Q&A with Joe Phillips: safari guide, business owner, and candidate on BBC The Apprentice 2023
Joe Phillips, nicknamed ‘Jungle Joe’, grew up in Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Egypt and England. He studied Zoology at the University of Exeter in Cornwall, and works as a safari guide in southern Africa. He’s the founder of the sustainable lip-care brand Surf Balm, and appeared on the UK television series BBC The Apprentice 2023.
Beth talks to Joe about what he loves about being a safari guide, and why he’s so passionate about Zimbabwe.
Early years in the wild
Q: It sounds like you had a well-travelled childhood. Do you think that sparked your interest in exploring?
A: I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have had the childhood that I did. I grew up in Zimbabwe, which is where I developed my love for nature and the African bush. My earliest memories from my childhood are of running around in the bush, barefoot. I’ve always been curious about wildlife, which sometimes got the better of me. I think I’ve been bitten, scratched and stung by more wild animals that I can count on my hands. As a result I’ve been told I’ve had so many rabies jabs as a child that I’m immune for life!
Certainly, growing up in these fantastic ecosystems ignited my excitement for the natural world. I moved from Zimbabwe, which is my home and my love, to Malaysia. Malaysia was fantastic, with completely different ecosystems of rainforests and jungles. Our house had monkeys swinging through the trees and snakes slithering through the kitchen, so I was really immersed in nature. From Malaysia we went to Egypt, which again was a polar opposite in culture and environment. We used to go on safari in the Sahara Desert where you would see no one around, nothing but sand dunes, for days on end.So certainly I feel incredibly lucky to have the childhood I did, growing up in these fantastic countries, and it was certainly what ignited my excitement for nature.
Life as a safari guide
Q: You’re a qualified safari guide – what does that entail?
A: I have three FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) qualifications: I did my first correspondence qualification in Sabi Sands in South Africa. I then did my Level 1, to qualify as a guide, in the Limpopo. Finally I did my Trails and ARH (Advanced Rifle Handling) training which allows you to walk through the bush, and that is my real passion. Game drives are fantastic when you’ve got guests seeing Africa for the first time because they enable you to get up and personal with the Big Five that they want to see. But my favourite thing to do is go on a bush walk. It’s awesome when you’ve had guests who don’t ‘just’ want to see lion, leopard, and elephant. If they are interested in the small things, that’s what I really love. I love going on a trail walk through the bush, picking up on all the tracks, signs, invertebrates, arthropods, and more.
Q: How do you think the travel industry can promote conservation?
A: Conservation is close to my heart, and I genuinely think the travel industry plays a vital role in conservation. Travel educates people and opens their eyes to the wonders of nature. That’s the real key to unlocking the funding for saving a species, or reducing deforestation. I think that educating people and unlocking their understanding of nature is the best way to do it.Being a safari guide, one of the best things to do is to take someone who’s never been to Africa before, perhaps never left the UK or the US, and just watch their face for the first time that they’re on foot and an elephant walks around the corner. Just watching their jaws drop and their eyes widen, seeing this magnificent beast – it’s that moment that they will take back to America or Germany or their town in Switzerland. They’ll remember watching this incredible creature. That’s the feeling that I think will contribute to conservation, because people will want to do everything they can to protect that elephant, because they’ve seen how special it is. The more we can expose people to that feeling, the better conservation will be.
Q: What’s the most important rule of being in the bush?
A: Don’t run! That’s probably the worst thing you can do.
Q: What’s your top tip for anyone thinking about going on safari?
A: Just do it – go on safari if you haven’t already! It’s an experience that will blow your mind. Even if you’re someone who’s not necessarily a nature lover, it’s just an incredible experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It gives you an appreciation for life in general, so my top tip would just be to get out there and visit Zimbabwe, especially, because it’s just such a beautiful place. Get yourself on safari!
Q: What do you think makes Zimbabwe special?
A: Zimbabwe has got to be one of the best places you can visit on this planet. Not just in terms of its biodiversity and its ecosystems, but also because of its people.
There are so many nooks and crannies of Zimbabwe that are special and different in so many ways. I used to work in Hwange National Park, not too far from Victoria Falls, and it was just incredible, with a fantastic elephant population, great camps and awesome guiding. I worked for a company called African Bush Camps, which is fantastic for honeymoons or luxury getaways especially. It has camps for everyone: families, couples, young people – everything!
Q: Complete the sentence: “The best people I met in Zimbabwe were…”
A: Everyone I met. For a country that’s gone through so much hardship, everyone is so kind and laid back and genuine. I really think Zimbabwe has some of the nicest people that you’ll ever meet. Despite the hardship that Zimbabwe has been through, the people are still so entrepreneurial and driven and enthusiastic, it gives you a perspective to see the positive side of life.
BBC The Apprentice … and looking to the future
Q: On The Apprentice, you were Project Manager in Week 1, winning the first task in Antigua with your team. Do you think it’s fitting that this was a tourism-related challenge?
A: Being a tourism task, I decided to go for it and lead the team as Project Manager. I’ll let you into a little secret: my one strategy going into The Apprentice was: do not be project manager on the first task. Because everyone knows it quadruples your chance of being fired, because there are so many of you it’s very easy to hide in the background. But when I saw that it was a tourism task taking guests around the island, I thought, ‘that’s what I do in my day job in South Africa, so I’ll put myself forward for this’. In hindsight, I’m glad I did because we went on to win the task and have a brilliant start on The Apprentice.
Q: On your Instagram account, you regularly share wildlife fact videos from your time in Africa. You’ve said that you would love to host a wildlife programme. If you got a call tomorrow to create a new wildlife show, where would you go first, and why?
A: ‘Jungle Joe’ is a side project that I like to do, because I think that educating people about nature is one of the best things you can do towards conservation. I genuinely think that nature is incredibly interesting and I want to try and share that with people. Because of that it’s always been a dream of mine to be a wildlife documentary presenter. So if I got offered a role like that, I would grab it with both hands. The first place I’d have to go is back to Zimbabwe, back to my roots, because I think that would create the best documentary. There’s just so much to see in Zimbabwe. Mana Pools National Park would be way up on the list, because it’s still so remote and there’s an explosion of biodiversity. I’d love to take people there on a walking safari, and show them, not just the big scary things but also the little interesting things as well.
All photos copyright Joe Phillips; used with permission.
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