Land of the Giants, Mashatu, Botswana

Across the Limpopo to Mashatu in Botswana

4 Oct. We are looking forward to driving in Landy again and it is strange to leave the camp and go back into civilisation after living in the bush for so long. We decide to leave earlier in Landy than the rest of the guys in the Eco Training Minibus as we want to get some shopping from Tzaneen on the way to the border crossing. As we head north the terrain begins to change as we arrive in the beautiful area around Mapangubwe.

After a quick stop in Alldays for a milkshake with our instructor Graham whilst we wait for the minibus, we are back on the the road and soon at Pontdrift Border Crossing. Landy makes short work of the deep sand dry river bed crossing and we soon complete formalities at Customs at surely one of the quietest and quickest border controls in South Africa (apart perhaps from the one at Richtersveld).

First impressions of Mashatu? Unbelievably beautiful. Huge rocky outcrops, large trees and lots of open space look perfect for game drives and bush walks. I think we are going to like it here.

Eco Training Mashatu Camp

Even on the way to the camp we see plenty of wildlife including elephants at a waterhole where a baby was having great fun harassing a warthog. The terrain becomes more interesting as we approach Eco Training’s camp as it is right on the banks of Motloutse River and very close to a feature known as Solomans Wall, a 30-metre high and 10-metre wide basalt dyke. This unusual feature once formed a steep-sided natural dam wall across the river and held back a vast lake, with water spilling over it, until it finally gave way and the river began to flow. Of course now the river flows only occasionally and for now it is dry.

When we arrive at camp it is to find that the lecture room overlooks the dry river and  it couldn’t be a more idyllic place to live and learn. We  are pleased to find that we can park Landy right next to the camp so it seems logical for us to set up our roof tent and sleep in comfort and leave the small ground tents with accompanying bugs to the young ones. We try not to feel smug!

After everyone has settled in and we all have a look around our home for the next month we set off on a game drive. Sad to say that the vehicles here are Toyotas, not Land Rovers but you can’t have everything. The vegetation here is very different to that which we have been used to so far. Huge appleleaf trees and Mashatu Trees line the river and majestic Baobabs cling to the side of the hills. There are Mopane forests which are loved by the large herds of elephants that can be found here and there are so many different types of flowers and plants that we are going to have our work cut out remembering them for our game drives.

As dusk falls we arrive at Mmamagwa Hill which is an extremely important historical place, formally part of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075–1220), the first stage of development that would lead in the 13th century to the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.

camping Africa Land Rover
Mmamagwa Hill for sundowners.

We climb up the hill as the sun begins to set and the colour of the sky is beautiful, a lone Baobab tree silhouetted against the orange is the perfect place to sit and contemplate our surroundings and how much we are going to enjoy living here. Cecil Rhodes even carved his name into this tree, its clearly a place that has intrigued visitors for a long time. An extra treat on the way back to camp though; Springhares. I have never seen them before and I just wish I had the ability to take good photos of animals in the spot lights at night.

Mashatu Africa land rover camping
The Baobab tree on Mmamagwa Hill.

The night proves to be exciting too. We have elephants wandering around the camp during the night. So close that we can hear them breathing outside our tent as well as their low rumbles and soft footsteps through the undergrowth.

Continue reading “Land of the Giants, Mashatu, Botswana”

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.

Camping africa land rover
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