Published in the Toronto Star
MASHATU RESERVE, BOTSWANA—It’s growing dark and you’re lost in the African bush with a Land Cruiser full of nervous guests. The nocturnal predator shift is starting. What do you do?
If you’re Alden Trollip, you must not panic or you risk failing your mid-term exam. Just moments earlier, the 20-year-old from Johannesburg was tracking a black-backed jackal and confidently fielding questions from fellow students playing the part of safari clients.
But his practice game drive in eastern Botswana’s Mashatu Reserve, 33,000 hectares of pristine wilderness bordering South Africa and Zimbabwe, has gone seriously off course.
Desperately scanning the dusty terrain with a hand-held spotlight for the faint tire tracks that lead back to base camp, Trollip inadvertently drives us into the middle of a herd of grazing elephants that materialize in the dusk like a thicket of giants. One adult female trumpets her extreme displeasure as we inadvertently come between her and her panicky offspring.
“Chantelle? Chantelle? What do I do now?” whispers Trollip nervously as one mad mama ellie makes to charge us.
“Just keep driving forward, slow and steady, and we’ll be fine,” calmly replies instructor Chantelle Venter, a 20-year safari industry veteran from South Africa. Along with her partner, Brian Rode, a former South African Defense Forces wilderness survival specialist, Venter has mentored top guides in camps all over Southern Africa — and encountered this scenario plenty of times.
During the next few months, Venter and Rode hope to instill enough knowledge into a dozen twenty-something bush babies like Trollip to secure them internships at reputable game lodges in Southern and East Africa.
Trollip and his fellow students, hailing from Africa, Europe and North America, have signed on to undergo a year of professional safari guide training conducted by EcoTraining, Africa’s pioneer and leader of professional safari guide and nature training programs.
Established in 1993 with a mission to raise the standard of guiding in Africa, EcoTraining has access to nearly 140,000 hectares of true African wilderness areas in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya.
Field training ranges from seven-day wilderness survival, tracking and birding courses to the one-year professional field guide certification course I’m sampling. A 14-day EcoQuest course gives participants a taste of a safari guide’s daily experience. A 28-day Trails Guide course focuses on exploring the wilderness on foot and learning how to lead walks in dangerous game country. And a new 60-day field guide course offers adventurous travellers the opportunity to get a real taste of bush craft basic training without making a long-term commitment.
All courses are structured to maximize practical experience in the bush. Taught from modest, bare-bones unfenced tented camps that bear no relation to the five-star safari destinations that many tourists envision, the focus is entirely on authentic working bush experiences rather than champagne sundowners and designer thread counts.
Each day allows for hours spent in the field gaining in-depth knowledge about nature, ecology, conservation and wildlife on driving and walking safaris. Lectures and self-study round out the curriculum, which heavily emphasizes respectful interaction with the surrounding environment, an environmentally conscious approach that is at the core of EcoTraining’s teaching philosophy.
Students are also expected to help with daily running of the unfenced camp, equipment and vehicles, just as a safari guide would in a commercial operation.
“If you want a career in the safari industry, or even just a unique adventure break, this is an incredible opportunity,” says EcoTraining’s Corne Schalkwyk as we sit around the campfire decompressing from our nocturnal elephant encounter.
“Our shorter courses give you practical experience in the bush, while our year-long courses allow you to become a safari guide, get into lodge management, or into different kinds of conservation efforts throughout Africa,” he says.
According to Schalkwyk, EcoTraining’s courses don’t just appeal to people hoping to become professional safari guides. Wildlife photographers, conservationists, students looking for a gap year or summer adventure, executives taking a career break, and travellers seeking a truly authentic and educational African bush experience also sign up.
Applicants range anywhere from 18 to 60, and include everyone from bartenders to bankers. For some, like 18-year-old Kane Tison, this is their first visit to Africa.
“I’m learning so much. But because there’s so much to absorb it can be hard,” Tison says as we climb out of ‘Betsy,’ Camp Mashatu’s battered old Land Cruiser. “It’s also a bit scary because you’re in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness among huge animals with nothing but your tent and a suitcase full of clothes.”
Lying in my tent at 3 a.m. listening to the nocturnal cacophony of the African bush — the guttural rumble of lions, hyenas breaking into diabolical laughter, baboons shrieking their warning cries — I have time to reflect on how scary and yet exhilarating it can feel living in an unfenced camp like Mashatu.
Especially when the spectral shape of a leopard passes by my tent. Heart racing, I dare not breathe as the big cat pauses a few feet from the thin strip of mesh separating us.
As far as careers go, it doesn’t get much wilder than being African safari guide, living on a big game reserve and taking complete strangers’ lives in your hands everyday. The basic requirement for entry into this growing industry, where well qualified guides are in high demand as more and more African nations expand their tourism infrastructures, is an adventurous spirit.
You also need enough mental and physical toughness to spend years learning to master ecology and zoology, track game, handle a rifle, routinely put in 18-hour days working in safari camps, stay cool under pressure, and be okay with spending your working life in a part of the planet where you fall somewhere in the middle of the food chain. Looking feverishly sexy in crisp khaki shorts is a bonus.
“It’s the best job in the world. You get to meet people from all over. You’re seeing amazing things. And you’re working in a pristine environment, says Brian Rode, who once tried his hand at commercial law before taking up his true calling.
“Ultimately, being a successful safari guide comes down to attitude. And the willingness to get down to it and do the job,” explains Rode as we head down to the riverbank one evening for an impromptu astronomy lesson.
“But if your passion is nature, it’s all here,” he says.
Domenic de Sousa’s passion is snakes — the 22-year-old student is a veritable David Attenborough when it comes to slippery serpents. A former life insurance salesman from Johannesburg with no previous experience living raw in the bush, de Sousa plans to use the safari industry-recognized certification he hopes to receive as a stepping stone toward a career in the safari industry.
“Most of us came here not knowing much about how our planet works,” says de Sousa as he pores over flora and fauna textbooks by the flickering of a kerosene lamp in the mess tent. “Now we have this new understanding of these incredible animals all around us. Conserving their interconnected ecosystem has become a lot more important because they are now in our hearts.”
Across the table, Leigh Becker, 20, a former medical student from Pretoria and the only woman in the class, pauses from preparing her presentation on giraffes to chime in.
“When I was in Grade 5 we had to do those ‘what I want to do when I grow up’ speeches,” she recalls. “I found mine recently and it was about wanting to be a safari guide. Reading it again made me decide that I really have to do this. It’s my dream come true.”
What better place to realize that dream than Mashatu Reserve, nicknamed “Land of the Giants” — it vast territory provides sanctuary to the largest population of elephants (currently about 700) on private land in Africa. Mashatu is also home to the eland (the world’s largest antelope), the ostrich (the largest bird) and the kori bustard (the largest bird capable of flight).
Toss in leopard, cheetah, lion, hyena and more obscure species like aardwolf, bat-eared fox, African wild cat, honey badger and black-backed jackal, and you have a predator-packed classroom.
Class begins the next morning at dawn as everyone gathers at the camp entrance. Half the students join Venter for game drive assessments. The rest set out on a walking safari led by Rode. The hunting rifle casually slung over his shoulder could mean the difference between life and death.
“What is the gestation period of a spotted hyena?” Rode asks quietly as we walk single file toward a distant sandstone outcrop from where we can survey the surrounding countryside for signs of wildlife. “How much does an adult male lion weigh?”
Over the next three hours, Rode expertly leads us on a circuitous route through scrub savannah and mopane forests toward the dry riverbank that borders camp. At every turn, he shares his San bushmen-like knowledge of this ecologically diverse environment, also an ornithological paradise with more than 350 bird species.
“They still have a lot to learn,” admits Rode over dinner that evening. “At this point, if I was running a lodge and any of them came looking for a job, I wouldn’t employ them.”
Indeed, the students at Camp Mashatu still have a very long way to go before graduating. Eleven months from now, some will embark upon their dream careers as junior guides at the safari lodges and camps where they’ve been interning. A few will have dropped out and returned home, realizing that they’re unsuited to life in the wild.
Others, armed with the extraordinary breadth of skills and knowledge they have acquired — along with the bonding they have undergone with their peers and instructors — will return to their former lives indelibly changed from their experience living in the bush. And knowing firsthand that somewhere out there in the eternal wilderness of Africa exists a life less ordinary.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING South African Airways ( www.flysaa.com) has daily non-stop flights to Johannesburg from New York and Washington. From Johannesburg it is a six-hour drive north to the Pont Drift Border Crossing between South Africa and Botswana. Crossing is possible in four-wheel drive vehicles across the Limpopo riverbed during the dry months, or via two-person cable car when the Limpopo is flowing. From there it is a two-hour drive to Mashatu Camp.
SLEEPING Mashatu Camp consists of 10 simple dome tents, each with two mattresses with pillows (two students per tent). There are shared bathroom facilities and a central communal area overlooking the dry riverbed. Students bring their own bedding. There are no mosquito nets at Mashatu and no electricity. Paraffin lamps are used for all lighting.
EcoTraining’s African camps
Selati Camp is situated on the banks of the Selati River in the 33,000-hectare Selati Game Reserve to the west of the Kruger National Park. Karongwe Camp is situated on the banks of the Karongwe River in the 9,000-hectare Karongwe Game Reserve to the southwest of the Kruger National Park. Kruger Park Makuleke Camp is situated in the 24-000 hectare Makuleke concession in the far northern part of the Kruger National Park and the Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
Mashatu Camp is located in the Land of Giants in the Tuli reserve of Botswana bordering South Africa. Tuli, which spans over 25,000 hectares of wilderness, forms a key part of the proposed Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty with majestic rocks, diverse vegetation, abundant wildlife, a profusion of birds and a rich archeological heritage.
Lewa Camp is located in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a private reserve in northeast Kenya near Mount Kenya National Park, Samburu and the Aberdares.
Camp Tsavo is situated in the centre of Rukinga Sanctuary, an 34,000-hectare area next to Tsavo East and West National Parks, which are managed by Wildlife Works for the benefit of wildlife, which includes a large variety of predators, including lions and one of the largest populations of elephants on private land in Kenya.
WEB SURFING www.ecotraining.co.za.