Being a Field Guide Student in the Covid Pandemic

"Christmas 2019, which is now over two years ago, I was sitting with my family in Germany around the Christmas tree. Now in The Year of Covid, I have a completely different Christmas story to tell." A year in the bush during a Pandemic by Anna Elisabeth Franz.

It was cold and dark outside; a very typical German winter weather nowadays. My family does not celebrate Christmas very big and fancy as other families do. We usually enjoy a rather plain and simple Christmas, without many gifts and a fancy dinner.

The specific day was the 24th of December 2019 which is the official start of Christmas in Germany, it was just my parents, one of my 3 brothers and me chatting for a few hours, drinking tea and enjoying some Christmas cookies, cuddling up in a cosy blanket, a little different to a hot African Christmas.

It was 5 weeks before I was going to fly to South Africa to start my EcoTraining Professionals Field Guide Course on the 1st of February 2020, so back then there were a lot of other things to talk and think about. I still had to pack boxes of clothes, my furniture and move everything out of my apartment into a storage place. And I still had to finish my last few weeks at my job as a Key Account Manager in a pharmaceutical company, where I spent most of my time in a car travelling all over Germany. It was a busy time!

2021

Now, fast forward to the 23rd of December 2020 better known as the year of Covid,  where I now spend a very different Christmas. Here I am sitting with my fellow students at our graduation ceremony. It is hot and humid, the type of weather that makes you want to stand under a cold shower 24 hours per day.

Just returning from our afternoon activity with family and friends – a drive to the beautiful Lanna Gorge in the Makuleke Concession up in the Kruger National Park.
As we walked into the camp following a path illuminated by candles under a blanket of stars, there are 7 tables lined up around the fireplace. We all sat, enjoying a nice glass of wine, there was much excitement in the air of what was to happen next.

People are chatting, laughing, taking photos, trying to cool themselves. My friend Mecaela and I are sitting next to each other at table 7, it was so hot that we were putting ice cubes in the back of our uniform shirts and giggling about it like little girls.

Then the graduation dinner is presented. It is a Kudu Potjiekos, a traditional South African outdoor dish, which is prepared in a big round, three-legged pot which is appropriately named a potjie pot. On the side there is Samp, also a traditional South African dish, different salads and freshly backed bread by our beloved kitchen lady TK.

If you haven’t seen TK make her famous bread, make sure you have a look at the end of this blog for her video.

After we finished our meal it was time for the actual ceremony to begin, this was where we were going to get handed our Field Guide Certificates. Each student is called by the Operational Manager of EcoTraining. We all receive a folder, filled with many certificates that we have achieved over our yearlong course.

The memories take me back to months before, the experiences, the studying. Within the first 6 days of the course, we started with our Wildlife First Aid Level 1 at EcoTraining Karongwe Camp. With First Aid out of the way, we officially started our FGASA Level 1 Course. This was a wonderful, but also stressful time.

We got to know the Karongwe Game Reserve quite well and then continued in Selati Game Reserve. We went on all kinds of activities from drives to walks, where we learnt how to guide, drive a 4 x 4 vehicle, and about the wonders of the African bush. When we were not on activity we were in lectures or having study time or downtime until the next activity. Activities and lectures were accompanied by Theory Exams and Field Observations. After dinner there was only the little energy left to prepare yourself for bed. After a few weeks of many hours of learning and studying we successfully passed the Level 1 Exam. But that did not mean that we had now time chill, because we immediately continued with the next course Tracks & Signs. Also the Level 1 driving assessments still had to be done.

2021

But then something happened, which was very unexpected. The world went into lockdown because of the Corona Virus (Covid) Pandemic. After weeks of waiting in Selati camp to continue with the course, half of the students left camp. The other half stayed. What we did not know was that we would only be reunited just before Christmas.

After a 2 months break, we could finally go back to camp in June. Our new home was the Pridelands Conservancy just outside Hoedspruit. The other half of the group, who had not left camp during the lockdown, was moved into the Makuleke Concession to continue there. What followed was a very busy time for all of us again. After now finishing our Level 1 Driving Assessment, we went straight into Tracks & Signs and Trailing Assessments. Passing all this we would now move on into our Advanced Rifle Handling Course and the Trails Guide Course.

The last few days in camp we spent watching birds for Basic Birding. It was one challenge following the other, but we all managed it well. By the end of July, many of us flew out like young birds to start our placements. Because of Covid, unfortunately, not all of us were able to do a lodge placement because these times had hit the tourism industry exceptionally hard.

I spent my placement up here in Limpopo, where I was doing game capture and relocation with my fellow student Kai for 8 weeks. I can hardly find the words to describe the amazing experiences that we shared within this time. The captured game would receive vaccines, pregnancy scans and anti-parasitic treatments. We got up close and personal with these wild animals because we were often supporting the vet team. We would have our morning coffee up in the helicopter flying to the capture site because it is the easiest way to capture animals with a chopper. After these 8 weeks, I now know what the fur of a kudu and a lion feels like, I have touched the hooves of buffalo, studying the shape that I had only seen as tracks in the sand before.

Now I am remembering the moment 12 days ago when all students from my original group reunited in Selati Camp to do the final course of Advanced Birding. We were back in the camp, where we had spent most of the difficult lockdown time. Now as the year of Covid comes to an end and 2021 begins, we got to say goodbye to this magnificent place with so many memories before me moved up to Makuleke for graduation.

Here I am now standing with my certificates in hand, giving a little speech and at the same time thinking back. Many people all over the world had a very difficult time this year, they lost jobs, struggled with their health and they worried about how to feed their children. I think I got stuck in the best place to be and I am glad that even though I was also worried and much affected by the lockdown, I did not ever have to worry about my job, health or food. In the end, I even came out of it with great memories and friends and with a professional qualification.

Before my fellow students, the kitchen ladies and I are now dancing the “Jerusalema” dance for our guests as a little surprise entertainment and then enjoy the traditional malva pudding for graduation desert, I would like to leave a few more words to everybody, who will read this:

May 2021 bless us with many happy memories, health and satisfaction!

Remember we told you about TK’s amazing bread, make sure you don’t miss the video below. This is a step-by-step guide on how to prepare Pot Brood in the bush, you will especially need this during these Covid times…