African safari guiding is an intricate business; it takes a lot of time and effort to become one and only then does the hard work really begin. Having been a guide in the past I can safely say that it’s one of those industries where practise doesn’t necessarily make perfect (at least it didn’t for me). Entertaining the same people for days and sometimes weeks at a time and maintaining a constant level of sanity in the face of pre-dawn grumpiness and late night cheerfulness, with visitors who often know nothing or everything, takes a constitution of steel and a sense of humour to match. It takes the right combination of knowledge, skill, personality and patience to survive it, and even then the burn-out rate is usually pretty high.
Having recently had the opportunity to get to know most of the guides at Mashatu Game Reserve quite well, it was surprising and pleasing to find that most have been around in some capacity or another for at least five years, some for over a decade, and others for longer than two. The longest-serving guide, Fish, has been around for over thirty! Whether it’s a question of loyalty, necessity, or just a passion for what they do, guides, or in fact any personnel that have been around for that long can only be good for a lodge. Not only is it lovely for return guests to be welcomed back by familiar faces, but for both new and return guests the safari experience can only be enhanced by the in-depth knowledge and understanding of the region that only years and years of scouring the land for the best sightings can provide.
Learning about the reserve you’re visiting and the animals you’re seeing through the eyes of a guide who’s experienced the region’s trials and triumphs first-hand is somehow more satisfying. Major predator sightings are especially enhanced – you’re not just seeing exciting kills and adorable cubs, you’re witnessing the latest step in the survival of generations upon generations of the individuals that make Mashatu magical. It often plays out a bit like a never-ending soap opera, but it makes for a truly enriching safari experience.
Good humour in the face of challenging guests or slow sightings, and amicability at the tail-end of endless summer days may just be well-honed skills that take years to acquire, but Mashatu’s guides seem genuinely pleased to be out on drive or around the dinner table with their guests, even if they’re not film stars, famous authors, or the country’s President. After thirty-odd years on the job, Fish still chooses to take a drive to track the lions over relaxing at home on his rare guest-free afternoons. If that doesn’t speak of passion for the job than nothing ever will.
With long hours in the company of strangers and weeks away from the comforts of home for surprisingly little pay, guiding will never be an easy occupation, and yet the guides at Mashatu seem to take it in their stride. My hat goes off to them for their passion, dedication, and the incredible work they continue to do.
Words by Tabby Mittins and photos by Villiers Steyn