SKUKUZA, SOUTH AFRICA
To anyone who has been on safari, or even seen the movie "King Solomon's Mines," the life of an African guide seems charged with excitement, romance, and lurking danger.
If it's a job that appeals to you, here's your chance to give it a shot.
As guide, game manager, and park ranger in South Africa, Lee Bennett's job is to find animals the tourists come to see. And although some 140 species of mammals and 500 varieties of bird roam freely here, they don't come out of the woodwork when you whistle.
For 20 years, Sabi Sabi, a private game reserve in South Africa's Eastern Transvaal province, has run safaris. The reserve now offers a program where guests can learn the basics of game management on a four-day ranger-training course.
I was eager to sign up.
Michel Gerardin, operations manager here, explained how the course works. "You'll be up at 5 and learning every waking minute," he said. "There's a lot to take in about surviving in the bush, but we aim to teach you the basic skills that every professional park ranger needs."
Lee began by teaching me about the plants and animals. I learned to identify spoors - vital clues needed to track an animal.
As I was venturing out on foot for the first time, Lee gave me some spine-chilling advice on survival. "If you startle a lion, don't run," he warned. "No cat can resist a moving object. And don't climb a tree if an elephant charges you. He'll take the tree out if he wants to."
Easy for him to say, I thought.
After four days in the bush, guests have to demonstrate what they have learned. I grabbed the wheel of a Land Rover and headed out of camp with Lee. We hit the soft sand of a dry river bed and the wheels lurched. I struggled to keep traction, engaging full four-wheel drive and crunching through the truck's 20 forward gears.
Abandoning the vehicle, we set out on foot. Lee slung a rifle over his shoulder. I pored over the confusion of animal tracks on the sandy ground, trying to separate giraffe from impala, baboon from wild dog.
Experienced trackers can glance at a bent stem of grass and judge which type of animal left the indentation, its sex and its size. Some can even date the spoor to the nearest hour. I could tell nothing.
Studying animal dung, it seems, is the main occupation of an African ranger. "You can learn a great deal from it," said Lee with a grin. "Giraffe dung is easy to spot. It falls from such a great height that it breaks up on landing. Hyena dung is always white because it's rich in calcium and potassium from eating bones."
Lee bent for a closer look. "It's a grazer," he said, studying the grass-filled mound. Up ahead, somewhere in the long grasses was a rare white rhino. It was my job to find it.
At the turn of the century, 100,000 rhinos roamed Africa. By the 1970s, loss of habitat and poaching slashed the population to 5,000. But the slide toward extinction has been halted; now, 45,000 rhinos munch the African grasses once more.
Lee spotted the faint outline of a rhino footprint pointing towards the grass.
"Watch out for buffalo," he warned. "They might look docile, but they're incredibly unpredictable. They're among the most dangerous of all the animals in Africa."
I advanced cautiously, unsure whether silence or noise was a better defense. I kept telling myself that wild animals rarely attack humans without provocation, but I felt helpless and minute in the vastness of the bush.
I relaxed as a herd of impala broke cover and leapt in the air. "Bush hamburgers," muttered Lee. "Almost every animal in Africa eats impala."
We reached an outcrop of russet bushwillow, and descended into a dry river bed, wary of hyenas and lions. On the far bank, the ground was hard; animal tracks would be tough to find. I was startled by the call of a black-headed oriole, a stunning bird whose song sounds like dripping water.
Rising from the river bed, we surprised two male giraffes tussling over hierarchy. The crack of contact as they head-butted each other reverberated over the undulating ground.
I tried to calculate compass points from the position of the sun, but forgot that it crosses the northern sky in the Southern Hemisphere.I got the answer wrong.
Lee pointed to a six-foot termite mound and showed me how to fix my directions: It leans northward as it contracts from the sun's heat.
Rangers rely on such detective skills all the time.
Each spoor, footprint, fresh dung, or broken grass provides a clue to an animal's behavior. By a process of elimination, the tracker can detect which animal he is trailing.
We stumbled on a big clue: a water hole. An animal had wallowed in the mud recently and scratched itself on a fallen tree. By sizing up the marks on the tree, we figured it had to be the rhino.
A trail of mud scrapings led off over the yellowed grass; flies buzzed around fresh dung, confirming that we were close. Lee pointed to a false-thorn tree, which grows spines when under attack from animals, and stopped for a quick lecture on a cactus-like euphorbia.
I tried to take it all in, but my mind was elsewhere. For in the distance, head lowered to the scrub, was the massive bulk of a male white rhino. The process of elimination worked: We had found our quarry.
"Incredible sight, isn't it?" said Lee. "There aren't many places in the world you get this close to a rhino. Are you sure you don't want to become a ranger?"
I thought about my imminent return to the city, my job, and my mortgage. But I admit I was tempted.