The reality behind trails guiding
It is an early winter’s morning and a blanket of mist is hanging low over the bushveld. The first few golden rays of the sun reflect off the blanket creating a magical feeling, a picturesque scene unfolds as the bush becomes alive with the dawn chorus of the birds as the last jackal calling in the distance indicates to the rest of the night lovers to head to the burrows for some well-deserved rest. The trails group is making their way through the veld, the sounds smell and sights mesmerizing everyone. It is a feeling that is hard to describe, being part of nature and observing life in the veld as it unfolds. The qualified guide interpreting all the tracks and signs left behind, painting the picture for the clients by understanding the tales left behind in the disturbances of the soil. He has gone through years of training, developing skills to entertain, educate and protect clients while having one of the most amazing experiences one could ever have, being on foot out in the African bush.
The peace and quiet suddenly get shattered by the thundering thumps of hooves, trees and shrubs shake as the black death approaches, nothing stopping him, nothing slowing him down. He breaks through the last bit of cover, snapping the young Scotia like a toothpick, fear, and determination radiating from his eyes as he barrels down onto the trail’s group. Instinct and training take over, the guide chambers the .458 rifle as he shoulders it, shouting to the guests to get in behind him, he squeezes the trigger, the deafening echoes of the shot bellows over the hills and dissipates into the valleys, the chilling screams of one of the guests pierces through the air, he missed his shot in the sudden chaos that unfolded, the buffalo barely flinched from the impact of this so-called ‘canon’ of a rifle and continued on his path of destruction, hooking his horn into the side of one of the guests and flinging them off to the side like a rag-doll. As quickly as the whole situation developed it is over, the buffalo disappears into the river line with a cloud of dust behind him as the trails group is left shaking, scared, and in disbelieve of what just transpired, the wounded guest clinging on for dear life….
You might be wondering why I would write something like this, why would I paint such a disturbing picture about something I have dedicated my life to? The answer to that is quite simple, to be honest, I have stated in numerous blogs and write-ups that trails guiding is one of the best experiences a person could possibly have, and I will stand by this for the rest of my life, but at the same time, I think people are too scared or sometimes even too ignorant to look at the true risks behind what we do on a daily base and the responsibility a trails guide holds when they are out there with their clients.
The reality is simple, every individual’s safety depends on you as the trail’s guide, human and animal alike. Every step you take is a conscious decision you make that determines the outcome of the walk. All guides get to a point where they become more comfortable walking in the bush, being more confident in their abilities and skills, and trusting themselves that they know what they are doing. This is a very necessary thing, but at the same time can be a very dangerous thing as well. Sometimes guides get so comfortable that they forget, or maybe they’ve just never had a bad incident out in the bush and start assuming it will never happen to them. These are just a couple of things that trails guides need to be very careful of. Another one is the fact that we are walking with rifles, the king of the false sense of security.
As guides, we are expected to redo our advanced rifle handling once every three years, and sadly there are 100s of guides who will only go and shoot every three years to renew this. If you are one of these guides take a second to think about the following. We are only allowed to shoot, let’s say a lion, at 10 meters or closer to give the animal the benefit of the doubt. A lion runs at 22 m/s and has a brain roughly the size of a tennis ball. This, in reality, will give you less than half a second from when you are allowed to shoot to before the animal will be on top of you, this while needing to hit a moving tennis ball under a tremendous amount of stress and time restraints.
If you are reading this and have absolutely no doubt that you will succeed, especially if you fall into the category of only shooting once every three years I want to send you a sincere warning, go and think about these figures and if anything, be honest with yourself if you think you truly are good, quick and accurate enough to accomplish this. As a side note, we the Ulovane Trainers redo our ARH every semester, which is 4 times a year. Not one of us is allowed to continue with Trails Guide training if we were unsuccessful.
Now consider the following, what happens if one of your clients gets injured or even worse, killed on one of your bush walks. Who is the responsible person on a walk, who is the person with the qualifications and experience to carry out the job, who carries all the liability for things that goes wrong? You as the trails guide is 100% responsible and liable for anything and everything that happens on your walk. Now don’t get me wrong, even though the majority of the time it is, it is not always through mistakes made by the guide, nature is unpredictable and sometimes things just go wrong, but at the end of the day, the questions will be asked.
Could you have avoided the situation in any way? Have you taken every single factor into consideration before making your decisions whether it is the area of walking or just the specific route you took? When human lives are lost or put in danger, people need someone to take responsibility, need someone to blame, and as the person in charge, all eyes will be on you, suspect number one for the investigation of negligence and incompetence. How strong will your case of defense be? If your clients get asked to write a full report of the incident, did you actually do everything with proper safety in mind and their reports will help you to defend yourself, or will there be one or two things that will point to risk-taking and negligence, because I can guarantee you, any sign or form of a mistake made by you will be held against you, and you will be held liable for whatever transpired during the walk.
All of this and then we have not even discussed the animal involved in the situation, which majority of the time gets classified as a problem or extremely dangerous animal afterward and usually ends up being put down for the “safety” of others. An animal that you have worked with and respected loved and observed will get taken out because of your bravado, ignorance, or plain lack of respect towards the risks and responsibilities that falls upon your shoulders.
All I really want to achieve with this write-up is to ask trails guides to take a few moments to go sit in a quiet space and think for a bit. Think about how well prepared you are to deal with unexpected dangerous situations, think about your way of walking and how often you truly consider the risks that you are taking, think about the repercussions of your decisions when you are out there. Trails guiding is one of the most rewarding things a person can do, but in the same breath, it can be one of the most dangerous things as well. Don’t lose respect for nature, don’t forget how insignificant we are between these majestic creatures we find ourselves with on a daily base, but most of all, be honest with yourself about the risks and the responsibilities you deal with every day, and be honest with yourself on whether you are doing things the right way or are you playing a dangerous game that can cost someone or something their life one day.
Most situations can easily be avoided by doing things the right way, by always leaning towards the side of safety and to always respect the animals out in the field, take a step back from walking blindly with complete disregard to the safety of your clients and the animals, but at the same time, do not fall into a situation where you think having a valid ARH qualification is going to save your life out there if you only practise once every three years, don’t find yourself in a situation where you are under the impression you cannot make a mistake out there anymore because you have been doing it for so long. Practise as frequently as you can, whether it be rifle handling or walking on your own out in the field observing the animals, finding escape routes, and building stronger relationships with the animals out there, all of this you need to do to the extent as your life depends on it, because one day, it just might.
Have fun and enjoy the valuable experience of being on foot out in nature, all I’m suggesting is that you take a few minutes to think about it all and a lifetime of not forgetting…
- Pieter Dunn – Lead Trainer of Trails Guiding.