as they were the provider of the course that I took. Here’s a short blog entry on, A day in the life at EcoTraining.
As well as their flagship professional safari guide course, they run a range of courses, gap year and sabbatical programmes, nature programmes, high school and university study abroad programmes, and custom courses.
All courses are run directly from EcoTraining’s unfenced bush camps in prime wilderness areas across South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
In real wilderness areas teeming with wildlife. When sleeping you hear the snap of branches under the elephants weight, hyenas whoop in the distance, the “sawing” contact call of a leopard and nightjars calling close by.
The first four to five months of theoretical and practical training (bush walks and game drives) will take place at four unfenced tented bush camps in Africa’s magical wilderness areas, including the Makuleke camp in the pristine and untouched northern Kruger Park.
The following five to six months will be at a lodge where you will work with experienced guides and lodge managers, mentoring you and developing your newly acquired skills.
Over the course of the year you will be exposed to diverse ecological and geological terrains, landscapes, wildlife species and so much more.
© Jomi Krobb
NJ MORE Field Guide College is based at Marataba South Africa, within the ‘Marakele’ National Park. They are a FGASA endorsed training institute.
In all they have six courses to choose from, providing upskilling, career training and adventures of a lifetime. The trainers at NJ More are highly-qualified, respected industry experts and the college has an excellent pass rate.
Established by MORE Lodges & Hotels, they produce professional guides of an exceptional calibre. They offer students from around the world the opportunity to undertake internships with some being given the opportunity to begin their career at one of MORE’s five-star safari lodges.
I’ve not visited Marataba myself but my fellow back-up at EcoTraining worked there for a while and spoke very highly of them and the reserve.
Here’s a blog he wrote for Fascinating Africa on his first experiences as a newly qualified guide at Marataba.
I’ve also had dealings with the Marataba office and have found them to be incredibly professional and friendly.
Founded in 2006 Bushwise are sister company of GVI. They are a leading training provider with students routinely graduating the FGASA exams with the highest marks and are considered some of the best trained guides in the safari and tourism industry.
Located in the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve, a spectacular 26,000 hectares big five wilderness reserve in the Limpopo province adjacent to Kruger National Park.
The Bushwise campus is a fully-fenced eight-hectare campus with many mod cons.
Bushwise offers extra qualifications to improve employability, with unique skills such as child and vulnerable adult protection policies.
23 week and 50 week professional field guide training courses allow students to achieve the FGASA Level 1 professional field guiding qualification with an optional 6 month work placement in a well respected safari lodge in South Africa.
I’ve not trained or guided with Bushwise but I have spent time on the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve as part of a volunteer programme. The reserve itself is rich in biodiversity with plenty of opportunities to experience the big 5.
For the year long professional safari guide course I required a student visa which required the following submission:
Once awarded the visa by the South African High Commission, I was permitted to proceed on a one-way ticket.
Technology can play an important part on the course, here’s my guide to what technology I took. I wrote this just as I finished so I’ve not included what I found superfluous.
A 13 minute video from EcoTraining covering off the most frequently asked questions about Safari Guide courses.