I recently had the pleasure again of playing a small role in the training of a group of students in the skills needed to be a safari guide in South Africa. We focused on the three core elements; A firm theoretical knowledge base, practical bush skills and people skills. The course was run according to a set criteria that ticked all the relevant and legal boxes, with two bush activities a day accompanied by a formal lecture and the customary socialising around a camp fire in the evenings.
Obviously a tremendous amount was learnt from the various text and reference books, and the informative lectures ranging from geology and astronomy to conservation and historical human habitation were undoubtably important. Also, the time spent out in the field, practically, getting to know the trees, birds, tracks and animal behaviour – up close – played a monumental role in the students development. However, in my opinion, some of the most crucial and valuable lessons and skills were taught and observed while sitting around the camp fire.
Picture this scene; The darkness has gently settled down, covering the African bushveld around you in the usual layer of mystery and intrigue. The stars are splashed across the night sky in all their splendour and the night chorus of Scops owls, Nightjars and the faint ‘whooop’ of a spotted hyena echo around you. You sit back into your comfy, canvas camping chair and take a sip of your Savannah as your eyes focus vaguely on the flickering flames in front of you. It is truly beautiful and you can’t help but feel a very real sense of peace, belonging and happiness. You feel comfortable, and so do all the other people sharing that moment with you. A circle around a camp fire is undoubtably one of the most basic and natural ways of inducing both meaningful conversation and shared silence. It provides the perfect platform from which to engage with those around you in a calm and interconnected way. To talk, to listen and to watch.
The ability to connect to your guests is obviously vital. The creation of a perfectly, personalised safari experience for each client is only possible if you understand them, and to understand them you need to talk and listen to them. Sounds easy right? Well, not necessarily for everyone. Even when the circumstances are perfect, the vibe is good and the opportunity there, it is not always easy for many of us to talk. Not everyone is a natural talker or socialiser, and honestly, in order to be a fantastic guide you don’t really need to be. Well, not entirely anyway. Although a lot of people forget it, there are actually two sides to a meaningful conversation. The whole talking part and then the often neglected listening and observing part.
Growing up I was an extremely shy person. I used to try to avoid participating in conversations when at all possible. However I did enjoy watching them. I would very happily sit at a table with friends and family and watch them as they talked to each other, how they used their hands to gesture, how their facial expressions changed, how they reacted and behaved. I found it fascinating and I often learnt a lot more about the people and the topic being discussed by the behaviour on display rather than the words. Of course words are important too. I always think of words as colours on a painters palette. each word represents a different colour and so if you had a large enough vocabulary you could potentially paint almost any picture. I say potentially, as any good painter knows, having a variety of different colours is only as good as knowing when to add which colour to what part of the painting.
Social skills are a vital part of being human, but not all of us were born equal in the social butterfly stakes, so they do often require practice. Especially if your intention is to become a top notch nature guide, or in fact, become successful in most other fields. To quote a small piece from the highly recommended book, A Guides Guide to Guiding, “As a guide you spend only 6hrs a day with the 4 legged animals, but often up to 16hrs a day with the two legged ones.” This is where the campfire comes back into it. Developing those social skills through observation and participation.
There are of course many different ‘types’ of talking, but two of the most important types for a guide are small-talk and story telling. Both play large parts when carrying out a safari experience. In order to make the most out of these two you need to be flexible and adaptable in their delivery. I don’t mean that you must make up the content as you go, honesty is obviously an important characteristic of a good guide, but rather that you change the pace, tone, pitch or emphasis of the conversation or story according to the reactions and behaviour of your guests while you are busy talking. What a wonderful skill to develop! The ability to be situationally aware enough to read people’s behaviour while talking! All the information you need is right in front of you, you just need to learn to read it.
Talking is a skill that only gets better with practice. The more you talk the easier it becomes and of course knowing your subject well helps too. Practice your delivery, hone your observation and situational awareness and learn to make the most out of a simple conversation by developing your listening skills. So, the next time you find yourself sitting in a circle around a gently flickering, burnt orange and glowing red camp fire while the flames dance in the darkness, take a sip of your savannah and look up. Look up and at the faces of the people sharing the moment with you. Take a deep, slow and steady breath, be mindful of where you are and the collective vibe being created, and listen….and then talk.