How things have changed!

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Safari for Real guide and author Lex Hes reflects on the changing nature of guiding

I’ve now been in the African safari tourism industry for over 40 years and, with Travel Africa celebrating 20 years of publication this year and reflecting on changes in the safari industry over that time, it has made me give some thought to what has changed from a guiding perspective.

One of the main developments I have seen is the ‘professionalisation’ of safari guiding. When I started out 40 years ago, there was no such thing as a guide training course and I don’t think that it was even seen as a career option – perhaps rather something to do for a year or two before moving onto a ‘real job’, but certainly not a career option!

At that time we guided by the seat of our pants, answering questions in the best way we knew, perhaps giving quite a lot of incorrect information in the process, but always passionately trying to learn as much as possible about the bush and its inhabitants together with our guests. There was a limited number of reference books that we could carry with us in the field, so a lot of us ended up in public libraries during our leave, looking for information on the things that we knew little about.

We collected samples of the various trees and plants that we couldn’t identify and took them to the Botanical Gardens for identification. If we didn’t know a bird call, it was extremely difficult to find a recording of bird calls anywhere and the first that we did have were on cassette tapes which we had to wind backwards and forwards until we found the call that we were looking for. Tedious indeed!

There was a degree of wildness and freedom amongst the guides which resulted in many exciting adventures for our guests. Looking back on it now, a lot of what we did may have been irresponsible, but it certainly was memorable!

Today, guides go through very intense training courses to qualify, learning about everything from geology and soils through to communication with guests and how to drive a 4×4. Safety aspects are a very important part of guide training now, so walking guides have to go through intense rifle-handling training, first aid courses and safe driving skills training.

There is a plethora of easy-to-carry reference books now available, many of which have been converted into apps for mobile phones and iPads, covering spiders, insects, scorpions, flowers, frogs, reptiles, trees and, of course, birds and mammals. There is even a guide to ants!

But I believe one thing that hasn’t changed is the way the guide passes this incredible amount of knowledge on to his guests. Just as in the old days, a guide today still needs to connect with his guests on a personal basis and provide them with inspirational wilderness experiences that will have them spreading the word and coming back for more!

Lex Hes is a renowned photographer, author, naturalist and guide, and is a director-guide of Safari for Real. Images copyright Lex Hes.

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