When most people picture a safari guide, it’s usually a man that comes to mind—as the majority are. But now, women who are equally passionate about wildlife, conservation, and tourism are joining the fray.
The first time I met safari guide Deb Tittle, we’d waded barefoot across Zambia’s crocodile-infested Luangwa River. Lions lay on one bank and hyenas on the other—admittedly, some distance away—and yet I felt weirdly relaxed. “A line of people in the water is unusual and crocs won’t know how to react,” she’d said. “They’ll leave us alone.”
Fast forward four years and I’m back in Zambia’s South Luangwa reminiscing about those crocs with Deb. A British woman in her mid-50s, she’s not what most people imagine a safari guide to be—and yet she went on to train over 60 Zambian guides. “When I started in the late 1990s, clients usually expected a cross between Harrison Ford and David Attenborough!” she says.
It seems little has changed since then. In 10 years of writing about Africa, I’ve worked with countless safari guides—but few have been women. In Zambia in particular, they’re seldom seen: Deb is an exception.
Zambia’s premier national park, South Luangwa, is vast and wild, spanning some 9,050 square kilometers. Walking safaris were born here, pioneered by renowned conservationist Norman Carr in the 1960s. “When I started walking in the bush, I was hooked,” Deb explains. “It’s so simple and pure. You see how peaceful nature is.”
So what brought her from Stockton-on-Tees in England’s northeast to the wilds of Zambia? “My first experience of the bush was when I was four, watching Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan!” she laughs. “I knew then that I wanted to live with wild animals.”
After university, she drove overlanders across Africa. Meeting other expat guides inspired her to do the same and she qualified in South Luangwa in the mid-1990s. Her dream was always to have her own small camp in the bush and in September 2018, she opened Mapazi. Sleeping just four guests, it’s a simple, walking-only camp near the riverbank in the remote northern corner of the park. “I want to stay true to this special, intimate way of looking at the bush,” she tells me. “And I want to share it with others.”
During her 20 years in the Luangwa Valley, Deb has led over 2,500 walking safaris and she’s one of the best-known and most experienced guides in Zambia. Her guiding style is an unusual blend of gentle and intrepid, shaped by an innate connection with nature.
“I find out what’s special to guests and work around that so that they’ll have a moment so special, it will stay with them forever. I walk in a proactive way—’let’s get in there, let’s track and find the big animals, let’s have fun!’ It’s not your normal nature walk…”
“Some women clients were so engrained with the typical model of guides being burly blokes with guns that they didn’t trust a woman. That was hard to deal with.”
Deb Tittle, guide and camp owner
I can vouch for that. During our walks from Mapazi, she coaxes me beyond my comfort zone as my confidence in the bush grows, but always with an eye to safety. We track leopards on foot while trying to dodge elephants wandering through woodland, get close to hippos wallowing in the water and sneak up on a sleeping hyena.
When she first started, both guests and (male) colleagues had preconceived ideas of what a guide should be. “Some women clients were so engrained with the typical model of guides being burly blokes with guns that they didn’t trust a woman. That was hard to deal with. I’d think: “Ladies, have faith: We’re on the same team here!””
Her colleagues initially treated her as a novelty, but she was determined to succeed. “I was terrified that if I had an incident on a walk, like any guide can, they’d say: ‘Well what do you expect, she’s a woman?’ I carried that in my gut for at least 15 years, adamant it wasn’t going to happen. I had to be good at my job.”
After training some 60 Zambian guides, she became lead examiner for their qualifications. “I was a harsh teacher and I did hours in the bush with these guys. We worked hard, with a few giggles along the way of course, but we bonded. I know how hard they worked to get through, and they know I put my heart into helping them. We’ve a mutual respect—long may that last.”
Few of Deb’s pupils were women however. She no longer trains, and the qualification system has since changed with a national training course for guides at Nyamaluma Institute in Eastern Province. But female guides in Zambia are still rare.
For 29-year-old guide Jen Coppinger, the bush is in her blood. Indeed, she was born in the bush, not far from Mapazi, when her white parents Carol and John, a renowned guide and Norman Carr protégé, were managing a lodge. They later established Remote Africa Safaris in the Luangwa Valley, whose camps include the beautifully rustic Tafika, Jen’s childhood home.
“Guests look quite scared when they see this tiny girl jumping into the front seat,” she laughs. “But you don’t need to be a strong guy to do this job. Yes, it’s hard work changing tyres on a Land Cruiser, but it is for guys too. If a buffalo’s charging, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, strong or not. You’ve got to be able to deal with the situation.”
For those women that do qualify, jobs are difficult to come by because the remote locations and male-dominated teams and attitudes at camps make family life so difficult.
“I was the only female on my guiding course,” Jen continues. “Because of my background, I didn’t have the cultural pressures that many local women have. They’re expected to get married and bring up children. Most camps are remote, with no nightly staff runs to take people home so it’s difficult for them to balance everything. It will change eventually—everything changes…”
It’s not always easy for women to pursue these careers: Zambia’s rural communities experience a high dropout rate of schoolgirls due to teenage pregnancies and child marriages. And for those that do qualify, jobs are difficult to come by because the remote locations and male-dominated teams and attitudes at camps make family life so difficult.
But Mabel Mwanza, a single mum, is breaking down those barriers. She’s a guide at the popular Flatdogs Camp in Mfuwe, the gateway town for South Luangwa National Park. Having attended Mfuwe Secondary School and Chipembele Conservation Center, both supported by Flatdogs and other nearby camps through NGO Project Luangwa, she’s capitalizing on the opportunities presented by tourism.
Like Jen, her inspiration came from her father. “He was a botanist and vet. He was always protecting animals and trees,” she tells me.
However, her first three months as a guide were difficult. “Male colleagues kept telling me I couldn’t do the job and I felt very out of place,” she says. “I wanted to leave but Dad said ‘Stick with it, you’ll get used to it.’ The guys are used to me now. They treat me as one of them.”
Flatdogs is close to town, so Mabel goes home every night. “But I’d like to work in more remote bush camps, I think it would be inspiring,” she says. With her Mum looking after her son, her aspirations are to travel even further afield. “I’d like to see how things are done elsewhere, to visit other places in Zambia and other countries.”
Three very different women from very different backgrounds, Deb, Jen and Mabel all share one thing in common—their love of the African bush. They’re living their dream, and perhaps in time, they’ll inspire more women to do likewise.
Sue Watt is an award-winning London-based writer with a passion for African travel and conservation. Her bylines appear in The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, BBC Wildlife, Travel Africa and Luxury Travel Magazine.