An African dream


Giving up her career and moving to Africa to become a field guide was an undeniably life-changing decision for 31 year-old Daniela, who one day hopes to catch illegal wildlife poachers.

Daniela Mates

Credit: Jana

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Daniela Mates left Germany a few months ago to undertake one of the toughest Field Guide training courses in Africa. Chatting to her during her stay at Makuleke in the northern region of the Kruger National Park, South Africa, Daniela's course with EcoTraining has assessments that include rifle and target training, theory, and the daunting on-foot walking trails.

What's so special about the area where we are now, in Makuleke?
“This area is so different to the rest of Africa. The south of Kruger National Park is so different [to Makuleke] because it’s so crowded. You have a sighting of lions and there are 15 or 20 cars, and everyone of course tries to get the best spot, and they don’t always respect the wildlife as it should be. Here, we always try to be the only one, and if you want to approach another group then you radio them and you just ask and you just wait. You have the idea of a very special moment with an animal and there’s a big difference. Also, those fever tree forests are just magic here.”

What made you want to do the EcoTraining course?
“I came to South Africa for the first time in 2003, and I just fell in love with the country. I travelled quite a lot and drove 6,500 kilometres, so I could see quite a lot of South Africa. I returned every year so I felt kind of connected to Southern Africa. Then, my private situation changed, and I was free to do whatever I wanted to do, and that was something that was in my heart, I felt an overwhelming power and strength to do this. My reasons to come to South Africa are to express my love for nature, for wildlife and to go ‘back to the roots’ of living. I think a lot of people don’t follow their gut feeling anymore. It wasn’t bad that I had to sell my car, quit my job and to leave my family and friends in Germany because it was just too strong. There’s not one second that I’ve denied the desire to come here, nor regretted coming here.”

How have you changed as a person?
“I’ve been back to Germany two weeks over Christmas, and I just realised that life in the city is just too crowded. Here you use all your senses, your eyesight, your smell and you are suddenly much more aware. If you go into our artificial world it’s just too much sometimes. It’s too much bling-bling! If you go to a shopping mall for example, it’s just too much information!”

Yesterday you helped out one of your friends because you had a bit of a close encounter with some wildlife – can you explain what happened?
“It was the walking trails assessment for my roommate Olga, and she asked me if I wanted to be her back-up. We started off with a nice walk through a gorge, and then we found some evidence of elephants. We were very quiet because we knew they must be somewhere close, and we started heading back towards the jeep. The vegetation was fairly thick, and I saw a movement about five to seven metres in front of us, and I stopped Olga and I told her ‘there was a movement’. Then I tried to figure out what it was and I looked into the bush and I saw these two lion eyes staring at us. It was a lioness. It was amazing because it was literally so close to us, but luckily because of the presence of the elephants around, our teacher was close by – right behind me – so I told him ‘lion’, and he couldn’t see it at first, and he couldn’t believe it. Then I showed him where the lioness was. We retreated, but as soon as we broke eye contact she mock charged and growled at us. She came closer; now only about two metres away. Luckily there was a shrub in between, but it was enough to think ‘oh my god, there’s nowhere to go’. Then we kept retreating and we couldn’t see her anymore. But that was too close definitely, even though it was good experience for us as future field guides. Olga was a little bit shocked afterwards because she realised that if I hadn’t seen the movement then we would have walked into the lioness, and we don’t want to know what could have happened. But that’s the bush here, and there can be a lion, a buffalo or another dangerous animal anywhere, and you have to be aware of that. That’s the best training you can have is to go into the bush on foot because later you will have a big responsibility and you have your clients with you and you’re literally responsible for their life, and their safety and their security.”

So is it worth taking such a risk to go out and show people these animals?
“I think it’s great if you have to get a lot of experience, like our teacher has. I think now, in the summer, when the vegetation is very thick, you should avoid dense areas. But where we were with the lioness wasn’t really very dense. I think it’s definitely worth going out. I’ve walked 120 hours or so in four weeks, which is quite a lot and it is overwhelming because you’re on foot with animals which is a completely different thing to being on the vehicle. You realise that you’re nothing, you’re just very vulnerable. But I think there’s no other way you can feel nature more than on foot because you don’t have the noise of the car, you hear everything around you, you smell if there’s a fresh elephant dung and know more about where you are.”

Is it important for people to come and experience this?
“I think it would really change your attitude towards nature and it would change you. Maybe you would understand how it was a long time ago. Also it’s actually a good experience not to have a cell phone, a laptop, and all the electrical devices you normally have. You just let loose and even your watches aren’t important anymore. Our teacher told us when we arrived to get rid of our watches because the drums will go for the wake-up call and for meals. It’s like you’re not a consumer anymore, you’re not going to a supermarket every day like you’re used to. I think it’s just an awakening of your senses.”

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