Knowledge vs. Safety in Guiding

Guiding a group of clients successfully in any activity requires the Guide to have knowledge of the subject in order to educate and entertain as well as the ability to look after the safety of the clients. These are the soft and hard skills of guiding.

In some industries the hard skills or safety skills are far more pronounced then in others. A guide, who leads white water paddling trips, offers mountain climbs, leads a nature trail, or goes hiking etc, needs to have a very well developed ability to ensure the safety of the clients in what is potentially a high risk activity. The ability to provide the activity safely is far more important than the educational knowledge imparted during the trip. We can think of these hard skills as the Guides “Drivers Licence”, the skills needed to run the physical activity.

The soft or knowledge based skills are less important in Activity or Adventure Guides then a Guide whose primary focus is providing an overview of South Africa to a visitor from the comfort of a coach.

However these skills work together – so where should we place the greatest importance?

Camping near the base of Thabana Ntlenyana

Any Guiding activity that is primarily low risk and focuses on educating the client should have a high importance placed on the soft skills of guiding. A Guide who works from a coach or vehicle primarily imparts knowledge, and the safety of the groups travel is in the hands of the driver. This is what prompted the regulations about driver guides, as a driver of a vehicle can not adequately look after the safety of the physical trip (driving) if they are focusing on educating the visitors about South Africa.

In activities that are primarily high risk, it is imperative that importance is placed on the hard skills, or the ‘Drivers Licence”.

If we cannot guarantee the physical safety of visitors during an activity because we are focusing too much on imparting knowledge then we are failing in our duties as guides. The physical activity MUST take preference over the knowledge imparted in all cases.

In this light, a guide who holds a national qualification in Culture or other knowledge based subject, and who guides outside of the safety of a coach, should also hold an additional qualification that proves their competence to run the physical aspect of the trip, such as, Mountain Walking, Paddling, Dangerous Game, Rock Climbing, Surfing, Kite-boarding, 4×4 etc. Not to do so could be regarded as a failure in our duty of care and could be regarded as gross negligence.

To Summarise:

There is a safety aspect and there is an educational aspect to all guiding. Being able to recognise birds in a coastal forest should not qualify a Guide to take clients to view Bearded Vultures by foot on the Drakensberg escarpment unless you also hold a qualification to enter into that specialist environment.

The safety of clients is fundamental and that is often dependent on the environment we enter into – if you are a qualified SCUBA diver, does that mean you can now fly a Kite Board as well – and walking on flat terrain is very different to walking in a mountainous area?

Training guides in the educational aspects of History, Culture, Nature etc is one thing, training them to escort clients safely is completely different and non-negotiable and the current industry associations recommendations where available should be enforced by Provincial Registrars for all guides.

Are Guides Who Lead Walking Tours Different?

We must define the duties, and examine the hazards faced by “walking  guides” before deciding what qualifications need to be held.

THE TERRAIN

Walking guides” are those guides who lead groups on tours where the primary means of travel is on foot in remote areas, such as game reserves, the coastline or mountains, in fact, any area could be included where the party walks over terrain that has not been modified by permanent fixed walkways, and is remote enough that assistance can not be reached on foot within one hour. This makes it “Walking Guide” terrain.

Clients going on such a trip are in many cases not adequately prepared by the tour operator and guide for a trip into the outside environment. Serious problems arise when the “easy” walk gets more difficult because of unexpected changing conditions. Nobody is prepared for or recognises the changes, but the trip will often go on as planned. Modern civilisation makes the average person inefficient to travel in the outdoors. It strips us of our skills of walking in remote unmodified areas.

Says experienced Tour Guide Dave Sclanders,

I believe that anyone who goes into the outdoor environment should have appropriate walking training and registration. (There is) a problem with large tour operators who have guides who have no ‘Mountain Experience’ taking day tours by foot into the mountains. If tour guides are city graded, that’s where they must stay.

THE QUALIFICATIONS

The usual qualifications that tour guides hold fall into three main categories: Culture, Nature and Adventure. Neither the Culture nor Nature qualification unit standards have any “walking skills” built into them. (Although some providers may add some as extras) There are no requirements that the guide knows how to cope with for example:

Group Leadership on foot in the outdoors,
• Navigation
• Hazardous obstacle avoidance
• Steep ground movement
• Water hazards

Only the Adventure Guide Qualifications include these as specific requirements.

Says Grant Hine of FGASA,

Given the nature of and potential dangers in mountain areas it is imperative that Nature Guides working in this type of “speciality” environment attain the relevant mountain guiding unit standards over and above the nature unit standards, before being legally allowed to guide in these areas.

This can apply to all on foot areas and not just mountain areas, as well as to all categories of guides and not just nature.

Searching rough terrain

ACCIDENT STATISTICS

Very few statistics are available that look at accidents and causes, but there is one good resource, the Mountain Club of SA – Cape Section, which looks at the Western Cape area over the last 100 years or so, (1881-2004), and the statistics are interesting:

Of 1041 accident entries in the database, 645 or 62% of accidents involved walkers, the highest of the eleven categories listed. Of 197 fatalities in the same period, 88 or 45% were walkers. Table Mountain was detailed as the most dangerous area of the Western Cape as the access is so easy, and it is still today the area where the most unsuitably qualified guides are leading walking trips.

DANGER POINTS

In outdoor & or remote areas…

  • Weather: Changes occur much faster and effects are more severe and the guide must know what to do, in all circumstances. Temperatures down to -10° C occur in mountains regularly in winter causing hypothermia. However, high temperatures can also occur, causing hyperthermia.
  • Altitude: 8 in 10 clients who go beyond 2400m above sea level will experience mild (or worse) symptoms of altitude sickness. High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema is possible in the Drakensberg. A person not treated correctly can die within 18 hours.
  • Fitness & Nutrition: The tough outdoors environment takes its toll on people who would be seen as fit on average tours. Energy consumption is higher and dehydration is more likely. Guides need to provide suitable meals and advice as well as closely monitoring the clients.
  • Injuries: Distances to get help are much greater. Often, the nearest help may be 2 hours to 2 days walk away. There are no easy communications and cell phones often do not work. Normal first aid courses are not suitable, especially the current minimum requirement of Level 1. There are specific protocols for alerting rescue teams that are not known or taught to normal guides.
  • Biodiversity in our remote areas is often more spectacular than in the more urban areas. The environment is much more sensitive to our impact. Guides need advanced environmental training to learn about this complex system, not only to tell guests about it, but to keep them safe and preserve it.
  • Distances: Trips led by walking guides vary from less than a kilometre to over 300 kilometres in South Africa. Walks are usually unsupported. A greater degree of fitness, strength and self-sufficiency is needed.
  • Navigation. Practiced skills and local knowledge are essential. Restricted visibility is very possible year round. Compasses are not usable in some remote areas due to magnetic aberrations and Guides must know how to use alternative methods. The survival of a group is dependent on the Guide being able to navigate in zero visibility. And this includes “urban areas” like Table Mountain.
  • Leadership qualities: A walking guide requires better leadership and team skills than a normal guide. Walking guides work 24 hours a day on tour. They are guide, friend, companion, shoulder to cry on, cook, dishwasher, general encyclopaedia and story teller. Many matters have to be attended to during the night, such as chasing away predators and standing guard over toilet visits.
  • Cultural heritage: Remote areas have a rich cultural heritage that requires specific knowledge. Visitors to rock art sites need special training, as do guides walking through sensitive tribal lands.
    10) Steep Terrain: Movement on this type of surface requires specialised training and skills which normal guides are not taught. A “walking rope” is invaluable.
  • Camping: There are no facilities in remote areas so specialised equipment is used. The use of this equipment is not taught to standard Guides, and some of this equipment can be highly dangerous in inexperienced hands.
  • Water hazards: Rivers and other water bodies are a significant hazard to anyone. Many people are killed each year trying to cross rivers incorrectly.
  • Dress: The outdoors requires specific dress codes, especially if one is to stay out overnight. Simple things like inadequate footwear can cause major problems.

A walking guide qualification can be seen as your ‘drivers licence’. Without a drivers license, regardless of how expert you are on the fauna, flora, culture or history of an area if you crash the coach you will kill your clients. If you want to guide on foot, obtain the correct drivers licence first then enhance that with your specialist knowledge. Brilliant knowledge and stories will never make a badly led walking experience safe.

What a walking guide needs to know is learnt from many years in the outdoors and from targeted training – it cannot be learnt from a book in a few weeks. If you lead trips on foot in the outdoors, make sure you hold the correct qualifications — both for your safety and that of your clients.

Long term patient care on a walking trip