African Safari Guides, Trackers, and Rangers

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  • Introduction
  • Safari Guides
  • Trackers
  • Rangers
  • Staff at Camps and Lodges

Guides, Trackers, Rangers? – The who's who of your African safari experience.

So much excites when planning an African safari. Reverie is dominated by thoughts of what you're going to see, where you're going to stay, and how you're going to explore. Once in Africa, a series of surprising touches elevate, wrapping the wild game experience in a blanket of encompassing luxury and charm.  The overall safari experience is centered on wildlife but enhanced by the harmonious periphery. There's so many little touches that ensure safari delivers on its promise as being once in a lifetime.

A series of enthusiastic smiles subtly speckle your safari, the locals of the tourism industry keeping you safe as they guide you to intimate wildlife encounters. Guides provide your wilderness translation, expertly taking you to the best sights and then chronicling the stories of the visual beauty. Trackers and rangers assist in their quiet and discreet way, working mostly behind the scenes to enhance the experience. Competition for these jobs is high, and industry qualifications are just the start of a career. So while notions of Africa lead some predict an unprofessionalism, Africa's guides are amongst the most knowledgeable and skilled on the planet, epitomized by their ability to lead and narrate an experience that's inherently unpredictable.

Safari guides are the wilderness narrators, accompanying you on each activity and unveiling an encyclopedia of knowledge that enhances each scene. They're also the safari planners, effortlessly and invisibly controlling the route to maximize the quality of wildlife sights. In an ever-unpredictable environment, guides make the safari smooth and polished. Across the continent, they speak excellent English and will have many years of experience. Competition for the job is tough and rewards are high; guiding is a long-term career choice, not something that's experimented with when there's no other option around. On some safaris, the same guide will accompany you for the duration of the trip. On others, you'll be accompanied by different guides in different destinations.

How Many Guides Accompany Your Safari

All safari itineraries will be led by an experienced and skilled guide. You could call this a “lead guide” or “head guide,” someone who is used to be being the sole person leading the trip. Safari companies differ in their approach as to whether this head guide is accompanied. This is something that also depends on how many people are on the safari and the destination you're visiting. Companies will also happily provide more guides if it's requested in advance. When there is one, the guide is also the driver of the safari vehicle. With two guides, the lead guide will be assisted by a driver guide. These guides or drivers will have less experience and fewer skills; it could take a decade or more to rise to the role as a head guide. However, they always bring their own character to the experience, adding another personality to your memories.  More than two is unnecessary and would take up too much space in the vehicle, although you may be accompanied by trackers for some activities.

On some itineraries, the same guide(s) will accompany you on the whole trip. This would be when your multi-day safari is solely land-based (no aerial connections between destinations), and the safari activities are delivered by the safari company; this is more common in itineraries visiting multiple national parks and reserves rather than private reserves and concessions. A relationship develops quickly, and the guide can tailor each day to your previous experiences. For example, on day eight of safari, the route might seek out leopard and cheetah as they haven't yet graced your experience. This is the predominant option on budget safaris as well as most Kenya safaris and Tanzania safaris in East Africa. While your guide(s) remain the same, certain activities might be assisted or led by other specialized guides. For example, a hot air balloon safari or a short walking safari.

You may also have the pleasure of different guides throughout your trip. Some parks and reserves directly organize and deliver their own safari activities; this is predominantly in private reserves and private concessions but also in some national parks. These activities are run either by the reserve or by your accommodation; which in many cases are the same company. You are transferred between destinations then guided by staff employed by the lodge or reserve. Having different guides means it's a little harder to build a relationship based on what you're interested in. However, these guides specialize solely in one reserve and often one activity. They could have been running two game drives a day for many years in the same place. So their knowledge can be unfathomably intimate.

Note that this is the approach on high-end safari itineraries that feature micro flights to transfer you between destinations, such as on safaris in Botswana. A luxury lodge or camp will provide all the guiding and description of activities before dropping you at a secluded runway for the aerial transfer to another national park. You're greeted at an equally concealed airstrip by the guide from your next luxury lodge or camp. Africa's exclusive high-end accommodation is more likely to offer these packages that are inclusive of all meals, drinks, and safari activities. These are often provided within a private concession, allowing you to experience a varied program of safari activities. It's also possible for an itinerary to combine the approaches above. One guide takes you to two or three national parks before you transfer to a private reserve where someone else takes over.

What to Expect from a Safari Guide

As with all things Africa, there's often a misconception that the quality of certain services falls behind those found elsewhere in the world. Which perversely, can be a good thing. People arrive expecting a safari guide with limited interpersonal skills and pidgin English; then they're pleasantly surprised to be greeted by someone who has been guiding tourists for 15 years and spends over half their year in the park you're about to visit. And knowledge of wildlife? Remember that some of these guides will have grown up in villages where the wild big game is part of the scenery. Understanding elephant behavior isn't learned in a book, it's learned through a lifetime as having them as neighbors.

On an African safari, you can expect guides to speak excellent English. There should be no language barrier. Good English skills are the very first step for guides seeking employment. Not everyone you encounter on a safari (trackers, staff at lodges, etc.) will have these English skills, but those with high responsibility will. Some safari companies can also provide guides fluent in other languages; Spanish, French, Russian, German, etc. This skill is a huge asset for a guide and a company, allowing them to tailor their service to specific audiences.

Guides will have many years experience in the field – a minimum of three would be expected for a lead guide, and it's usually more. They'll have good interpersonal skills, another prerequisite for working and rising within the industry. Working for a particular safari company they also grow accustomed to what's expected and enjoyed by specific clientele; the approach required for a retired couple and honeymooners in their 20's is different, as is the approach for different nationalities. Outside the safari activities, they understand when to be visible and provide company, and when to offer space and privacy. Ultimately, you should expect a professionalism that befits the safari price tag.

But for all the necessary skills and knowledge, guiding is far from a monotone job description. As you might expect in a continent of a thousand tribes, every individual brings their idiosyncrasy to the job. Whether it's a laconic San or talkative Chagga, guides bring a lot of themselves to their role. Guiding is about the personality, and Africa certainly isn't short of people with charisma and character. Most bring humor to the experience and have built up a repertoire of stories and demonstrations that are known to delight their guests. These might be about home life, tribal customs, bizarre animal behavior, showing how the fruit of a peculiar tree is guarded by ants to ward off a giraffe. Over time, they're able to preempt the questions, providing answers before you'd fully formulated the missing link to the tale. There's a popular travel notion surrounding the experience of meeting the locals. Don't forget that guides are also locals, providing a great chance to unravel the cultural complexities and colorful customs of local life.

The Unfathomable Knowledge of a Safari Guide

While the landscapes dazzle and the wildlife delights, it's often your safari guides that make the experience. Guides provide the chronicles that accompany the wild scenes, narrating the who's who of wandering species and dipping into encyclopedic knowledge to inform of the why. Safari is their specialist subject, and they spend most of their year out in the wilderness, building up a repertoire of understanding that can answer virtually every question; five years guiding in the Okavango Delta teaches far more about wetland wildlife than any zoology degree.

A tiny orange-winged bird perches on a distant branch; the guide knows what it is, why it's there, and where its friends are hiding. From a distant of half a mile they can tell you the name, sex, and behavior of a herd of obscured antelope. To you, they're just gray smudges on the horizon. They'll explain why zebras rest their heads in pairs, which member of a pride will be next to feed on a carcass, and how a hippo will work its challenge for the harem. Every question comes with an answer, and when the answer is “I don't know” it's usually because nobody has worked out why certain animals do certain things.

The idiosyncrasy of their understanding is often remarkable. Safari guides are not narrating historical events. There is no standard script that is repeated day after day. Guides must provide live commentary on the action. Their narration must respond to the unpredictability of the environment. Think of it like commentating on the Superbowl or Soccer World Cup Final. The commentator knows all about the setting, who is playing, and how each player is supposed to act. But they're got absolutely no idea how the game will pan out or what will happen. Guiding in such an unscripted environment is something that only comes with years of experience. Understanding the information from wildlife books is just the basics, the essential knowledge for guides to become qualified. Fine-tuning only develops after taking thousands of people on safari.

The Often Invisible Role of a Safari Guide

A guide's knowledge is continually visible. Every piece of information, every titbit about an animal, every amusing chronicle, is something you take from the safari. It's something you visibly experience and appreciate. But a guide's most important role mainly goes unnoticed. By using their intimate knowledge of the environment, guides control the route and direction of each safari activity. While it may seem like you're exploring a national park at random, the guide will have predetermined a route based on a number of factors: your interests, their experience, climate and season, and a detailed time-frame of information from other guides. Safari guides aren't just congregating at the lodge for a casual chat, they're constantly probing for, and sharing, the most up to date information. Guides might know that four black rhinos are usually found in one of three places within a national park. They'll be finding out exactly where before you set off in the morning. This applies to all the elusive and most sought-after animals.

The route or plan is always fluid and flexible. It's likely to be adapted as the activity draws on, especially with information from other safari guides you pass on the road. However, you'll often enjoy the smirk of surprise as a long game drive suddenly loops back to something familiar; your own lodge. For six hours you've been discombobulated, the landscape ever-changing but providing few exact compass points. Turn a corner and the familiarity suddenly returns.

These national parks are a guide's backyard, their second homes, and their workplace. Much like a city guide can reveal the streets not featured in guidebooks, a safari guide unravels the hidden complexities and routes of a destination. They know which waterhole is certain to provide hippo sightings, where a serval prefers to hide, which small circuit constantly brings a lion pride, and which forest is dominated by giraffes. There is usually very little point in reading up on specific circuits or areas with a park; your guide will know so much more than what's printed in a guidebook or online.

The great highlight of a safari is its raw unpredictability. But after years exploring the same ecosystem, guides understand that there is an invisible predictability that exists behind the first glance. Once behavior and habitat are fully understood, parts of the script can be guessed in advance. This manifests delicately during each game drive or walk. While guides plan a general route, they're constantly reacting to the environment. A set of alert gazelle ears suggests that this is a place to linger and inspect closely for a hidden predator. Even when driving at 40 kph, the guide spots lion footprints and follows then down a narrow trail. The destruction of vegetation allows the guide to lead you to vast elephant herds. A detour is made because vultures are circling far across the park. By evaluating the environment the day could change direction, but it's unlikely that you'll notice any change of plan.

Also going unnoticed is the guide's role in managing the interaction with wild mammals. You could drive past 100 buffalo and be within three meters of the herd. But the guide will veer well clear of two others found later on; they're bachelor males, releasing signs of aggression missed by the untrained eye. You pass two seemingly identical elephants, elegant elongated tusks and somber eyes marking huge old bulls. Both dwarf the safari vehicle and neither make a snort of aggression. For one, you stop two meters away and the other you observe from a distance. In many situations, the guide knows when it's safe to get closer and when you must retreat. The same applies on boat safaris encountering hippos or walking safaris that pass wild game; guides must skillfully maximize the quality of the experience while ensuring you're not in danger.

Guides are your Eyes

Reacting to the landscape requires an eye for detail. Gaze across a savannah and there's hundred of clues, but to many eyes, it might just look like a few trees and some singed grass. Most won't notice the dik-dik beside the baobab or the leopard in the acacia. Even less will notice how wildlife has dismantled the habitat and left clear signs about which way they've headed. With one glance across a seemingly desolate grassland, the guide can ascertain where to spot the herds. On a safari, guides are also your eyes, using years of experience to discover the wildlife that hides. That you saw a leopard isn't just luck. Your guide might have spent 15 years seeking out leopard in a park's dense woodland, and will know every minute clue to pick up on. A bush rustles and only the guide notices. You wait, unsure why because there's seemingly nothing to see. Two minutes later a cheetah emerges, crossing before your safari truck then returning to an elusive profusion of green. Guides are exceptional animal spotters. It's probably the most important skill in the safari experience. Ultimately, you go on African safari because you want to see these wild animals in their natural habitat. If your guide can't find any animals, then it's not a particularly successful safari.

Maintaining the Standard of Guiding

Safari is at the core of Africa's tourism industry and a key part of many economies. Safari guide stands within the top echelons of employment for many locals. Guiding is a career that rewards dedication and quality, found in a continent where good jobs can be restricted to the tribal background, unaffordable education, or contacts within an industry. It's one of few jobs that can transcend tribal difference and provide genuine movement between classes. This isn't merely a job. There's a huge amount of investment required to get on the first rungs of the ladder.

It's a highly competitive industry that rewards success. A guide can spend many years working their way up the ladder. As an example, guides taking trekkers up Mount Kilimanjaro usually start as garbage pickers, walking along the trail to remove trash. They can slowly climb the ladder, getting a promotion to be a porter, where they must improve their English and gain experience interacting with guests. Then they will rise to a role as chef or assistant guide, becoming something more visible and integral to the trek. After 10 or more years walking the same routes up and down Kilimanjaro, learning what's expected from customers, they might become a head guide. Guides must also rise within a safari company against their peers. Everyone will have work during the peak months of the year. In the middle of the wet season, when the company only has two safaris in a month, these naturally go to the guide receiving the best customer feedback. In a serious professional industry guiding is a long-term career choice, not something locals turn to as an income supplement.

Each of Africa's major safari countries has their own guiding qualifications. Becoming a registered guide requires the base or level one qualification, something that necessitates passing a series of tests and building a portfolio of work experience. Like most industries, a guide can take further qualifications, usually funded by the safari company after a certain service. For example, after 260 days of logged guiding days, those in South Africa can start their level two nature guide qualification. Safari companies should be happy to disclose the qualifications of their guides. These practical and theory based qualifications provide a good indication of a guide's quality.

But this knowledge is not just learned. Many guides come into the industry with an inherent backdrop of understanding, cultivated through years of living within an animal-dappled environment. This is particularly applicable to walking guides, who are intimately versed in wandering through potentially dangerous landscapes. It's something that comes naturally if you've spent half your life making the same walks just to go to school or take the family's herds out to graze.

Tipping Guides

Tipping is expected on most safaris and a major factor in maintaining high standards. Some tour companies and safari accommodation provide guidelines on the amount on suggested tips. However, it appears that this is being gradually phased out. Budget safaris are more likely to provide suggestions, normally because the guides are paid very little by the tour company. Obviously, working for a tip helps ensure the guide is focused on happy clients. Underneath it all is a guide's desire to elevate themselves to increasingly upmarket safari companies. Over the course of a year, working with high-end clients will provide greater tips than working within the budget safari market. This financial motivation is another part of the career choice.

Better Safari Companies Have Better Guides

Almost everywhere in the world, better travel companies employ better guides. It's no different in Africa. Those safari companies that have blossomed and continue to grow are those with excellent guides and continually good reviews from clients. There's certainly a correlation between quality of guide and cost of safari. High-end companies can pay their guides more, attracting the very best of the industry. Budget companies forcing guides to work for tips are only likely to appeal to those in the early stages of their career. The quality of guides is much like the quality of accommodation on safari; the general level is of a very good standard, but higher-end companies can offer those small elevating touches. 

Trackers are different from guides. These are the people responsible for locating and following animals, something they do for a variety of purposes. Their role is not a particularly visible one, and trackers are unlikely to have the interpersonal skills of a guide. They may speak English or may be learning the language, but it's not a prerequisite for the role. It's their localized knowledge that makes them employable and indispensable, the trackers able to effortlessly predict and track various animals. Tracking could also be an early step in a guide's development.

Trackers mostly come from tribes that inhabit the area in which a national park or reserve is located. This is promoted continent-wide, as it also offers employment opportunities to groups that may have been relocated and helps maintain good relationships with these groups. Think about a tribe like the Maasai. Part of becoming a man requires teenage boys to spend months surviving alone in the bush, surrounded by predators and big mammals. They'll have herded cattle for many years, recognizing every clue and keeping their animals away from danger. So who better to be employed as an animal tracker.

The Role of Trackers

One role of a tracker is to find animals, so you don't have to. For example, trackers in Bwindi National Park locate the habituated gorilla troop that you will be spending time with. In large private reserves, trackers might be used to identify the whereabouts of the idolized species, helping to guarantee sightings of famed mammals. On walking safaris, trackers use the infinitesimal clues to guide you towards herds and iconic sights. While it might seem that it's taking some of the unpredictability away from the experience, the distances are huge in the wilderness, especially when you're on foot.

Trackers also locate animals to ensure your safety. They work for camps and lodges, following the movements of potentially dangerous mammals and ensuring they don't appear unannounced beside a tent. They scout trails for walking safaris, just in case you were to wander unwittingly into a herd of aggressive elephants or the realm of a predatory cat. The trackers might not even have to spot the animals by eye. By understanding their environment, they can quickly ascertain the presence of danger. Often, part of their role is to restrict the movement of these dangerous animals subtly. For Example, lion roars are a wonderful part of the wilderness lullaby. But you wouldn't want a whole pride lounging on the pathway between your room and the restaurant. It's usually the trackers role to usher them away, assisted by a ranger if their efforts fail.

Agile and unflinching, trackers often portray a wonderful intimacy between man and a seemingly inhospitable habitat. They move at speed, analyzing clues without breaking stride and subtly responding to nature's calls. Spending time with them is an inspiring experience, even when a verbal communication barrier is present. This forms a magnificent highlight as you have an opportunity to mix with some of Africa's rarer tribes, including those that still hunt using traditional methods. Sometimes this is a specified part of a safari itinerary, e.g. a walk with a local bushman tracker. Or it could be an improvised 30 minutes walking with a camp's tracker guard helps to teach the basics of an ancient, intricate skill.

You also have the opportunity to make the interaction part of the itinerary. Trackers are not guides, and their role isn't to communicate. But ask questions, show interest, and you can quickly build a relationship. A prominent and lingering effect of colonialism was damage to the psyche and confidence of local people. White rulers dictated that only their knowledge, culture, and education system was valuable. Incredible local skills and understanding were labeled as primitive. The majority of trackers glow with pride when they have an opportunity to answer questions and teach foreign visitors about the environment. 

Virtually all parks and reserves employ rangers. These people are responsible for the general wellbeing of the environment and the safety of both wildlife and visitors, ensuring everything runs smoothly out on the vast wilderness. Their role goes mostly unnoticed, and the rangers are not often seen, other than perhaps at a national park entry gate. It's a job that must respond to the unpredictability of the environment. For example, if a mating lion pair has been spotted in a village adjacent to a national park boundary, it's the rangers that come and shoo them back towards the park's interior, removing the chance of conflict. When an aggressive hippo has been causing mischief at a camp, rangers help usher them away from visitors' tents. They're the moderators in the relationship between man and animals.

It's often people that rangers are most responsible for, the two-legged species far less understanding of their role in maintaining nature's realm. A rangers role can include ensuring drivers don't drive off road and damage a habitat, stopping picnickers from feeding baboons, or reminding camps of their responsibilities. They're constantly on patrol, ensuring rules are adhered to, and that the wildlife is experienced but not interrupted.

In some parks and reserves, rangers also provide assistance for specialist safari experiences. Armed rangers accompany many walking safaris; it's only a precaution and extremely rare that they must shoot into the air to avoid confrontation. They may also guide visitors towards particular sights. For example, in Zambia's Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, rangers provide a 24-hour armed guard to protect the country's last remaining rhinos from poachers. They then take over from safari guides to offer intimate encounters on foot with these great mammals. In small private reserves, the distinction between rangers, trackers, and guides can become blurred. With smaller numbers of staff, those on the ground may do a little of both roles, guiding tourists on occasion, and also performing more traditional ranger duties. 

An entirely different collection of staff works at safari camps and lodges. Once you arrive at your accommodation, everyone gets a chance to rest, including your guide and driver; the exception is on safaris using public campsites, where guides are also responsible for cooking your food and sometimes erecting your camp. Most camps and lodges are on a small scale, catering for a limited number of daily guests and excelling in providing a personal touch. Like any hotel, there will be a range of staff assisting you. Also, camps in national parks often have guards, which are essentially trackers designated to the well-being of a particular group. These are usually men from the local community who accompany you when you move around the camp, especially after dark. All customer-facing staff should speak good English although the professionalism naturally increases at the more expensive camps and lodges. 

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