Becoming a Virtual Field Guide

There are a hundred literary cliches about non-Africans going to Africa and longing to return. To be fair, few Africans I have met feel any differently about their homelands. Perhaps it is the potential for encountering the wild, some kind of mitochondrial drive about the dawn of man, or mere romanticism for a place one has been, but the cliches seem to prove true: if you have been to Africa, you will always want to return.

My own magnetic pull to the continent first tugged at me in 1985, when my parents took me to see Out of Africa. They warned me the film was very long. I was 10, but for me, the film was too short. My astute 10-year-old self knew that the wilderness of Africa was the main character even while the adults were dithering about the drippy love story. Forget meeting someone who looked like Robert Redford, the film teased my brain with the idea that I, too, could be a part of such a wild place.

I wouldn’t get to Africa until college when I studied in southern Kenya for one semester and went on a handful of short safaris.

I have never been able to go back.

Pridelands - Ecotraining

The ill-fated spring of 2020 seems like a terribly inconvenient time for someone living in Texas to dream of returning to Africa. A pandemic of historic proportions is keeping people around the world from accessing wilderness areas, let alone distant continents full of lions and mambas. International borders and local stay-at-home orders keep our feet planted in amber around the world still, and it is now mid-summer.

Some are thankful to be isolating in wild locations, like Kruger National Park, where lions have been seen lolling on the sun-warmed roads, empty of tourists.  They share their experience with us via blogs. Most of us are stuck in far more civilized, and consequently dangerous locations, where lions are the least of our concerns. All of us are facing uncertain futures, and many of us are longing for the wilderness, where the basic laws of the wild are certain, predictable, and easy to celebrate.

My isolation-era windows look out from a 5-story apartment building on to the now eerily quiet Live Music Capital of the World: Austin, Texas. An acquaintance, who was once a safari guide, reports he is stuck behind a computer in Johannesburg, jonesing for the bushveld. A safari company manager and podcaster I know from an online friendship is stuck in his home country of Australia, a continent away from his livelihood and his passions. We read the news of the wild places we love like thirsty people offered a drink of freshwater.

The massive, welcome flooding in the Okavango Delta is being posted on a moment by moment on the Facebook page “Maun Flood Arrival 2020”. Travel companies like Wilderness Safaris are offering free webinars featuring the countries where they operate. Boyd Varty records almost daily mini-podcasts from his family property of Londolozi. The world has gone virtual overnight, Africa and all travel included. My hotel job naturally evaporated, and the severance was finalized in late May.

And then, with the lockdowns, closed borders, and sweeping changes in modern life, a silver lining appeared: for the first time ever, EcoTraining— the first school to train students to pass their Field Guide Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) exams and become licensed safari guides—would be offering part of their certification course online.

The EcoTraining website still states that all of their courses are held in remote wilderness areas. Actually being in Africa is not a negotiable part of their ethos. The practical portion of the exam, where students learn the specifics of an area’s flora and fauna, how to operate a high lift jack, and how to park just so to catch the beautiful morning light as it illuminates the ruff of a leopard, is still held only at one of their many, truly wild, unfenced camps.

My innovative online theory course, conversely, would be offered online via Zoom, and I would be able to complete it from the comfort of my own living room. My instructors would come to me from their living rooms, camps where they were staying, and anywhere else they were marooned by the pandemic across southern Africa.

The three-day-a-week course would start in early June and end around the first of August. At the end of the course, I would be able to sit for one of the first-ever online exams FGASA has offered since it was founded 26 years ago.

Despite the fact that the course was only half a certification, I was committed to completing it the moment knew it existed. I would not be in the wilderness. I would not be living in a tent in an unfenced reserve or sleep under a mosquito net.  I wouldn’t hear a lion in the night or eat marula fruit right off the tree. The experience of the wilderness would all be in my head—but, if a handful of Zoom sessions was as close as I could get to going back to Africa, I would take it? Yes.

Makuleke Camp - Ecotraining

If the students on my course are any indication, there is a strong demand for connection to nature via the internet. Students are dialling in from all over the world. One student even gets up at 4 or 5 am to take the course live from Australia. There are South Africans, Dutch, Americans, and Canadians. Few of us have prospects of getting on a plane and going to South Africa to take the practical portion of our course within the next six months. So why are we doing this?

Most of us are not furthering career goals or looking for a raise. Without the practical, we get only an “Enthusiast” certificate. We are getting something else out of this—we are connecting with the wild. We are all taking this course because somewhere along the line, we went to Africa, or we saw a film, we read a book or even a webpage, and we wanted to be a part of this continent that pulls so many of us inexplicably toward the wilderness. We are hungry in our isolation, and we want to connect, not only to one another but to the wild.

The other day in class, my instructor, whose day was ending, mentioned he has seen a solitary cape buffalo near his house early that morning.

It wasn’t my house.

It wasn’t my buffalo, not anyone’s buffalo.

But it was a little touch of the wild, a door ajar, into the wilderness. And I intend to keep that door open, even in lockdown—every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two blissful hours of study in the western Lowveld of South Africa.

Virtual Field Guide - Ecotraining
EcoTraining Online Course - Ecotraining

EcoTraining IS online! If you don’t have the option to take a year off, do not worry, we’ve got your back.

Make sure not to miss out on the next Field Guide Online course starting 10 August 2020. This course is a comprehensive introduction to Field Guiding and covers all 17 FGASA Apprentice Guide modules, including theory reviews, workbook support, and theory assessments. EcoTraining’s experienced instructors deliver the programme via live interactive lectures, which include videos, graphics, and quizzes.

About the Author:
Lee Bellware

Lee Bellware

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