Altering Course: An Interview with Bouke Lolkema

Society tells us our lives will be mapped out by our youth and our ambition: what schools we attend, who we marry, or what high-paying career we take on. But those are not the only factors that determine our paths. Sometimes tectonic forces are working deep below our feet, waiting to show us paths we had not prepared for when we least expect them—after our careers, our schooling, and our lives are pretty much sorted out. Or so we thought...

Bouke Lolkema’s life changed when he was 49 years old.

“I was in Nepal during the earthquake in 2015,” Bouke shared with me. He has lived most of his life in the Netherlands, a country not known for towering mountains or seismic activity. “I was trekking in the high mountains at the moment the earthquake hit. I was at a place in a deep gorge and only a few kilometers away from the epicenter. At that moment I thought my life was over.”

Photographs @ Bouke Lolkema

It took Bouke four challenging days to reach safety, but instead of being over, Bouke’s life started anew. The experience of the earthquake high in the mountains had changed his perspective. He quit his job and dedicated the rest of his life to traveling and guiding trips all over the world.

A lifelong wildlife enthusiast, Bouke had a career in the military and information technology before the Nepalese earthquake set him on a new track. He now uses his time to lead and organize trips in Europe, Nepal, India, and southern Africa that emphasize hiking and wildlife photography. He came to EcoTraining to gain more knowledge and experience he can share with his guests.

“Especially during this covid period, when my work has come to a halt, I spend a lot of time doing courses,” he said. ” I graduated from the Field Guide Theory online course in December 2020. I joined the Trails Guide Online course early in 2021, and the Trails Guide Practical course in March 2021.”

Always thirsty for more, Bouke is currently enrolled in EcoTraining’s most recent online Tracking and Trailing taught by, among others, Alex van den Heever and Norman Chauke.

I wish I could have sat down with Bouke for our interview, but I knew his easy laugh and smiling eyes from being together with him on online courses, and from his wonderful presentation for our alumni Zoom reunion a few months back, where he took us along on his Trails course experience. We conducted our interview the modern way, using technology, and here are some of the insights he had to share with us.

Lee: How did you find out about EcoTraining?

Bouke: When I was looking into the possibilities of joining a safari guide course, one of the companies who came in my ‘visor’ was EcoTraining. When you see their website and all the material on YouTube, it must be a well-established company with a lot of experience.

Photographs @ Bouke Lolkema

Lee: How did your two online courses add to your experience on your field course?

Bouke: Both the online NQF2 and online trails course gave me a head start during the Trails Guide field course I did last March. During the course of the trail, you are many hours per day on your feet, walking through the bush and gaining a lot of knowledge and experience. Between the two walking safaris per day, there is some time to have breakfast and lunch, take a shower (especially in March, during the very hot and humid days), have lectures and practice ‘dry runs’ for the Advanced Rifle Handling, and oh… find time to learn all the theory.

You can imagine that having done a big chunk of the theory already by joining the online classes is a huge advantage, and, although I haven’t done the field course for NQF2, it seems even more of an advantage for this course. To summarize: it gave me the opportunity to have all my focus on practical experience and knowledge.

Lee: On your field course to be trained as a Trails Guide, you mentioned you enjoyed being the ‘grandpa’ on the course. Tell us about that experience.

Bouke: Haha…. At 54 years of age, I was by far the oldest student during the Trails Guide course. And yes, I know, 54 is the new 30… but wait…with 30 I still would be one of the oldest students!

I feel young at heart, so keeping up with the young, is what I really enjoy! During the course, I could really learn a lot from the knowledge of my fellow students and on some occasions, I could share my experiences with them. I think especially my experiences as a tour leader were sometimes asked for.

Photographs @ Bouke Lolkema

At certain moments I felt a bit the ‘grandpa’ of the group when my fellow younger students had still a lot of energy after a tough walk. And the age difference (generation gap?) made sometimes for differences in topics to discuss sitting by the fire.

But on the other side, I wasn’t feeling a ‘grandpa’ at all, being up early morning and going on another adventurous day with a huge smile on my face, watching my fellow students still trying to open their eyes whilst trying to walk to the jeep, sometimes being late and probably thinking: “Oh heck, ‘grandpa’ is sitting in the jeep, ‘of course’ all packed and ready, waiting for us, with his big smile on his face!”

Lee: You describe Nepal as a country very close to your heart. Tell us a bit about your travel business and why Nepal is so special to you. Do you think the courses you took with EcoTraining will be beneficial there as well?

Bouke: I consider Nepal is my ’second’ home country, as I feel so much at home when I’m either trekking or when I’m on safaris in the national parks for spotting wildlife. After being in Nepal over 20 times, I feel really connected to the Nepali people. For me, they are the best example of people who are themselves and not trying to act, as we in the Western world are doing most of the time, so that we need coaches to try to find ‘ourselves again. They will approach you with an open mind and open heart, looking curiously into your eyes.

Nepal is a very diverse country, with the highest mountains in the world, combined with incredible wildlife (tiger, rhino, leopard, snow leopard, etc.), combined with a mystical culture based on Buddhism and Hinduism. As Nepal is a very poor country and has never been colonialized, for example, infrastructure is hardly developed and in a very poor state, traveling and being in Nepal is still a big adventure for most people. Like Africa will get into you, Nepal will do that as well.

Photograph 2 – Bouke Lolkema – Snow leopard in Ladakh, India

A lot of the knowledge I’ve learned and experiences I’ve gained during the courses I’ve taken with EcoTraining have been very beneficial to my trips to Nepal, too. For example, learning about animal behavior, how to look for signs and traces in the bush, and many other topics can be ‘used’ everywhere in the world.

Besides Nepal, I also organize trips to other parts of the Himalayas, of which Ladakh India is one. For me, the holy grail of wildlife spotting is seeing a Snow leopard in the wild. Just before covid hit the world, on a Snow leopard expedition, I was fortunate to spot this elusive cat in Ladakh and was even able to take some pictures of it. What a blast!!

Lee: In 2015, you were trekking in the mountains of Nepal when a massive earthquake hit that nation. You found yourself only a few kilometers away from the epicenter. That event changed your life and your focus. How did it bring you to want to study to be a safari guide?

Bouke: Being in a precarious place during the massive earthquake in 2015, very close to the epicenter, has given me the experience of finding myself in a situation where my world stopped at that moment.

The earth was shaking so massively and, being in a deep narrow gorge, the mountain slopes beside and above me were also shaking–and this seemed for me as if the world was collapsing. With huge rocks and boulders falling down from these slopes, hitting the ground around me, the earthquake led to a situation where I surrendered and ‘let things happen.

This life-changing experience has given me the energy to organize my life in a manner that I do what I really love to do. Of course, this is not feasible for 100%, but I try to get it as close as possible. I already loved to be in nature as much as possible, I love to be with like-minded nature people around me, I love to give other people (guests) a good time, and I love to learn and experience as much as possible.

So, I quit my job as a project manager and decided to become a tour guide and try to travel as much as possible, with and without guests. Combining travel and love for nature, took the safari guide courses, among other things.

Photograph 1 – Bouke Lolkema – Tiger cubs in Nepal
Photograph 2 – Bouke Lolkema – Snow leopard in Ladakh, India

Lee: What advice do you have to give to future EcoTraining students, adventurers, and fellow ‘grandpas’ and ‘grandmas’ who are just starting out on their own journeys?

Bouke: It doesn’t matter what age you are, 18 or 78, if you want to follow your dreams, do it!! Don’t listen to the voices in your head, saying this is not good for your current career, or it costs a lot of money, or other practical and probably true arguments.

If your heart is into nature, if your soul is in the bush, do follow your heart and ‘dive’ into this amazing world a safari guide is working in. Do surprise yourself with the amazing feeling of doing really what your heart wants to do. Let your heart bloom and, when this happens, you will see that you will become a nicer person to yourself and also to the people around you! Hop on this adventure!

Paulo Coelho: “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s deadly.”

One thing is for certain. If the planet throws Bouke another obstacle—a hurricane, a charging buffalo, or a challenging FGASA exam—he will be prepared to be present, whatever the circumstance, and to be fully engaged with the world around him.

To learn more about Bouke’s work, please stopover at www.lolkemaadventures.com.

About the Author: 

Lee Bellware is an EcoTraining alum of our Trails Guide and Theory courses and lives in Austin, Texas, USA. Lee holds a degree in Ecology and Nonfiction writing and has a keen interest in Wildlife and Botanical Conservation Research and Education