At least 30 per cent of safari-guide training is about learning to evade death and acute suffering, both for I you and your guests. Encounter the Mozambique spitting cobra, for instance, as I did in our camp kitchen one morning, and you risk being hit by a shot of venom that can blind you from eight feet away.
Once you’ve got a grip on how to avoid this and countless other potentially lethal species, the process is exhilarating, and at times extremely challenging— something I discovered during a stint at Eco Training, a professional guide school near South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Over four weeks, the school’s instructors taught me and 18 other aspiring guides to identify 90 bird calls, 12 frog calls, and 60 trees. We learned to locate the constellations, dug around in different types of soil, and squished a whole lot of dung between our fingers.
We were taught a trick called ‘kudu ears,’ which involves cupping your ears to mimic the giant-eared antelope. This allowed us to catch the faint rumble of an elephant in a thicket, and save our guests from being trampled. Within days, we were looking in entirely new ways at the bush, the tracks, the scat, scanning the mall with the beady eye of an African fish eagle. Then we came to the important stuff, like how to keep guests entertained when you’ve seen nothing but impalas for the past hour. “Know your arthropods,” advised David Havemann, our stern South African instructor, who could spin the life cycle of a fig wasp into a drama worthy of Game of Thrones.
But for many of us would-be guides, the biggest challenge was graduating from the obsession with the Big Five most people arrive on safari with. Our goal? To have guests feel as inspired by insects, birds, and grass as by a group of playful lion cubs, and leave the bush, as I did, overcome by the profound, symbiotic beauty of it all.