Burnt Out Field Guide

Are you with a burnt out field guide? Ever wondered about just how much energy your guide is putting into your safari. Reading this, you may be an agent who has received an experience that is about as good as it’s gonna get. Your arrival at a private game lodge has been preceded by many inter office memo’s and yes even the chap in maintenance knows about you. And, in all probability, you have been allocated the best room, chef has enquired into your culinary preferences, housekeeping has prepared a range of pillows, and the obligatory welcome letter (hand written) is placed in your room. You have also been allocated the best field guide, or have you.
Ever stopped to wonder how the best field guide is selected, and wondered what makes the best field guide.
Your clients, our guests, have spent an enormous amount of hard earned money to venture to the tip of Africa, enticed by an endless list of superlatives, vivid images, and promises of life changing experiences. And we have a duty to deliver on our marketing message.
Let’s wind back a bit, and consider for a moment what makes a good field guide, and against what yardsticks we measure this. At what point has a field guide past his or her sell by date, what is the optimal life span of a field guide. I guess the short answer is, we can’t measure this in months or years, but only in behaviour and conduct.
We have an entire industry dedicated to the registering, training, and qualifying of field guides against a rather simple matrix, for example; to attain level 1 guide they must know 20 trees, 30 birds, 50 mammals etc. the guides must have logged x number of hours. And so it goes on. A good system designed to regulate and standardize the field guiding profession. But, a system which is churning out technically qualified candidates who are frankly not suited to field guiding – this is a people business.
What inspires the young aspirant field guide to consider this vocation?
In my experience, having asked this question several hundred times, a fairly predictable answer is offered; I love the bush and have a passion for conservation and wildlife. The first alarm bell goes off in my head.
I cannot recall ever hearing; ‘I love people, and want to interact with people all the time, and I’d love the opportunity to combine this with another one of my interests which is wildlife, conservation etc. If I had heard this response, I would have replied by saying; “thanks for your time and when can you start?” And if he or she through the word photography in, I would help them move.
I think you get where this is going; now let’s try and broadly identify some stereotypical behavioural patterns (my opinion of course) and work out what you could be insisting on for a field guide for your guests. At this point let me point out that there are very many field guides out there, who have an uncanny knack for delivering a superb experience almost all the time, and to those men and women, I salute you.
Your clients hard earned money comes down to this; this is what sets us apart from a hotel, this is what should set us apart from our competitors (sadly it is more often than not our price, food, and rooms that do). Your clients are on the back of a game viewer and ready to head out on safari, the value of their hard earned money (along with your professional reputation) is about to be defined.

And before we do, let’s take a look at the life cycle of a typical field guide, and for this exercise our guide is Tom. And naturally we assume he has overcome all the administrative hurdles to receiving his stripes or, should I say, stripe.

Burnt Out Field Guide – Stage 1

We have our crisply pressed, energized, and excited field guide, at this point his value to our organization is already close to its peak.
The pressure to deliver on the brochure promise is high, Tom validates his own performance on the number and frequency of big 5 sightings he can deliver. There is no place for Mother Nature here, Tom simply HAS to get his guests to the front row, as it were. He is absorbed by the radio chatter, eagerly awaiting confirmation of a sighting, any sighting will do, upon which he will respond with single minded determination. Tom’s white knuckled grip on the microphone, and interrogative chatter is a clear sign of his nervous energy and his focus is on reaching the sighting without delay, even if it means flying past a heard of zebra and, all the other lesser species (look out for the white knuckles of his tracker as he holds on). Tom arrives at the sighting, and the excited response from his guests begins to ease his insecurities. Tom imparts everything he knows about this pride of lions, almost without taking a breath, and then answers the questions with complete theoretical authority.
All the while his attention remains on the radio, poised, waiting for a sign of another sighting. At this stage even talk around a potential sighting is good enough to get Tom on the move again, and with a bit of luck he could arrive at the time when the animal is spotted, and yes he will be ready and waiting. And so the game drive continues along this course; often the customary sundowner stop will be sacrificed in pursuit of the big 5.
Tom’s arrival back in the car park is announced by the chattering of excited guests, wow what an experience! The collective chorus repeats itself long after the boma dinner drum calls. Tom feels great, he has delivered an awesome game drive, and hasn’t yet worked out that the guests are with him for another 3 or possibly 5 game drives. But with 3,4, or even all of the big 5 under his belt, he is going to just enjoy the moment.
Who knows what the morning drive will deliver, one thing for sure though, it is not likely to deliver the same guest response as last night did. And Tom will be searching even harder for validation, even more absorbed in the radio chatter, not participating, just listening. Tom’s guests have also worked out that their chances of sightings all depend upon the microphone (still enveloped in his left hand). “So, it was quiet this morning” says a guest upon their return – a little jab in Tom’s ribs.
The following afternoon, expectations are high, and Tom will return to the same sighting again if necessary, perhaps in an effort to recreate the first experience, and with a bit of luck the animal will be doing something different, or even doing anything would be good. And he will bide his time here until the radio crackles into life again, offering an anticipated life line. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, and Tom better learn quickly that a large part of his success will always lie in the hands of Mother Nature, or just a good dose of luck.
After all is said and done, Tom’s guests are happy, they’ve seen about as much as they were going to see, and Tom made every effort to make it happen, and he is rewarded with the golden handshake.

Burnt Out Field Guide – Stage 2

Tom is high on confidence, somewhat authoritative in demeanour, and just enjoying what he is doing; he goes about his business with careful precision, planning his safari, engaging with his guests, appraising them of what is going on, including them in the decisions he makes about what, when and where. He is part of a ranger tracker team and relies largely on their skills to find interesting sightings, he builds the experience and fills the gaps with interesting anecdotes about the dung beetle and buffalo thorn tree. Tom plans his sundowner stop carefully, normally at a secluded spot with an awesome view. His guests are getting the real deal; the game drives are building toward the complete safari. Tom has connected with his guests and they are completely captivated by his command of all they see. His guests depart, rewarding him handsomely for his efforts; and the organization with great social media praise.
Stage 3 Tom is now a highly experienced and senior field guide who has possibly advanced in his qualifications, through a second or even third stripe, and has adopted a rather routine approach to his game drives, a little bit like auto pilot, and the onus lies largely with his guests to extract information from him, a bit like a dentist and a stubborn tooth. Tom now spends a great deal of time chatting, but not with his guests, chatting with his tracker about anything; the irritation of the new guide rushing from big 5 sighting to big 5 sighting, life at home etc. And then a bit of radio banter with other senior guides to busy the airwaves.
Tom bids farewell to his guests anticipating the golden handshake, and looking over their shoulders at the next group of guests arriving, already slightly irritated at the dumb questions that are about dominate his next game drive. Already becoming red faced at the thought of the repetitive taps on his shoulder with commands to “stop! stop!” for the rock, which hundreds of guests before them have mistaken for a rhino.

Burnt Out Field Guide – Stage 3

The odd guest complaint starts to trickle in, and one is obliged to respond to this, and so we do what we always do, and that is to ask Tom. Why we ask Tom is a mystery to me, we could save ourselves the time, we already know the answer; “yes they were really difficult guests”. Now that was helpful, and exactly what are we going to do with that response.
Around about now Tom is not so happy with his salary, nor is he happy about the size of his room, and that new ranger is really irritating him, and housekeeping has misplaced every left sock. And he has been driving for 6 consecutive days, and needs a break. Tom is burnt out.
One quick way to confirm this is to ask; Tom do you think you are burnt out? And if the answer is an emphatic “NO, I still love the bush” you have your answer, and it is an equally emphatic YES.
What does Tom do now, probably considers going to another lodge, thinking that will reset his clock, so to speak. (I have often said we are all born with a certain number of game drives in us, and when they’re up, they’re up). But changing the stage doesn’t change the cast and only buys a few more game drive credits, this vocation is not about the stage, it’s about the cast and, they don’t change, they remain the very essence of our business.

Your clients deserve the best field guide, not this time, every time. We must develop the tools to ensure that our guests are getting the best field guide, and I don’t think we are there yet. It is much easier to check on the kitchen and, the chap in maintenance, than it is to appraise the work of a field guide. This is our challenge, and yours is to put pressure on us to do so.

So next time you are promised the best guide, simply ask what makes him or her the best field guide, and ask yourself are you with a burnt out field guide.