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Training in the bush

If you want to become an ultimate field guide, then you need some training in the bush!

Read time: 5 min

Francois Theron is the head trainer at Bushwise’s campus in the Greater Kruger National Park, where we train field guide students alongside the Southern African Wildlife College. Back in 2004 when Francois trained to become a guide, things were a little bit different than they are today. In this blog, he talks about the value of practical training for today’s guides.

New emphasis on training in the bush

Training in the bush is all about experience and learning from your instructors, like these students getting a lesson from their trainer, Darryn Murray.

Field guiding today has become extremely competitive. Back in the day, lodges might have given guides a broken-down land rover and a large calibre rifle and sent them on their way to conduct a safari. Training in the bush took a different tone when you were expected to learn on your feet.

I completed my field guide training eighteen years ago and started my career at a small intimate rustic bush camp in the Timbavati game reserve, which forms part of the Greater Kruger Park. I was excited beyond belief I was issued a uniform and off I went on my first game drive! 

Things were different two decades ago…

Bushwise students and staff in a game viewer training in the bush.

I will never forget the excitement and expectations I had for myself stepping into this career, there was so much out there that I wanted to know. Having the opportunity to learn and train in the bush, alongside trackers and guides that have been in the industry for several years was beyond my wildest expectations.

When I started my training as a field guide, the courses were much shorter and there were far less legal requirements and qualifications one had to adhere to and obtain. This might sound all good and well, but I soon realised that my training was not quite where it should be for a young person doing this kind of job. 

What you really need is practical training in the bush, to learn and be an effective guide.

The value of practical bush training

A young lion sitting in the grass, looks sideways towards the camera with a bit of attitude.

The misconception of just jumping into an open game viewing vehicle and looking for animals, and being handed a rifle and looking very impressive doing walking trails soon became a wake up call for me. 

I quickly realised that there are so much more out there than the big animals we are looking for. Guests started asking questions about birds, trees, grasses, insects – things I still had much to learn about. Eighteen years later, having years of experience in the bush and specialist qualifications in vehicle-based guiding, trails and birding, my training has not ended yet. 

There is always more out there to learn and experience; I now see how classroom-based theory and practical bush training is so important for young guides entering the industry.

Training in the bush: my first solo walk

Bush walks are an awesome way to learn about wildlife on the ground, and an essential part of training in the bush.

Nearly two decades later I still remember my first solo bush walk like it was yesterday. I gathered my group and did my trail briefing and off we went along the river sharing my knowledge and love for the bush looking at hippos and birds calling in the riverine, I was in my element! 

We started making our way back to the lodge when we encountered a big elephant bull making his way up the river bank. At this stage, he was completely unaware of our presence and we waited patiently for him to pass by without disturbing him or making our presence known to him. 

For some reason, however, he picked up on us and turned and started walking straight towards where we were sitting. I hoped he would stop and smell and be satisfied that we were no threat to him like inquisitive elephant bulls quite often do, unfortunately I was not that lucky. 

A bit too close for comfort

A close up picture of an elephant, with tattered ears and large tusks.

As a newly qualified trails guide, one must obtain numerous dangerous game encounters hours on foot before you are allowed to do walks on your own, but it was at this stage that I truly felt that these hours and encounters that I have obtained with a trail mentor was not enough to have prepared me for this moment. 

The elephant continued towards us and stopped, smelled and gave us a proper mock charge and then turned around and walked away as I had hoped he would have done much earlier. For the guests, this was an absolute thrill – and to a certain extent it was for me too – but when you have the responsibility of other people’s safety and wellbeing in your hands, this was a bit nerve racking as a young and not so experienced guide. 

A reminder of the value of field experience

Bushwise students in a game viewer with a beautiful backdrop of the Drakensberg mountains.

Looking back on this experience, it’s quite the reminder of a guide’s responsibilities to their guests. Physical training in the bush is the most important aspect whether you want to become a vehicle base guide, trails guide, both or even go into other aspects of nature conservation! 

Having mentors to train and get you up to a level that you are competent and comfortable enough to handle any dangerous situation out in the field is what we’re all about at Bushwise. Our trainers have thousands of hours experience vehicle based and on foot and we train not only in theory but in practice. 

Putting theory into practice

It’s not all serious: training in the bush can be fun and exciting as well! As with these students having a good time on a game drive.

From game drives to bush walks to shooting and tracking animals, we train safari guides at Bushwise to be ethical, safe and stand out from the crowd.

Living and training in the bush has been the best and most rewarding career choice I have made and there has not been a single day that I regret any of it. Training students in the African bush is truly amazing. 

For students from all over the globe experiencing the safari industry, practical bush training is a once in a lifetime experience – one you could experience by joining a Bushwise course.

BY: Francois Theron, images by Louise Pavid




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