Exceptional guides are essential to the perfect African safari. As a minimum, we demand a safe pair of hands, a shrewd interpreter of animal behaviour and a walking encyclopedia on wildlife and nature. But we also expect a sense of humour and innate charm coupled with confidence and calm, all wrapped up in pristine khaki. And, almost invariably, we expect a man.
Female safari guides are seldom seen. Despite women excelling in the necessary attributes, safari guiding remains a staunch male bastion. But life in the bush is gradually changing as women break down the barriers.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2015’s global hub (internationalwomensday.com) is “Make it Happen”. These women have done exactly that.
One of Africa’s pioneer female safari guides, Kenyan-born Verity Williams started as secretary to the renowned safari outfitters Ker & Downey in 1962. Twenty years later, she finally infiltrated the company’s male-dominated guiding fraternity.
“I thought if you can’t beat them, join them,” she said. “I got my licences and asked Ker & Downey’s general manager for some safari guiding work. He said ‘What? You’re a woman!’ That was my red rag. My big break came when a friend needed another guide. He, I and the clients all survived. The rest is history.”
Sitting by the mess fire at her home, Sabuk Lodge in Laikipia, Verity described her colourful career, from leading top-of-the-range private camping safaris with up to 25 clients and 40 (mostly male) staff, to working on film locations for Out of Africa and The Constant Gardner.
Today, the Kenyan Professional Safari Guides Association estimates that 300 of Kenya’s 4,000 guides are women. In Verity’s day, the prejudices initially proved challenging. Married to a leading guide, she was regarded by Ker & Downey as her husband’s wife rather than a guide in her own right. Some men resented her being their boss. Yet only one client, a woman, was reluctant to have a female guide. Verity’s resilience, charm, sense of fun and superb knowledge of the bush soon won the day.
Now in her early 70s, Verity guides on private safaris but mostly hosts her guests at Sabuk, which overlooks the Ewaso Ng’iro river. Exploring Laikipia’s rolling landscapes on camel and on foot, we spotted elephant, baboons, kudu, eland, and a leopard. Verity works closely with Lobarishereki village and school, and through her connections we glimpsed genuine Samburu culture when we were invited to a wedding with dancing and jumping displays by warriors.
Koiyaki Guiding School, Naboisho Conservancy
Both Samburu and Maasai cultures are slow to change, but in Naboisho Conservancy, bordering the Maasai Mara, I saw encouraging signs of progress. There I met Elizabeth Natumoi, one of four women in this year’s intake at Koiyaki Guiding School, established in 2005 to help young Maasai qualify as guides. “I want to be a role model for other Maasai women,” she told me. Bright, sassy and determined, she will take her exams in August.
Safari Consultants (01787 888590; safari-consultants.com) offers four nights at Sabuk Lodge and four nights at Naboisho from £4,750 per person. The price includes return economy flights with Kenya Airways; transfers from Nairobi; internal SafariLink flights; full board; activities, conservation fees, drinks and laundry at both properties.
Freelance walking guide, South Luangwa National Park
Deb Tittle’s love of wildlife was triggered by watching Tarzan when she was four years old, at home in Stockton-on-Tees. In her 20s, she drove overland trucks for tour companies around Africa. “That’s when I saw non-African guides,” she said. “I thought, if they can do it, so can I.”
South Luangwa, famous for walking safaris and night drives, became Deb’s home. After qualifying, she worked for renowned guides Derek Shenton and Robin Pope, establishing fly camps and leading walking safaris for 18 years.
“There was initially some resistance. I felt if something went wrong, guides would say ‘What do you expect? She’s a woman.’ So I had to be good,” Deb said. “I tend to walk in a very proactive way – let’s get in there, let’s track the stuff… It’s not your usual nature walk…”
That’s certainly true. Walking between Lion Camp and Nsefu, the two beautiful lodges in which we stayed, I waded up to my knees through the croc-infested Luangwa river, spotting lions on one bank and hyenas on the other (admittedly, through binoculars) but, thankfully, no crocs.
“This line of people crossing the river is a rare event – crocs wouldn’t know how to react,” she said, semi-reassuringly.
With an intuitive approach and about 2,500 walks under her belt, Deb has a natural connection with the bush, but her safaris aren’t just about flora and fauna. “This job is 90 per cent people, 10 per cent wildlife. I enjoy finding what the hook is for people, tailoring a safari towards that and making it fun.”
She has trained more than 60 Zambian guides, but few have been women. “Girls here are now into make-up and fashion: they’re exposed to the real world. This is too much like their old world,” she said.
But it is very much Deb’s world. Now working as a freelance guide, she will soon open her own camp in South Luangwa.
Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com) is offering a seven-night package to the South Luangwa from £3,854 per person. The price includes scheduled overnight flights in economy class with South African Airways from London Heathrow to Lusaka (via Johannesburg), scheduled domestic flights with Proflight, one night at Pioneer Camp, Lusaka, with dinner, breakfast and airport transfers; two nights at Lion Camp and two nights at Nsefu including all meals, laundry, local beers and wines, airport transfers, private vehicle and activities with Deb Tittle as private guide.
&Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area
If guides were celebrities, Aziza Mbwana would be in the A-list category. As we drove around the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, almost every driver waved or stopped to chat. “Do you know all these guys?” I asked.
“No, but they all know me…” she said, smiling.
That is hardly surprising. Having developed a fascination with wildlife as a child on family trips through Tanzania, in 2004 Aziza became the first female ranger employed in East Africa by luxury conservation safari company &Beyond. After a gruelling selection process involving more than 300 applicants, she started at Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, moving to the sumptuous Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in 2008.
Tanzania’s safari society seems more of a male bastion than most, with fewer than 10 female guides out of about 2,000 in the industry. “It felt great when I started – everyone was shocked… they’d say you’re not supposed to be in the bush, that’s not your job, you should be in the office.” Today, Aziza, 35, is &Beyond’s assistant head ranger, probably as much a consequence of her innate ease with people as her resilience, experience and knowledge of wildlife.
About 30,000 animals roam the 100 square mile crater and wildlife sightings here can be superb. We saw four of the Big Five – lions, rhino, elephant and buffalo – within an hour, but Aziza was far from complacent. “Every day is different. You might see the same animals, but they’re always doing something different and it’s still exciting to me.”
With two daughters, balancing work and family life is her greatest challenge. Her youngest daughter stays at the lodge while her eldest, aged nine, is at boarding school dreaming of following in her mother’s guiding footsteps. “She’ll have to be persistent,” Aziza said, laughing, “but she can do it.”
Steppes Travel (0843 778 9926; steppestravel.com) has a 10-day trip with international flights with Kenya Airways in and out of Kilimanjaro, including three nights at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and four nights at Serengeti Under Canvas on a fully inclusive basis, all park fees, transfers and internal flights costs £4,995 per person. (This cost includes a special offer with &Beyond which gives a saving of £375 per person.) Steppes Travel can also help with booking a private vehicle and the services of Aziza Mbwana as your private guide.
Ngorongoro Crater (Photo: AP/Fotolia)
Chobe’s Angels, Chobe Game Lodge, Chobe National Park
Chobe’s Angels is believed to be Africa’s only all-female guiding team, based at Chobe Game Lodge. “In 2004, Botswana had barely half a dozen female guides,” Johan Bruwer, the lodge’s general manager, said. “We had one in our team, which guests found fascinating: it was perceived to be a male-dominated environment needing testosterone to handle animal threats or maintain vehicles.
“I realised women could be more effective than men: they look after their equipment better; they tend to absorb information quicker; they’re much better communicators to our guests, because they have to prove themselves. Now Botswana has a thriving guiding community of about 50 women and we have 16 Angels.” In 2006, Malebogo Kgoleng, known as Lebo, joined the team.
On our game drive around Botswana’s busiest park dominated by the inky Chobe river and thousands of elephants, Lebo sat confidently behind the wheel of a 14-seater, 4.2-litre Toyota Landcruiser. “When guests first see me, it’s all about the wow factor. They say ‘Wow, you’re our first lady guide.’ The roads in Chobe aren’t too bad and the animals are calm. But it’s important to know their behaviour, to respect them and give them space. I think us ladies, we’re calm and humble, we take our time. We have the heart to handle all the guests.”
Recently returned from a year-long secondment as savannah guide in Disney World, Orlando, Lebo is open to new challenges, possibly guiding in Okavango Delta where she will encounter muddy roads, walking safaris and rifle training. Despite Orlando’s temptations, her passion for guiding remains intact: “I do my job with all my heart and I’ll always be happy while my office is out there in the bush.”
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1260; ) offers three nights at the Chobe Game Lodge, followed by three nights at Camp Okavango from £3,519 per person. The price is based on two sharing a room on a full-board basis and includes game activities, park fees and international return flight from London with South African Airlines all transfers and scheduled domestic flight services.
Akagera National Park
At the time of Rwanda’s brutal genocide in 1994, when 800,000 people lost their lives, Denyse Umugwaneza was seven. In school holidays, to escape from the chaos of Kigali, she would visit her aunt who lived near Akagera National Park. Its wildlife captivated her young imagination.
In 2006, she began working as a guide, benefiting from President Kagame’s Vision 2020 programme aimed at uniting Rwanda – one of its tenets is gender equality. Today, of six guides employed by African Parks (the conservation organisation that manages Akagera), two are female and another two women are freelance. Rwanda’s mountain gorilla guides and trackers also have a healthy gender balance relative to other African countries, with 11 women in a 70-strong workforce.
Overshadowed by those infamous gorillas, Akagera isn’t yet firmly on the tourist radar. Its wildlife is, however, increasing through determined conservation efforts, with lions and potentially rhino due to be reintroduced shortly.
Denyse’s enthusiasm and love for Akagera was infectious. Her big passion is birds, which is helpful since the park is home to 480 species. The rare shoebill eluded us, hiding among papyrus swamps in central Africa’s largest wetlands. But driving around the undulating hills, valleys and lakes that constitute one of Africa’s prettiest parks, we saw plenty of bird life and a whole gamut of antelopes, buffalo, warthogs, zebra and elephants.
“I’m looking forward to the lions coming,” Denyse said when we spoke about her future. “I want to keep learning and gaining new skills and qualifications so that I can work in other parks and countries.”
I asked about her male colleagues. “I’ve never had any challenges from the men on the team,” she said. “It wouldn’t be a problem if I was promoted above them.” Having grown up in such a strong culture of equality, she seemed amused I’d even asked the question.
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a 13-day/10-night tour of Rwanda’s national parks, including Akagera and Volcanoes National Park, from £4,785, including flights, transfers and accommodation with most meals.