Born in 1948 in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, renowned private-safari guide John Stevens has spent most of his life in the bush, inspiring countless guests with his love and enthusiasm for the African wilderness. He shares his invaluable experience with Rose Gamble
How long have you been guiding for?
Thirty-seven years, though it only seems like a handful to me. I plan to be working for many more to come!
What characteristics are essential in a guide?
You must have an acute awareness of the environment and everything that is happening around you. And safety is key; you mustn’t get too close to the animals and have respect for them and their space. You also need to be able to deal with emergencies in a calm manner. Lastly, it’s important to be able to have good tracking skills and interpret signs on the ground so that even when there are no animals around, a walk can still be fascinating.
What marks out a brilliant guide from a good guide?
A good guide is knowledgeable, attentive, professional and respectful of the environment and animals. A brilliant guide is warm and enthusiastic, a good storyteller, has humility and a deep love and respect for the bush and wildlife. A good guide knows his stuff, but a brilliant guide is passionate about sharing it. That can make the experience unforgettable.
Why is it that the Zimbabwe Guiding Licence holds a reputation for being one of the best guiding qualifications in the world?
The full licence is obtained over four years of very intense practical training and tutoring. In Zimbabwe, guides have good opportunities to gain experience with dangerous game. Although a topic of debate, a part of the licence requirement is learning how to hunt. This can provide immeasurable confidence when in a ‘real life’ experience. Usually the animals are problem beasts in nearby communal areas, such as crop raiders. Other factors that make Zimbabwe’s licence so respected include the high-quality training in weapon handling, along with access to good training opportunities for youngsters, for example, through RIFA. A local secondary school, Peterhouse Boys in Mashonaland East, has been offering a Learner Professional Guide Licence as a leaving qualification.
Why do you think guides in Zimbabwe have gained such a brilliant reputation? Do you think this will change for the next generation of guides?
Zimbabwe has a history of producing good guides through rigorous training, examining and in-the-field internships. It is a reputation built on a high standard, which fortunately has been maintained and built on through the generations. I think many of us grew up in the bush or had family in the field. We have a deep love for our country and the wildlife.
Is the best guide the most experienced guide?
Experience counts for a lot, yes, especially in terms of safety and confidence. But it is also about passion and enthusiasm, which anyone can have.
Are there any young guides in Africa who you are excited about?
There is a lot of talent throughout Africa. Honest Siyawareva at Little Rukomechi in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, is a great young guide. I’d also say Lewis Mangaba – he is a real character and has recently been training guides in Tanzania, even though he’s still quite young.
John started working as a guide in 1981 and launched John Stevens Guided Safaris in 1985. The first 17 years of his working career were spent with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, including spells as a warden for two of Zimbabwe’s most significant reserves: Matusadona National Park, on the banks of Lake Kariba, and Mana Pools National Park in the Lower Zambezi Valley. To book a safari with John, go to johnstevenssafaris.com