Safari Guide of the Year is just around the corner and we’re proud to announce and introduce you all to 2024’s top five! The event may be a competition to select Southern Africa’s guide of the year, but it stands for much more than just bragging rights. Envisioned by safari legend, Mike Karantonis, Safari Guide of the Year aims to give back to those who have shown unwavering dedication and commitment to their careers and standards of guiding excellence. Although the five finalists compete against each other, the spirit of the event is one of camaraderie, support, fun and, of course, a love and passion for wildlife and the natural world. Without further ado, please give a warm welcome to our five finalists.

Themba Mabunda – Lion Sands Game Reserve, Sabi Sand, MORE Family Collection

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.”

H.J. Esterhuizen – Royal Malewane, Greater Kruger, The Royal Portfolio

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.

Ashley Meintjes – Lalibela Game Reserve, Eastern Cape

Our third finalist is 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.”

Phillip Wessles – Cheetah Ridge Lodge, Nambiti Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal

Phillip Wessels is finalist number four and 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.

Tracey Bruton – Thornybush Game Lodge, Greater Kruger

Please give a warm welcome to our fifth and final 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.”