Sabbatical with Elephants

Setting foot on the soil of the African Savannah touches my soul in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Still: just “being there” wasn’t going to be enough. I wanted to understand nature better and apply my knowledge and passion to become a conservation advocate. I was in when I realised eight-week training courses are available from EcoTraining Field Guide and Nature Training to gain the FGASA Apprentice Level Field Guide qualification.

“Guys, I found some very interesting poo here!” 

This is one of the sentences I never thought I’d say until recently. But on that October morning, shortly after sunrise, it was a very standard line along with

“Where the heck has the road gone?” or “Was this an Emerald Spotted Wood Dove calling or a Burchell’s Coucal?” Most readers think, “he’s gone mad!” except for a tiny minority, who think, “Ah – Field Guide Training”. Well, you are both right.

What animal is that from? © Sven Ringling

But let’s go back a couple of years to find out why a notorious night owl, a late riser, and a technology addict spent two months in basic accommodation in the bush to start his days at 5 am and be in bed not long after 9 pm with an animal behaviour book.


After 25 years as a consultant in HR Technology and some particularly stressful spells in the last few years, I also felt I needed a break from work and modern city life. I might have opted for a hiking holiday in Scandinavia ten years ago. Still, since 2017 I’ve made several short trips to Africa and fallen in love with the profound nature experience and the diverse culture. Spending a few months in the bush away from the noise and crowds appealed to me more and more, but why Kenya and not, say, Canada or Australia? I can’t tell. I was in when I realised eight-week training courses are available from EcoTraining Field Guide and Nature Training to gain the FGASA Apprentice Level Field Guide qualification. 

What an evening! – Photograph © Sven Ringling


Luckily, ORBIS People were very supportive of my sabbatical plans. In early September 2022, I arrived at the Mara Training Center in Enonkishu Conservancy to meet my 8-course mates from Kenya, Britain, US, Oz, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, and our South African Teacher Wesley Cragg and the adventure could begin. And an experience it was. The camp was in good standing, and safety was always important, but this differed from the luxury-style safari you’d book with your travel agent. The closeness to nature certainly re-defined my comfort zone. 

The training teaches the ropes to be a vehicle-based safari guide. So you learn to make sure guests have a good time, learn about wildlife and go home not only with unforgettable memories but ideally as conservation advocates – all within the framework of ethical guidance that puts guest safety, animal comfort and integrity of the ecosystem first and respects the local population. 

There was a lot to learn. Guest experience, animal behaviour, bird, frog and mammal calls, animal identification, 4×4 driving, ecology, tracking (where the “interesting poo” comes in), human history, geology, conservation management, … you name it. It worked well in the end but felt overwhelming, to begin with. How should I ever be able to recognise dozens and dozens of birds by call or visuals? All I could identify confidently at the beginning was an Ostrich. 

What this all has to do with HR Information Systems? Nothing! At first sight, it was useless for my career, except it wasn’t.


It was unique beyond words! The immersion in the natural environment, the wildlife encounters (witnessing a Giraffe being born was only one of several magical moments), the team spirit, the fantastic people we met, and getting to know an area and its wildlife well. Those who have met me since see that I can’t find an end if I start talking about my time in the Maasai Mara because I’m still in awe.

Doing something silly is part of the job description 🙂 – Photograph © Sven Ringling
Sleep well tonight – this lioness will find you 🙂 Photograph © Sven Ringling

What Did I Take Away? 

  • To begin with, on the day after the course back in Nairobi, I got up and realised I hadn’t felt that well for years. Physically and mentally. 
  • Learning things so different from what I had to learn in the last 30 years was fascinating. In a way, I had to learn how to learn. This stretch to the naturally lazy grey matter felt good. 
  • A better perspective on things. In nature, whatever you are observing is never far from the fundamental question of survival. The Antelope “going to work” in the morning knows it needs to eat enough grass to keep its lamb alive without being killed by a predator. 
  • A new appreciation of nature and the ingenuity of evolution to develop many different survival strategies.  
Hello, young bull – Photograph © Sven Ringling
  • A better perception of risk. To the bush newbie, many things you’d do naturally after a few weeks appear scary. But you learn that, whilst there are risks, most are so small that they become irrelevant, provided you observe a few basic rules. 
  • A new connection with nature. Who knew that lying in the grass under an Acacia Tree could be the equivalent of wireless charging your phone? (tip: check for ants first; depending on where you are, make sure one of your group is upright to scan for more giant animals.) 
  • The ability to enjoy things I had unlearned to enjoy. That includes silly things, not “appropriate” for my age. Is anybody for climbing a tree?
  • A much better knowledge of nature, conservation and community engagement 
  • And last but not least: I enjoyed the time immensely. I became friends with a diverse bunch of awesome people! 
A little crazy, but super happy 🙂 © Sven Ringling


There is a lot to take away from a two months break! 

Would I recommend doing it to you? Well, it’s probably not for everybody, but if you enjoy nature, like learning new things and are willing to stretch your comfort zone a little, go for it! I would do it again. If you are thinking about this kind of course or another unique wildlife experience in Kenya, please get in touch with me for advice and contacts.

What would I do differently? Just one thing: I’d listen to the people telling me to allow for a two weeks cool-down period before getting back to work—one week in Kenya and one week at home. There is so much to digest that adapting to narrow offices and noisy cities takes time. 


Well, as it stands now, I have no tangible plans for a career change into nature guiding. 

I do have plans to add the Trails Guide course to my list. That won’t be about guiding from a vehicle but conducting safely guided walks “in areas with the potentially dangerous game,” as they say. I love walking in the bush, and the idea of a month-long nature walks every day sounds like heaven. Apart from this, I’ll be in Africa more often, and we are already planning to meet again as a group. 

A 45-minute-old giraffe – Photograph © Sven Ringling


But it’s also essential for me to give something back. I’m planning some events to share important messages on conservation and to raise funds for charities supporting the ecosystems and local communities in the areas I was privileged to explore closely. The Enonkishu Conservancy, in particular, is a model project showing how conservation and local communities can win together and help battle climate change simultaneously. I learned that traditional cattle farming and the safari industry are natural friends rather than enemies, as commonly assumed. I’m looking for ways to support this and similar projects in particular. One tiny step in this direction is to turn to you and ask you to open your heart and find a few coins to support one of my two favourite projects in Kenya. The rising cost of living and the energy and food crises hit Africa’s vulnerable communities and ecosystems hard – especially with the recent drought in southern Kenya.

  • The Mara Predator Conservation Programme combines research, conservation management and community engagement. It’s not just about saving big cats. It’s about saving biodiversity in the ecosystem with and through them and making sure local communities can benefit. Click here to learn more and here to donate. Note that online donations go through Kenya Wildlife Trust, and you can indicate your donation should go to Mara Predator Conservation. You can use “secure online donation” through Pesapal without setting up a Pesapal account by selecting credit card payment – the Amount you capture is in USD. 
  • Osiligi Charity Projects run a local school in southern Kenya to guarantee a solid education to underprivileged children, and they also run a clean water project in the region. I’m a regular sponsor myself, and after the recent hit by drought and food prices, I contributed to their crisis fund. So, whether you want to give a few coins to help them through the current crisis or sponsor a child, click here to learn more or donate from any country via Paypal or credit card. 

I do have plans to add the Trails Guide course to my list. That won’t be about guiding from a vehicle but conducting safely guided walks “in areas with the potentially dangerous game,” as they say. I love walking in the bush, and the idea of a month-long nature walks every day sounds like heaven. Apart from this, I’ll be in Africa more often, and we are already planning to meet again as a group. 

Kisaru, a very successful cheetah mother and resident of Enonkishu – Photograph © Sven Ringling

Would you like to become a Field Guide? | EcoTraining Course l 55-day Kenya Field Guide

Did you know EcoTraining offers a 55-day Field Guide course in Kenya?

The course is unique as it is relevant to the natural environment of Kenya. Every minute of your 55 days on this course will be a learning experience, as you are constantly exposed to the bush.

About the Author: 

Sven Ringling works at ORBIS People in the SAP HXM department.
In more than 25 years as a consultant for SAP HR solutions, he has worked for consultancies in Germany, the UK and Belgium and gained extensive experience in customer projects with SAP HR / SAP HCM (on-premise), including Payroll, SAP Concur, SAP SuccessFactors, Workforce Software and Qualtrics Employee Experience.

Read the German version HERE: Sabbatical mit Elefanten

About the Author:
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Sven Ringling

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