What does it take to become a walking trails guide? Hlengiwe Magagula joined a group of trainees in Marakele National Park and discovered you need a dazzling array of skills and sturdy boots.

Trainees prepare for their day of guide training in Marakele National Park. Photos by Denis Costello.

That evening, some work was needed to extract all the acacia thorns from the soles of my boots. It’s not that Marakele National Park is any more spikey than other South African parks, but in the morning I’d joined a group of trainee trails guides under assessment in the field, and their instructors deliberately led us into thick thornveld. Their aim was to maximise the possibility of close and unexpected contacts with dangerous animals. Each such encounter is logged by the trainee, with 50 required before qualification as a back-up trails guide. Me, I learnt a new skill – how to reverse into a thorn bush and use my backpack as a shield.

Leading walkers in areas with big game is not something to be taken lightly. The standard of trails guides in South African parks is world class, and the safety record is excellent. This is thanks to rigorous training programmes that include hundreds of hours of field experience. One route to becoming a trails guide is to get certified by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA), which manages programmes to qualify as a back-up guide (“second gun”), lead guide or professional guide. On top, there are specialist courses that include tracking and birding, and compulsory rifle handling training.

Safety is not taken lightly — guide training includes specialist courses in tracking and birding, and compulsory rifle handling training.

A number of private companies provide the training, and our group was led by Sakkie van Aswegen, a highly regarded expert in bush craft. We set off with Jan-Hendrik Pieters under assessment. Sakkie and his assistant, Marius Ferreira, kept watch over Jan-Hendrik, and also for what animals might be hidden in the thick bush ahead. Two more armed rangers followed the group for additional safety.

The field test

It was a fascinating glimpse into the process of becoming a trails guide. The field test is more of a mental challenge than physical. I recently gained my driving licence and found the test a nerve-jangling experience. But it was as nothing compared to what Jan-Hendrik must have been feeling. When moving, he had to concentrate his senses for animals ahead, not easy in the strong wind. In that area of Marakele there were elephant, buffalo and rhino, and if we met one at close quarters he had to be ready to show the correct response and keep the group safe.

One of the pleasures of walking in South African parks is the life-long opportunity to learn about nature, with a new experience always around the next tree.

And when we paused, Jan-Hendrik had to field all sorts of questions, and I played my part by asking as many as I could. The subjects ranged widely. Elephant eyes – did you know they have a “third eyelid” that moves vertically across the eye? How to tell the track of a female lion from those of a small male. The ossicones of the giraffe and how they help cushion a calf’s fall during birth.

We paused to examine a kudu skull. The enormous horns of the male are a hindrance when attacked by a predator, getting caught in trees. Communicating clear information to a group of walkers without raising your voice is a skill in itself.

Trainees spent five hours walking in Marakele, longer than a typical guided bush walk but ample time to experience the sights and sounds first hand.

After a couple of hours, we took a break and I chatted with the trainees. I found a wide span of ages and motivations for taking the training. Marjone Enslin was the only female, and still in her teens. She grew up on a game farm and is now looking to deepen her knowledge and learn how to share it with others. All were already volunteering as SANParks Honorary Rangers, and planned to work as guides in national parks or one of the many private reserves in the Waterberg area.

The lore of animal behaviour

We walked for about five hours, longer than a normal guided walk. It was never dull and the trainees were happy to show their knowledge. One of the pleasures of walking in South African parks is the life-long opportunity to learn about nature, with a new experience always around the next tree. For me, the highlight was finding a trove of broken dung beetle larval cases, excavated by a honey badger. “No, by a ratel,” insisted Sakkie. He says the commonly used honey badger name leads people to the false belief that they are a relative of the badger.

This casing of a dung beetle larvae was broken open by a hungry ratel.

A little later we found a perfectly polished scratching post and the chat ranged over animal parasites and the properties of elephant and rhino skin. Somehow we then moved on to talk about animal night vision and the functioning of the tapetum lucidum – the reflective layer in the eyes of cats and dogs. We met a couple of elephants busy feeding and Jan-Hendrik was happy to log another encounter. It was not until near the end that we had our best big animal sighting – two rhinos, very close. We followed the guide’s hand gestures and safely passed them.

One of the day’s most exciting discoveries was a perfectly polished scratching post.

That is, until guides encountered a curious rhino face to face!

Afterwards, I chatted with Tumelo Masoba, currently the only fully qualified trails guide in Marakele National Park. He’s happy to see so many new trails guides coming through, to meet the increasing demand from us walkers. And by the way, I’m happy to report that the soles of my Hi-Tec boots (available at Trappers) were well able to protect from the toughest thorns of our bushveld.

Good to know

  • If you are interested in taking a guiding course, the FGASA website lists endorsed training providers: www.fgasa.co.za
  • Guided walks in Marakele National Park are R350 per person. Be sure to make a reservation before you go to ensure guide availability.
  • Participants must be over 12, and over 65s should bring a fitness certificate from their doctor.
  • Marakele offers accommodation at Bontle Rest Camp and Tlopi Tented Camp, and at the new Marataba concession lodge. There is no shop or restaurant in the park.
  • Afternoon walks are not currently on offer. Instead, take the stunning drive to Lenong Lookout for sunset.

Hlengiwe Magagula is the author of the Guide to Walking in Kruger National Park (Available on Amazon from R80).