Another Day in Paradise

One moment you’re talking about the leaf structure of a sickle bush, the next you’re staring a male leopard dead in the eye from about 50 yards. The first few weeks at Ecotraining’s Karongwe camp has been nothing short of spectacular, surpassing all expectation with a bit more on top.

How it all started

Since the first time I visited when I was eight years old, a part of me has always been drawn to Africa. The first taste of safari, the smell of the bush, the big skies, are just a few of the things that make Africa so special. Time wore on and I managed to make it back to Southern Africa on a couple of occasions, embarking on some life-changing safaris in the process. I’ll never forget that feeling of utter bewilderment when you see your first large mammal, and I’ll never forget how much better that experience was made because of the guide.

Photograph © Henry Parsons

The excitement and energy they bring to a sighing, the vast amount of knowledge they impart, and the aura they carry, make the experience a hundred times better. To be quite honest, it never even crossed my mind that this could be a potential career option. How on earth do you become a safari guide? Turns out, it’s a massive possibility. So, on a cold rainy evening in Swansea in the UK during my first year at university, I did some digging online and found that EcoTraining had a 1-year Professional Field Guide course. The rest is history.

How it’s gone so far

There are so many things I could say when talking about my first few weeks on the course. I’ve met some wonderful people, stayed in fantastic accommodation, and eaten outrageously good food. On top of it all, we’re working hard and learning a great deal in the lecture hall, and out in the field. Because even in the bush, every day is a school day. Quite frankly, I could go on for absolutely hours about the numerous encounters we have experienced both on foot and in the vehicle. However, there is one that stands above the rest. We’ve had Elephants in the camp, twelve White Rhinos in a single walk, close encounters with Cape Buffalo, but an encounter with a male Leopard on foot, it simply doesn’t get better.

Photograph © Les Harris

How it went down

The usual wake-up call was made at the ripe hour of 4:30 am on a Thursday morning. There was a touch of cloud cover and a light breeze that rippled through the camp as everyone enjoyed their cup of coffee pre-departure on the morning’s activities. Excitement and anticipation were in the air, as many of us had heard the male leopard calling near to the camp earlier that morning. Just to put things into context, a leopard sighting on foot is very rare, so the expectation was managed. The walking group assembled outside the lecture hall and went through the all-important safety briefing before we slung on our backpacks and made headway towards the rocky crossing.

The morning wore on and there were no signs of the leopard. However, a new plan had been established as we had come across some fresh White Rhino tracks and dung. The faint slither of hope that we might have been able to track this gorgeous big cat was quickly disappearing. Until, after following the Rhino tracks, we came to a small body of water in the riverbed where it had clearly come for a quick refreshment. This is where the glimmer of hope was swiftly reignited. A fresh Leopard track on top of the Rhino tracks we had been looking for, was confirmation that there was a Leopard in the area. We marched on through the thicket, weaving between the sickle bushes and buffalo thorns, stopping every few hundred metres to talk about what we could see, hear, and smell. Our guide and instructor, Henry pointed out to us that the only way we’d find this leopard is if he started calling again. Then, as if by magic, the male leopard began his bold, rasping call. Utter silence as we all exchanged a look that said, we’re on.

Photographs © Marie Smidt

The excitement at this point is through the roof, but as Henry explained to us, it is paramount that we stay calm and with our wits about us. Carefully we stepped towards the source of the call, the further we stepped, the further away the call seemed to get. The glimmer of hope is beginning to fade again, perhaps he has heard us and is moving in another direction. Despite this we were duly halted in our steps by Henry, and instructed to move slowly and quietly, keeping our eyes on the bush for any kind of movement. Now the blood really starts to flow, could it still be on? By this point, our direction has changed slightly and we are walking directly into the wind. Within ten yards we heard him for the fifth time, this time he sounded far closer, it is massively still on.

Photographs © Marie Smidt

The second rifle, Jan Hendrick, then pointed towards the thicket. There he was, no further than 50 yards away, staring right back at us. We were quickly onto our binoculars, where a brief moment of around thirty seconds was shared with this majestic cat before he turned and shot off into the dense thicket. I am still completely lost for words. As the dust settled, I thought of lockdown in the UK and something me and my brother used to say to each other before bed every night,

“it’s just another day in paradise mate”.

No phrase could be more fitting. With a wry smile, I doffed my cap to my brother, and on we walked in search of more leaf structures.

How to become a Field Guide | EcoTraining Professional Field Guide

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About the Author: 

Rufus Cottrell is an EcoTraining student on our 1-year Professional Field Guide course.