Passionate about wildlife? If so, then maybe you've long harboured a childhood dream to live and work in the African bush, driving a 4 x 4 across the rugged countryside in the hope of spotting a new-born elephant or elusive black rhino as the sun sets behind a lone acacia tree.
But what's the reality of life as a game ranger? We spoke with Jacques Snyman of Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge to find out what it's really like...
Jacques, what does it take to become a ranger? Tell us a little about your training.
There are quite a few different institutions within South Africa where you can learn to become a guide and they offer different types of training. I did a year-long course. We were stationed out on a game reserve and stayed there for four weeks at a time, followed by a week back home, for six months. We did three hours of classes and two game drives with our instructors every day, most of whom had previously been rangers. And then every Sunday we'd take two exams, which we'd have to pass in order to obtain the FGASA qualification (Field Guides Association of South Africa). If you have a particular passion, you can also opt to add on special skills in birding, frogging, river guiding, cave guiding and so on.
You also have to pass a shooting exam because you have to be sure that you can competently handle a rifle if you ever need to do so. We call our assessment the '30, 20, 10'. There's a target at 30 metres, 20 metres and 10 metres and it's to simulate an animal charging at you. There's a strict time limit and in order to pass, you must shoot all three targets accurately within an area that has a diameter of just 5 cm. And then there's first aid and 4 x 4 training, and once all those skills are locked down, you'll be sent off to a lodge to do six months practical training on the ground.
Will you be taking guests out on your own during those initial six months?
It’s really at the discretion of the lodge, but yes - I was thrown into the deep end and within two weeks of being at my first lodge I was taking guests out. I was lucky; I had a tracker with me so he helped me get to know the roads and after six months I felt quite relaxed and comfortable with the area.
Tell us about the relationship between the ranger and the tracker.
It's a really important relationship; when you work with the same tracker for an extended period you spend hours in each other's company every day, and you become a team and start to communicate not just verbally but through hand signals and gestures and body language. Samuel and I have been together for less than six months but we knew each other before that and we’ve always had a really good relationship.
I was with my previous tracker for two and a half years, and he's actually now become a ranger at our sister camp in Madikwe. So Samuel and I are really only just starting out, but we're very much at ease with each other, and I love that Samuel speaks fluent Afrikaans which makes it easy to discuss routes and sightings in 'secret' so we can surprise the guests.
Rangers and trackers often seem really young. Is it a career that most people move away from after a certain time?
You do get people who do it for a very long time - well into their forties and fifties - but it does tend to be a young person’s job. It can be a very hard lifestyle if you have a young family. Some people are built for the bush or they’re built for having a family in the bush, while others are married but they don't have kids or are not ready for kids yet. It differs from person to person.
A great number of people just do it simply because they're passionate about wildlife. And as a young single person, it's possible to save some money because you don't pay for housing or food, and the lack of distraction makes it easier to study for whatever you might want to do next, which is what I'm doing. And there's nothing to spend your money on out here!
What do you love most about being a ranger?
I just love being able to go out into the bush and see the animals. I never tire of it. Ok - after seeing a lion sleeping a hundred times it can sometimes be frustrating, because you know what they're capable of and you want your guests to experience that too. But even watching an inactive lion who's just yawning and washing himself is still interesting to me, and the guests love it. Of course, I love the fast-moving stuff too; the thrill of the pursuit and the chase. And for the guests that’s extremely exciting, which is really satisfying.
Do you have a favourite animal?
Wild dogs. I just love their whole social structure. There’s only one male and one female who mate, but the entire pack will look after the pups and make sure they grow up to adulthood. If they’re sick or elderly, the others will go hunting and come back and feed them. They look after each other so well, whereas a lot of other animals will discard their old and injured because they can’t keep up. They're fascinating to me.
What single piece of advice would you offer to someone going on safari to get the most out of their experience?
The most important thing is to do a lot of research in advance, especially if you have particular animals that you want to see. It sounds obvious, but if seeing leopards is your number one priority, then you need to make absolutely sure that there are leopards in the place you're heading to.
One of the best ways to check is to read the blogs and ranger reports of the game lodges that you're interested in visiting. Most of the game lodge websites have a blog these days, and the rangers regularly post on them - this is a really good way of getting an insight into recent sightings, to help you decide where to go.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Johannesburg. For the safari holiday of a lifetime, including to Madikwe Hills, visit Virgin Holidays who offer a broad range of safari holidays throughout Africa.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.