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.

Passion is the main enhancement for clients undertaking a guided trip

Reaching a high point on a hike to where views stretch into the far distant landscape is only part of the reason I hike in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg and Lesotho.

The stunning vista is in itself a reward, but for me the journey, each footstep that reveals a multitude of diverse beauty, is actually more important. Evidence of ancient people having been in those landscapes opens yet another dimension and meeting and interacting with people whose lives and culture are so different from mine, initiate a reflection of my place in this world.

I became a KZN Tourist Guide in 2007, having qualified as a Nature and Culture Guide. These reflected my passions, and also if I’m honest, is the reason I hiked in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg and Lesotho in the first place. The idea of sharing these passions with people was my primary reason for guiding.

A few years later I qualified as a Mountain Guide, KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg and Midlands, through Adventure Qualifications Network. My path to becoming an Adventure guide started with a passion for the mountain environment I had hiked through, initially for recreation.

As a result of my passions I have guided several exceptional day and multi-day hikes for international and local clients with particular interests, Mountain Hiking, Wildflowers, Bushman Rock Art, Culture (particularly that of Lesotho), Photography and Mountain Sketching.

Over the last ten years of guiding I have come to realize that the most important aspect of being a guide is a passion for the work you do. It has a way of enthusing clients and enhancing their experience. So it doesn’t matter which particular discipline of adventure guiding you work in, as long as you are obviously passionate about it, that, for me, is the secret of facilitating successful experiences for clients.

As ‘Southern Secrets Hiking and Backpacking’, Philip Grant (my husband, who is a National Mountain Adventure Guide) and I also share a passion for creating awareness of, and facilitating Mountain Wilderness Experiences.

For clients, the experience can sometimes be overwhelming; many have never been in a place truly unaltered by humans. We also take small groups of South Africans who have not had the opportunity, but are passionate about nature, on a volunteer basis into the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg pristine wilderness. Our hope is that by heightening awareness of our unique and irreplaceable heritage they will develop a desire to conserve these special and vulnerable places.

Christeen Grant

It’s all in the wording

Be Careful…

What does “Careful!!” actually mean? To a Guide it may mean, the rocks are slippery, the edge is crumbling, a rock is tumbling down the hill… In your mind it all makes sense, but what are your clients thinking?

Very often I hear Guides shouting a warning, or telling their clients…


When in fact a slight change in wording will be more beneficial… and understandable.

  • Careful here… could rather be said as “Listen to the rocks rolling under the water, orLook how fast the water is flowing“.
  • Careful here… rather say, “Move your feet quickly over the boulder bed of rocks rather than trying to balance on each rock. The momentum will keep you balanced.
  • Careful here… could be replaced by, “Look at this poisonous plant. Can you see any of the other group members getting too close?
  • Careful here… could mean, “These rocks are slippery.
  • Careful here… it’s better to say, “Try using your hands to balance.
  • Careful of the stove… better said as, “Can you feel the heat coming off the stove? It’s very hot.
  • Careful… “Whats your plan if you cross over that log across the river?
  • Careful… “How will you get down?

What makes sense to you, may be totally misunderstood by your clients. Speak in a way that is understandable to all and cannot be misunderstood.