Why I became a safari guide in Africa

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By Richard Field

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and my earliest memories are from family holidays to the Kruger National Park – one of Africa’s great wild places. I loved waking up in the dark and hearing lions roar off in the distance. I loved being the first car out of the camp gates and having an empty canvas of wildlife experiences ahead of us. We had the potential to see anything – there could be a lion just around the corner. Maybe it might be hunting. Would today be the day that we’d find ourselves a leopard? What about wild dogs or a sable antelope – wouldn’t that be amazing! We had no idea what we would find, and every day was different. Sometimes it felt like Christmas morning and Mother Nature would give us amazing gifts like a cheetah hunting impala or a pride of lions feeding on a kill with jackals and hyenas in attendance. Other days it was like they’d all disappeared and we had to work hard just to find an impala.

We would invariably see warthogs, rhinos, zebra, wildebeest, baboons and a range of different antelope. There was always a bit of tension (and humour for us kids) when we found elephants. My Mum was terrified of them. Even if the elephant was two miles away and walking in the opposite direction it was always too close for Mum. “Drive Alf, drive!” she’d yell, while either slapping him on the back or attempting to hide under the back seat of the VW Combi.

I loved seeing everything, but lions were the animal that made it all real. Lions created the tension. They forced the other animals to be fully present and alive – otherwise they would die. In the presence of lions a buffalo is a magnificent and fearsome beast, ready to fight, stomp and kill. Without lions it’s just a big cow.

Lions had the same impact on me. When we’d find lions I’d get a huge shot of adrenaline. Here was an animal that was so big and powerful and fierce (and beautiful). I knew that if I ever made the mistake of getting out of the car I could die. Even from inside I was still scared, but I loved every second– I couldn’t get enough. I never felt as alive as when I was sitting a few meters away from death.

When I was 7 my parents decided to have a guide drive us through the Kruger. His name was Joe and he was awesome. He loved Kruger and didn’t seem to have any fear of lions or elephants. While we were driving along one day I had the blinding realisation that he was living in the bush searching for animals. Joe was clearly a genius. He was on holiday every day. I didn’t really understand about jobs or pay or complicated things like work permits. I just knew that this was what I was going to do as soon as I was old enough.

Somehow I managed to hold this dream of being a safari guide. During school I didn’t tell anyone because it was too precious. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me or tell me it was stupid or crazy. It was my dream and I held it close to my heart.

As soon as I finished school I went straight to university, wanting to get through all my studies as quickly as I could so that I could get to Africa. After a year and a half though, I was ready to throw it all in. I’d failed Stats101 three times (if you go to university you’ll feel my pain). I couldn’t understand how any of this was going to help me be a safari guide. It all seemed so pointless. I’d also discovered that beer seemed to take the edge off my angst. The further away I went from my passion and purpose, the more I’d drink. It got to the point where it was starting to scare my parents and they suggested I take a semester off and do some work experience in Africa. I was off like a shot.

I spent 6 months in the wilds of southern Africa. I did some basic guide training courses and went and did work experience in Botswana. I wasn’t sure whether I would like Botswana – it wasn’t the Kruger and I didn’t know if they’d have lions. When I got there though I found paradise – the wildest, most beautiful places you could imagine and more lions then you could poke a stick at. I wanted to stay in Botswana, to never leave but I had some wise counsel from a man named Map. He had wild piercing eyes and a beard that would make a hipster blush. He was my Gandalf, my Dumbledore and I hung on his every word.

“Go back and finish your degree” he said. “If someone wants to employ you out here then you need to have qualifications that a local person doesn’t. Go and get a science degree, maybe do a basic mechanics course along the way and then come back.”

I now knew for certain where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing. I could see the road opening up before me, all I had to do was knock off a few university courses. I put my head down and worked and discovered that when I applied myself I actually enjoyed what I was doing and I was smarter then I thought I was. Within two years I was done and making plans to head back.

My life as a safari guide was about to begin.