Qualities of a Guide

Why does A Step Ahead place such importance on your guide when you travel with us?

Recently the travel industry, and especially the luxury market, has delivered improvements on accommodation, cuisine, and extras such as internet and spa facilities. The results have been amazing, and most of us, wherever we live, understand all of these benefits. The quality of food or the availability of internet do not need explaining. This makes improvements in these services relatively easy to implement and to supervise, and readily noticed by the client. A chef works in a kitchen, which is a place where management can frequently and easily visit. It is no surprise that many outstanding bush camps and lodges offer delicious cuisine.

In contrast it is interesting how varied the quality of guides can be, even in the best establishments. The reverse can also be said, in that outstanding guides can be encountered in the most remote and unlikely places, where access to a formal education is extremely difficult.

Operators and camps, even the most prestigious establishments, have mediocre success in monitoring and improving the standard of guiding. This is because these qualities are so many and varied, are less well understood, and are conducted under limited supervision. After a good night´s sleep (despite the whoops of hyaenas in the vicinity) and a delicious breakfast, guests set off into the African bush with their guide. The management has limited knowledge or control of the game drive or bush walk. In order to improve guiding standards the outfitter needs to invest considerable time and resources in training, and to nurture a culture of exchange of knowledge and encouragement in their guiding community.

What qualities make a great safari guide?

Essentially a guide is a visitor´s window into a world that is to some extent different to their own. Obviously such a person must have knowledge accrued that “opens the window” on this other place.

A guide can attain some of this knowledge simply by origin, during their childhood and adolescence, and by the culture of their surroundings as they grew up there. They may have learned tales, languages, recipes, or made acquaintance with well known personalities during this period. Much of this knowledge may be tinted with the collective experience of their own community, which sometimes contrasts with that of neighbouring communities in the area, and highlights their diversity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu aptly described this idea when he coined his homeland, South Africa, as the Rainbow Nation. The different communities come together like distinct colours forming a rainbow.

A guide may learn much of this knowledge, especially knowledge of nature, through education. He or she may receive this from parents and mentors or from studying in a more traditional sense. A keen interest and desire to learn makes a huge difference. Learning useful skills also adds tremendous value. These can be immensely varied, including such intricate fields as the life cycle of a termite or an antlion, the nesting habits of a jacana or a hammerkop (both species of bird), driving in mud, changing a tyre, replacing an injector pipe, immobilizing and splinting a broken arm, or broad skills such as shooting, bird identification, or geology. Knowledge in this way is usually not linear, and often passes in the other direction too, from student to teacher. It is said that the best way to really know something is to teach it.

Unless your task as a guide is limited, such as to introduce people to a museum or visitor centre, the requirements of a guide on safari can be so broad that it is impossible to know it all, and having several guides should simply add to the resources available. One guide may be especially knowledgeable in flora, or ecology, or reptiles, and another may live in the area and know the history of a pride of lions, or the relationship among a troop of baboons.

And that is not all. Experience is another huge asset. We learn so much by doing things, by testing what we have learned, practicing it, and often doing them repeatedly.

If you can do all of this you still may not necessarily be a good guide!

In order to understand how best to guide someone you should know about them, including their culture, customs, and their interests. That is another whole field requiring different skills entirely, which involves personality, understanding, humour, and sensitivity, among other aspects.

Happily there are many wonderful, affable and capable guides, including our A Step Ahead guides, who love to share knowledge of their world with you, whether that involves nature, history, culture or anything else.


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