Dung deal At a new safari school in South Africa, Scott Gummer learns to think like a ranger, walk like a lion, and watch where he steps.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It was the travel writer's equivalent of a Willy Wonka golden ticket: an invitation to the first Bush Skills Academy at the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Hosted by Conservation Corporation Africa, operator of 30 luxury eco-lodges, the four-day ranger-training course was designed to offer a richer safari experience. Think baseball fantasy camp meets Crocodile Dundee.

The lucky recipients included three Brits: Mark, just off an assignment playing polo; Geoffrey, in Africa to cover the Cricket World Cup; and Matt, a bush rookie. Rounding out the group were David, from Cape Town, and myself, with two South African safaris under my belt and a blue ribbon in wild-cow milking from an amateur rodeo back home. I had no clue how that was relevant but felt compelled to share the story of my lone victorious tangle with a large animal when we all gathered for orientation.

Matt, our Africa virgin, was fixated on sleeping under the stars. "So will we have cots?" he asked repeatedly.

"You take off one shoe, use it as a pillow, and just lie down," I kidded, straight-faced. "Leave your sock on or the forest cobras will feast on your toes."

The goal of the Bush Skills Academy--led by Graham Vercueil and Alastair Kilpin, who run CC Africa's Inkwazi Ranger Training program at Phinda--is to give eco-minded thrill seekers a closer look inside the Circle of Life. They wasted no time. We set out at once on a walking safari, stopping to identify the dung of a white rhino (a grass-eating grazer, as opposed to the black rhino, which is a browser partial to leaves and shrubs) and discuss the digestive habits of the ant lion, an insect larva that digs a funnel-shaped trap to snare its prey.

"There are no dangerous animals," Graham said as we stopped for a sundowner, the time-honored tradition of a cocktail in the bush at dusk. "Only potentially dangerous animals." Soft-spoken, with steely blue eyes, Graham sprinkled pearls of perspective throughout our stay. "It's not unnatural for man to be out in the bush along with the animals. What is unnatural is our ability to level the playing field with firepower."

The next morning, we set out before sunup. Graham knelt over a fresh rhino print in the red dirt. "Neutrality is the state we always work to maintain," he said, using a stick to draw a ring in the earth. Inside the ring he drew another, then another and another, each representing an escalating scenario and illustrating the shrinking comfort zone--for both man and animal--if a situation progresses from neutrality to encounter to confrontation to engagement.

We followed the tracks to a water hole, where we nearly encountered a confrontation: two white rhinos in a thicket. They spotted us, but were far more interested in their breakfast.

Next up: rifle training. Beneath the canopy of a century-old milkwood tree we were drilled on how to handle the .375-caliber firearm that rangers carry on game drives with guests. "Having a rifle increases one's responsibility, not one's rights," said Graham, who had probably never come into contact with a more terrifying creature than a travel writer with a loaded gun. The rangers set up a shooting range, with cardboard cutouts of animals, dangerous and not. I'm proud to report that none of us shot the harmless cheetah--then again, only one of us even noticed it, peeking out from behind a shrub.

That night we slept in a dry creek bed--on mattresses and under mosquito nets, to Matt's delight--and awoke to the guttural sound of a passing leopard. (Roosters now seem a lot less annoying.)

The highlight of our final full day was driving a Land Rover through an obstacle course in a rock quarry. It was a challenge, especially for anyone unused to driving on the left--meaning me. The Rover had to be admitted to the motor pool for observation overnight.

After soaking up a last sunrise atop Mount Ntabankosi, we drove back to the lodge, stopping off on the way at a water hole teeming with lions, rhinos, wildebeests, kudu, and zebras. Writers have notoriously fragile psyches; I'm afraid it didn't help the matter when we saw the animals' reaction to us. It was the same old travel story: We'd miss the locals far more than they would miss us.