So, it would seem impossible to take an online course—the most modern of sterile, technological inventions—and still experience the same awe of nature, the same instant camaraderie, and the same indelible memories that a good safari creates. And yet, there is a worldwide coalition of friends whose connection is just that. We are EcoTraining’s online alumni.
From all over the World
We are of all ages and walks of life. Among our ranks are grandparents, a married couple, a mother of two pursuing her university degree, PhDs, travel agents, a flight attendant, pilots, a novelist, a private tour leader, philanthropists, adventurers, a government clerk—and one of us is even currently completing her one-year practical in Namibia at this very moment. We are from Colorado, Mexico City, Singapore, Brisbane, South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the UK, to name a few of the places we currently call home. And through all the strange twists and turns of 2020 and into 2021, we have remained connected.
Some of us have even recently started to meet up in person countries where it is safe to gather again, while others remain under quarantine in their own countries or homes, and some yo-yo in and out of states of safety, making travel plans only to cancel them. Others push forward and reach the bush under any circumstance. Africa compels us to stick together just now, and the travel of one can become an escape for all who cannot join in.
“I can hardly believe it’s been a year now since we all saw each other on screen for the first time,” fellow student Marion Wallek (aka Machete-Marion, if you met her on her Kenya practical) said. “I love the exchange and contact in the WhatsApp group and am very grateful for how many great new friendships and close relationships have been formed all over the world through a shared passion for nature and Africa.”
The WhatsApp group sprang from a student’s idea in EcoTraining’s first online Apprentice Field Guide course. We wanted a way to connect and share information and ask our instructors questions while we were outside of lectures. We used it to help each other find information in the massive FGASA manuals and to share frustrations and joys as we neared, then took, our big exam.
Some students dropped off the group after the test, but many stayed. We got to know one another, some of us took other online courses together. We even exchanged addresses and sent a few holiday cards zipping, or slogging, across the planet through the maze of international mail in pandemic times.
The WhatsApp idea caught on with the next cohorts EcoTraining’s online courses, and by spring of 2021, it was a standard way for students, many of which had never met in person or set foot in South Africa for a year or more, to stay connected.
For the love of Africa
Our initial group widened when many of us from the first Theory course took the first online Trails Guide course in the spring of 2021. We discovered new people who shared our love of Africa, and around that time we started having regular reunions using the Zoom platform once a month. We had met that way before, but we were growing in number and interest, and a few students even came forward to give presentations. One student shared his Trails Guide practical experience, and another shared his journey across Southern Africa, which led him to co-write a travel guide published in 2020. In July, a virtual pajama party is taking place and former students are meeting at a time that suits all our Pacific time zone folks. Finally, the Australians don’t have to get up at 3 am to join! Time zones fade away when someone who shares your love of Africa is on the other side of the screen.
Sabine, who works at a university and lives in Aachen, Germany, says,
“this love gets stronger and stronger by reading, watching WildEarth, taking EcoTraining’s courses and every time I travel to Africa. One half of my heart belongs to my home, my boyfriend, and family and the other half belongs to the African wildlife.” And so, it is with all of us.
In this darkest of times, we lucky few online students managed to find our “tribe” in one another.
“I’ve always had a passion for nature, and African wildlife in particular,”
states Mandy Monk, who lives on Australia’s sunshine coast and has not been able to leave her country since the pandemic began.
“I have loved Africa since I was a kid and wrote a make-believe journal about going on safari in Kenya when I was eight.”
Where there is a will, there is a way. Online courses brought EcoTraining’s Africa into our lives and our living rooms. We all became eight years old again each time an EcoTraining lecture lit up our screens, and our ongoing friendships are just as rejuvenating.
Gayle Gledhill, half of the married set Gayle and Bruce who took online courses together despite their Australian home time zone, sums it up most eloquently:
“I’m blown away with the connections through Eco Training. It’s a bit like coming out, and I’ve found this group of people all over the world who are as obsessed and as interested in the natural world as me and it’s even more interesting as everyone is from all of the worlds. Kindred spirits across the globe!”
She observed that the connections with other students from around the planet were almost as eye-opening as the course itself—we share photos and stories almost daily about our wildlife, our travel experiences, our gardens, or areas of expertise—like how to choose a camera or even what vellies to opt for on your next trip. (Full disclosure: many of us have multiple pairs.) Travel post-covid, “may need the contribution of a number of us to make it interesting,” Gayle concluded, and she is right. The richness and diversity of students in EcoTraining’s online courses is a hidden gem among all the other gems each course has to offer.
We started the pandemic with little hope of travel or connecting with new people, and through EcoTraining we now are all sharing, planning, and experiencing not just Africa but the whole planet together in ways we never imagined before. We joined the courses with many different goals but emerged as a new community with a shared dream. One day we may all meet in still dawn, Amarula in our coffee, as we watch a new day break over the Lowveld, senses buzzing with the knowledge we now share among us—a gaggle of guides, a wonderful misfit crew of humans who love all that is wild.
Ok, maybe not solifuges, but at least we know what they are now!
About the Author:
Lee Bellware is an EcoTraining alum of our Trails Guide and Theory courses and lives in Austin, Texas, USA. Lee holds a degree in Ecology and Nonfiction writing and has a keen interest in Wildlife and Botanical Conservation Research and Education
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 Online Field Guide course starting 25 August 2021. 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 program via live interactive lectures, which include videos, graphics, and quizzes.