As I drove through the gates of Pongola Game Reserve on 18 February I wound down the window and took a deep breath. The air smelled sweet, warm and dusty. I had arrived. I was in South Africa.
Photographs © Norman Chauke
Making it Happen
I booked onto the 55-day Field Guide course with EcoTraining when the UK was still in the midst of its first national COVID-19 lockdown. I have always had a passion for wildlife and had known about the course for years, but had never had the courage or the means to make it happen. It was never the “right time” and there was always a reason not to. But the daily routine brought on by lockdown had become suffocating and I longed to travel. So late one afternoon in May 2020 I finally took the plunge and sent off my enrolment form.
Like many people, I assumed everything would “be fine” by February 2021. But as the weeks and months rolled on and COVID-19 restrictions were tightened, I became less and less sure that my dream would ever become a reality. I dared not get excited or look forward to the course too much – just in case. My books remained closed. My bags unpacked. So, as I drove through that gate at Pongola, I had to pinch myself more than once. I was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime and I knew there was no going back.
Settling into the Rhythm
The first few days were better than I had ever imagined and we soon settled into our daily rhythm – an early morning activity (game drive), followed by brunch, lectures, personal study time and another activity in the evening. It is fair to say that by 10 pm most of us were already asleep in our tents, ready for another day of adventure and surprises.
(All the students from EcoTraining have been isolating together in the bush.) Photographs © Norman Chauke
A Learning Experience
The curriculum is demanding and varied, covering everything from astronomy to animal behaviour. We have daily lectures and assignments to complete, but most of the learning takes place ‘in the field’ – so no lesson is ever the same. We have already had some incredible sightings including four of the “Big 5” within the first week, as well as an abundance of herbivores, insects, reptiles and birds.
In Pongola, we were also lucky enough to receive a guest lecture from an elephant researcher from the Space for Elephants Foundation. Inspired by our highly experienced (and patient!) instructors Norman and Craig, we have learned a lot in a short space of time. We are encouraged at every opportunity to link the animals we see to the plants, trees, and soils that they rely on to survive, and above all to respect nature.
Photographs © Kirstin Scholtz
A Healing Experience
I am surprised at how quickly it felt normal to be living in a community with other people again and how well the group has bonded. We have not forgotten the world beyond our camp boundaries, but we are appreciative of the time spent in the camps. Instead of conversations dominated by COVID-19, we are debating guiding ethics, discussing bird calls, and discovering the trees of South Africa’s Lowveld. For me, after the year we have just had, this has been a powerful reminder that the wilds of nature can help us to heal. I look forward to finding out what the next 42 days will bring.
About the Author:
Graham Raman is currently one of EcoTraining’s students on our Apprentice 55-day Field Guide course.