Expect the Unexpected

I've lived in several countries in Europe and in each of them I was far enough away from Southern Africa to have developed a considerable misconception about that place over the years. Europe holds many gems but unfortunately, the wildlife is not as enthralling as in Africa, and our ecosystems are incredibly different. The role of the field guide is not such a well-known job in our European cities and therefore many things about this job have been unknown to me all these years.

Yet I have always dreamed of being a Field Guide in the savanna. I have been daydreaming about this place for a long time, and most of what I imagined was, in large part, completely wrong.

Karongwe Camp is quite different from how I’ve been fantasizing about it for the past three months. The tents are cozy, the food is delicious and the vegetation is lush and full to the brim. For some reason, I always thought of the Southern African savannah as a barren, brown, and dusty veld. I think that’s how it was drawn in my childhood school books back in Venice. They clearly had never visited this place in their lives. I’d love to have a catch-up with my school teacher and explain to her how she was wrong about a couple of things regarding this country.

Lookout point, Karongwe (left) & Game drive (right) Photographs © Claus Becker

“Dear Miss, the South African bush is not all dusty plains and rugged uplands. It is shining bountiful green during the rainy season. Most importantly, if I did not change to better behavior and act more like a well-to-do city socialite I would not achieve anything of note in Italy. Well, I’ve ended up somewhere great Miss and I am happy having not taken the road you wanted for me. I’m in the savannah.”

However, my teacher’s rudimentary lessons were not the genesis for my dreaming of the African bush. I was much younger when I’ve watched “The Lion King” for the first time and it was love at first sight. Although the Walt Disney film takes place in a vague, generic African setting, that’s exactly how I pictured the Southern African wildlife from a very young age. And this is not only the biggest and cheesiest cliché you will hear today. Finding such a high density of animals “chilling” in one location is totally utopian. Everyone would love to go on top of a rock in the Savanna and see astonishing elephants, lions, leopards, and all of the other fabulous fauna down there. Unfortunately, it is just not that effortless, and this is where the field guide role comes in.

Photographs © Maritz Vermaak

I have to be honest with you all, I expected becoming a field guide would have been a less windy road. Not that I am even close to being one yet, but at least my idea of how this game works is slightly more precise now. I feel like in Europe we think of field guides as people who drive around game reserves looking for beautiful animals, and when and where those are found is mainly a matter of luck. The reality is that there is a huge amount of knowledge behind the role of a field guide. Concepts that you wouldn’t think of having to be learned in order to actually become a good field guide.

For instance, knowing how to repair a 4×4 vehicle in any terrain and climate whilst keeping guests safe and entertained. If you get stuck in the middle of the bush you better be able to get that car going again instead of spending the night with some ferocious predators. And what about knowing how to get home if you lost your sense of orientation fixing that vehicle at night? You probably better have studied some astronomy to manage to read the stars which can gently indicate the way to bed.

So, no, it is not all about the delightful lions. There are plenty of extra tidbits that I could mention. Did you know, for instance, that by recognizing the birds’ calls you can actually find out if there are predators close by? Or by hearing an Oxpecker’s call maybe some buffalo or White Rhino are moving towards you? And I promise you, it is not easy memorizing dozens of bird names, their appearance, calls, and possibly even trying to understand what they are actually “saying”.

Photographs © Sandesh Saddul

It is hard and tiring, yet it is surprisingly refreshing how there seems to be a payoff for all the exhausting hours of study and effort. I believe only being somewhere and doing something very special can make you wake at 4:30 am every day looking forward to jumping into the new day. Well, maybe on most days because everyone happens to have a bad day every now and then. I’ve always loved a good sleep, I would have not imagined being so glad to wake up so early.

But, I mean, how could I not be? We communicate with animals on a daily basis here. Yesterday we had an encounter with a herd of elephants. There was a calf in the herd, probably the reason why its mother was a bit frightened to see us humans wandering around. We were only about 30 meters away from them. The mother felt a bit uncomfortable with us being so close but she didn’t turn aggressive.

Our instructor anticipated her behavior and started chatting to her as a person would to a dog. He apologized for making her believe her calf was in danger. He explained to her that harming them was not our intention. To my surprise, she got the message perfectly and completely changed her attitude. She went back to calmly chowing her Marula fruits next to us. In that specific moment, I realized that sleeping only a few hours, the time spent studying and trying to memorize vocabulary and sounds, the physical and mental efforts, and being away from my family were all ephemeral aspects. In that exact instant, I became aware that, once again, I have been wrong. I was mistaken to even consider the unlikely option that this would have not been where I belonged. In that precise fraction of time, I realized that I was exactly, and unequivocally, in the place where I am supposed to be.

Why I wanted to be a Professional Field Guide | Interview with Erik Beusse

Erik Beusse began his Professional Field Guide Course this February where he started his journey by connecting with the wilderness around him. Erik tells us about his passion for the African bush and why he wanted to be a guide and what it means to be a Backup in one of the EcoTraining Camps.

About the Author: 

Martina Dorigo is an EcoTraining Professional Field Guide student.