Every month Travel& Things invites a guest writer to submit an article, and this month the writer, who I met in South Africa is ‘trapped’ back at home in Australia. Many thanks to Elly Gearing for taking the time to share her ‘day in the life of’ with my readers.
From the friendly knock on your door as a wake-up call in the early morning to their smiling faces waving you off as you say your final goodbyes, guides are one of the staff members you spend the most time with over the course of your safari experience. Whether you are staying for two or five nights, these friendly characters are always on hand to share their passion for the African bush with their guests (as well as a few funny stories from their career around the dinner table!)
But what does ‘A day in the life’ look like for these khaki-clad, walking encyclopedias? Here, I take you behind the scenes and tells you what it’s really like to be a field guide in South Africa…
One thing’s for sure – field guides are usually morning people (or in my case, at least once I’ve had a cup of coffee or two!) There’s something about a dark 4:30 am start that understandably doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. Our day begins pre-dawn as we wake up, complete our morning rituals and come into work ready to see what the day has in store for us.
Undoubtedly, one of the most exciting parts of being a field guide is the fact that every game drive is different. So, while we may start the day with the same tasks of folding car blankets, making coffee, and waking our guests (our favourite mornings also include cleaning foul-smelling monkey poo off the vehicle seats at 5 am); once we drive out of the front gate the job is far from ‘routine’.
There have been multiple occasions where I have awoken, earlier than my alarm, to the sound of lions calling nearby. Knowing this is not an opportunity to be wasted, I sprung out of bed, threw on my uniform, and raced out of the gate in a bid to find the culprits before the sun comes up, at which point they will stop vocalizing and settle in for the day.
On one such occasion, I drove around, swinging my spotlight left-to-right in the freezing cold, determined to locate the feline that was teasing me with its calls as my guests were still fast asleep. About ten minutes passed before I spotted them – four lionesses moving through the tall, dry grass. Bingo! My long-lost half-hour of extra sleep paled into insignificance as I triumphantly returned to the playful predators with my guests, who were thrilled and a little bewildered to start their morning with four lions on their doorstep!
Now, everyone who has been on safari before knows that for every action-packed game drive, you can have occasions where nothing much happens. Sometimes, you can even dedicate hours to tracking an animal to no avail. It is all part of the safari journey, which I find is equal parts tracking to find the animals and sheer good luck.
Often, the tracker and I would spot a nice set of fresh tracks towards the end of our morning game drive and return together after breakfast to pick up where we left off. After all, locating the animal or getting a feel for the direction it is moving in will give us a headstart with our guests on our afternoon safari.
As guides, guests often ask us what we get up to in between game drives, before we miraculously reappear with the game vehicle ready and rearing to go in the afternoon. It’s a good question and one which has a variety of answers. After breakfast, you will more than likely find us washing and servicing the game vehicles. After all, they deserve a little TLC after we’ve put them through their paces in the bush! On some days, we may go out brush-clearing as a team, which involves trimming back branches overhanging the roads so as not to take out any unsuspecting eyeballs as we drive past. If the elephants have been busy gardening again, we may also be called upon to remove trees that are now blocking the roads.
Between bidding guests farewell and managing the lodge social media, you will also find me editing photos and writing blog articles; a past-time that certainly helps to keep the creativity flowing! As a team, we try to dedicate some time to study, whether that is searching for the answer to a question that stumped us on a drive or completing written workbooks in preparation for our next level of guiding qualification. And yes, we do attempt to recover that lost half-hour of sleep where the opportunity exists!
For me, it never gets old. Sometimes I drive out of the gate with a plan in mind (more often than not said plan goes out the window within the first ten to twenty minutes) and other times I simply see where the bush takes me or follow a gut feeling to a certain area of the reserve.
The halfway sundowner drinks on the evening drive are a sacred time for me and my guests. It’s an opportunity to just stop and pause for a moment to appreciate the daily natural spectacle of a sunset – something I don’t think people make time for often enough in their busy daily lives. Did I mention our guiding team also make a mean G&T?
Finally, our day is capped off with some intimate pre-drinks around the campfire with our guests, reminiscing on the sightings we’ve shared that day.
This brings me to the other great part of my job – meeting incredible people from around the world and learning about the intricacies of their individual lives. I’ve met some truly fascinating and special people during my 18 months as a working guide, who I hope to stay in contact with for years to come. I’ve also met some more eccentric characters whose stories I may or may not have shared more than once over a glass of wine.
For me, guiding is so much more than just a job – it’s a passion. As with work of any discipline, there are going to be good days and more challenging days; days where sightings fall fluidly into place and days when the wildlife just doesn’t seem to cooperate.
There will always be moments where you just have to “make a plan”, like changing a flat tyre in the dark with mating leopards nearby (yes, this happened!) or finding yourself up to your elbows in the mud trying to dig the game vehicle out of a roadside mud pit. But throughout it all, witnessing the expression on someone’s face as they see an African elephant up close for the first time is what I treasure most.
People come to us hoping to get closer to nature; to be regaled with anecdotes that will help them to develop an appreciation of the bush; to understand the interconnectedness of all that occurs here. This is basically the job description of a field guide. We become the teacher, the mentor, and the friend. The one who is able to facilitate safe encounters and create lifelong memories. It is, at times, a fiercely challenging role, but I can confidently say it is one I feel honoured to undertake.