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By: Gerhard van Niekerk, Head Trainer

Whenever we get a new group of students at our Bushwise campus, I will ask them a very specific question in their very first lecture. My first question to them is: Why do you want to become a field guide?

With great enthusiasm, they start giving their answers. I write down each person’s answer on the whiteboard as they give it to me. The answers always include something like this:

  • I just love the bush,
  • I love animals,
  • I don’t want to work in an office but rather outdoors,
  • I grew up on the farm and in the bush and therefore I want to also work in the bush.\
  • I love to work with animals.
  • I want to conserve wildlife.

The answer that I really want to hear from the Bushwise students will become clear at the end of my story.
I was still working as an Apprentice Field and Trails guide at a five star Lodge in the Pilanesberg National Park, when I was allocated a group of tourists from West Australia. They were a very adventurous and excited bunch, some of the men looked like those very rugged outback Aussies with their thick moustaches and beards.

Our safari started off a little dodgy as they asked me if they can possibly get an ‘Authentic African black’ guide. I replied apologetically that unfortunately the only black guide is on his off-week and they will just have to make do with me. Riddled with disappointment their next question was: ”So how long have you been guiding?” Because I was already 39 years of age and well experienced in people skills that I acquired in my corporate career, I answered the following: “Allow me to take you on your Safari for the next three days then you can tell me how long you think I have been guiding.” They agreed.

Off we went on our first game drive. I knew the reserve like the back of my hand because I grew up in the area and spent countless days exploring it while trying to satisfy my insatiable desire to learn more about the wonderful natural environment. During the many hiking trails I did there, I scouted every nook and cranny of the unspoilt wilderness. I knew where different animals could be found so I was not concerned about finding any of those iconic African animals that they came to see.

 

Pride of lions

 

I used my knowledge and skills to create anticipation and suspense. For this, I employed cultural history, folklore, tracks and signs, and interesting facts on how certain plants, insects, and birds helped our forefathers to survive during their ox-wagon treks across the African savanna.

I showed them the intricate interrelationships between what they saw, smelt, touched, and could hear and how the harmony of nature ensures the survival of the species they dreamed of seeing here. I also told them stories of special encounters I had with animals and used charm, humour, and showmanship to entertain them throughout the activities.

 

Bull elephant

 

On their very last game drive back to the lodge, one of the men with a thick moustache suddenly asked me to stop. I stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine. He was sitting right next to me on the passenger seat and as the rays of the setting sun cast shades of gold across his face and beard, he said he wants to say something to me on behalf of the whole group. He continued to tell me how amazing their time here with me was and how much they appreciate all the smaller things that I opened their eyes to. While the tears rippled over his rough cheeks into his moustache, he handed me a white envelope and said thank you very much for a fantastic time. The rest of the group echoed a chorus–like “thank you” and started to applaud.

It was very hard for me to not also become a bit teary, but the pride in my heart drowned any tear trying to well in my eyes. With this pride, I asked the question: “So, what is the verdict? How long do you think I have been guiding?” They replied: ‘It must be for many years.” I just smiled and said that I enjoyed every second with them and told them that from now on the Aussies from West Australia will be my favourite guests.
I never told them that I have only been guiding for around 2 months!

 

White rhino

 

Although I showed them all of the big five and plenty other general game, and they gave me one of the biggest gratuities ever, I know that for my guests it will always be about seeing the big stuff.

 

Leopard

 

For me, however, it is all about the people on my game viewer. Ensuring that they get the most memorable experience through entertaining, fun-filled activities while lining their experience with a subtle tread of how everything they experience should be conserved by their responsible custodianship of the natural environment.

 

Cape buffalo

 

So what is the answer I am looking for from the Bushwise learners? I want to hear that the reason why they want to become field guides is that they love dealing with people, meeting new people or want to educate people about the natural environment. Your guests are the most important aspect of field guiding, not the animals nor your knowledge about them.

 

‘Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize we can’t eat money’
Native Indian Proverb.