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.