Phill Steffny

After 12 years spent working as a guide and managing lodges for one of Africa’s finest and largest operators, I have finally taken the plunge and joined Essential Africa as a shareholder and professional guide. In this article I focus on the dilemma that faces any guide in our field, as it is structured at present – that is, to get ahead, we need to move away from guiding and into lodge management, which is an area most guides are not suited for and do not enjoy – and the opportunity created by Essential Africa for professional guides in this sphere. I’m sure this article will strike a chord with most experienced guides out there. 

For many guides, the only option available to progress career-wise has been to move into management positions. In the past, this has simply become the norm for those of us intent on staying in the bush where we belong. Although the experience gained from the managerial role is invaluable, it’s not our chosen path and we find ourselves ill-equipped for this side of life. Our wide open spaces become tunnelled inexorably by the routine tasks that form an inevitable part of any managerial job. We go from mild disinterest, to flat dislike, and then pure burnout because we just can’t get our head around what our life has become.

But we are different, it’s why we’ve chosen to be out there in whatever Africa can throw at us – and trust me, she’s as tough as she is beautiful. We start to get irritated at the daily grind and slowly but surely the very passion that made us choose guiding as a career starts to disappear. After a while, sometimes as little as 18 months, for others it takes a number of years, the corporate environment that runs the small lodges dotted throughout Africa’s wild areas starts to change our attitude towards one of the most incredible professions in the world.

More and more guides are sticking around for longer in the industry but there comes a time in every guide’s life when our personal situations change, families are now a priority, and school fees have to be paid. So this is a time when even the most dedicated guide amongst us is forced to ditch our true passion in favour of a management position, just to remain in the bush environment. We begin to question where this is going, and most just quit out of sheer desperation.

There is little point in being a superb guide and moving on to become a mediocre manager, which unfortunately is often the case. Failure is as inevitable as the change of seasons, and it’s just a matter of time before the final burnout. The so-called promotion is actually the biggest step down any guide will ever take.

What happens to the passion, the knowledge, the fire that brought us here in the first place? No matter how hard we try to stay clear and focused, many outstanding guides end up leaving the industry unnecessarily, taking so many years’ experience with us. As far as I’m concerned a professional guide has the opportunity to be exactly that – not only making a living from our profession but also keeping the experience within the industry, making it better for guides, lodges, guests and the safari experience in general. Fortunately, there is a solution, and there is, actually, life after lodges.

My personal journey started a very young age. I was a river guide in my school days. From here, I joined one of the largest operators that afforded me the opportunity to live and work in some of the world’s most incredible wilderness areas from South Africa to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Over the past 12 years I have experienced phenomenal wildlife and I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself constantly, and to photograph stuff that for many people, would take years of working and saving for their trip of a lifetime. Leopard cubs playing, lions hunting hippos, elephants snorkelling across vast rivers and the millions upon millions of little clips and glimpses have given me a life similar to being in the middle of a live version of the Discovery Channel every waking moment. What is the use of someone like me, and many others, deciding to leave the industry? Everybody loses.

The privately guided safari niche has been in existence for some time, but it’s quietly taking off. This is exactly where guides like me have always wanted to be, always hoped for, and surely deserve. We are the future of our profession. This stimulation and learning curve is ever increasing, building on years based in the lodges, and in the last few months since I’ve taken the leap into relatively new territory, I have explored some of Zambia’s finest walking wilderness, co-guided a group of friends through Tanzania with Lee all the way through the Serengeti Migration and Ngorongoro Crater, and mokoro’d through the Okavango Delta, all the while doing what I love and sharing my passion with fellow guests and showing them the importance of ecotourism, and their role in influencing it.

The privately guided safari industry is allowing me to live with my family any way I choose. In my case I live in beautiful Cape Town, my daughter goes to a fantastic school five minutes up the road and she has more friends than she could have ever imagined. Medical care is just around the corner. We have a more than adequate roof over our heads every day, there’s always food on the table and this is all supported by my family’s passion for our continued way of life that, thanks to forward-thinking fellow guides and safari enthusiasts like all of us at Essential Africa, we are able to keep living.