Lodge life my experience
by Josie Easton
My story starts at Bhejane Nature Training in KwaZulu-Natal. I was one of the first ever guides to come out of the Advanced Nature Guiding & Wildlife Conservation (3 Year) course. Our group was called the ‘Impi’s’ as we likened ourselves to those famous Zulu warriors with our passion and drive to succeed.
After completing two years of the course, I departed Bhejane with an overwhelming excitement, having had the most incredible experiences but at the same time relieved that finally two years of intense studying and exams was over for now and that I was at last being thrown out into the outside guiding working world.
The two years we had completed had been extremely diverse and as thorough as possible to prepare us for the working world of ecotourism. Now in our third year all we had to do was pick our one year working placement and to get stuck in! After a lot of deliberating and weighing up of my options; i.e. Research, Guide or Rehabilitation; I finally decided on a 4* lodge reasonably close to Bhejane. Looking back I am sure that my decision had a lot to do with Bhejane being my comfort zone, but the main contributing factor was my love of KZN; with its fantastic diversity of flora and fauna, I felt that I wasn’t quite finished discovering and exploring the area just yet.
Nine months on and I am still pleased with my decision. I definitely went into the industry (as I guess all new guides do) quite naively, knowing, in theory what to expect from a real working lodge environment; but in reality still somehow not quite mentally prepared for both the positive and negative challenges that were to follow.
I enjoyed the day-day logistics within the lodge’s daily running, as my key strengths lie within problem solving and planning. I definitely thrived and was in my element balancing the needs of the guests and ensuring that they could be accommodated to the best of the team’s ability. My least favourite part of working within a high quality establishment was guests arriving late for transfers to the different activities that we provided. Meaning that they arrived late or even missed an activity entirely! Which then in their eyes can turn into the Guides fault, being not prepared to turn into Michael Schumacher to get them there on time and thus compromising the safety and quality of the service.
However many times you are told (warned) and however prepared you may feel, it never really quite sinks in until you start working as a guide just how many hours you will have to work in a day, not to mention a month! I was lucky, just working 25 day +/- on and 5 days off, so mine was definitely the better shift compared to other guides who can work as much as 6-8 weeks on, but obviously have more off time to compensate.
On my first day at the lodge I put on my neatly ironed uniform and polished my leather boots and walked down to the lodge eager for my first day, only to find out that my new colleague, had a few days ago handed in his notice (his reason for leaving being that he missed a ‘9 till 5’ job – which guiding is definitely not!). I only had a few days to learn from him about the in’s and out’s of the lodge and the workings of my new role, as he was also the only current Guide there before I started. I was very lucky that he took the time to bring me up to speed on everything, from how to use and record the usage of the diesel tank to fill up the vehicles (the lodge has its own diesel tank) to navigating the thickly vegetated, beautiful sand forest property – which hadn’t seen any bush clearing for quite some time. After my colleague left, I became lone ranger for a while until another Guide was appointed upon my recommendation.
Another situation that is frankly every Guide (and guests) fear is exceptionally bad weather, extreme winds and heavy rain. This for the most equals zero animal life to be easily seen, even on nice sunny days, it sometimes seems the animals just didn’t get the memo to come out and perform! This is where you really become thankful for your entire tree, grass and plant knowledge – and some Guides’ worst nightmare – birds! Luckily for me birding is one of my favourite pastimes.
The lodge had mostly foreign guests, particularly from Germany, France, Netherlands and England during the summer months with South African’s more commonly timing their holidays for the quieter off peak winter months. A challenge for me being British born was although most guests had a good grasp of English, the French, and in particular the older generation often only spoke limited English, so we sometimes struggled to find a common ground to communicate on. This proved quite daunting at first for me as learning new languages was never a strong point with me – so I had to fall back on my very vague French lessons from school. I now know French guests are not swearing at me when they get excited and shout “Phacochere! Phacochere!” (Pronounced Fack-eu-chet) or “Warthog! Warthog!” Soon I started to greatly enjoy these drives, where I taught them about the bush and in return I got to practice and learn new French words. I quickly realised how much foreign guests appreciate it when you try and use and learn their languages with them.
During my time at the lodge, I came into day to day contact with not only our guests, but with our staff and this must also be mentioned here. Many of our staff came from different and diverse backgrounds, Britain, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and of course South Africa. I am pleased to say we all got on brilliantly (99.9% of the time) although we didn’t always all get along on a daily basis – (who does?) but we all had a mutual respect and friendship with each other. Although there were often moments when things became stressful and I was often in trouble with the kitchen due to us coming back late from a drive – (the kitchen doesn’t care that you and your guests saw 6 LIONS ON A KILL!). You only got back at 11am and your guests haven’t even had breakfast yet, not to even mention lunch!
I believe the biggest lesson I personally learned was this – Bearing in mind, whilst studying hard to become a Guide and then finally securing a job to work in the ecotourism sector; being a Guide in this industry is not just about guiding, guest transfers or even evening guest hosting. It often involves anything the lodge requests you to do and everything in-between, from bush clearing to raking leaves to picking up staff at midnight as they haven’t got any means of transport.
My first job and experiences as a Guide have given me a valuable insight and an understanding that I will take with me throughout my career. I will treasure it and the people I have had the pleasure of working alongside during the first steps of my Guiding career, and feel confident that I will be in this industry a while longer yet...
To all the new Guides going out into the industry; follow your passion and learn from every experience, both good and bad. This career will be challenging at times, but it’s all worth it when your guests go away happy and complement you highly on the experiences you have opened them up to. I once got some Branston pickle (like chutney) squeezy bottles sent to me in the post from the UK, from my South African clients as we had compared food’s we had missed from our home countries – with a card saying how much they enjoyed our time together.
Finally, get out there and enjoy the animal sightings, after all that’s why we became Guides in the first place! You never know what magic sighting is around the next corner.