Table Mountain hiking: What to look for in a guide – 15 December 2020

This article assumes you’ve made the decision to use a Table Mountain hiking guide and as such deals with the qualities and competencies you want in a guide. Table Mountain ranks as a top-3 experience to the vast majority of travellers, so optimizing the experience by using a great guide makes a lot of sense.

But what exactly constitutes a great Table Mountain hiking guide? Below is my list of the Top 7 attributes (in no particular order) you can expect from a mountain-guide at the top if his or her game.

  • Passion. If your guide is not passionate about mountains, and specifically Table Mountain, all else falls flat. Passion paves the way to enthusiasm and ultimately fun. And at the end of the day, fun ranks second in importance only to safety. You don’t want a jaded guide, someone who struggles to wax lyrical over a striking sense impression encountered along the way. And there’s always something to enrapture, charm or intrigue the passionate hiker. A great guide radiates exuberance, leaving no doubt in your mind that he / she is at least as excited by the hike as you are. Nothing wrong with an introverted guide, either: rather than whoops and animated chatter, they show their passion in subtler ways: a thorough appraisal of the landscape; quick to marvel at even the tiniest of flowers; bright eyes, a ready smile, an easy manner – no less engaging than the lively type.
  • Competence. Table Mountain is not to be trifled with. Despite its proximity to a city and the presence of a cableway, the mountain is still wild and rugged. Unforgiving terrain, erratic weather, ample dimensions and a bewildering network of trails call for competence to ensure safety and enjoyment. Equally important is a guide with sound judgement who integrates conditions and terrain with the skills, abilities and expectations of the group – attributes cultivated through years of experience. Furthermore, a high level of competence is vital on all Table Mountain hiking routes that involve scrambling and exposure to heights. Mountain-guiding school teaches 4 levels of competency: unconsciously incompetent, consciously incompetent, consciously competent and unconsciously competent. You want your guide to have attained the latter level.
  • Knowledge. Table Mountain is a world in microcosm begging closer acquaintance. Learning about the environment forms an important component to guided Table Mountain hikes. Through the judicious sharing of information, the guide brings the landscape to life, filling in the unseen gaps. But this goes beyond rattling out facts and figures about the fauna and flora, history and geology (fascinating as they might be). A great guide weaves in tales, anecdotes and legends, and shares his or her empirical knowledge of the mountain – its nuances and intricacies – accumulated through years of hiking Table Mountain. Too much information on a guided hike can be as bad as too little. An experienced and attentive guide will adjust information-sharing to the group’s interests and expectations.
  • Soft skills. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, soft skills encompass attributes essential for effective and harmonious interaction. Communication skills, listening skills, sympathy, empathy, attentiveness, sense of humor, charisma, patience, striking up rapport, sincerity, identifying and acting on psychological dynamics within a group, encouragement, leadership – these attributes all fall within the domain of soft skills. As far as I’m concerned, soft skills separate the merely good from the great. It’s this conglomeration of skills that brings challenge and gratification to the guide in equal measure. At its core resides a love for people: a genuine interest in the wellbeing and happiness of others. To the guide, greatness awaits in the mastering of soft skills.
  • Integrity. Central to guiding, no less than to life, is a strict adherence to moral principles. It goes beyond ethos and code of conduct, covering sterling virtues such as respect, loyalty and honesty – and complemented by compassion, sincerity and kindness. Like icebergs, only their tips show, but enough to suggest depth of character. 
  • Experience. The benefits of experience require no elaboration. From insights into the environment gained from thousands of Table Mountain hikes to minimizing risk and maximizing enjoyment, experience can be defined as the sum total of mountain-guiding wisdom not found in textbooks. It covers not only mountains, but also dealing with people in the mountains.
  • Sense of Life. Last but not least. Sense of life can roughly be defined as the way in which you view life along with your response to it. A great guide possesses a positive sense of life, and the resultant attitude bolsters his or her virtues while enhancing personality in near-imperceptible ways. A guide with a negative outlook on life often comes across as insincere and lacking authenticity as he or she continually strains under the weight of a negative sense of life. Compassion, generosity, humility and empathy don’t come naturally to these guides. In a way, sense of life underpins all the above qualities.

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