Elinor’s Incredible Journey to Becoming a Professional Field Guide

It was mid-October 2020, and the email in front of me was from HR. Cost-saving measures began, like so many others before it this year. I felt that familiar ache shoot up into my shoulders as I imagined more furloughs or even redundancies in an already stretched department. But the request form below was new...

Unpaid Leave, Reduced Hours, A Sabbatical…? I sat up straight as an idea took hold.

A night of furious number crunching and some deep soul searching ensued, but early the next morning I saw myself swapping my little suburban flat in London and my beloved Citroen Picasso for a bell tent and Toyota Land Cruiser in the South African Savannah.

Photograph © Elinor Steiner

6 months earlier I had enrolled to study for my FGASA accreditation through EcoTraining online. Through this course, I formed virtual friendships with like-minded people from all over the globe, and together we learned about the many wonders of the natural world. There were 70 participants on that online course, all of us from very different walks of life, but all brought together by a longing to one day experience the wild first-hand.

I had been so excited to pass that online theory exam at the end of the course and I was even more excited to tell my online cohort that I was actually off to study the practical component with EcoTraining in Africa! The EcoTraining admin team helped with all my visa applications and travel arrangements and just like that, I was off to live in the bush.

Experiencing the African Bush – Photographs © Elinor Steiner

Being a petite 36-year-old female I found the physicality of the course much harder than I expected, especially when training with 18-year-olds fresh out of school, but I was determined. The course taught me practical skills, such as how to change those enormous tires on the game viewers, orientate myself using the stars and track wild animals over great distances. It was also necessary to gain a thorough understanding of the theory components, such as local ecology, geography, and even bird calls.

I found insects particularly interesting and made a few videos, my guests particularly liked my ‘Termite Talk’

We learned never to be complaisant – many of us were at the mercy of the elements for the first time in our lives and the necessity for Wilderness First Aid and Advanced Rifle Handling were scary concepts to come to terms with. I hope I never have to floor a charging rhino at 30 meters, but should it happen, I now know I can.

Wilderness First Aid – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

Giraffe encounter – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

My first big challenge came on day four when a flash flood submerged our entire camp just minutes after a lecture on crocodile attacks and the danger of going near bodies of water in the Limpopo. However, in the bush, you must be prepared to be responsible for your guests, yourself, and your things, so into that dark water, we waded. Fortunately, we met no crocodiles on that occasion…

Flash flood – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

Waded – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

We slept in unfenced camps in some of the world’s most pristine wildernesses. We would often wake in the morning to see lion tracks through the middle of camp (the first time that happened was the last time I drank any liquid before bed!). One night a hyena got into our lecture tent and ate our logbooks; on another night it went to sleep right next to me against the thin canvas of my tent – the smell of its hot rotten breath made my blood run cold. Other nights I lay awake listening to the elephants felling trees around me, and hoping they wouldn’t accidentally squish me flat, but then over time incidents such as these began to seem quite normal.

Tracks – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

Lions – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

I was very keen to be placed in a lodge setting for my 6-month internship – an essential component of the course. I was lucky enough to get taken on at the beautiful Onguma Game Reserve in Namibia.

Here the real work began. As I’m sure many of you already know, the hospitality industry never sleeps. I was scheduled for eight-week cycles. That meant 12-hour days for 8 consecutive weeks – not a single day off in all that time. After learning the roads, no mean feat considering some are just winding dirt tracks and dry riverbeds, I was able to take guests out on the reserve and into the famous Etosha National Park for game drives.

Game Viewer – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

Oryx – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

At Onguma I met incredible travelers, saw the fantastic game, and learned the trade from the local guides and the lodge management. Because of my previous management experience, I was even asked to cover the role of Head Guide, when my boss went on annual leave, and this was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.

As my internship period came to an end I was offered a full-time role at the lodge. While extremely grateful for the offer, I felt the entire experience was very humbling. If I was in my early twenties, I would probably have jumped at the chance to live the dream for a few more years, but being a little bit older now,  I have responsibilities back home that I must return to.

Having now been back in the UK for a little over a month I was very happy to be asked to write this little round-up of my year away. It has given me time for reflection and brought back many happy memories of what has probably been one of the best years of my life.

The magnificent African Elephant – Photograph © Elinor Steiner

I think it’s fair to say that many of us feel a deep, almost primeval, yearning to get out there and test our mettle in the great unknown. If reading any part of my blog has given you those tiny tingles down your spine then I urge you to take the leap and try it for yourself, I’d love to read about your adventures on one of these pages soon.

How to become a Field Guide | 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: 

Elinor Steiner is a former EcoTraining Professional Field Guide student from the United Kingdom.