What it takes to be a walking guide in the East African bush
Asilia’sHead Guide Trainer, Pietro Luraschi, talks us through the training required…..
Training walking guides is always great fun, probably the most challenging training, but absolutely engaging.
There are three stages to becoming a walking guide:
- Learning how to handle a big calibre rifle.
- Training in shooting the same rifle.
- Studying and learning how to walk in the bush – this can be everything from using wind direction to knowledge on how to handle potentially dangerous animals such as elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard.
We are talking about big rifles here, a .458 win mag calibre has a big recoil and kicks like a mule. These can be intimidating for experienced guides, so now imagine this for people who have never held a rifle in their hands before.
We have to start slow, first making the rifle safe, getting used to the feel of the rifle in your hands, learning how to clean it, becoming familiar. Then start with dry fire, drills and simulations in order to build the muscle memory that is needed in order to make the movements fluid.
It is quite funny, seeing fully-grown men practising, chambering, shouldering, aiming and then shouting BOOM instead of pulling the trigger. But the real thing comes later…
We start softly using bb guns, then we go to air rifles, andthen to .22 caliber, ending up with the .458 at the end. This way we get adjusted to aiming properly before adding the big and noisy kick to the count! You should see the joy on our trainee guide’s faces when they realise that they can do it and they pass the assessment.
Becoming a safe rifle handler is just the first step to becoming a walking guide, the rifle is there not to be used but as a safety measure. Before starting real walks we always work on little drills in camp, to understand how to react when confronted with animals or simply to understand the right path to choose.
This really is a time of good laughter – Imagine a guide with a broomstick in his hand, other guides behind him acting as guests and then trainers hidden in the bush, jumping out and pretending to be some kind of animal, sometimes warning the party, sometimes charging, sometimes simply walking by.
The reactions of the guides when the “animal” is charging is quite funny, shouting loudly to his guests to stay behind him, shouting loudly at the “animal” to scare him off and if all else fails, letting out a loud BOOM BOOM with a broomstick shouldered and aimed to the trainer.
It seems ridiculous but it is very important to write a code in our brain that kicks in and overtakes our natural fears when something happens!
After this, it really istime to walk, out in the bush, into real life situations. We walk as if with guests, a guide as the lead and the other guides as guests. We first do long walks aimed at understanding where and how it is safe to walk. It all rotates around three main variables, safe ground, cover and wind direction.
Basically, we have to always walk towards or in close proximity to safe ground, with a bit of cover (but not in too thick bush) and possibly towards the wind. The wind becomes totally dominant in the next few days when we do approaches to potentially dangerous animals.
We drive until we see something and then reverse for a couple of hundred meters and approach the animals, trying to get a good view leaving them totally unaware of our presence.
We all carry small ash-bags to detect the slightest change of wind direction as most of these animals have a very keen sense of smell. We watch, we enjoy being in the presence of such mighty animals on foot and then we retreat slowly taking care not to make any noise and not to be seen.
It is a completely new world, new experiences and new skills to learn for the guides, it is challenging and sometimes a bit scary for them but makes them aware of what can be done and how. This year was great we did 86 approaches, to elephants, buffaloes, lions, and even a couple of leopards!
The first leopard sighting was incredible, we saw the leopard up an open branch of an Acacia tortilis and we started walking towards it using the cover of a big sickle bush, we walked within 50 meters and spent an amazing time looking at this leopard checking out impalas, cleaning its paws, yawning and stretching, then going back to rest peacefully as we left.
Ten new guides start their apprenticeship in June. They will spend ayear as a ‘’back up guide’’, being mentored by a more senior guide and will need to clock up 120 hours of experience. Then they will return for further training next year and hopefully after that qualify as lead walking guides. We wish them all the best on their journey!
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