I’m marching up across the dry Selati riverbed in South Africa, cautiously following the footsteps of my mentor, Steve Baillie. A pioneer safari guide, he’s preparing me and my fellow students for an up-close-and-personal encounter with a breeding herd of elephants.
Decked out in a khaki suit and trekking boots, I climb up the steep bank of the river and find myself surrounded by elephants. Keeping a safe distance and cautious of the wind direction, we stand and marvel at the gentle giants, as they feed on the scattered mopane trees and dust bathe in the sunset light.
Months ago, I left my hometown in Italy to train as a safari guide in this remote stretch of wilderness, aiming to deepen my knowledge of Africa’s pristine, diverse ecosystems. By working as a field volunteer on several conservation projects, I learned about courses available in South Africa designed specifically for those who want to work as a guide or in the field of conservation.
After graduating with a degree in Italian language and literature, I decided to take my passion for wildlife to a deeper level. So, I enrolled in a two-month safari course in South Africa’s Greater Kruger area. I was considering the possibility of becoming a full-time safari guide, but I didn’t know what to expect from such a life-changing experience.
If you’re thinking of a career as a field guide, here’s just some of what I’ve learned along the way.
What to expect as a safari guide
Safari operators hire safari guides to escort guests through national parks and game reserves—sometimes on foot, but also by vehicle or sometimes by canoe or on horseback. These wild areas are home to large and potentially dangerous mammals such as lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, elephants and rhinoceroses. The safari guide's job is to assist the guests and keep them safe throughout their encounters with Africa’s mega-fauna. Guides are required to rigorously follow safety rules and protocols acquired after months or even years of experience in the field.
Safari guides play a pivotal role in bringing guests and nature together.
A safari guide also plays a pivotal role in bringing guests and nature together by interpreting and explaining the elements of the surrounding ecosystem in a clear and engaging manner. The interests of visitors on safari may vary greatly, from mammals, to birds or plants and trees. That’s why a safari guide must possess good interpersonal skills as well as a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm for wildlife and the environment.
Often, guests on safari address the safari guide with the title of game ranger, but there is an important difference between the roles. Namely, a game ranger doesn’t interact with guests. They deal with hands-on issues regarding wildlife welfare and reserve management, such as wildlife counts, roads maintenance and soil erosion control
A safari guide, in contrast, serves as an ambassador for Africa’s wilderness areas, spreading the crucial message of conservation far and wide by interacting with guests from all over the world.
Where to train to become a safari guide
Gaining the right guiding qualification is the first step toward pursuing a career in the industry and also the foundation for a rewarding and unforgettable experience in the wild.
There are countries throughout southern and eastern Africa where it’s possible for non-residents to train and apply for guide certification. In Botswana, for example, training courses are accredited through the Botswana Training Authority (BOTA) and in Kenya, guides are certified by the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association (KPSGA).
I chose to train in South Africa and attain my qualification through the Field Guides Association of South Africa (FGASA) because it’s considered to be one of the most comprehensive safari guiding courses available to non-residents. Along with giving students an all-around knowledge of the African bush, the FGASA certification is also one of the most well-recognized qualifications worldwide because of its high standards in nature-guiding practice.
Nowadays, FGASA-accredited training providers offer a variety of courses across South Africa's best biodiversity hotspots.
The 55-day Field Guide Level 1 course provides a solid base in a broad range of subjects such as ecology, geology, astronomy, animal behaviour and conservation, along with navigation and 4x4-driving skills. This is an entry-level qualification that’s required to register as a legal guide. Further in-depth courses can be added based upon your own specific areas of interest.
Another option is the year-long Professional Field Guide course, which focuses on building a repertoire of advanced skills and provides a six-month work placement at a safari lodge. This is an all-encompassing qualification that may lead to other environmental-related careers in addition to safari guiding.
Where you decide to train does matter. For example, should a FGASA-certified safari guide decide to work outside South Africa, it will be necessary to attain additional certifications in order to satisfy the guiding requirements and regulations of a different country.
What's life like as a safari guide trainee?
For me, personally, the workload posed one of the most significant challenges during my training. Your time will be divided between lectures and drives through the bush as you acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to pass theoretical and practical exams. But it can be difficult to absorb books and manuals after long days spent out in the field.
Finding a job as a safari guide
Even once you’ve completed the program, finding a job in South Africa can be a challenge due to the high competition. Many locals with the same skills and qualifications will also be looking for a job and in order to obtain a work visa, it’s necessary to have a job offer first—and that job offer has to state why you should be granted the position over a South African citizen. That’s not to say it’s impossible. International tourism is an important contributor to the South African economy and safari companies are often looking for guides who can speak other languages like German, Italian and French.
But even if you don’t land a job, the experience will be life changing. For my part, training to become a safari guide helped me shape and enhance my interest in conservation. While I’ve chosen not to work directly as a safari guide, it's opened other doors. Environmental writing has become one of my main focuses and I continue to be involved in conservation projects and causes across southern Africa.Add this article to your reading list