Savannah Guides bring eco-tourism to northern Australia's travellers and tree-changers
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During the summer, Phil Clucas can be found opening doors and answering questions for visitors at one of Melbourne’s fanciest hotels.
But when northern Australia’s wet season is over, he and his wife Ange, a former pharmacist, are sharing their eco-knowledge as Savannah Guides at Adel’s Grove in Queensland’s north-west.
Also there is fellow guide and occasional refrigeration engineer Alex Mudryk from Brisbane.
“Savannah Guides is a professional body that represents tour guides who work across the Savannah Way between Cairns and Broome,” Ms Clucas, a senior guide, said.
“Our motto is that we are protectors and interpreters of the outback.”
With caravanners and campers taking to the road in peak numbers, access to the specialised knowledge of Savannah Guides ensures visitors to the region have an immersive eco-tourism experience.
Approximately 100 guides can be found in locations from the lava tubes of Undara to far north Queensland’s rainforests, Riversleigh’s fossil fields, Cape York’s telegraph station and across to Kakadu and the Kimberleys — and beyond.
Providing sustainable, unique visitor access
Savannah Guides manager Russell Boswell explained that the not-for-profit network of professional tour guides and tour operators works with national parks, researchers, and local communities to highlight a region’s unique natural features.
In addition, he manages about 65 accredited Wet Tropics Guides between Townsville and Cooktown and a national program of about 106 Eco Guides.
“It’s a really growing movement of professionalism among all these tour guides and Savannah Guides has probably, as an organisation, been the core of that movement,” Mr Boswell said.
“It started about 30 years ago when some gulf savannah cattlemen and some Indigenous rangers thought ‘gosh, if the cattle prices go down again, we’re in trouble’.
“So they diversified into tourism and through that, they started to investigate the best way to do tourism and how to become really good tour guides.
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“[Our guides] have a great passion for sharing their country with their visitors.”
Tourists benefit from knowledge
Travellers Julie and Gary Bradley from Sydney’s Picnic Point have come across Savannah Guides both at Adel’s Grove and at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum at Winton.
“You get the opportunity to find out both the geography and a little bit of history of the country, which you can’t capture unless you have that subject matter expert,” Ms Bradley said.
“At Winton, they were very young guides who were either very keen on their subject or locals and that was impressive.”
The couple agreed the Savannah Guides had enhanced their experience of both locations.
Caravanners, Jane and David Smith of Yeelanna, South Australia, have come across Savannah Guides in several locations.
“We have been very impressed by them; they are very knowledgeable about their subjects,” Ms Smith said.
Those signing up to become Savannah Guides range from tree-changers, semi-retired older people, school leavers in regional towns looking for a career, and an increasing number of Indigenous rangers.
“There are a lot of people who are looking to adjust their ‘nature deficit disorder’ and get back in touch with the land,” Mr Boswell said.
Field schools open to all
In order to become accredited, potential guides must attend up to two field schools, which are held at Savannah Guide locations twice a year.
It is not a requirement to already be a guide to attend a school, although professional guides find them a source for networking and vocational development.
“You get a behind-the-scenes look at things, that’s the big benefit,” Mr Clucas said.
“For instance, when we went to Undara Lava Tubes [for the school there], we went to the Undara volcano, which is not open to the public.
“Because it was a Savannah Guide school, the national park rangers got together and arranged a visit, so you see things other people don’t see.”
Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory was the location for the most recent school, and the next will be held at Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia.
Once accredited, a Savannah Guide must attend at least one school every two years in order to maintain their professional standards.
“I attended a few schools and after the first school, I was absolutely hooked, loved every bit of it, then continued on until I became a Savannah Guide and loved every bit of it,” Mr Mudryk said.
“They set a standard so you have to achieve a certain standard to be recognised — dress code, the way you deal with people — and that’s what we learn in the schools.”