Sleeping under the stars and learning how to walk through dangerous game country inhabited by elephants, lions and rhinos – it’s a far cry from the sleepy fenlands of Lincolnshire.
But not for 27-year-old Jamie Featherstone who’s traded in his career as a self-employed builder to become a professional field guide on a South African game reserve.
Jamie, of Sutton Bridge, set off on his African adventure in January and will spend five months learning about all aspects of geology, ecology and weather in South Africa as well as astronomy, plants and mammal behaviour.
Other parts of his Eco-Training FGASA level-one field guide studies include learning how to walk in dangerous game country armed with just a rifle. If he passes his exams the former Peele School pupil will get a lodge placement somewhere in southern or eastern Africa until December.
“I decided to go and do my training after volunteering on a reserve for six months in 2012, where I was doing research on big cats,” explained Jamie, who is undertaking his training at three reserves – Selati and Karongwe, in the Limpopo Province, and Mashatu on the Limpopo River, in Botswana.
“I enjoy bricklaying, but after I came home in 2012 I kept wondering if I could ever make it as a field guide. I didn’t want to regret not trying so I just decided to go for it – you never know if you can do something if you don’t give it a go.
“You don’t need any qualifications to apply and you don’t have to have experience of the bush, although it does help if you do. I applied online. “During level-one we learn how to walk in dangerous game country with just a rifle so we can view elephants, rhinos and lions on foot without the safety of a vehicle.
“I’m currently living in an unfenced camp on a big five reserve. We had elephants in our camp the other day while we were working, and hyenas come into the camp most nights,” he added.
A typical day sees Jamie wake at 4.30am in time for an early game drive, where trainees are taught about interpreting animal behaviour and how to guide, before lectures and self-study time. There’s a second game drive late afternoon to practice more skills with dinner – usually a braai (barbecue) – at around 8pm.
Jamie said: “There are all the animals you can think of and lots of different vegetation types and more birds than you could ever know.
“Sometimes we sleep under the stars in a dry river bed, with just a fire for warmth.
“We have to take it in turns to stay awake to make sure nothing comes along to eat us. All the time we have to look smart and be professional, and act like we’re working in a lodge, because ultimately that’s what we’re training to do.”
South Africa is currently experiencing summer with temperatures hitting up to 35 degrees, but it’s also rainy season.
“We’ve had a lot in the last few weeks,” says Jamie. “We had flash floods the other night at 2am so we had to evacuate the camp as we’re on the banks of the Karongwe River and go to high ground, but luckily no-one’s tent got washed away.”
There’s little free time, but when the students do get to relax they play volleyball, ultimate Frisbee, tag rugby and games everyone can join in.
Despite the beauty of the surrounding landscape and wildlife including the big five – lion, leopard, elephants, rhino and buffalo – there’s a few luxuries Jamie’s had to forgo, including electricity and phone and internet reception.
“I quite like it though, going back to basics,” he says. “We have running water, but hot water can be a bit hit or miss.
“I got a lot of sunburn to start with but I finally got used to it after a week or two.
“The things I miss most about home are my family and friends, Sunday roast lamb and a good pint of English ale.
“But there are so many highlights to my time here already, from my instructor’s stories, to lying in bed listening to hyenas outside, to the elephants coming into camp.
“I’ve seen a leopard kill a warthog. The sunsets are amazing and you can see the whole Milky Way in the vast night sky. Then there are the sounds and smells of the bush – it’s just amazing.”