Becoming a Field Guide Part 3 – Living the Dream

In this blog, we chat with David about what he packed and how his first few weeks of training to be an FGASA and CATHSSETA qualified professional field guide with EcoTraining is going.

How did you feel on the run-up to leaving for South Africa?

On the run-up, I felt excited but not sure what to expect. I expected the unexpected! I felt nervous, but as I’ve been planning this for over three years, I did feel prepared.

David in uniform, looking at the magnificent African landscape – Photograph © David Ullman

So, tell us, what are your top items to pack?

Well, I’m pretty practical, so my first item is a Leatherman, a Swiss army knife. A torch for sure; you are always scrabbling around in the dark! Sunglasses, definitely a couple of hats, and flip-flops. It’s worth noting that for the first few weeks, you won’t have your uniform, so you’ll need to have enough clothes to take you through that, but when you get your uniform, it’s suddenly so much easier; I know exactly what to wear!

The uniform is required, so I rarely wear my casual clothes now. I wouldn’t waste too much space with casual clothes; just a couple of t-shirts and shorts are perfectly adequate.

However, my all-time number one item is my pyjama pants! I love them. They are great for the night-time, significantly as the temperature dramatically drops after sunset. They are comfy, cosy, and perfect for lazing around the campfire in the evening and bracing the chillier mornings on the early starts.

I’d like to note that as I’m listening to David speaking, I can hear the most fantastic concerto of birds in the background. Whilst listening, I am dying to know what they are, so I ask David – he is well-versed on the local bird calls at this point! He tells me they are Arrow Marked Babblers; they are pretty standard, come in flocks, and are VERY noisy. David tells me that a good backpack, sturdy hiking boots, an all-weather sleeping bag, a blow-up pillow and sunscreen are also a must; it can get up to over 40 degrees during the day. The last thing you need is sunburn. He remarks that he has only been here in the winter so far, so he can only imagine the change when summer hits. That sounds tough, so sunscreen, hats and sunglasses would be my priority too.

David and his group look very professional in their newly fitted uniforms – Photograph © David Ullman

Top Items to pack:

  • Comfy pyjama/lounge pants
  • Swiss army knife
  • Torch/headtorch
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat/cap (2) – You sweat a lot!
  • Shorts (1/2 pairs)
  • T-shirts (2/3)
  • Jumper/fleece (1/2)
  • Good backpack
  • Sturdy hiking boots
  • All-weather sleeping bag
  • Blow up pillow
  • Sunscreen

Could you walk us through your first few days?

Well, as I’m sure you can imagine, they were fascinating; I flew from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, where I stayed in the recommended hostel. I arrived in the morning, and as the day progressed, I gradually met a few other students at the hostel, and we quietly surveyed each other, figuring each other out. I was nervous but so excited.

We came from various places, including Germany, Denmark, Australia, Scotland, and South Africa. Some arrived with their partners, and some arrived alone. We were all trying to figure out the group’s energy and mood, but I knew we were all feeling the same. We had a few drinks and chatted, but we had an early start the next day to drive from Johannesburg to Nelspruit, where we were to stay another night before heading to our first camp in Selati.

Early the following day, we set off to Nelspruit. There are only 7 of us in the group for the first 55-day course (THE APPRENTICE FIELD GUIDE (NQF2)) *, so we are a small group, which is excellent. It meant that it didn’t take too long to learn everyone’s names and start to feel comfortable.

Here we had orientation with the trainers, filled out many registration forms and questionnaires, and had our final uniform fittings. We bought any snacks etc. that we wanted for the drive the next day (it was about 4 hours), and then we had another early night (this is a theme for the training!).

The next day we drove from Nelspruit to Selati, our first camp, where we were to spend four nights. When we first arrived, we were given a camp tour, talked through the rules, shown all the facilities, and told about the safety standards.

Game drive at Selati – Photograph © Cameron Clements

Here we also undertook our Wilderness Medicine training. Sometimes challenging, but nice because you all knew what each other was doing and faced all the challenges together. We were thrown into situations where we had to learn to work together quickly. We had to figure out who could do what, what we expected from each other, and who played what part in the group. This developed more and more as time passed, and as we were a small group, no divisions or subgroups formed. We were just one unit working together.

We work well together as a group, all the characters have their place, and all of us are needed to make it work – which is excellent.

After four nights here and an exam, we headed to our next camp Mashatu, in Botswana. Here we spent the next 26 nights completing our EcoTraining Field Guide & FGASA Apprentice Field Guide (NQF2) *

*Check out our last blog for a breakdown of the year-long course

What does a typical day look like?

 Most days were planned and followed the same pattern, but some days we had special excursions where we drove or walked somewhere to see something specific.

A typical day starts at 5 am when you are woken up by the team on duty that day. We take turns for this; their job is to get the fire going, make some well-needed coffee and set up cereal and rusks to go with our coffee. After being woken at 5, you have 30 minutes to get ready before having your coffee and snack, and then we leave camp at 6 am in the car for about three to three and half hours. Time was spent tracking animals and discussing the flora, fauna, ecosystem etc. Generally, we are practically learning all about the environment around us.

We then return for our proper breakfast at about 10 am, which the duty team sets up. Our lovely staff members have preprepared breakfast at the camp – The food is fantastic, and I have to the point that out!

We usually have about an hour free from 10 – 11 am to have our breakfast, and then at 11 am, we have our lecture for the day. Usually begins with the theory from the day before, and then we dive into the day’s topic. The duration is more or less an hour to an hour and a half, and then we have some free time to relax, wash clothes, tidy up etc. Sometimes we get involved with the maintenance of the camp. It is part of the Backup’s job – these are past students placed in the camp, but we love to get involved and help them. I’m a plumber by trade, so I am always happy to volunteer for any plumbing issues. You can also spend this time studying, which I highly recommend too.

 “A normal day starts at 5 am.”

Then from 2.30 pm, we have lunch in preparation for a second drive at 3.30 pm, depending on how hot it is. We stay out for about three hours and then return to camp at about 6 pm, ready for our delicious dinner at 7 pm.

After dinner, you have free time, and most people sit by the campfire exchanging stories and chatting about the day. You can also go to bed if you like, it’s very relaxed in the evenings. Once in bed, you prepare for the next day, and your 5 am start!

Game drive at Selati – Photograph © Cameron Clements

What’s next?

I have just finished my exam week to end the first 55-day course. It’s tough going, and I do recommend doing the reading suggested before you arrive. I was fortunate to book through Natucate, and they provided many materials to prepare. I found learning the bird calls the most difficult, so I would do that if you could get a jump start with our birding app. (You can find this in the previous blog).

I am happy to report that I passed all my theory and the practical exam. The practical exam can seem daunting as you go out into the bush with an external examiner who is a very experienced professional field guide. You have to take them and the other trainees on a safari; you must plan the route, treat them like guests, and know how to give information on the animals and other aspects of the environment around you. Though everyone is there to help you, not trip you up, so soak up as much as you can from each other. It’s a delicate balance to know when to talk and to let the ‘guests’ take in what they see quietly.

I now have ten days off, which I’m looking forward to enjoying. I’m going to stay with one of the other trainee field guides who live in South Africa. I’ll then return to camp to embark on the next course, which includes the Basic Birding modules and Wildlife Tracking.

I’m looking forward to it all, I am living my dream, and I am thankful every day for this opportunity.

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If Dave’s journey has piqued your interest, be sure to have a nose around EcoTraining’s website. If a year sounds too long for you, there are lots of shorter courses such as EcoTraining Field Guide Practical 35 Days, EcoTraining Field Guide 55 and 28 Days, EcoTraining Kenya Field Guide 55 Days, EcoTracker Course: Animal Monitoring 55 Days, EcoQuest 7/14 Days, Wilderness Photography 7 Days, Birding in the Bush 7 Days, and many more.

There are also online courses where you can dip your toe into the wilds of Africa without leaving your sofa! These include our Online Field Guide Course, Online Nature Enthusiast Course, Online Trails Guide Course, Online Tracking Enthusiast Course, Online Birding Course, and, Introduction to Biomimicry.

In our next installment, we will be catching up with Dave on the countdown to leaving. We’ll go over what to pack, what not to pack, and find out if everything is going to plan!

This could be your office | EcoTraining Professional Field Guide

The African bush is calling you! Will you answer the call? Ever wanted to know what the EcoTraining Professional Field Guide Course is all about? Well, here is your chance to learn more and get an in-depth idea of what your year with EcoTraining will entail.

About the Author: 

Helen Burt writes blogs for Conservation Careers and is studying for a degree in Geography and Environmental Science at the Open University. She is also an English Language Teacher. Her love of conservation was ignited after volunteering for EHRA in Namibia. To follow her journey, take a look at her Instagram page @wild_lifewanderer.

About the Author:
Picture of Helen Burt

Helen Burt

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