My Student Journey, Part 2 – Tracking & Trailing

After completing the first phase of the Professional Field Guide course, our group spent the next few weeks building on some of the wider skills surrounding the guiding industry; navigation, birding, and tracking to name a few. During this time, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with many passionate and knowledgeable instructors although one moment, in particular, stands out as a favorite.

During a navigation activity, we happened upon some very fresh tracks for a white rhino bull. Without hesitation, our instructor – Jan-Hendrik – got us out of the vehicles, and, with a quick briefing, we were soon on the animal’s trail.

Guided bush walk © Emily Whiting

Rhino © Emily Whiting

Fast forwards an hour and Jan-Hendrik’s skill had led us to within 50 meters of the rhino, peacefully grazing by himself. Taking note of the surrounding terrain, he silently motioned us to follow him around a rocky outcrop. Now downwind and out of sight, we began to slowly belly-crawl onto the rocks until we could all see the rhino below. Perfectly positioned, the bull was unknowingly weaving his way in our direction as we waited for just a few meters above with bated breath. Getting to within almost touching distance (yet protected by the rocks), I had a feeling of overwhelming gratitude to be right there, in that moment and in the middle of the wild, so close to such a magnificent and gentle creature. With no vehicle to fall back on, our senses were dramatically heightened and I felt a connection to nature much deeper than I had previously. Right then, my love of experiencing the bush on foot was born.

Buffalo © Emily Whiting

Buffalo sighting © Emily Whiting

Time moved on and there remained one last qualification to master before we were ready to experience life in a lodge – to become backup trails guides. Based in the Makuleke concession in northern Kruger, the camp is nestled in arguably one of the most beautiful areas in the whole of South Africa. With few roads and even fewer tourists, Pafuri – as it is known – is truly a wilderness like no other. From exotic palm trees lining the vast Limpopo river to the dramatic, endless views over Lanner gorge, you cannot help but feel like you have stepped into another world, hidden from time and civilization.

Fever tree forest, Makuleke © Emily Whiting

Lanner Gorge © Emily Whiting

Unlike the rest of the course, the next 4 weeks were to be almost exclusively on foot, exploring ancient valleys, forgotten forests, and well-trodden elephant paths. Each morning and afternoon, we would venture out to uncover nature’s secrets, delighting in big and small alike. From the fascinating exploits of the tiniest dung beetle to encountering a herd of buffalo some 200 strong, becoming a trails guide is to understand nature in all its facets. We learned everything from elephant chewing gum and microscopic fig wasps to how to approach some of Africa’s most dangerous animals on foot.

Emily carefully handles our reptile friend © Emily Whiting

Friends © Emily Whiting

My most memorable times were, undoubtedly, spent in the magical world of the fever tree forest. These towering trees, dusted in a fine, yellow powder, are surely something straight out of a fairy tale. On one particular morning, as the golden light worked its way through the canopy, highlighting pockets of gold and green against the mysterious, shadowy areas within, we picked up the fresh dung of an old, female elephant. Following her tracks, we managed to locate her resting quietly in the shade. Nearing the end, she had broken away from her herd, cutting a lonesome figure against the soaring vegetation. Ever respectful, we chose to observe her at a distance and, after a few minutes, left her in peace. It was a poignant moment to witness the decline of such a noble animal in the most beautiful of places. Silently, we marched back to camp, our minds preoccupied with thoughts of the old lady, alone in the forest.

A well deserved break © Emily Whiting

Rifle handling © Emily Whiting

As the month drew to an end, each student submitted themselves to the most feared exam of all – advanced rifle handling. Five rounds of increasingly difficult targets, ending with a simulated lion charge. Having had no experience with a rifle prior to the course, I hadn’t held much hope of success. However, with some fantastic instruction and a lot of “dry practice” in camp, the weapon slowly began to feel comfortable in my hands. On the day, nerves got the better of some but I was one of the fortunate few to pass – my final bullet landing just inside the target on the simulated charge. What a relief that was!

Although due to illness I had to postpone my own backup assessment, one-by-one the group then put all their knowledge into action with our very last practical exam, my own success finally coming a few weeks later. Reflecting on the past 6 months, it felt surreal that we hadn’t even known each other on that first day around the wooden table. We had shared a unique journey not only into nature but into ourselves, leaving the world seems altogether different. Equipped with the knowledge we needed, our safety brakes were torn away and we were divided across Southern Africa for the next chapter; the lodge placement. But, more on that next time…

EcoTraining Courses | Apprentice Trails Guide

As Trails Guides, we are privileged to be able to take part in the lowest impact and most environmentally sensitive form of a Safari.

During your path to becoming a trails guide, you will gain the much-needed skills and knowledge through interesting and exciting experiences in the wilderness with highly trained Trails Mentors, who will not only help you discover the wonders of walking in the bush but also how to do it safely!

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.