Learning to be Field Guides in South Africa

Welcome to Eco Training, Selati

7 Sept. As part of our travelling experience we decided, whilst planning our trip, that we would enrol in a two month training course with Eco Training on their Field Guide Level One course.

Now is the time. The idea is that the knowledge and experience we gain whilst living in the bush and receiving training from experienced Field Guides will help us to appreciate and understand all that we see in the coming months. It is also a really good and cost effective way of living out in the bush, surrounded by animals and having the opportunity to walk in areas where there is game. We are very excited!

We arrive at the gate of the Selati Game Reserve in South Africa and meet our instructors Graham and Norman and our fellow students. We are, as expected, the oldest in the group and most of them are doing the 1 year Professional Field Guide Course where they go on to do tracking and advanced Birding, followed by a 6 months placement. Our Instructors and the other students are all friendly and great fun and we both feel that we will have a fantastic time here.

Our Bush Home

The Eco Training Camp is set in a large private Game Reserve and consists of a dozen two man tents, a communal area for lectures and meals, basic showers and loos, a kitchen with fantastic cooks, and an area for a campfire each night. It is not fenced and the animals are free to pass through if they wish. The Nyala are pretty much here all the time, as are the cheeky monkeys, and there is evidence of occasional elephants passing through too.

Our home for the next month
Our home for the next month

We start as we mean to go on and are straight out on a night game drive after settling into our tents. The vehicle we use is a Land Rover and the plan is to take it in turns to “conduct” a game drive as if we are Guides and the other students our customers. Immediately it becomes apparent that we are going to be working hard. Graham points out trees and birds constantly and we have to learn these. In addition we have to identify bird calls, uses for the various trees, know about the geology and ecolog of the area, interesting information about animals, insects and plants and loads more. It’s going to be tough.

Camping Africa
The friendly Nyala in camp

The next morning we are up at 5am and we will be taking it in turns to get up at 4.30am to prepare tea, coffee and rusks for everyone else before setting off at 5.30am on a morning game drive. But it is worth it. We are living in the bush and connecting with nature, something we wanted to do and this is going to be an amazing way to learn about African wildlife.

Our fellow students on the Eco Training Course Land Rover
Our fellow students on the Eco Training Course Land Rover

In the afternoon we all have to learn how to change a wheel and take it turns. Keith is number one student at this point!

Land Rover Camping Africa
First lesson – changing a tyre.

Learning how to be a Field Guide

As well as the game drives there is plenty of classroom time too but Eco Training have lots of books as well as the four set books we had to buy and bring with us. We can recommend one of these in particular for a good overall field guide, “Game Ranger in your Backpack” by Megan Emmett and Sean Pattrick. It is a lot to take in as we will be learning about ecology, geology, the night sky, environmental issues, climate, biomes as well as all the animals, birds and insects.

Eco Training Africa Camping
Hard at work. Daily theory lessons

8 Sept. Its our second day here and we are now getting to know our fellow students. We are a varied bunch, four South Africans (including Keith), two English (including Julie), two Germans, and one American and the age range is 19 to 50. It is interesting to get to know people’s characters and sense of humour and to observe the group dynamics. We finish off the day with a game of volleyball in the dry river bed and it is surreal to notice the tracks of lions and elephants as we play barefoot in the same sand.

Eco Training Selati
Time out playing volleyball in the dry river bed

I think our evening game drives are one of the highlights so far on this course. Driving at night in a park or reserve is something you only get to do if you book a guided drive. To have the experience of driving, using a spot light and learning about nocturnal animals, is amazing. It is peaceful and wild here. The night skies are stunning and climbing to the top of a Kopjie to watch the sunset with a beer and good company is something we will never forget.

Eco Training Selati
Sundowners on the hill in Selati

During our time with Eco Training in Selati we see some amazing animals. One particular night we set off on a night drive and Keith spots some movement in the bush and sure enough, after a short wait, a beautiful black rhino comes into view and stands close to the car watching us. He eventually decides we are no threat and turns and trundles back into the bush. The same night, just after nightfall, one of the students at the front of the car shouts “Aardvark!” We all leap up (the shouting and leaping up is definitely not in the Field Guide Handbook) and fortunately all of us catch a glimpse of this elusive nocturnal animal before it disappears into the night. Amazing sighting.

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Rhino sighting

Another highlight for us is the the night we pack up sleeping bags and food and head off into the bush to sleep out under the stars. After preparing food and chatting around the camp fire we take it in turns to sit up and keep lookout for any unwanted visitors. Although we hear a leopard nothing interrupts the peace and quiet and we all get some sleep despite lying on the hard ground with just a thin mat and a sleeping bag.

Camping Africa Selati Eco Training
Camping under the stars in Selati

Walking in the Bush

There are some lovely animals here and we get to see many of them whilst on foot as several times we go out on a bush walk instead of driving the Land Rover. This is the time when you feel most connected to nature, walking the same ground as the elephants, lions, leopards and all sorts of game. We have another instructor join us for the last week or so here and he, Graham and Norman are all so knowledgeable and keen to share their experience with us. Walking in the bush is where this experience is essential and at no time do we feel in danger, but it is a humbling experience and walking in the bush is something that can only done with someone who knows what they are doing (and has a rifle.) We are so lucky to have had the opportunity.

Selati Eco training
Lovely place for a sundowner

 

Eco Training Selati
Nice view

By now we are taking it in turns to conduct the game drives and sometimes we just don’t see anything much in the way of animals. We don’t see lions or elephants every day and some days you might only see an impala. This is where the training and instruction we receive from the Eco Training guides comes into its own. We have to find, and talk about, the smaller things. We become adept at spotting tracks and identifying which animal they belong to. We can talk about the insects that we see, the birds we can hear and interesting facts about trees and plants. We can identify stars in the sky, different rock types and we can talk about erosion, land management and animal behaviour.

Camping Land Rover Africa
Beautiful Lion sighting on the Eco Training course

It is amazing how much we have learnt in a month and we still have one more month to experience  in a very different environment. We are heading across the Limpopo to Botswana where we will spend four weeks living in the bush in the legendary Mashatu in the Tuli Block.

http://www.ecotraining.co.za

 

More National Parks in South Africa


A Quick Tour of National Parks in South Africa

8 Aug. We have only a few weeks until we begin our two month long course with Eco Training and we need to spend a few days in Johannesburg with our friends Marius and Ena so that Keith can give the Land Rover a service in readiness for next few months on the road.

So we decide to spend this time in the north of the country going around a few National Parks and Game Reserves as well as enjoying some of the pretty scenery these regions have to offer. First stop is Augrabies Falls and on the way we pass through the Kalahari region where we are surprised to find mile after mile of red sand dunes and flat, arid land with little vegetation.

Camping Africa Land Rover
The red sand dunes of the Kalahari in South Africa
The long straight road to Upington
The long straight road to Upington

We also pass a few pans and take a detour to a couple of them, one of which is used for mining salt. Its a like being back in Namibia or Botswana. There is such diverse habitats and eco systems in South Africa that it seems all of the continent is represented here in this one country.

Land Rover Camping Africa
Driving to a pan near Upington

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Camping in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The Kgalagadi on the Botswana side

1 Aug. After a long day driving to the Xade gate of the Central Kalahari, we arrive at 2pm at the office to find no-one there. We look around for a while, but not a soul to be seen, so we sign out and head on to the small town of Ghanzi. This road consists of  160 kms of deep sand (what else?) and so it takes several hours to get to the tar road and civilisation. The lodge / campsite we decide to stay in has good facilities and so we stay a couple of days to clean everything and use the shop in town to stock up ready for another few days in the bush. (Also a nice lunch in the town’s only hotel for my birthday.) We are heading to to the Kgalagadi park which is a frontier park on the border of Botswana and South Africa.

It takes a couple of days long driving to get to Kgalagadi, and we pass through very traditional Kalahari villages, one of which, thankfully has a petrol station where we can fill up all the jerry cans and the car to bribing to make sure we have enough to get us to the gate on the South African side. The last part of the journey to the gate at Mabuasehube is through yet more deep sand but there are places where it is gravel and so we make it a shorter time than we were expecting.

We are staying at Monamodi Camp for the first two nights and after checking in at the gate we begin our adventure in the Kgalagadi Trans Frontier Park. This park is a wild and harsh environment with a few waterholes drawn by bore holes in dry riverbeds which attract animals in the dry season. It is a true African landscape of shifting red and white sands, stands of thorn trees, big skies with stunning stars and it is home to a surmising amount of wildlife. The sunsets are stunning to watch whilst sitting around a camp fire.

Sunset at Monamodi camp
Sunset at Monamodi camp

The Kagalagadi is perfect for self driving and camping but you do need to be self sufficient and confident in your driving ability. We have heard a few stories about breakdowns and burnt out cars here so we are glad that we now feel confident and ready for any adventure that comes our way.

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The beautiful trans-frontier park on the Botswana side

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Camping in the Central Kalahari

Tsodilo Hills

We are extremely excited to be heading back to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a beautiful, remote place that we visited a few years ago with friends when we drove from bottom to top of this huge National Park. This time though we are hoping to spend a few days in the northern section to find some lovely remote campsites and hopefully some wildlife.

First though we decide to head to a much less famous part of the Okavango Delta, the panhandle, where huge lagoons and papyrus reeds form lots of channels and and make it a brilliant place for bird watching. There are a couple of campsites en-route and we also head out to Tsodilo Hills for a day. This turns out to be quite an experience. The gate is locked when we arrive and a coach load of school children turns up soon after us, also wondering how to get in, they have even pre-booked. We all decide to try another gate further down and soon we are on our way to the hills, hurrying as much as possible so that we can walk around without all the kids!

Tsodilo Hills Botswana camping
Tsodilo Hills

Tsodilo Hills are beautiful but it is the ancient rock art and the feeling of being in a place of such history and importance to the people of this area that makes it a very special site. Despite a spectacularly unenthusiastic guide (compulsory) we enjoy the serene atmosphere and our guide books provide all the information that our guide seems unwilling to part with. This area is famous for the San people and their unique way of life. Read The Lost World of the Kalahari if you can before visiting this area, and the Bradt Guide to Botswana also has a good history section which will give you a good feel for this special place.

Guma Lagoon

The villages along the Okavango Panhandle are all named Etsha, followed by a number. This bizarre naming stems from 1969 when refugees from the Caprivi during the war in Angola were received in Shakawe. They were due to be rehoused in a new village, Etsha, but they naturally split into 13 groups and wanted to do so when they were moved to Etsha, hence the 13 separate villages, unimaginatively named. We turn off at Etsha 13 and drive the sometimes very wet and always very deep sand track to Guma Lagoon Camp. The way in has lots of different routes depending on water levels and at certain times of the year it is virtually impassable. But, for us, now, it is just good fun.

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Driving to the campsite on Goma Lagoon

The drive is worth it too. You couldn’t find a more perfect setting, beautiful spacious pitches with private bathroom are complimented by a stunning bar, restaurant and decking over the lagoon. http://www.guma-lagoon.com. The bird life is fantastic and we go for lovely walks to add to our ever growing list of sightings. We watch a bird of prey being mobbed by egrets and other water birds and also spend ages just watching kingfishers dive into the water and bee-eaters swooping to catch insects.

There are hippos here and they are often in camp at night so extreme care needs to be taken when walking back from the bar at night. On our second night we spot a hippo in the beam of our torch and so back up quietly to take a different path, only to hear him rushing through the bush towards us from the left. We run! Zig zagging as much as we can we arrive at Landy and rush up the ladder pretty damn quick. Well that makes the heart beat a bit quicker!

campsite Botswana Landrover
Beware of Hippos. The walk to our campsite on Goma Lagoon

The fishing is great here, Keith catches several little ones and, of course, a big one just gets away. The owners of Guma are very knowledgeable and helpful. They run a few different trips from here (including helicopter rides over the delta) and we decide to do the night boat ride and our guide catches a baby crocodile for us to see! Equally impressive are the tiny malachite kingfishers sitting on the papyrus leaves.

Okavango panhandle botswana
Fishing in Goma Lagoon

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