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Become a Safari Guide

Updated on January 3, 2011

How to Get a Job as a Safari Guide in South Africa

I won't pretend to know everything about how you can become a safari / field guide, but I have done it and worked on a lodge in South Africa and so will pass on what I did to follow my dream, in this way if it is something you are looking to do, hopefully some of my experience will help you as well.

This page will also explain what a safari guide is, what your day to day job involves and what it takes to, not only be a good field guide, but to also enjoy the job.

Safari Guide, Field Guide or Game Ranger?

The are a few names associated with working in the bush in Africa, so lets start by clearing the air so we know that we are all talking about the same job!

Whilst I have been living in the UK, I have noticed that most people use either Game Ranger or Safari Guide, for the same job, and that is of taking guests out into the bush to view Africa's stunning wildlife (There is actually much more to it and we will get to that later)

Strictly however, they describe different jobs.

A Game Ranger is someone that is mostly responsible for the physical and resource management of game reserves. Working with Savanna ecologists, game reserve and wildlife managers; they manage and maintain the biological populations of reserves in addition to roads, fencing, water resources, erosion control, alien plant control, burning operations, population control and bush clearing among other tasks.

A Safari Guide, in South Africa is properly known as a Field Guide and if you get your qualifications in South Africa, you will become a qualified Field Guide.

As a Field Guide, you are someone who interacts mainly with guests and clients. And are mostly responsible in providing a guided experience, on foot or in vehicles to the public in natural areas and locations such as game reserves, game farms, conservancies as well in Provincial and National Parks. You will find as I did, On many reserves field guides are utilised on an improvised basis to assist game rangers with many of their tasks.

On this page, I will be describing how I became a Field Guide and will use the terms Safari Guide as well as Field Guide for the same role.

What if I am not from Africa?

Most people, especially my guests on safari who expressed an interest in becoming a safari guide assumed that because they were not born and / or brought up in the African bush, it would be impossible.

This is not true. Even though I was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, I then as an adult spent many years living in the UK before deciding that I would become a field guide. I had to study in South Africa rather than Zimbabwe because I have a British passport and so in Zimbabwe it was not possible. South Africa do not have this rule and it is possible for foreigners to study there and do the FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) course. There will Be more on FGASA later.

What if you are a complete novice?

Sure, so at least I was from Africa and I grew up in an environment where I have been exposed to African wildlife and had a good basic knowledge of what is in the bush, what if you are a complete novice, is it still possible to follow your dream?

Absolutely - As an extreme example, we had a guy on our course who had never even visited Africa before joining the course that I went on and through hard work, dedication and a real passion for nature and people, he turned out to be one of the best students and is now I believe still working on a lodge in South Africa.

Where to Study to become a Safari Guide?

Obviously I can only really speak from personal experience, but in my opinion Zimbabwe have the best Field Guides in the world, their course is the most thorough as you have to first get your hunting license before you are permitted to then study to become a field guide and take out guests into the bush. the idea being that you need to know how to bring down a dangerous animal and have done it before, should anything go wrong whilst you are guiding. (I am not sure with all the problems in the country at the moment if they are still training guides) As I mentioned earlier, when I applied, unless you have a Zimbabwean passport, it is impossible to take their National Parks course.

So for me and I think the next best option is to train in South Africa. They have a whole industry around training up potential Safari Guides and foreigners (even ex Zimbabweans!) are permitted to study there.

There are many companies within South Africa offering different courses of different lengths. Make sue that when you look into it that you will get the correct accreditation at the end. Otherwise you will not legally be allowed to work on a lodge in South Africa.

I would also advise on a course of at least a year long. I took a year long course and even then with the amount of knowledge that you have to take in, the studying is intense! Don't take a short cut by going on a shortened course, especially if you are a complete novice to the bush.

Which Course to Take?

As I mentioned above, I can only comment based on my experience. The most important thing to look at when deciding which course to take is to make sure at the end of it, assuming that you have passed, you get the correct certificates enabling you to legally work in the country as a field guide.

There are many "bush knowledge" type courses available that whilst may be excellent, they are aimed at people just wanting to know more about the nature around them rather than taking it up as a profession.

There are a number of different elements that you need to legally work on a lodge in South Africa, from things like a special drivers permit that permits you to carry paying passengers (guests) on a vehicle, to a first aid certificate, to a license that permits you to use a firearm in South Africa. The great thing about taking a course through a company like the one one that I did was that they sorted out all the details for me and all I had to do was actually study and take the relevant exams!

I studied with a company called the Bush Academy (http://www.bushacademy.com) who's website seems to be not working at the time of writing this, their one year field guide and lodge management course was for me the best option. The first six months you live and work on a campus in the bush, studying to get your FGASA level 1 qualification and then for the second six months you work on a lodge in South Africa after which, you take your level 2 qualification. So not only do you get your qualifications, but you also get work experience with a guaranteed work placement (assuming you pass your level 1)

On top of this you also do a lodge management course which also teaches how you could take up managing a lodge rather than working as a guide.

Bush Academy Contact Details:

The Bush Academy Campuses is situated in the Waterberg area in the Limpopo province of South Africa

Tel: (031) 360 9300 Fax: (031) 360 9333 enquires@bushacademy.com

So I am not sure what has happened to The Bush Academy - but If you cannot get hold of them, look for other similar courses, they were around when I studied!

FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa)

As far as I understand it, there are a few organisations in South Africa that you can get the correct qualifications that will allow you to legally work in South Africa as a Field / Nature guide and one of them is FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa)

"The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) was formally established in 1992. It is a non-profit organisation representing individual field guides, trackers and organisations involved in offering professional field guiding services to members of the public. FGASA aims to promote a culture of professional guiding based on a strong ethical well-informed, safety conscious approach to provide the visitor to the African bush with a pleasant and memorable experience."

The Function of FGASA

  • Quality-assure and moderate nature guiding qualifications.
  • Endorse and quality-assure training providers and trainers of nature guiding unit standards.
  • Quality-assure and develop qualified nature guide assessors and moderators.
  • Enhance the credibility of field guiding and tracking in Southern Africa.
  • Encourage guides to achieve higher levels of professionalism, and thereby improve the quality of service to and safety of the visitors both local and international.
  • Keep members abreast of developments in the industry via regular communication in its magazine and other mediums.
    • I think if you are looking to become a Safari Guide in South Africa and you can't contact the Bush Academy above, I would fry contacting
    • FGASA directly
    • and see which courses they currently recommend.

What will you learn as a Safari Guide?

To become a Safari Guide, you will learn much more than just about the animals, it is about knowing about whole of nature, in the area you are working in. Then there is also learning things like off road driving in a 4x4, rifle handling, working in a lodge, working with people and the culture and history of the people of South Africa.

The FGASA Level 1 syllabus includes:

- Introduction to guiding in the natural environment

- Creating a guided nature experience

- Geology

- Astronomy

- Weather and Climate

- Basic Ecology

- Basic Taxonomy

- Introduction to the Biomes of Southern Africa

- Botany and Grasses

- Arthropods

- Amphibians

- Reptiles

- Fish

- Birds

- Mammals

- Animal behaviour

- Conservation management and historical human habitation

Phew, and if that was not enough at the end of the year, you will take your level 2 qualification learning about subjects below, many are repeated and in these cases, you will be going into them in more depth:

- Creating a guided nature experience

- Geology

- Astronomy

- Weather and Climate

- Ecology

- Taxonomy

- The Biomes of Southern Africa

- Botany and Grasses

- Arthropods

- Amphibians

- Reptiles

- Fish

- Birds

- Mammals

- Animal behaviour

- Conservation management

- Historical human habitation

So as you can see being a field guide involves many aspects and is a profession where you will be constantly learning. That is one of the things that i really enjoyed about it, there was always something new to learn every day.

Memories of a Safari Guide in South Africa

Below is a video I made of some of the better photos that I took as well as a few of my guests that were given to me of my time working at Shidzidzi & Nungubane Safari Lodges on the Welgevonden Game Reserve in the Limpopo province of South Africa.

Become A Safari Guide Resources

Below are a few links that will hopefully help you a little more on your path to working in the African Bush as a Safari guide.

  • Safari Holiday Guide - Field Guide Courses - This is a page on my Safari Holiday Guide website that has more information on becoming a Safari Guide
  • The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) - Founded in 1992. It is a non-profit organisation representing individual field guides, trackers and organisations involved in offering professional field guiding services to members of the public. FGASA aims to promote a culture of professional guiding based on a strong ethical well-informed, safety conscious approach to provide the visitor to the African bush with a pleasant and memorable experience. FGASA strives for professionalism, representation and integrity within the Southern African Field Guiding industry and is committed to the growth and recognition thereof for the benefit of all of its members.

Studying to become a Safari Guide

Becoming a qualified field guide in South Africa, requires a lot of studying and even once you have qualified and are working on a lodge you will need your books to refer to on a daily basis.

From new mammal behaviour to a bird that is new to you and that you have never seen before. I would also often use the books when on game drive to show my guest what I was talking about, shout the animal we spotted disappear before someone got to see it. It is also great to use when you have non english speaking guests on the vehicle.

Equipment: Binoculars for Safaris

In my opinion the most important piece of personal equipment that any field guide can own is a good pair of binoculars.

Just think about it, basically the main purpose of your job will be to find the wildlife for your guests to view, quality safari binoculars will help you a huge amount. When i was working as a guide, I never left without my pair.

Which Binoculars are the best for safaris?

A good pair of binoculars that you need will be similar to that of your guests, they need to be pretty rugged. You will use them daily, they will get knocked about, dropped and sometimes wet (Yes it does rain in the bush in Africa!). So look for a pair that is solidly built, preferably with a rubber armor to protect them and which are fully waterproof.

What about Magnification?

You will be using them mainly for scanning the horizon for wildlife and for bird spotting and identification. Bigger is not always better: A pair of binoculars with a magnification that is too big makes them 'shaky' to look through and will have a reduced field of view. A good compromise between field of view, image stability and magnification is about 8x or 10x

Hopefully you will be conducting you guiding in a vehicle as well as on foot. This means that you do not want your binoculars to be too bulky. In my opinion, mid size or even compact binoculars are best for walking safaris.

So something like a 10x32 or 10x26mm pair of binoculars are ideal. My favorite pair these excellent Steiner 10.5x28 Wildlife Pro Binoculars.

For more information, read this article on The Best binoculars for Safaris.

Beat About The Bush Birds
Beat About The Bush Birds

Beat About The Bush Birds

Book Review

This book by Trevor Carnaby is the latest in the excellent Beat About The Bush series in which the most common and interesting questions about the bush are answered, the kind of questions that a safari guide is often asked.

It follows the same formula as the general wildlife Beat About The Bush and Mammal Books in that it is not a bird identification book, but rather a book that answerers the questions that you may ask once you have identified the bird, in a easy to read question and answer format. So although details are given on bird identification and all the bird groups of southern Africa are covered in a very informative 'Did you know' section, I would suggest that Beat About The Bush Birds is more of an african bird behavioural guide than a bird id book.

To give you an idea, below are an example of the the Question and Answer format of the book, to give you an idea:

Do harrier-hawks (gymnogenes) have double-jointed legs?

Let's say you have just been lucky enough to spot a gymnogene displaying the common behavior of hanging upside-down from a tree. You may wonder why and how they do this impressive feat for such a large raptor, Trevor Carnaby says: "No (They do not have double jointed legs). They do, however, have unusually designed joints that facilitate the unique way in which they procure food. The tibio-tarsal joint (essentially the ankle) of the african harrier-hawk bends forwards and backwards, allowing them to get their feet into cavities in search of prey that would be inaccessible to other raptors."

The book then goes on to say that they have lost the feathers on their face to allow then to stick their faces into cavities and cracks as well as mentioning that sometimes their face gets a pink colouration instead of the usual yellow (like in the photo above), either when breeding or being harassed. When I took this photo, the Gymnogene was being mobbed by a pair of Cape Glossy Starlings and so explains the pink face.

So what you end up with is a very comprehensive reference work in a style that I would highly recommend to almost everyone interested in African birds: from novices, birders, twitchers, tourists on safari and even professional field and safari guides.

Beat About The Bush Books for Sale on Amazon

Below are all the "Beat About the Bush" books in the series all of which I have found very useful.

If you have anything that you would like to say about this page or on becoming a safari guide, I would love to hear from you.

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