My Student Journey, Part 4 – After graduation

From the very first time I set foot in South Africa, I knew I had come home. Perhaps not in the literal meaning of the word, but it was something I felt in my very being. My soul, never quite at peace, felt awash with relief that it had at last found a place to belong.

Despite that realization, it would take another decade before I amassed the means – and courage – to leave behind everything I knew and chase after a wild dream.

Almost a year after my incredible EcoTraining journey began and many exams, frantic studying, and bouts of unbridled laughter later, that crazy dream of working as a real field guide in South Africa was finally becoming a reality. I showed up to my new position in an outstanding, 5* lodge in the Greater Kruger and, within a week, was thrown into the deep end with little more than the knowledge in my head and a questionable map to find my way around. But, with the help of other guides in the area, it didn’t take long to hit my stride.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

In those first months, I used all my accumulated facts and stories garnered from many months of study in the bush to win over my excited guests. With no tracker and few other stations mobile in our traverse, I was forced to quickly ramp up my skillset in locating animals – from constant tracking to listening and watching the birds and game for clues. Although challenging at times, it was thrilling when the hard work paid off.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

It was during this time that one of my most memorable experiences occurred. That winter, a pack of endangered African wild dogs – my absolute favorite animal – denned just minutes from the lodge. Each morning, almost like clockwork, the pack would head out on the hunt, launching through the bush and dashing in every direction. So successful are they at hunting that you could almost set your watch to their arrival back at the den, full-bellied and ready to greet the waiting puppies with juicy morsels of regurgitated meat.

As often as I could, I planned to arrive at the den at that very moment. Excited by the adults’ arrival, the tiny, black puppies would wobble out of the old termite mound, jumping on their stubby legs and twittering for joy. Cameras clicking in a frenzy, it was a moment of pure ecstasy for pups and people alike. Having the opportunity to watch them grow from those pot-bellied pups into skilled and confident hunters was an experience I will never forget.

Photographs © Emily Whiting

In the ensuing months and years, I have been privileged to witness many more incredible moments in the bush; from pride of almost 30 lions hunting buffalo to having an enormous bull elephant rest his trunk right upon my door. More than that, I have grown so much as a guide – both in my depth of knowledge and skill on the ground – having now passed my NQF4 Field Guide and Lead Trails Guide qualifications. Nonetheless, it has been the moments with my guests that have undoubtedly touched me the most. From a French lady quietly crying upon seeing her very first giraffe, to the joys of wedding proposals and a child’s wide-eyed curiosity when touching a silken millipede – making dreams come true every day for my guests is the greatest privilege of all. Watching their faces light up in smiles as they soak up everything from impala to zebra and audible gasps of astonishment when a leopard steps out from behind a tree – I still sometimes have to pinch myself to realize this is my career!

Photographs © Emily Whiting

Although the recent pandemic has put the industry under immense strain in the last two years, it hasn’t dulled my passion for the bush. But, it has forced me to adapt and evolve in order to stay in my beloved industry. From getting immersed in wildlife photography and growing my own social media presence, to eventually taking on the content and marketing for the lodge and more alongside my guiding role. If following my dreams has taught me anything, it is to never give up. The journey of a guide is one of constant learning and self-improvement and, ultimately, understanding the rare gift we have been given on this beautiful planet. Sitting here today, I’m so grateful to be doing what I love and to be able to share it with so many people. Through all the ups and downs of the previous years, there was one quote that kept me moving forwards – so I will leave it here as a final note. In the words of Henry David Thoreau:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined”.

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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.