How do your family influence your career choices?

Matthew Sussens, a guide working at Ulusaba Richard Branson’s private game reserve, joins us to tell us how his family influenced his choice of career. Matthew also explains what life is like on the reserve and how his co-workers quickly became part of the family…

I have been a guide for six years and for the past two have worked at Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson’s luxury South African lodge. I was lucky enough to be accepted into quite a few lodges, but Ulusaba caught my eye from the very beginning. After my interview and having spent some time here, I had a feeling this was what I was looking for. It’s a very important decision to make, as a guide we spend six weeks here at a time, working seven days a week. Your co-workers become your family and your staff village becomes your home.

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My days at Ulusaba start early and I’m already at the lodge by the time the sun begins to rise in preparation for our morning game drive. We do our drives early in the morning and late afternoon as that is when the animals are most active. Some drives could be hours of tracking a specific animal the guests want to see, while other drives we could see loads of animals so no tracking is needed at all. As a guide we realise everything is important; from the massive African elephants down to the little termites and dung beetles. 

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From a very young age, I was always out with people sharing what I loved about the local African wildlife. Much of this passion for nature started when I was very young, and is something I have inherited from my parents and grandparents alike. This is my story as to how my family has helped foster my love for nature and how their story has, in-turn, had a huge influence over my story.

My grandparents did not grow up in the African Bush like I did.

My grandfather owned a taxi business in Tanzania and it was during this period of his life when he met my grandmother who was a refugee from Poland escaping the war in Europe. 

Once they were married, they moved to Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, and started a tour operating company called Flame Lily which, at the time, was in partnership with British Airways. Soon after my father was born, they opened Chobe game lodge and ran it until they moved to South Africa for my father’s schooling. Once here, they started Tshukudu Game Lodge which the family is still running today. 

Like me, my dad grew up in the Bush. After a stint in the military after school, he returned to work at Tshukudu with my grandparents where they opened an animal rehabilitation center. The center cared for a variety of animals, everything from cats to elephants that were all rescued from either poaching or smuggling activities. He is still a guide at Tshukudu and is now heavily involved in the conservation of rhinos in South Africa due to the amount of pressure from illegal poaching. My father was, and continues to be, a big influence in the way I look and behave around nature.

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The best piece of advice my father ever told me was to pursue whatever makes me happy. After growing up in the Bush, I knew this was the life I wanted to pursue. After school, I did a two and a half year training course where I lived by myself in a tent with no electricity, fences, weapons or people. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had! I love what I do and getting to wake up every day never knowing what new and exciting event will happen to me is what I love the best about my job.

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However, when I look back over the past 50 years and compare my experience to that of my parents and grandparents, it is sad to see the growing threat the human population has had on the animal population, specifically when it comes to rhinos. Growing up, rhinos were in abundance and we never had to search hard to find them out in the Bush. Now with over 1,000 being killed every year in South Africa alone we are creeping closer and closer to the extinction of the species. My family home was targeted for the first time last week and the poachers killed a rhino which I had grown up with. At Ulusaba, conservation and anti-poaching initiatives are extremely important to us, and I have to take my hat off to everyone in the team for all their collective effort.

When I think about my future, I hope that in 10 years’ time I am still working and having a positive impact on the wildlife around me. I hope the next generation of guides will have the same respect for nature as I do and cherish what rich, diverse nature we have all around us in South Africa.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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