By Peter Musa
For Zoe Wanjiru, life is one continuous climb — and she wouldn’t have it any other way. For seven years, the Kenyan national has been guiding tourists up some of East Africa’s most treacherous peaks, including Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, and through some of the region’s most scenic safari parks.
As one of the few women guides operating in East Africa, she’s faced skepticism and downright discrimination. In many lodges, accommodation for women guides simply doesn’t exist — then there are the flirtatious guests and subordinates who don’t take her seriously.
But over the years Wanjiru has hit her stride and knows how to deal with these challenges. She’s struck deals with hotels to stay in guest quarters and has assembled a trustworthy and respectful team. She knows how to handle everything from feisty tourists to life-threatening accidents.
In August 2010, she launched travel company Bush and Events Africa, which she co-owns. Wanjiru continues to lead tours and doesn’t plan to stop climbing any time soon. In fact, decades from now, she hopes to sumit Mt. Kilimanjaro at 60.
Wanjiru shares her struggles, triumphs, and best advice with Akilah Net.
How did you decide to become a tour guide?
Tour guiding was in my blood. I don’t have a memorable experience about being a tour guide simply because I have grown into it. It came naturally, as I have always loved outdoor visits since my school years.
During weekends, I used to organize hikes to the Ngong Hills north of Nairobi and Mt. Longonot near the coveted Naivasha Plains. It is just that when I grew older, I came to realize that it can be an income-generating undertaking.
What do you love about guiding mountain hikes?
I have always loved hiking because it is therapeutic to me. So when I realized I could use an activity I truly enjoy as a source of income, I was more than elated. I’m at peace when I’m on a mountain. If it wasn’t that cold, I would live up on Mt. Kenya or Kilimanjaro!
How did you start your tour guide company?
I was employed elsewhere at first, but I started making plans to quit and launch my own tour company. I knew I would make it, as I had established a strong base among previous clients, and they were already sending referrals my way.
I resigned and started off full throttle with a lot of hope. Almost five years down the line, I couldn’t be happier. My partner is more versed with the corporate world, so he handles the team-building and conference side of the business.
What challenges do you face as a female tour guide and businesswoman?
Most people expect a tour guide to be a man, especially for mountain climbing. So when you’re a woman, most people don’t believe you will actually take them up the mountain!
Sometimes you’re looked down upon. Other times, you find clients who are more interested in wooing you and not treating you with respect, just because you’re a woman. Sometimes if you work with a crew that views you more as “the woman” and not their leader, it becomes a problem.
I’m lucky to have an amazing crew that respects me for who I am — they have no problem working with me or under my supervision. With time, I’ve also learned to always draw clear lines from the get-go — for both clients and the people I work with. They must understand why you’re there and be ready to work together with you, regardless of your gender.
Are there advantages to being a female mountain guide?
The advantage of being female is the other climbers take you as their benchmark. They think, “If Zoe can do it, why not me?” And they end up at the summit!
Are there other occupational challenges? How do you handle them?
The biggest challenge I face as a female tour guide is usually accommodation in hotels and lodges. The facilities for drivers and guides are mainly outside the main lodge or hotel, and both the rooms and washrooms are often dormitory style.
So about 90% of the places that I’ve been are not conducive to female guides because you have to share facilities with male guides, and chances are, you will be the only female. The hotels and lodges hence advise that you book a regular room on the client’s side, which is more expensive.
It used to bother me, but with time, I have developed a good working relationship with the lodges. They offer me much better rates, and I stay on the guests’ side, which is cozier anyway. However, I wish female guides were more accommodated.
What was your scariest moment as a mountain guide?
The scariest moments as a mountain guide are always when you have an emergency. Owing to the altitude, clients are bound to fall sick, sometimes seriously. One time I took a group of 18 climbers up Kilimanjaro, and with a big number like that, you need a big crew — other guides, porters, cooks, etc. So at the end of the day, it’s exhausting for the team leader.
One of our climbers developed a cough, which quickly escalated to pulmonary edema, a serious altitude-related illness, and she had to be evacuated. We were far from the nearest evacuation point. So being the team leader, I had to organize some of my crew to rush the client down to the evacuation point asap. As a rule of the mountain, I had to be part of the evacuation team.
How did you sort it out?
We had to rush against time. Five men and I carted the client on a stretcher, stopping after every 30 minutes or so to assess her breathing. We ran for three straight hours (over rocks, scree, and bushes) to the evacuation point and dashed her to the hospital via ambulance.
This was the last day of the climb, so we were already exhausted. I don’t remember ever being more exhausted in my entire life, plus the uncertainty of seeing someone almost lose their life as you watch.
Needless to say, once the client was out of danger, I still had to follow up on the other 17 climbers, then have a sit-down with my crew since it was the last day. During such times I think I get special strength from above.
What skills must a tour guide have to be successful?
You must be very well-versed with your job. If you’re a birding guide, know your birds well. If you’re a mountain guide, take time and read up about various mountains of the world, how to handle mountain emergencies, etc. A guide is rated by his or her knowledge. In this day and age of information online, nobody has any excuse to be lazy and uninformed.
You also must be presentable, even in the wild — the safari park or mountain is your office. You must be ready to accommodate people — every group comes with different needs and demands. You must be well equipped: If you’re on safari, carry guide books and tools, such as binoculars.
You must be respectful: Respect the fact that your clients saved and paid to be on this safari, respect their opinions and beliefs, and respect their space. Respect other guides and people you meet while on safari.
How do you prepare your family when you go on a long safari?
The good thing with my family is that they are very understanding.
They’ve seen me do this ever since they can remember, and they know how much this means to me. I usually know in advance how my trips are scheduled, hence I prepare my family in advance and ensure everything that needs my attention is done before I leave.
Does your job require creativity?
Yes! You have to be very creative. As a tour guide, you must try and keep your clients entertained, otherwise it will be a dull safari, and they’ll probably think you did not go out of your way to ensure they had a great time.
You must read up and watch travel-related documentaries to up your creativity. If you see a bird or an animal, it’s very dull to just say, “That’s an elephant”. Of course they can see it’s an elephant. You have to go the extra mile and give interesting facts about elephants and maybe a story or two about them; leave the client yearning to know more.
As for the mountains, you have to look for creative ways to motivate the climbers, especially since sometimes the going gets very tough!
Sometimes you boost the climbing experience with stories from your past climbs; I never run out of these because every single climb is an experience in itself and a story for the future.
How much do you make in a month?
It depends, some months are low, really low, and some are very busy. It can range from nothing during low season to thousands of dollars during peak season. It’s then up to you as a guide to balance your earnings out and cover all months.
As a tour guide, what does a typical day entail?
Waking up very early for the morning drive (you leave the camp or lodge by 6-6:30 a.m.), going on a game drive until about 8:30 a.m., coming back for breakfast, then going for a bush walk or a nature walk. Then you have lunch, relax a little in the early afternoon, and, at around 3 p.m, you have the evening game drive until dusk, when you get back for dinner.
How long do you plan to continue guiding tours?
For as long as my energy allows. Even when I retire, I’ll still do it for fun. It’s something I enjoy doing, even without making any money out of it. It would be fun to guide a group of fellow pensioners up Kilimanjaro when I’m past 60!
What’s your advice for budding tour guides?
Take it slow. Listen to those who have been there before you. Perfection is key.
Find your strong points and maximize them — don’t try to do everything.
There’s a reason why we have only two hands and two feet: There’s a limit to how much you can handle perfectly.
Peter Musa is an award-winning journalist with eight years of experience at the Nation Media Group, the largest media organization in East and Central Africa.