My Student Journey, Part 3 – Internship

After almost six months of training across four different reserves in South Africa and Botswana, it was finally time for our group to disperse on their highly-anticipated internships. For my part, turning up at a beautiful 4* lodge in the northern Kruger, I was a heady mix of anxious and excited.

After initial meetings and inductions were out the way, I began my rotation in each of the different departments. From waitress to housekeeping to maintenance, my first month involved gaining a better understanding of how each department functions and contributes to the overall success of the lodge. As useful as it was, I was itching to get into the bush and begin joining the other guides on safari and bush-clearing duties.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

Finally released, I gleefully ventured out in the front passenger seat, watching and learning as much as I could. Each day, I found out which guides were heading out on safari and soaked up as many different styles as possible – from the laid back and fun to the serious and informative. I stashed as many facts, jokes, and techniques in my head as I could whilst also paying attention to the different roads and radio protocols for the area. Feeling ready, I impatiently waited for my chance to take the wheel.

On the day in question, I spent the whole morning double and triple-checking my uniform and vehicle. With butterflies raging war in my belly, my very first drive came and went in a blur of nerves and excitement. In the end, despite getting slightly lost, everything went surprisingly well. Watching my guests’ faces light upon seeing their very first elephant and knowing that I was helping to make their long-held dreams come true was something so new and exhilarating. It affirmed every belief I had that this was the only career for me.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

Over the next months, I had a few more guiding opportunities and loved every second of it. However, there was one reason why I was so keen to be an intern at this particular lodge in the first place and that was the arrival of trails season. As a qualified backup, it was a unique chance to gain experience and hours towards my lead trails qualification in one of the most beautiful walking destinations in South Africa.

As March moved into April, the thick summer bush and blistering hot days had begun to wane enough for the walking trails to recommence. I willingly moved from the main lodge to one of the stunning, off-grid trail camps where all the safaris are done on foot. Each morning before sunrise, the lead guide and I boiled water over a fire and lifted it into suspended bucket showers for our guests before prepping morning coffee and our trails kits. One-by-one, the guests surfaced from their tents ready to hit the trail.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

In the month that followed, I had some of the most memorable moments of my life. From the scary moments, such as facing an elephant and buffalo charge and almost walking into a leopard with a kill – to the awe-inspiring ones, like walking barefoot in the Levhuvhu river and sitting amidst a herd of 20 elephant bulls totally unaware of our presence. Meandering through the golden fever-tree forest, trailing hard on the tracks of lions and elephants, and dodging hippos in the acacia floodplains; every moment was special.

On one particular afternoon, we had successfully tracked a herd of buffalo to a natural watering hole. After sneaking as close as we dared, we watched the beasts drinking and munching on the grass from our hidden vantage point before deciding it was time to head back to the vehicle. With the sun making its slow descent, the light was beginning to fade. Extracting from the herd, we climbed a small ridge where, from the top, we could see the vehicle just a few hundred meters away. However, to our horror, in those few hundred meters there was another herd of some 200 buffalo. With only 20 minutes left of light, any attempt to circumnavigate this enormous herd would undoubtedly leave us trekking in the dark. What were we going to do?!

Photographs © Emily Whiting

Turning towards our two guests, the experienced lead guide confidently declared “We’re going through the middle!” With clear instructions to walk calmly but without stopping, we began marching straight at the herd in single file. My hands tight on my rifle and my heart beating out my chest, we closed in on the first few animals. With no bushes to hide behind, the buffalo saw us coming and stared hard for a few seconds, giving a disgruntled head shake as they did. However, amazingly these grumpy, 800kg animals did absolutely nothing. Step-by-step we pushed on and the buffalo were so taken aback by the outright boldness that they simply watched us pass! For a good ten minutes, we silently weaved and navigated through the entire herd of 200 animals with, to my mind, little more than good luck and a brave face until, unbelievably, we ended up safe on the other side. As the last slither of light faded into black, we arrived at the vehicle and breathed heavy gasps of relief that our gamble had paid off.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

After a blissful four weeks of non-stop trailing, I received the greatest news of all. I had received a job offer from an incredible, 5* safari lodge in the Greater Kruger and they wanted me to start straight away! Although sad to cut short my time in Pafuri, everything I had spent the last months – and years – working towards had finally landed squarely in my lap. An opportunity to be a real-life field guide in one of the most famous safari destinations in the world. Packing my bags for the last time, I reflected on the incredible journey that had taken me to this point. From a British teacher with a crazy dream to a bonafide safari guide. Some dreams, it seems, really do come true.

Tracking is like playing a guitar | EcoTraining Course

In today’s video, Norman Chauke talks about experiencing the relationship between a tracker and an animal. He describes it as a melody being played on a guitar. The animal holding one part of the string while the tracker is holding the other part of the guitar string. The way the tracking unfolds continuously changes the tone of the melody…

Learn more about the 55-day EcoTracker course here:

https://www.ecotraining.co.za/programs-courses/ecotracker-animal-monitoring-course/

OR

Read more about the ancient art of animal tracking in our blog:

https://www.ecotraining.co.za/programs-courses/ecotracker-animal-tracking/

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.