The Grit and Glory of African Field Guide School

Bushwise Field Guides students examining animal spoor on a bush road.

Source Eric Nathan for OZY

Why you should care

You get to learn how to approach an elephant on foot and not be killed by a charging buffalo.

It’s Day 3 of Track and Sign week and a trio of Land Cruisers grumbles toward today’s classroom. Breaking up into small groups, the khaki-clad students try to identify the dozen or so animal tracks their trainers have circled in the sunbaked sandy track. “That must be a leopard,” says one at what looks like the paw print of a domestic cat on steroids. “No, no,” whispers another. “Look at the insets behind the lobes … It’s a lion cub.” A couple of hundred yards away, a lone elephant scratches against a marula tree.

The students, from places as diverse as Italy, the U.K. and South Africa, are a third of the way through the six-month Professional Field Guide Course offered by Bushwise Field Guides near Hoedspruit in South Africa. The course — which is split between a thatch-roofed classroom and a 27,000-hectare private game reserve that’s home to all of the Big 5 (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros) — covers everything from identifying raptors to learning how to handle a .375 rifle when an angry (cardboard cutout of a) buffalo is bearing down on you. Students who pass the final exam are qualified to work as game rangers, revealing the wonders of the African bush from a Cruiser with a rifle on the dash. For those wanting a foot in the door, Bushwise can arrange a six-month unpaid internship at a lodge.

Getting guests a front-row seat at that lion kill is great, but it’s also vital to be able to fill the gaps between sightings with informed banter about termite mounds and tok-tokkies.

The course has been “phenomenal,” says Mara Vinnik, an animal behavior graduate from Denver who’s doing it to build up field experience after spending the last few years with lab bumblebees. “It really helps you to understand every piece that makes up the environment around us.” This holistic approach suits both Vinnik’s academic intentions and those of her classmates, who plan to work as field guides. Getting guests a front-row seat at that lion kill is great, but it’s also vital to be able to fill the gaps between sightings with informed banter about termite mounds and tok-tokkies.

 

The 22-module course keeps students busy from 6:15 am to around 6 pm (with a break for brunch; the mince-and-cheese jaffles come highly recommended), five and a half days a week. You won’t just learn the theory of how to approach an elephant on foot (pay attention to its body language and stay in a tightly packed group), but you’ll also get to put it into practice in the field. The course culminates with both a written exam and a daunting assessed game drive where students take the wheel — and the soapbox — for 3.5 hours.

The campus is unlike any you’ve ever seen: Built around a central dining mess, the student accommodation is in 10 two-bed rondawels (round huts) and the classroom has only three walls. Bushwise is not the only school to offer courses accredited by Field Guides Association of Southern Africa, but it has a reputation for going beyond the basic stuff like tracking lions, knowing the gestation period of leopards and being able to tell a black from a white rhino.

Before you start picturing yourself in Out of Africa, says general manager Trevor Myburgh, be warned that the course is “no walk in the [game] park.” Some students — often young South Africans who have grown up camping and hunting in the bush — are taken aback by the sheer academic heft of the course. Foreigners can have a hard time getting used to the unwavering heat — especially in the summer (November through February), when nighttime temperatures seldom dip below 30 degrees Celsius — and the ever-present creepy crawlies. 

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(Top left) A steenbok in the Makalali game reserve. (Top right) Zebras in the Makalali game reserve. (Below) Gerhard van Niekerk, head trainer at Bushwise Field Guides, with students during a classroom session.

Source Eric Nathan for OZY

Only a few “real bush babies” make a lifelong career out of field guiding, says Myburgh, with most doing it for a few years before returning to reality. It can be tough, for example, if you have a family. What really matters though is that everyone who completes the course ends up learning a whole lot — about both the bush and themselves. “Even on my worst day here, I’m surrounded by animals that have always inspired me, students with a shared passion for nature,” says Vinnik, “And some of the most amazing teachers I think the bush has to offer.”

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Vaughan Jessnitz, senior trainer at Bushwise Field Guides, with students examining animal spoor on a bush road at sunset.

Source Eric Nathan for OZY

Go There: Bushwise Professional Field Guide Course

  • When: The six-month courses start in January and July each year. Class size is limited to 22 students.
  • How much: Foreign students pay $17,600, which includes board, lodging, training materials, two sets of khakis and airport transfers. Adding on a six-month internship (unpaid but the tips are decent) will set you back a further $2,400.
  • Be warned: Post-internship foreigners might find it tricky to find full-time employment in Southern Africa — unless you have a special skill such as a degree in conservation, management experience or knowledge of a foreign language. 

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