It seems so long ago that it all began. In November 2016, 12 lucky learners from the Ekurhuleni municipality were selected to attend a BirdLife South Africa guide training course – a dream come true. Some had a little experience of being involved with eco-based concerns within their communities while others just had an interest in the natural world, but for most of them the prospect of spending time in the wilderness among wild animals was something new.

Having spent an initial five days being introduced to what the guiding industry is all about and exploring the wonderful world of birds, the learners started to develop their skills while spending time with some of the local Gauteng-based bird clubs. Their new binoculars and bird identification books began to be well used and their excitement and anticipation of what the future held for them quickly grew.

Basic first aid training was provided by the Smart Solutions training company and all the learners achieved level 1 status. First aid is more than just a certificate required if they are to register as legal guides; it is a valuable life skill that can be utilised not only in the workplace, but at home too. These learners have certainly benefited from having to acquire this new skill.

The Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) is the leading training provider for guides in the region and since February the learners have been studying their FGASA manuals and completing their workbooks. They have been registered with the association and if they complete the theory and practical components of the course successfully, they will be awarded an FGASA qualification, which is moderated and converted to an NQF2 SITE qualification through the Culture, Art, Tourism, Hospitality and Sport Sector Education and Training Authority (CATHSSETA).

On 5 June 2017, the first six learners flew from OR Tambo International Airport to the Lowveld to complete the last section of their training. For all of them it was the first time they had left terra firma. Asked about the experience, they said:

'That was great, but I'm still not sure if I enjoyed it or not.'

'It was just the landing – I thought I'd left my stomach behind somewhere. That was scary.'

One student commented about Phalaborwa's quaint airport: 'This is not an airport, it's way too small!'

Over the next month they will spend their days learning as much as they can about the environment and other subjects required as a guide. Their home will be the Grietjie Private Nature Reserve within the world-famous Greater Kruger National Park. The reserve boasts not only the Big 5, with regular sightings of lion and elephant, but also more than 300 recorded bird species.

By the middle of August all 12 learners will have completed their studies, written their FGASA 1 theory exam and been practically assessed to determine their competency levels for guiding.

We wish them all the very best of luck and are confident that they will do themselves, their families, BirdLife South Africa, ACSA and the Ekurhuleni municipality proud.