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So You Want To Be A Safari Guide?
If the above job description sounds like something you'd be interested in, than perhaps you're a candidate to become a safari guide in Africa. But be warned, it is a job with long hours, little pay, and plenty of demands. It is also an occupation that offers a fantastic job site, daily surprises, and plenty of adventure.
The demand for experienced and well trained safari guides continues to grow as more and more African nations build an infrastructure to support tourism. Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa are well known, and popular, safari destinations. But other nations, such as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are quickly becoming popular alternatives to those classic places.
Of course, not just anyone can be a safari guide. It requires a unique set of skills that is not always obvious to the outside observer. Building those skills is no easy task either, and it can take years in the field to develop them fully. But, for those hoping to join the ranks of the African bush guides, there is an option for job training that is as unique and adventurous as the work itself.
A South African company by the name of EcoTraining has established itself as the top provider of quality safari guides on the entire African continent. EcoTraining offers a number of training course that are designed to give potential guides the skills they need to lead their guests into the field in search of Africa's amazing wild game.
I recently had the opportunity to visit EcoTraining's Makuleke Camp, located inside the Makuleke Concession of Kruger National Park in South Africa. There I had the unique opportunity to witness first hand the training process and watch as students worked hard on a daily basis to hone the skills necessary in the profession they all hoped to enter. Those students came from all over Africa, Europe, and even the United States, and ranged in age from 19 to late-50's.
In the week that I was in the camp, I watched the prospective guides practice some of the more obvious skills that they would need on the job. For instance, there were daily game drives, both on foot and in vehicles, with students taking turns playing the role of the lead guide, while another served as the all-important back-up. Their remaining classmates played the part of the clients, eagerly asking questions and putting the guides to the test.
Learning to lead a game drive was just the beginning however, as the students also practiced operating a 4x4 safari vehicle, while spotting wild animals on the move, and entertaining their clients with all sorts of fun facts, at the same time. They also learned how to identify, and track, the wide variety of creatures that inhabit Kruger National Park, while polishing their first aid skills, and learning to handle a rifle as well. The students are taught basic bush survival techniques, how to handle encounters with dangerous game while on foot, and how to navigate in the bush too. Nightly post-dinner briefings give them the opportunity to hone their public speaking abilities as they outlined the itinerary for the following morning's game drive much same way as they will when they go to work as a guide.
The standard Eco-Training course is 28 days in length at the end of which, students who pass their evaluations will be given a rank of a level 1 Field Guide. That will mean that they have demonstrated the basic skills necessary to serve as a safari guide, although they will still lack experience that only comes from working in the field. From there, they'll receive placements in a variety of lodges and camps throughout Africa, where they can begin to acquire that necessary experience. A few of the more promising students will even be allowed to stay on in the Eco-Training camps to help instruct the next crop of recruits.
The training doesn't end after the 28-day course comes to an end however, as there are a number of short courses that the Field Guides can take to boost their skills. For instance, there is a weeklong birding course that helps identify the hundreds of avian species in Kruger. Similarly, there is a four-day course on identifying trees and other plant life and another that focuses on spider and scorpions, both of which are common throughout Africa.
The most comprehensive course however is Eco-Training's yearlong program that not only prepares students for all of their official Field Guide accreditation tests, but also offers advanced bushcraft skills, while also training them in wilderness medicine, and high level tracking . They'll also receive further instruction on navigation and orientation, handling of firearms, and much more. The yearlong course is designed to turn out the very best guides possible, who can immediately go to work in the field.
True to their name, Eco-Training also instills a healthy respect for the environment in their students as well. They are taught to protect the wilderness that they will be working in and to understand how each of the creatures, from the smallest insects to the largest herbivores, plays a vital role in keeping it healthy. In fact, that respect runs so deep, that on one walk into the bush we were advised to not step in the elephant dung that was common throughout the Makuleke Concession. Normally, this would seem like good common sense, as none of us likes to carry that scent around on our boots all day. But in this case, we were told to avoid the smelly landmines because each of them is a self-contained ecosystem, with all manner of insects taking up residence. By walking around them, those ecosystems were allowed to flourish and continue playing their role in the much larger environment of the bush.
This eco-conscious approach extends to the Makuleke Camp, where the students, guides, and visitors, such as myself, stay as well. Occupants of the camp sleep in large, comfortable tents that are elevated above the ground to allow for the passing of animals through the area, something that is not at all uncommon. One evening I was awoken from sleep by the distinctive sounds of a warthog passing beneath me, and on several occasions the sunrise was greeted by the not-so-distant roar of a lion.
Our tents had running water, but no electricity, and in the evening the paths, as well as the common dining area, were lit with lanterns. There were no fans, no air conditioning, and certainly no televisions. It is a five-mile drive just to get cell service. The evening ends early, with occupants of the camp crawling into their cots not long after nightfall. The morning is announced with the beating of a drum, which signals the start of a new day and calls students to their daily meals.
For adventurous travelers, the camp no doubt sounds like a fantastic escape, and a wonderful place to experience Africa's bush in all of its glory. But it is also a classroom without equal for the potential safari guides, who need only walk a dozen yards in any direction to enhance their instruction. EcoTraining operates two other training camps, one in South Africa's Selati Game Reserve, not far from Kruger, and another at the Karongwe Reserve in Botswana. Both of those camps offer similar training to those that I observed on my visit to the Makuleke Concession.
The company has gotten so good at training field guides that their students are now in demand across all of Africa. Eco-Training students serve in a variety of capacities in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and of course South Africa. Tour operators know that when they hire a graduate of the EcoTraining courses, they get someone who is well trained, highly knowledgeable, and prepared to inform and entertain their guests.
For us, as travelers, that means that we are able to visit the wondrous landscapes of Africa in a manner that is both more rewarding and safe. Something that makes an already great travel experience even more satisfying.