Safari Guide
of the Year

Welcome to

Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa: Our five-star Host Sponsor for Safari Guide of the Year 2024!

About Safari Guide of the Year

Meet the Finalists

Themba Mabunda

Please give a warm welcome to our first Safari Guide of the Year finalist, Themba Mabunda. Themba’s guiding journey began with his training at the prestigious Singita Lebombo lodge. After earning his first guiding qualification, Themba continued to develop in his career and his studies. With the guidance and mentorship of Brendan Pienaar (Lowveld Trails) and Craig McFallen, Themba was able to acquire his Trails Guide NQF4 qualification.

Themba’s 17-year long career has seen him work for Singita, Simbavati, Hamilton’s Tented Camp, and now, Lions Sands Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand – Part of the MORE Family Collection.

His love and passion for guiding is seated with the great pleasure he takes in sharing the beauty of South Africa with his guests as well as the myriad of cultures and experiences the guests provide in exchange “It’s a privilege to educate guests from diverse corners of the globe about Africa, its rich environment, and the magnificent animals that inhabit it. Moreover, guiding offers a unique opportunity to learn from a myriad of cultures worldwide” says Themba. He believes that the interacting with his guests is his great personal strength.

Being nominated is a profound honour, signifying recognition, and appreciation from FGASA for the dedication and hard work put in by guides. This recognition not only motivates the nominee [me] but also inspires friends, family, and colleagues to strive for excellence.”

Ashley Meintjes

Second, we have Ashley Meintjes of Lalibela Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. Ashley has been actively guiding for 16 years after achieving his first FGASA qualification in 2006, also through self-study and completed his Trails Guide qualification under the mentorship of Bruce Lawson at EcoTraining.

His career grew from strength to strength and really began to take shape under the guidance and mentorship of Chris Reynecke who was Ashley’s Head Guide at Kichaka Lodge. Ashley notes that it was Chris’s wealth of knowledge, professionalism and especially ethics that built the foundation for his guiding career development. Ashley has also spent time with Richard Pearse and Andrew Kearney, two exceptional guides and Assessors.

Ashley’s credits his development to FGASA and the diverse and comprehensive syllabus of qualifications which allows and encourages guides to follow their interests. “Having such a great and diverse syllabus so that, no matter the interest, a guide can look to further themselves and be recognised.

The best part of the job for Ashley is sharing the wonder and beauty of nature with his guests “Opening up a guests mind to the unseen and unknown in nature and sharing that experience with them.” Ashley says his greatest strength is attention to detail, an incredibly important soft-skill for guides.

As for Safari Guide of the Year, Ashley recognises the competition as an opportunity for guides to showcase their development, “It’s important for guides to have a platform to showcase their skill sets, make memories and share a great experience to further ignite passion in others.”

H.J. Esterhuizen

Next up is H.J. Esterhuizen, a FGASA Professional Field Guide and SKS (DG) Trails Guide. H.J has been actively guiding for 13 years earning his first FGASA qualification in 2011 through self-study while working fulltime at Gomo Gomo Game Lodge.

Throughout his career H.J has been mentored by industry legends including James Steyn, Adriaan Louw, Colin Patrick and Juan Pinto.

His guiding career journey has been supported by FGASA since he first qualified, “FGASA has given me the opportunity over the years to improve my skill level by providing a huge support network of mentors and assessors that helped me with my guiding career.”

For H.J., being outdoors and connecting people with nature is his favourite thing about guiding, “It is also a great privilege to pass on knowledge and educate people that come and visit the wild environment. It gives me a great opportunity to promote conservation and, in that way, make a difference to make sure there is wildlife left for the next generation.”

H.J. believes in the spirit of Safari Guide of the Year and recognises the event’s importance in highlighting guiding as a professional career choice and helping to elevate and inspire guides to develop into the best they can be “The Safari Guide of the Year competition is important to me because it is a showcase of how far our profession has come and how professional it has become over the last 20 years. It is a way of educating people regarding our profession and it also inspires younger guides within our industry to become the best guide they could be.

Tracey Bruton

Please give a warm welcome to our fourth finalist, Tracey Bruton, a FGASA Professional Field Guide and is currently working towards her Professional Trails Guide with 9 years of active guiding experience. Tracey earned her first FGASA qualification with Bushwise Field Guides and went on to complete her Trails Guide qualification with EcoTraining.

Through her career, Tracey has worked for several prestigious reserves and lodges including Pilanesberg and Timbavati. She has also had the good fortune to have spent time guiding in the untamed wilds of Botswana. Currently, Tracey works for Thornybush Game Lodge in the Greater Kruger.

Tracey’s guiding development has been supported by several FGASA mentors including Jack Hutchinson, Trevor Myburgh, Ryno Vosloo and Bruce Lawson. She also extends two special mentions, one for Jody Cole and to her Tracker, Orlando Mawelele.

For Tracey, it’s the world-class standards of professionalism upheld by FGASA that have helped her to become the best guide she can be “The high standard that FGASA has set in terms of guiding education has helped me to become the best guide I can be, who is ethical, professional and delivers a memorable and safety conscious experience to my guests.”

In terms of the job, Tracey’s favourite part is being immersed in nature and sharing this with people form all over the world “There are so many positive aspects to being a guide. Firstly, I feel fortunate to be living in the “bush” surrounded by exquisite nature and wildlife. Being able to live and work in these wild places every day is truly a privilege. I meet guests from all over the world and witness their wonder on safari, share my passion and create lifetime bonds. I am an ambassador for our wildlife, important in creating awareness for environmental issues and the conservation of our natural world.

Tracey’s greatest personal strength lies in her courage and willingness to take on challenges “My greatest personal strengths include being courageous, proactive and not being afraid to take on a challenge no matter how much it scares me.”

As for the competition, Tracey aligns with the values and the spirit of the event and it’s goals “Safari Guide of the Year is an important platform that recognises guiding as a professional career and celebrates our achievements. It allows FGASA field guides to showcase their skills and learn from each other while bringing like-minded people together who share a love for the bush.”

Phillip Wessels

Phillip Wessels is our fifth and final finalist, he has been guiding for 26 years since earning his first FGASA qualification in 1998. Phillip is well known within the guiding industry for his knowledge, passion and exceptional professionalism.

Phillip underwent his initial FGASA training at the lodge which included theoretical study and the “Epps test” to become an “epauletted ranger.” During his career development he has had the privilege of being mentored by Colin Patrick, Mark Stravarkis, Juan Pinto, James Steyn, Schalk Pretorius and Adriaan Louw.

Phillip recognises and appreciates FGASA for the myriad of opportunities the organisation provides for it’s guides to develop in their careers, “FGASA has afforded me the chance to participate in extensive training across various domains, attain certifications, and continuously evolve as a field guide. I’ve earned qualifications as an SKS Dangerous Game Guide and acquired proficiency as a professional tracker. These FGASA-accredited courses not only enhance skills but also offer avenues for networking, career advancement, and acknowledgment within the guiding sector.

His favourite part of being guide is the peace and tranquility that comes with immersing yourself in nature, the fulfilment of meeting and experiencing people from all over the world and the opportunity to share his passion for wildlife “Besides residing in the tranquil bush surroundings, you’re living a dream coveted by many. While the outside world races ahead, you’re enveloped in a paradise bubble, encountering remarkable experiences, and meeting extraordinary individuals from across the globe. Sharing tales of the past and crafting unforgettable experiences for others, you’re immersed in a world where time seems to stand still.

Phillip’s greatest strengths are his abilities to take charge of challenging situations, his versatility, and his organisational skills. All of which are imperative to develop for a successful career as a guide.

The Safari Guide of the Year competition holds immense importance as it honours and applauds the extraordinary skills, knowledge, and commitment of safari guides. These guides are pivotal in curating safe and unforgettable experiences for tourists, all while actively contributing to conservation endeavours and imparting invaluable wisdom to both visitors and aspiring guides about wildlife and ecosystems.” The spirit of the competition embodies Phillip’s words, it is a celebration for guides, by guides. Safari Guide of the Year actively promotes guiding as a professional career while embodying the values of all those who love wildlife.

Meet the Judges

Mike Karantonis

Co-founder of Safari Guide of the Year, Tintswalo Group Head Guide

Judges in categories:
• Game Drive
• Storytelling
• Hosting and Hospitality

Lucas Mathonsi

FGASA Senior Tracker

Judges in categories:
• Track and Sign
• Storytelling
• Hosting and Hospitality

Michelle du Plessis

Managing Director of FGASA

Judging for categories:
• Game Drive
• Storytelling
• Hosting and Hospitality

Juan Pinto

FGASA Scout and Director at Royal Malewane

Judging in categories:
• Guided Walk
• Track and Sign
• Advanced Rifle Handling
• Bird Slide and Sound
• Storytelling
• Hosting and Hospitality

James Steyn

FGASA Scout and General Manager at Senalala

Judges in categories:
• Guided Walk
• Track and Sign
• Advanced Rifle Handling
• Storytelling
• Hosting and Hospitality

Alan Yeowart

FGASA Professional Field Guide, Scout and Assessor

Judging for categories:
• Game Drive
• Storytelling
• Hosting and Hospitality

Shannon Wild

Award winning National Geographic Wildlife Photographer and Filmmaker

Judges in categories:
• Guided Photographic Experience

Meet the winners

2023 Winner

CONGRATULATIONS
Kimberlee Le Hanie

Runner-up

Jan Dykema

Finalist

Pioneer Moyo

Finalist

Warren Deyzel

Finalist

Ruan Coetzee

Invitational Candidate

Francois du Plessis

2022 Winner

Cameron Pearce, the 2022 winner of Safari Guide of the Year.

CONGRATULATIONS
Cameron Pearce

Runner-up

Ruvan Grobler

Finalist

Liam Henderson

Finalist

Solomon Ndlovu

Finalist

Nico Brits

2021 Winner

CONGRATULATIONS
Togara Charingira

Runner-up

Shaun D’Ároujo

Finalist

Wayne Howarth

Finalist

Civilised Ngwenya

Finalist

Mike Meidlinger

2019 Winner

CONGRATULATIONS
Riaan Fourie

Runner-up

Margaux Le Roux

Finalist

Antony Collet

Finalist

Rassie Jacobss

Finalist

Julius Mkhize

Safari Guide of the Year Sponsors

Ruggedwear

Gallery

What to Expect

Below is an article from James Tyrrell, winner of Safari Guide of the Year 2018 on his experience.

I had never agonized for so long over the call of an African Fish Eagle.
“Surely that’s too easy?”
“What if it’s a trick?”
“Could be a drongo putting on a really good mimic…”

These were the ridiculous thoughts going through my head within minutes of the start of SGOTY 2018.
Identifying bird calls is normally such a treat when out in the bush, but now, only a few calls into our first assessment, I could barely hold my pen my hands were sweating so much; I was second guessing myself on every question, and at one point I panicked and just wrote down White Browed Scrub-Robin as an answer three times in a row, in the hope that at least one of them would be right (none of them were!).

It’s pretty hilarious that when your guiding abilities are being scrutinized by some of the industry’s finest, the pressure can feel like it’s suddenly been cranked up to 11.
Driving celebrity guests? No problem.
2 weeks with a high-profile international wildlife photographer on your vehicle? Piece of cake.
Identify a francolin call you’ve heard 5 000 times before, during the SGOTY birding assessment? Uh-oh.

But what better way to evaluate where you are in your guiding career than take part in such an event? Your most brutally honest assessor as a guide should always be yourself, and without regular seminars being conducted or courses being attended, the two biggest factors that contribute towards guide progression are simply experience and self-learning. Once you qualify, you are more often than not on your own, and it’s usually only your guests who are providing you with feedback, which tends to be skewed massively towards the positive, as who isn’t going to be happy with seeing a leopard in a tree on their first visit to Africa?
Nope, to really shake it up, some kind of objective assessment like SGOTY is perfect.

“Objective” is a tricky word to apply to the guiding profession, as each guest’s experience with their guide will necessarily be different, and good guides should be able to tweak the experiences they provide based on the needs of the individual guests.

Yet a number of the fundamentals of guiding are objectively measurable, and a mix of subjective and objective is ultimately what SGOTY is about.

Birding, Tracking, Shooting, Story-telling, Guided Walk and Game Drive were the categories, with the heavier weighting being applied to the last two – since they make up the bulk of the guest experience – and slightly fewer points being awarded to the first four.

Birding (which was assessed on a visual ID and then a calls basis) was mercifully out of the way by the end of the first afternoon, and we could look forward to a further 5 days of “competition”, although the best part of the event was that it was a way to spend the better part of the week in good company, in the bush, learning new things. Actually competing was merely an afterthought.
Sort of.

Every morning and afternoon a game drive and bush walk conducted by one of the competitors departed from Nkambeni Safari Camp – our hosts for the week – with assessors on each excursion. Those competitors not taking the drive naturally gravitated towards the walk, as spending time on foot in the Kruger Park with veterans James Steyn (adjucator) and Jaco Buys (previous winner) wasn’t the type of opportunity you should even consider passing up.
We tracked lions and stalked lone buffalo bulls. We discussed bird behaviour and identified obscure trees. We watched elephants from afar and from close, with each encounter reminding us just why we chose this career path.

And then at each meal came the typical “How’d it go?” from the rest of the group. The assessors were keeping their cards very close to their chests, so most of the week was simply a case of feeling It out and judging your own performance vs. those of your peers.
When guiding first-timers to the bush, you can generally get away with one or two mistakes that will pass unnoticed, but when your assessors boast 25 years’ experience each to their names, it’s a little bit harder to do, and if you slip up, you pretty much know they will have noted it!

The tracking was my personal favourite. Famed tracker Renias Mhlongo, co-founder and head trainer of the Tracker Academy was brought in to invigilate, which further added to the pressure.

It was a chilly morning on the lonely, dusty. Bit of road that was selected as the venue. Renias and James would walk ahead of the group, identifying four or five tracks to be tested. They would circle and number each track or sign, then call the competitors up in small groups to let them try work out what animal had passed by.

Once each competitor had decided – or thought he knew – what each track was, he would quietly whisper the answer to James, who marked the answer down on a clipboard. Tracks were weighted according to their difficulty (eg. A simple elephant footprint would only be worth one point, whereas a more cryptic thick-knee track might be worth three), so a slip-up on an easy track wasn’t a train-smash, as you could recover to a certain extent if you nailed the tricky ones.
As the whole focus of guiding is ultimately learning, so was this assessment, and the post-section discussions were wonderfully enlightening. And often hilarious, as we revealed to each other the ridiculous mistakes we all made at one point or another. I think I called a frog track a nightjar, or something equally ludicrous. We win or we learn!

Shooting was squeezed in on the penultimate afternoon, and was the most clearly measurable of all the categories. You hit the target or you don’t. Period.

With that out of the way, Friday eventually arrived with the final walk and drive heading out at dawn.

Thereafter the points were in, and all we could do was wait until the prize-giving that evening. I did wonder whether I might be penalised for having a whisky at 10:30am to calm the nerves, but ultimately decided against it. Not because I was worried of what others might think, but my bar tab for the week had turned out to be significantly higher than I anticipated, so I decided to cut down on the final day.

The guiding industry is so filled with clichés that it can be hard to describe the bush experience and more especially something like SGOTY with true originality.
Passion, enlightening, camaraderie… all words that leap to mind when reminiscing over those 5 days, but all words that are overused in the greater guiding context. I think though, that what I – and I hope my fellow competitors – got out of the week was far more satisfying feeling than just having participated…
To be invited to compete in SGOTY requires a minimum of 5 years’ experience as a guide, although many of the entrants have far more than that. Four or five times more, even. And looking around at everyone who was part of that week – not just the competitors but the organisers, the adjudicators, the guests… – it was evident in the most subtle behaviours, just how central a role the bush played in everyone’s lives. Whether they worked in the bush full-time or only got out to Africa once a year, all who attended SGOTY had this underlying connection, this deep yearning for Africa’s wild places and her inhabitants.

Yes, this common thread was superficially obvious, because the competition was everyone’s reason for being there after all, but it was something far deeper than that, something that you could simply feel.

Only about 7% of communication actually involves words; over 38% involves tone and 55% apparently involves body language, and the constant language of all who gathered at Nkambeni for SGOTY 2018 was this enormous and mutual love for where they were and what they were doing.

And ultimately what we strive for as people – even though many of us are unaware of it, and even though it is so often lacking in modern society – is exactly that. Community. Shared Ideals. Belonging.

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