Professional Field Guide Southern Africa – Vivien
Vivien spent a whole year in South Africa and Botswana's wildness to train as a professional field guide. Learn more about her adventure in the bush.
Professional Field Guide in Africa – a review by Vivien
For a year, I have been looking forward to finally flying to Africa and fulfilling my biggest dream: To become a field guide. Now the time had finally come, and I was on the plane to Johannesburg. I already met my first classmate at the airport and all the others at the Emeralds Hotel in Joburg. My first impression of the group was excellent! We were all the same age and came from all over the world (Austria, Switzerland, Kenya, South Africa, France, Luxembourg, New Zealand...). We got along well from the beginning. The adventure could begin!
1st camp: Selati
The first impression
After spending a night in Nelspruit and having to read through, fill out and sign a lot of paperwork, we left the following day for the first camp: Selati. Selati is a private game reserve with about 30,000 ha. Here you can find all the Big Five and even cheetahs! The bus ride went by quickly, and we were warmly welcomed into the camp. My new home was a 3x3 metre "big" domed tent, which I shared with a classmate. The tent was equipped with two mattresses and one pillow each. We didn't have far to go to the bathroom. I immediately felt comfortable and extremely happy. After a short time to put our backpacks in the tents and freshen up, we had to sign more papers. Then we had some snacks, and the rest of our stay was explained to us.
The scary first week
The first week consisted only of a first aid course. Very important here in the bush, in the middle of nowhere. The first aid course was exciting and fun and brought us closer as a group. However, we were also shown frightening and brutal pictures and videos and told cruel stories about accidents in the bush that can happen faster than you think. The next few days, we were sometimes afraid to go to the toilet alone in the evening.
To make matters worse, a pride of lions came to the camp in the first week. I was lying awake in my tent in the evening and heard something running past my tent. I was terrified, hardly dared to breathe, and the tent wall seemed very thin. The following day, we could find the lions' footprints in the camp, and everyone shared this exciting experience. Soon such experiences would no longer seem scary to us, but incredibly beautiful and sometimes almost commonplace.
Start of the Field Guide Course
As we didn't get out of camp during this first week, apart from a few sundowners, we were looking forward to starting the Field Guide course. The entire daily routine changed. At 5 am, we were woken up by the "Duty Team". The "Duty Team" changed daily and was carried out by two fellow students who shared a tent. The Duty Team's job included boiling the water in the morning, setting up a small coffee station as refreshment for the Drive or Walk, filling the Hot Box in the morning and Cooler Box in the evening, and carrying out and presenting the food.
At 6 am, we went on either a drive or a walk. On both, we learned a lot about the surrounding nature. We stopped for trees, plants, grasses, footprints, stones, droppings, mammals, birds, insects and amphibians. It was a lot of information and a real overload at the beginning. So breakfast always came at the right time. All meals were set up as a buffet, and there was enough delicious food for any diet (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, etc.). After breakfast, we had a little digestion break before the lessons started. It was all there, from geology, climate and weather to astronomy, animal behaviour and plant science, human habitation, and nature management. After the lessons, we had free time. We used this time to rest, study, do laundry, play sports and fill out the workbook. Around 3 pm, we had lunch, and then we went on another drive or walk. The instructors initially conducted the drives, but after a short time, we were allowed to take the wheel ourselves.
The thrill of suddenly being behind the wheel yourself
I was very nervous when I was allowed to drive for the first time. Suddenly I had complete responsibility for the safety of all my classmates (of course, the instructor was sitting right next to me and could step in if necessary). Never before had I sat on the right side of the steering wheel and had to shift gears with my left hand. And never have I driven such a powerful car before! The driving training also included getting stuck in the sand, getting free again, and learning when to use High Range or Low Range and Diff-Lock. Terms that were entirely new to me. I learned quickly, was supported by the instructors and fellow students, and after only my third drive, driving felt natural. Now I dared to take on any jerky and tricky road.
The four weeks of Selati flew by incredibly fast, all the days seemed to flow into each other, and then we were already packing our bags again to start the second part of the Field Guide course in Mashatu (Botswana).
2nd camp change: Mashatu location
"Land of the Giants"
Mashatu is the complete opposite of Selati in terms of landscape. Here it is very open, much sandier and not very hilly. Moreover, there are no longer all the Big Five, but mainly elephants (lots and lots of elephants) and lions. Mashatu is also called the "Land of the Giants".
Focus on guiding and exams
In the second part of the field guide course, we concentrated more on guiding, i.e. how we can bring our guests closer to nature and offer them an exciting, enjoyable and entertaining drive. In addition, we studied for the upcoming exams. The theoretical exams consist of an extensive written part, which tests the knowledge of the lessons, and a part consisting of "slides and sounds". In the slides, pictures of trees, reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds and mammals are shown, and you have to write down the correct name. Afterwards, sounds are played, i.e. alarm calls of mammals as well as the songs of birds. The theoretical exams took place over about three days. Thereafter, the practical exams were supposed to take place, which were also conducted over several days. However, in our case, the practical exams had to take place later, as no examiner received a work visa for Botswana. For this reason, we reschedule and did "Basic Birding" first. Here, birds are again tested on their appearance and song, but on a larger scale.
Off-Time in Cape Town
After all the exam stress and an incredibly indescribably beautiful time in the wilderness of Botswana, we had earned our first off-time. We were trained as field guides from September to the beginning of November. Recognising trees, plants, footprints, and birds became easier and easier. Now it was time for a bit of city life. We spent our off-time in Cape Town. Finally, sleeping in again, going out to eat, watching Netflix and learning nothing.
3rd camp change: Karongwe
After the off-time, we went back into the bush to Karongwe. Karongwe is only about 40 minutes away from Selati and is also a private reserve. The next stage was on the agenda: Track and Signs, Trailing, and of course, the practical driving test to become a Field Guide.
Topic Focus: Track and Signs
During the Track and Signs week, we learnt to recognise all kinds of footprints of antelopes, predatory cats, birds, reptiles, etc. For the footprints of predatory cats, we also learned to judge whether it was a male or female animal, how fast it was walking, whether we saw a track of a front or back paw and whether it was left or right. In addition to footprints, there were also other tracks left by animals. Such as dung or broken branches. I was honestly overwhelmed. There were more than 80 different footprints that we found within a week.
On top of that, I had difficulty identifying the footprints on different terrain. It was easy for me on softer sand, but it was difficult on the harder ground or in mud. Moreover, it was now the end of November, which meant the rainy season in the African bush starts. And indeed, it rained almost continuously for the entire three weeks we spent in Karongwe. It rained so much that even the river started to flow again!
At the end of the week, the exam took place. Everyone was given a blank sheet, and our examiner looked for tracks. A total of 50 tracks and signs were asked, which varied in difficulty. If you recognised a level 1 track correctly, you got one point. However, if you did not identify it accurately, 3 points were deducted. The reverse was true for a level 3 track. If you recognised it correctly, you received 3 points; if you could not name it, only 1 point was deducted.
Topic Focus: Trailing
After this test, we spent another week on the art of trailing. Trailing is about following an individual animal. To do this, you must think like animals and recognise the tracks in the bush so well that you might even find the animal in the end. Our instructor had over 40 years of experience in trailing animals and could even follow the tracks over rocks! It was incredible to see him in action! We had a lot of fun learning from him, and we were tested again at the end of this second week. We had to follow the footprints of a buffalo for about half an hour. This was difficult because buffaloes like to run crossways, and finding the tracks on harder terrain was very complicated. Fortunately, we were all under no pressure as these two courses were offered by EcoTraining and had no impact on the final result for our Field Guide qualification.
Field Guide Practical Examinations
During the last one and a half weeks in Karongwe, our practical exams to become field guides took place. I was thrilled to finally show what I had learned in the last weeks. Of course, I was excited, but this was a positive excitement. My exam was the very first one. The day before, I held a briefing for my "guests" (my friends and the examiner). And the next morning, it finally started. I was lucky, and it didn't rain. However, I didn't know my way around Karongwe very well, which was due to the fact that we had only been walking for the last two weeks. It came as it had to, and after a short time**, I no longer knew where I was, even though I had thought of a route. Nevertheless, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. That made me a bit confused inside, but on the outside, I tried not to let it show. Eventually, we arrived at an excellent spot for the coffee stop. I set everything up professionally and talked about grasses and a bush. Afterwards, I packed everything up again and hoped I would find my way back to camp. My inner compass did not let me down**. At some point, I returned to a road I knew. Back at camp, I told the other students about my drive. Karongwe was very quiet that morning, so apart from a Spotted Bushsnake, we didn't see a single animal on my drive. This meant I had to stop for many trees, plants and birds, which was also entertaining.
The next day, after breakfast, I had the final interview with my examiner, which was very positive. He even told me that I seemed very relaxed and confident to him. I told him I didn't know where I was for half of the drive. He laughed and gave me a compliment and the percentage with which I had passed the practical exam.
I was delighted and could hardly believe that I had completed the first stage of fulfilling my dream.
4. change of camp: Bakstaan
After the exam-filled time in Karongwe, we went on to Bakstaan. Here we learned how to handle large-calibre weapons. It was the first time I shot with such a weapon, and it was nerve-wracking. The recoil was intense. I was afraid to shoot at the beginning. We went slowly and had great teachers with a lot of patience and a calm personality. This helped tremendously, and I realised that shooting is primarily mental.
To reach the speed at which one had to pass the shooting test, we practised with empty cartridges. This gave me more confidence in handling the weapon. After four days of practice, the test was due here too. In fact, I did not manage to master all the tasks in the given time and with accuracy before the exam. For this reason, I was very nervous and meditated before the exam, telling myself repeatedly that I would make it.
The first task was to fire five shots into the target 12 metres away. If you missed one go, you had another try. If you failed this one, too, you would only have the chance to be tested the next day again. I managed this task on the first try.
For the second task, you only had 12 seconds. You had to fire one shot each into the target 12m, 8m and 4m away. I needed a second attempt for this because I was just too excited the first time.
The third task was similar to the second. This time I had 24 seconds. I had to fire three shots into the target 8 metres away, one of which was a blank. If no shot was fired, you had to eject the blank cartridge, reload three new cartridges, and fire one last bullet into the target. I managed this within 22 seconds. I was very proud of myself and didn't even notice what I was doing during the tests. Everything was automatic, and as soon as the task was over, I was shaking excessively, and my pulse was 120.
Only two more tasks and I would have passed the "Advanced Rifle Handling". The penultimate task was to shoot at two buffalo dummies. They were 8 and 4 metres away, and you had 10 seconds. I managed it on the first try. The last task was the most challenging. A hippo dummy came rushing at you, and you had to shoot in time and hit the smallest target of all. I managed this task on my second attempt and was proud of myself. The shooting tests were the most difficult of the whole ranger training.
Off-time: Christmas at home
With Christmas around the corner, we had another off-time. This time I flew home to celebrate with my family. On the first of January, I flew back to Johannesburg, where I met with my group again.
5. change of camp: Selati
Trails Guide Course
The last stage of the training was coming up. Four weeks in Selati to become a trails guide. The rainy season was still in full swing, making the walks memorable. The Trails Guide course teaches how to conduct bush walks and behave when encountering potentially dangerous animals on foot. At the end of the course, a certain number of Second Rifle hours and animal encounters must have been achieved to gain the Apprentice Trails Guide qualification.
Our daily routine was similar to the Field Guide course, except that we now walked and no longer did game drives. Some walks even went on for more than 7 hours. Sudden downpours soaked us from head to toe within a few minutes. Sometimes even the rain jacket didn't help anymore. As it was also very humid, clothes, towels and shoes dried slowly, if at all. But that's how it is when you live in the middle of nature and with nature.
The animal encounters were the best part of the course, and Selati is, apart from Pridelands, the best camp for Big 5 encounters.
We encountered lions, elephants, and black and white rhinos on foot. My absolute favourite encounter was when we had already been walking for 2 hours and decided to take a coffee break. We had just unpacked everything nicely when we heard oxpeckers from further away. We all turned around simultaneously and saw a white rhino running straight towards us. The wind blew away from us so the rhino couldn't smell us and we all remained quietly sitting in the tall grass. Completely engrossed in eating, the rhino came closer and closer. When it was only about 10 metres away from us, our instructor tapped his stick against his rifle. The rhino looked up and was visibly surprised to discover us. Unfortunately, it was not thrilled and ran away, frightened. After our coffee break, we tried to find the rhino again but were unsuccessful. For the Trails Guide course exams, we all did not study so intensively, as we knew most of it already. The practical exam was also easy, and I was lucky we found lions on my walk.
The 6-month internship
On the last evening in Selati, even the Selati River started to flow. So saying goodbye to this beautiful camp was even more challenging. But now, the last phase before graduation was upon us — the 6-month internship.
I decided to do my *internship with EcoTraining*. I accompanied the new EcoTraining students as a Back-Up or Apprentice Trails Guide/Second Rifle and took care of the camps. This included fat traps, rubbish, food, water, wood run and other maintenance work. For me, it was the best decision. I experienced so much, met some interesting people and gained great experiences and memories. The six months went by so quickly. Each day seemed to flow into the next, and my sense of time changed completely. For me, there were no more days of the week, only a date. The rhythm of working six weeks and then having two weeks off worked perfectly for me.
6. change of camp: Makuleke
The final stage of the annual Professional Field Guide course was Advanced Birding and our graduation ceremony. We all went to Makuleke for this, and it was so lovely to see all my classmates again. It was as if not so much time had passed between the Trails Guide course and the reunion. Our little family was reunited. Advanced Birding was a lot of fun, and I could add new birds to my list. Plus, the scenery in Makuleke is some of the most spectacular! Lanner Gorge, Fevertree Forest and Mutale Gorge are places you have to see.
The final goodbye at the end of this reunion was more brutal than anything I had ever experienced in my life. I could have cried the whole way back to the airport. I can still hardly believe how fast this year has gone by, how much I have experienced and how much I have changed. I am so grateful for all the experiences, memories and friendships.
In conclusion, I can highly recommend this course to everyone. Daniel and Natucate were always available and supported me wonderfully throughout the year.
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