How to become a Field (Safari) Guide in South Africa
“What does it take to be become a field guide in South Africa?”
That is a question I’m often asked when people find out I’m a qualified guide. I always struggle to answer without a long explanation so I’d like to outline my experience becoming a field guide here and best explain what you can do to become qualified.
First off, let’s talk technicalities. What are the academic qualifications you must obtain?
To become a vehicle-bound field guide you must have a valid drivers license, obtain wilderness first aid, CATHSSETA certification, and register with NDT (National Department of Tourism) if you plan on working within South Africa. You must also pass a theory and practical exam.
I know this all sounds very confusing and you’re probably wondering what the heck this all means… I know I felt overwhelmed reading this information the first time too!
The complexity of this is why I would strongly recommend traveling abroad and going through a training provider in South Africa.
It is possible to become certified by taking an online FGASA course and take your exam online then traveling to South Africa just for your game drive assessment. However, I would not at all recommend this if you are truly wanting to pursue a career in and you’re passionate about wildlife conservation. The amount of information you learn hands-on in the field is astronomical. There are many smells, signs, and sounds in the bush that you’ll only learn from taking a course in person. If you skip the entire experience and do it all online you’ll be at a major disadvantage compared to those who went to South Africa to study extensively.
After lots of research on my options for training providers, I personally chose NJMore Field Guiding College for my course. Their campus is absolutely gorgeous and the reserve they are situated on has fantastic game viewing opportunities. They will give you the resources and assistance you need to thrive and you will get lots of hands-on experience via daily game drives.
The training courses in South Africa can range in length anywhere from a few months to 3 years depending on which facility you choose to study at which allows for flexibility when it comes to how much time you have available. My course lasted 6 months!
During your course you’ll spend time both in the bush learning hands-on and buried in books to arm yourself with knowledge and prepare for your assessments. Once you’ve studied for and passed your theory test you must take a practical assessment. This is where all of your hard work from the last step comes into play, and this is ESPECIALLY where the hands-on aspect of studying in South Africa is extremely helpful. You must display that you’re competent enough in your knowledge of the bush to SAFELY take paying guests out on safari. You must be able to take your guests (in my course, these guests were fellow students) out on a game viewer and provide them a fun but educational experience in the bush. Also, you will ensure they have an enjoyable coffee and snack break, which I can be seen preparing in the photo above!
Okay, so you passed your theory and practical assessments and CONGRATS, you’re a NQF2 Field Guide (vehicle bound). What next?
Well, now you can move on to backup trails guiding. This is a completely different ballgame- there’s a humbling difference between approaching dangerous game in a vehicle vs on foot. To me, this was the most fun part of my course!
Here’s what it takes…
Advanced Rifle Handling and Rifle Proficiency Certifications! This is of utmost importance. If you do not have your needed documents when it comes to rifle handling then you cannot become a trails guide. In order for you to get an ARH certificate, you must go through various exercises that prove you’d be able to protect your guests in the event of a charging animal. Below is a video of me performing one of the exercises needed to obtain my ARH (yes, I’m left handed!).
Get Your Walking Hours: In order for you to be able to be assessed you must have experience on foot in the bush. Your training provider will ensure that you have these hours. At NJMore we went on walks every day during the trails segment of our course. This is incredibly important as your instructors will teach you how to approach dangerous game then extract from the sighting. You’ll have to do this yourself during your practical.
Passing a Theory Test. This is a similar principle to the FGASA Level 1 Theory test. However, this one has two separate parts- one that focuses on trails guiding and one that focuses on rifles. Make sure to study equally for both parts- don’t stress so much over one that you forget the other… they’re both important!
Passing Your Trails Practical. This is such an exhilarating and rewarding experience. For your practical you must use your rifle handling knowledge, tracking, and trails practice to lead your assessor and classmates up to two different species of dangerous game (ex: rhino, elephant, lions, buffalo). After safely approaching you must leave the sighting. The goal is to be able to enter and extract from the sighting without the animal ever knowing that you’re there, providing a safe and exciting experience for your guests without disturbing the animal. For your practical a few of the most important factors you must keep in mind are…
- RIFLE SAFETY. Safety, safety, safety. You can give the best educational experience that your assessor has ever seen, but if you are unsafe with your rifle you will not pass. Be cautious and mind where your muzzle is pointing. This isn’t a game. The lives of your guests and the wildlife you’re trying to conserve are in your hands.
- Tracks and signs. Pay VERY close attention to any indication of dangerous game. (Ex: branches that have been fed on by elephants, fresh dung, tracks)
- Alarm Calls: Know what the call of the local oxpecker sounds like (this will depend on were you’re guiding. In Marataba we had red-billed oxpeckers.) They oftentimes indicate the presence of dangerous game. Be aware of and point out every oxpecker call you hear during your assessment. Also study alarm calls of zebras, impala, kudu (a kudu never lies…), squirrels, and wildebeest.
- Wind direction: Carry a sock filled with ash and use it to constantly test wind direction. Animals have a fantastic sense of smell and when you’re approaching a dangerous animal you should always have the wind in your favor so they don’t end up smelling you!
Once you pass your ARH, get your Rifle Proficiency Certifications, reach your required walking hours, pass your theory exam, and are deemed competent in your practical, CONGRATS! You’re a back-up trails guide. You can now work with a lead guide and take guests out into the bush on foot.
What about the non-technical side of guiding? What personality traits are ideal for someone who wants to become a field guide?
- Trustworthy: Your classmates, assessors, and instructors, and future clients need to be able to trust you, sometimes even with their life.
- Team player: You’re going to be around the same people 24/7 for the duration of the course, then every work cycle with your coworkers.. You need to be able to work together with those around you and resolve conflict when it arises.
- Respectful: This is the most important trait in my opinion, because this is one of the traits that make an exceptional guide instead of an “ok” guide. Respect the environment you work in. Respect every animal you come into contact with. Respect your coworkers and your guests. Don’t make choices that are unethical like off-roading and decimating plants or pushing boundaries with an animal’s comfort.
- Passionate: If you’re passionate about wildlife and working with people you already have an advantage. Passion is something that is rare and because of that, it speaks volumes. Guests respond well to passionate guides as their energy is refreshing and contagious
- Outgoing/Friendly: You’re going to be around your guests for very long periods of time. Make sure you’re outgoing enough to be around people nonstop and keep them entertained.
- Dedicated: You have to want it and you have to stick to it. The course isn’t easy and there may be times where you fail. At those points you must get back up and try again!
Thanks for reading, everyone! I hope you learned something new today. I’m going to leave you with just one piece of advice…
If you love being outside, are infinitely passionate about wildlife conservation, and want to change your own life and the lives of others then don’t be afraid to take this step! It’s expensive and it’s not an easy road but it’s worth every penny and every second put in. If you want it, you can make it happen. I believe in each and every one of you.
Let me know in the comments if you’re interested in taking a field guiding course. If you do choose to take one, please keep me updated! I get so excited about people pursuing careers in wildlife conservation and I personally care about the personal journeys that each and every one of you are taking!
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