What it's really like to train as a Field Guide in South Africa
In the latter half of 2017, with no idea what to expect, I ventured to the Eastern Cape of South Africa to train as a FGASA Field Guide. Just over two years later, with what feels like tonnes more life and work experience under my belt, I reflect on the journey.
The FGASA Level 1 Field Guiding qualification is designed to provide the necessary guiding skills needed to become capable of entering the guiding industry in Southern Africa. Each week was focused on a specific subject which was evaluated via an exam every Sunday morning.
Days would usually start with preparing game drive equipment. This consisted of carrying out vehicle checks and stocking the vehicle with a well provisioned cooler box, in order to prepare us for life as a real guide. Game drives would ensure an early start and would last most of the morning. The first day out on the reserve, I was absolutely breath taken. This was my first experience of wild (to a degree) African animals. As White-tailed Gnu, Impalas and Springbok populated the landscapes, a nature documentary really came to life before me.
Afternoons consisted of a lesson (sometimes as many as three) with the remaining time in the afternoon to study. Evenings would be spent manically trying to fill out our FGASA workbooks (and drinking endless cups of tea). Generally, we were expected to learn a module in a week, some of these being; astronomy, climatology, grasses and trees, ecology, amphibians and so on. In addition, we were tasked with species lists of birds, mammals and plants to learn and identify. Essentially, the days were packed out with game drives and studying.
Saturday nights were spent dramatically panicking about the following mornings exam. I adopted a study tactic with a fellow camp-mate; studying until about midnight and waking up at some stupid hour to continue revising.
Towards the end of the course, with our final exams looming, we were expected to take real guests on two game drives. This was the practical element of our assessment, and probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. After liaising with our guests via email over the finer details, they arrived to be whisked off around the reserve. One of the most challenging aspects of this was navigating the reserve without consulting a map, at the same time as operating the land rover across unfamiliar terrain. I remember feeling completely shattered after these drives, having wracked my brain for hours for the knowledge and experience I had acquired over the past 8 weeks.
With incredible wildlife, immersion in nature, and what seemed like an infinite number of stars scattered across the sky, this is an experience I would definitely recommend. The sense of achievement and accomplishment of gaining my qualification made all the hard work worth it. However, cold mornings, lots of spiders and lots of work should be expected! There are lots of intimidating people in the industry. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this experience was to not be discouraged by those who are unwilling to share their knowledge or experience- regardless of what stage we are at, we are all learning.
I returned from South Africa with inspiration to go into ecology, however, ecology in the UK looks completely different to the idea I had returned from Africa with! I would recommend taking on field guide training. I feel it has added valuable experience not only to my CV but has provided lots of meaningful life experiences which have most definitely adapted my future approach to gaining a career in conservation.