At South Africa's Phinda Private Game Reserve, Michael Caruso enrolls in the top training program for safari guides—and comes to see a different side of the wild
You may have been wondering what you should do if you ever find yourself walking down a grassland trail in Africa, just minding your own business, when an angry lion suddenly leaps out at you. The first thing to remember is what not to do: do not, though this will seem extremely tempting at the time, run for your life. That would be the last mistake you'd ever make, because the lion would treat you as rudely as it would any other fleeing prey. You can, however, go with your second impulse, which will be to scream at the top of your lungs. In fact, this is very much encouraged. "If it's night, though, you're toast," says Mike Karantonis, a veteran CC Africa safari ranger. "They rule the night. I've fired a shot at night at a lion that had me up in a tree. It couldn't have cared less."
The South African sun is spread across the sky. I'm at CC Africa's Phinda Private Game Reserve in northeast South Africa, one of the world's most diverse game parks. There are elephants and stink ants here, pink-throated twinspots and trap-door spiders and bad-tempered black rhinos. In fact, there may be no place on earth with more fantastic creatures than this, and there are few better guides to their habitat than CC Africa safari rangers.
I've signed up with the company, which has the top ranger-training program on the continent, for an intensive course in which I'll learn to set up a bush camp, track exotic animals, and stand up to wild-eyed lions. I'll learn to carve out a monkey orange and cook an egg inside it in the embers of a campfire, which is handy if you don't have a pan and delicious even if you do. I'll help weave a rope from the fibers of the karroo bush that's strong enough to pull a Land Rover. I'll help carry a fellow ranger with a "broken leg" up a woodland trail with minimum pain to him. And I'll learn how to bandage someone bitten by the lethal black mamba snake.
This is the first week of the hard-core, six-week program that each of the company's 200-odd guides has to survive to get his or her job. But these same basic lessons are also taught in the popular Bush Skills programs that CC Africa and several other safari lodges are now offering to their more adventurous guests.
The appeal of these courses is obvious. The romance of Africa is embodied in the safari ranger, the modern descendant of the tribesmen who steered great white hunters to trophy kills in centuries past.
While lucky lodge guests get wild-mushroom consommés and high-thread-count linens along with their Bush Skills course, I've signed up for the real deal, so I begin my training with 17 other recruits in a wooded, red-dirt arroyo, where we dig our own latrine, improvise dinners in the dark, sleep on the ground, and take turns on night watch to make sure no curious leopard paws our companions.
The first evening, when we've got a big campfire crackling, we introduce ourselves one by one. There are three women and three black Africans, two of whom are from Mozambique. The rest are in their early twenties, white males from South Africa. Nearly all of them spent some time camping in the bush with their parents when they were kids, some have environmental degrees, and a few have worked as guides at other lodges.
Graham Vercueil, a fortyish ranger trainer, gives a speech that is by turns warm and unwelcoming. We are in the Zulu homeland of Maputaland, he tells us, which includes seven biologically diverse ecosystems. "We are surrounded by amazing wonders and great dangers." From somewhere out in the darkness, vervet monkeys cackle their agreement.
Graham says that trainees are booted out on a regular basis and that only the fittest will survive to become CC Africa rangers.
The next morning, after a restless night among a mass of sleeping bags on the ground, we're all up at 4:30. We stumble out of the arroyo and onto a trail where we are met by Fred Mittermayer, another ranger trainer, who has a calm demeanor and a dry wit. "We'll be on the lookout for a rhino mother and her calf," he informs us. "If we come upon her, she will charge. So you might want to listen to me out there." Then he loads his rifle.
I try to wedge myself into the middle of the pack and remember the only piece of advice I came to Africa with: when a wild animal charges, a South African friend told me, you don't have to be the fastest one in your group—just faster than one other person.
The light is starting to filter through the low tambouti trees on either side of the trail as we tramp along in single file like giant soldier ants. Within 20 yards, Fred stops and points down. "What is this?" he asks. To me, it looks like someone has bounced a rubber ball on the hard dirt. "Hippo," one of the trainees says promptly. "Why not a rhino?" Fred asks. Why not a rubber ball? I think. "Because this print has four toes and rhinos only have three," the trainee says. Fred turns and walks on, which we learn is his response to a correct answer.
As we continue down the trail, within the first 100 yards we spot the tracks of Cape buffalo, terrapin, black rhinos, and white rhinos (bigger than the black rhinos and more wrinkly). We stop by a porcupine track, which we recognize because we can see the thin line made by its tail dragging behind. And here's an elephant print. "Each back footprint of an elephant is unique," Fred tells us, "like a fingerprint." In fact, this one has two distinct curlicues on its pad. My eyes are slowly opening to the realization that this wilderness is strewn with clues. It's CSI alfresco.
"What's this?" Fred asks, standing next to what looks like a short, fat palm tree. "And how did it get here?There aren't any other trees like it in sight." The group confers and comes up with the answer. "It's a lala palm," one of the trainees says. But they are stumped on how it found its way here. "It's the favorite food of elephants," Fred hints, and then we get it. The large brown seed was eaten miles away and was dropped on this spot by a passing elephant. "If you follow the elephant trails to Mozambique," says Fred, "you'll find lala palms lining the way."
It's midmorning; up above, the South African sun stares down, tracking us patiently. Suddenly, Fred holds up his hand and we all bump into him, Keystone Kopsstyle. About 25 yards ahead of us, grazing in long grass just off the trail, stands a giant white rhinoceros. I learn later that although rhinos are nearly blind, their sense of smell would put an Irish setter's to shame—and we're upwind of this huge bull. He picks up his head, blinks his piggy little eyes, and immediately starts toward us. Fred motions, and we do a quick about-face and retreat in the opposite direction. The rhino, unmollified, begins to trot. "Okay, let's pick it up," Fred says in a stage whisper. We're jogging now and stealing backward glances at the rhino, one ton of armor-plated fun heading straight at us. "Okay!" Fred says, and he doesn't have to say any more—we plunge into a full-scale run. Our little morning stroll has turned into a Pamplona-style running of the bull.
Finally, the rhino slows down and turns aside, distracted by some brush that apparently can't go uneaten. We collect ourselves, laugh with relief, and continue with our nature walk.
It ends abruptly a few minutes later: time for a test. Fred stands in front of a spidery tambouti tree, hands us a long rope, and announces that everyone in the group has to touch that high branch up there as quickly as possible. "Starting now!" There is an immediate explosion of opinions on how to accomplish this feat. Some are for scaling the tree, others for climbing the rope. "This is where you see personalities come out," Fred says, amused. The debate rages on for a few more minutes until Big Warren, an affable trainee the size of a major appliance, pipes up. "We should create a pulley system," he suggests. "Toss the rope over the branch, tie a loop in one end, and someone puts one foot into the loop and is raised up by the rest of the group pulling on the other end." It is a stroke of genius, and another trainee, Ted, chips in by proposing a double loop on one end to haul two people up at a time. Four minutes later, when everyone has had a turn in the rope elevator, and even Big Warren has been pulled up with ease, Fred congratulates us on setting the new trainee record.
Three of the recruits do not make it to the end of the week, the first casualties of the demanding program. A fourth—me—has skipped ahead to get a taste of the next phase of training. Mike Karantonis instructs me on how to drive a huge open-topped Land Rover down a vertiginous hill. He informs me that elephants communicate with low-frequency rumbles and purrs that they can "hear" through their sensitive feet. He teaches me that, in a pinch, potatoes make good windshield wipers.
Finally, I'm ready for my scenario test. Mike hands me a .357-caliber rifle and instructs a burly ranger named Martin to hide behind a bush down the trail and play lion. Three other trainees fill in as my guests.
I start walking, my heart pounding in anticipation as my "guests" chatter away behind me. "Gee, I haven't seen any big cats yet," one of them muses. We're walking around a bend in the trail when Martin leaps out of the long grass. I hold my fist up. "Freeze!" I command my guests. But my feet start slip-sliding backward. Martin, snarling, advances. Somewhere deep in my lizard brain, I realize I haven't shouted at the lion, only at my guests. Worse, I realize I should have stood my ground, so now I take a few steps forward. Martin retreats a few steps.
Mercifully, Martin has not pounced on either of my rookie mistakes. My guests are amused. I'm near panic. Now Martin charges and I start yelling. It's purely out of fear, but any shouting is good shouting and Martin backs away, growling in disappointment.
"All in all, not bad," Mike says, though he adds it's very possible I or one of my guests would have been killed in this encounter. "Depending," he says, "on who's slower."
It's the end of my week-long training period. Mike drives out to a vast grassland section of the Phinda Reserve, and we watch giraffes in the dusky distance. "I know I'll do this for the rest of my life," Mike says, summing up the appeal of having the African veld as an office. "Best of all," he confesses, "I'll be able to spend time with my lionesses. One day I saw one sitting on the highest rock in the area, mist around her, a herd of wildebeest below. I thought, this is it. I'm completely happy."
And at this moment, so am I.
Michael Caruso is the former editor of Men's Journal.
CC Africa's Bush Skills Adventure at Phinda Private Game Reserve
South Africa; 888/882-3742; www.ccafrica.com; four-day course from $590; lodge doubles from $362 per person.
Abercrombie & Kent
Private-label guides conduct customized ranger training in Botswana and other locations.
800/554-7094; www.abercrombiekent.com; from $700 a day per person.
A 28-day course on coastal ecology, subtropical forest habitats, and tracking the Big Five.
Selati and Karongwe Camps, South Africa; 27-13/745-7777; www.ecotraining.co.za; from $2,239 per person, all-inclusive.
The Bush Camp Company and Mfuwe Lodge
Mfuwe, Zambia; 871-76/228-0123; www.bushcampcompany.com; seven-day basic course from $1,985 per person, all-inclusive.