My Student Journey – Part 1

September 1st is known as the official start of Spring in South Africa. However, in 2017, it heralded a different kind of beginning for me. Having spent years wishing, dreaming, and saving, I was finally seated at a large wooden table with 11 other wide-eyed students as we began our EcoTraining induction.

Like the first day of school, I came over-prepared and nervous about meeting the people who would be undertaking this momentous journey with me. I needn’t have worried. Over the next six months, the trials and joys that united us would create friendships that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.

Gentle Giant © Emily Whiting

Field Guide Group © Emily Whiting

Induction over, we transferred to our first “classroom” – the expansive wilds of the Tuli Game Reserve, Botswana. Our new home was to be a series of simple dome tents set beneath the boughs of giant Mashatu trees along the banks of the Motloutse river. Barely unpacked, our passionate instructor – the late and wonderful Russell Crossey – bundled us onto a game viewer for our very first safari. As if the excitement of being in one of the wildest and most beautiful places on Earth wasn’t enough, we located a cheetah with a small kill just as dusk began to creep in. Watching the light fade away as we marveled at our incredible luck, I knew then that my life had changed forever!

Vast landscape of Botswana © Emily Whiting

Cheetahs © Emily Whiting

Within days we all settled into our new routine of a safari activity each morning and afternoon, with short lectures during the day to help us cover the immense amount of theory needed to pass our guiding exams. Not long after, it was time for my first attempt in the driving seat. Driving around with Russell at my side, I began growing in confidence. That is until we saw a herd of elephants. Though I had now seen many of these gentle giants during the course, it was an entirely different sensation to be the person in charge.

Land of the Giants © Emily Whiting

Friends © Emily Whiting

With Russell’s encouragement, I edged closer and switched off my engine. Laughing at my own discomfort now, I remember holding the steering wheel so tight that my knuckles were almost white, one hand holding the ignition keys ready to flee. Elated, slightly terrified, and just a touch overwhelmed – I went through a hoard of emotions before finally settling enough to speak to my student “guests”. Of course, the elephants barely even blinked at my presence – happily I am much more experienced and comfortable with elephants nowadays!

Lion © Emily Whiting

Scouting © Emily Whiting

From Botswana back to South Africa, our training continued in the diverse reserves of Selati, and Karongwe. A dizzying array of topics – from geology and astronomy to identifying birds, trees, and animal behavior – were skilfully delivered by our Instructors over bush walks, field tests, and lectures whilst we honed our skills on our practice drives. To relax, we enjoyed long chats by the fire and regular games of volleyball and boules. Life became full and yet simple, and time seemed to stand still for a few, precious months as we disconnected from the rush of real life.

Karongwe camp © Emily Whiting

Elephant encounter © Emily Whiting

In time, our exams pressed upon us. Despite my friends quietly cheering me on from the back, my mouth dried up with nerves as I set off on my assessment drive. With my route planned in my head, I threw everything into trying to be as interesting and engaging as possible. Stony-faced, my assessor gave no hint as to my result until finally pulling into the car park at the end, where he subtly smiled and offered his hand in congratulations. It was official – I was a fully-qualified Field Guide! Pride, relief, excitement, and sheer joy washed over me in heady waves – a feeling that I will never forget.

However, the celebration was short-lived as we dove into the next stage of our one-year Professional Field Guide course – becoming a trails guide. But that, as they say, is another story entirely…

This could be your office | 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: 

Emily Whiting, is a former EcoTraining Professional Field Guide student and currently working as a Field Guide at a 5* lodge in the Greater Kruger, South Africa.