Archive for the ‘Field Guide Course’ Category

Field Guide Course

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

I attended a Field Guide course with my daughter, Juls. It was run by African Conservation Experience. See: http://www.conservationafrica.net/projects/Game-Ranger.html .

This diary is best read with the accompanying photos at: http://picasaweb.google.com/bobbystodel/FieldGuideCourse#

Saturday 22nd September – Day 1

Flew for an hour from Johannesburg to Hoesdpruit arriving at about 13h45. Surprised to have to pay an airport tax of R110 each because not returning through Hoedspruit airport. Airport very small and quite isolated, about 6kms from town. Very hot with a temperature of 38° and a blue sky.

Collected in a kombi by a transfer agent. Stopped off at new shopping centre about 1 km from town and bought booze for the fortnight at Pick ‘n Pay. Delayed for about an hour because of problems with kombi. Then travelled north, first on the Phalaborwa road and then on the Tzaneen road, on a good tar road for about 45kms and at entrance to access road to the conservancy turned on to dirt road and transferred to a game drive vehicle. Road quite rough and needs a high clearance vehicle. Travelled slowly for about half an hour through other farms and then for a further 20 minutes until reached our base.

The Makalali conservancy extends to 28,000 hectares, is 16kms by 16kms at its widest and is comprised of seven farms. We are staying on Garonga farm which is owned by an Englishman, who lives on the reserve. There is a luxury tented camp and our base. I later discovered that their rates are between R2 500 and R3 100 per person per night. The other farms on the conservancy are Pidwa North, Pidwa South, Makalali, Lutafa, Twines and Rivervale. The farms have all dropped their fences with each other permitting both animals and humans to travel anywhere on the seven farms.

We are reaching the end of the winter and the bush is very dry with very little greenery about. There is very good visibility between the trees but everything is very bare.

Our base is an old farmhouse with a large middle atrium for cooking, eating and relaxing, three bedrooms off and two bathrooms. Two of the bedrooms have three beds. The other bedroom and another one in a separate building at the back have two beds. One suite in the house, with a living room, bedroom and bathroom and external door is used by an employee from the Garonga Safari Camp. Another room outside that had previously been used by the course was now being used by another employee from Garonga. That meant that I shared a room with two other men which I got used to but it was not my preferred accommodation. The house is surrounded by a low fence to stop animals getting in and two high strands to stop the elephants. There is a medium sized domestic pool and Juls and I had a refreshing swim. The house is at the end of a dirt airstrip.

The group, entirely comprised of British people, comprises two retired couples: Trevor (65 years old) (retired horticulturist civil servant) and Pam (62) from Chichester and Chris (66) and Angie (65) (both retired teachers) from Somerset who met each other in 1970 when working in the Gambia and who have since separately worked in Zambia and Botswana respectively; Gary (52), a retired London policeman who has done the course three times and Chuggy (43), an electrical engineer, who has been travelling for a year since the separation from his wife last year. Juls (19) and I (53) complete the complement. We have an average age of 54.

The course is led by Johann Lombard who is a South African and about 38. He was a professional surfer and a minister of religion before becoming a game guide about 14 years ago. Besides running 9 courses a year for ACE he also leads safaris from a tented camp in another reserve. He lives 3km from the course base with his wife of a year, Natalie, who is eight months pregnant.

Johann made a dinner of penne arabiatta and salad which he ate with us. The kitchen is stocked with lots of fresh fruit and basic food which we can help ourselves to.

Laundry is done by the maid on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays although we must wash our own underwear and socks. The maid generally cleans the house every day and cleans the pots. We wash the plates and cutlery.

Went to bed at about 21h00.

Sunday 23rd September – Day 2

Up at 06h00 for coffee and rusks and a departure at 06h30. Countryside very dry, undulating with rocky outcrops of dolerite and granite rock. Crossed a dry river bed. Day started quite cool and then warmed up to a similar temperature to yesterday. Sky was blue all day.

Animals seen: Duiker (pair), warthog (many), kudu bachelor herd (5) with very large horns, giraffe (5), black backed jackal, impala female herd (20) and at Rhino pan saw Blue wildebeest (20), zebra (10), warthog (6) and kudu (7).

Birds seen: white crown shrike, grey headed bush shrike, lourie (go away bird), fork tailed drongo, yellow billed hornbill (pair courting), red billed oxpeckers (on kudu), lesser striped swallow, blue waxbill, melba finch, cape glossy starling, laughing dove, yellow eyed canary, Jameson’s fire finch, cape turtle dove, whit backed vultures (12 circling)

Trees discussed: Red bush willow which has pods like rugby balls with wings and if one eats the seeds it will induce hiccups; Russet bush willow which has a dark stem and pods similar to the red bush willow (can make tea from the pod if remove the seed; with the seed it is bitter).

Tracks seen at one site: giraffe, elephant, zebra, duiker, kudu, wildebeest, scrub hare, millipede, guinea fowl (spent 45 minutes examining these). Also saw lion, leopard, hyena and African sibbert tracks.

Returned to camp at 09h30 and then had breakfast of Mabele sorghum porridge, scrambled egg, tomatoes, beans and toast. We have been split into four teams of two with a team helping Johann prepare each meal and wash up. Relaxed until 2 with nap and a swim.

Had a two hour lecture from Johann on dangerous animals and how to deal with them in difficult situations.

Left for an 80 minute sunset walk at 17h00. Walked for about 2kms in circular route from camp. Lots of stops to look at tracks and aardvark holes in the ground. Saw a tawny eagle on top of a tree and a little bee eater.

Returned to camp for a dinner of roast chicken, herb rice, peas and carrots.

Relaxed until bed time at about 22h00. Woke up by a strong wind and sat outside for a while at 03h00.

Monday 24th September – Day 3

Late start because it is Johann’s first wedding anniversary. Juls and I on kitchen duty. Up at 06h15 to wake others and make coffee although everyone was already up. Overcast and quite cool until the clouds cleared by about 10h00. Then warmed up to over 30°.

Departed at 07h00 and quickly ground to a halt as the birders had a field day. That happened several times. During the drive they identified 25 birds that they had not yet seen with the count for the trip to date being 55. The birders got very excited by a red crested korhaan which was courting and had his large russet coloured crest fully extended above his head. We came across a solitary bull elephant and watched him from quite close for a while. We saw a pair of klipspringers high on a rock koppie. We talked about a herd of zebra. The female zebra have a dark patch below their anus which is visible when they lift their tale. Collectively zebra are described as being in a herd but also in a kingship. A kingship is dominated by one male who has several female partners. The hierarchy is maintained whenever the zebra move with the male at the back; the first partner and her offspring at the front followed by the second partner and her offspring and then the third and so on. Other males are in bachelor herds but start their own kingship by sparring with, but not subjugating, the dominant male of a kingship and then taking one his daughters to start his own new kingship. The mane is an indication of the health of a zebra because an ailing zebra will draw fat from the area below the mane causing it to droop. Also saw a solitary giraffe, impala, baboons, warthogs and wildebeest. Stopped and walked around a gash in the ground, about 15 metres deep, which was once a mica mine. Picked up and peeled mica in thin transparent layers. Came across a game drive vehicle from Garonga and one from Makalali. Got back to camp at 11h00 after a four hour drive.

Helped Johann prepare a breakfast of Mabele sorghum porridge, fruit salad (oranges, grapefruit and apples), French toast, pork strips and fried bananas. Too much. Relaxed with a swim and saw giraffe and kudu over the back fence.

Met at 14h30 for a further two hour lecture on Dangerous animals and Tracking.

Departed at 17h00 for a game drive and headed for an area where lion had been sited. Together with three other game drive vehicles from Garonga and Makalali, eventually found 3 young male and one female lions in a river bed. Was about 150m from them. Difficult to see with the naked eye but easy to watch with binoculars. They were very relaxed and two were grooming each other. We saw much more than the others because they did not linger at the siting for long. Came across five young giraffe on the way home. Sunset is at about 18h00 and it is dark quickly about twenty minutes later. We got back to base at about 18h30.

Natalie had started preparing a vegetable soup and salad for dinner. Johann baked bread which we had with a chilli dip that he prepared. The bread recipe was 1kg of self raising flour, a heaped teaspoon of salt, 10g of sugar, 10g packet of instant yeast and about 500ml of tap hot water. Mix together and knead; create balls with 5cms diameter, pack tightly together in a baking tin (do not leave to rise) and bake in a 210° oven for about 30 minutes or until it looks brown. Unused dough left in the fridge overnight can be shaped into cakes 10cms x 10cms x 2cms which can be deep fried to make vetkoeke (as happened for breakfast next day).

At 20h00 left again for a night drive of about an hour to see young hyenas in a den. We saw their shapes as they left the den in the dark before we could light them with the torch. Quite windy.

Juls and I washed the dinner dishes when we got back.

Tuesday 25th September – Day 4

After another windy night we woke to an overcast and far cooler day. We left in the truck at 06h00 and after about 20 minutes disembarked for a three hour walk. We did not cover much distance but stopped regularly to learn about trees, tracks, ants, termites, honey badgers, pangolins (new one to me) and aardvarks. We crossed a dry river bed but otherwise walked through flat countryside. We hardly saw an animal but on the way home saw a tawny eagle on a branch with a half eaten monitor in its claws.

We returned at about 12h00 to a breakfast of jungle oats and vetkoeke. Johann told us that he expected us to learn the tracks, dung and sexual dimorphism of the following animals: Lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, white rhino, black rhino, hippo, elephant, buffalo, kudu, water buck, bush buck, impala, common duiker, steen buck, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, honey badger, aardvark, porcupine, ostrich, crocodile, baboon, monkey and warthog. I did some work, Juls studied and many of the rest of the group started their studies of tracks and dung by collecting dung from outside and analysing it on the dining table!

We left at about 16h00 and parked about 3kms from camp. We walked for about ninety minutes with a very strong focus on tracks and droppings. It is the end of the winter and the countryside is very dry. Almost all the trees are standing bare of leaves and there is very little grass.

Got back a while after dark and had a dinner of pork chops, pap, tomato brede and Shangaan cabbage.

Wednesday 26th September – Day 5

What a morning!

Out for five and half hours from 06h00. The highlight was finding and staying with two cheetah males for two hours. The sky was heavily overcast and until about 08h00 there was intermittent fine drizzle (the first rain of the season). It was very cool with everyone needing at least one jacket or fleece. We found the fresh cheetah prints (10cms long with a pad with three lobes and four toes and up to four claws) in the damp road sand and came across the animals themselves a few minutes later. They were completely relaxed with us. They were marking all the trees along the road, lay down for a while, moved on again along the road, lay down and then became very attentive. Shortly thereafter zebra and wildebeest passed about 70 metres from them. The cheetahs stayed low and watched and waited for about 30 minutes for a young one to become vulnerable but it did not happen and eventually a wildebeest became aware of them. The cheetahs then moved on. We had plenty of time to study the cheetahs and to note their small head, black tear mark below the eyes, black behind the ears and white tipped tail.

We stopped at a wide river bed and had coffee, rusks and bananas. A large herd of elephants had recently passed through the area so we spent some time studying evidence of their presence including dung, footprints, places where they had lain down, waterholes they had dug in the river bed and places where they had sprayed mud. We walked for about an hour along the river and back. There were pools of water and hoped to see hippo but they seemed to have moved on. Approaching the area, along the river bed and later we saw impala, nyala, water buck, bush buck and sharps grysbok. (I am writing this on the stoep of the farmhouse and have just looked up to see a troop of baboons and a giraffe passing in front of me.)

We were heading home and rounded a corner to find three young male lions on the edge of the road. Juls was riding in the tracker seat at the front of the truck and was instantly exposed. Johann immediately backed up, allowed Juls to join us in the back of the truck and then we advanced to about seven metres from the lions. We concluded that these were the same lions that we had seen on Monday evening. The lions were completely relaxed and hardly moved. After about ten minutes we returned to camp.

We then had a brunch of jungle oats, pineapple, hamburgers, fried onions and a spicy tomato mixture. Then got a call to go and watch six giraffe browsing in the river bed behind the house.

In the late afternoon we had a lesson on tracking followed by a detailed lesson on rifles and shooting for protection in the wildlife environment. We finished by practising handling the rifle and checking that it was safe.

Natalie made a vegetable curry with brown rice and lentils for dinner.

Thursday 27th September – Day 6

Today was a day off much to the dismay of most of the group, most of whom would have preferred to continue with the course. Johann argued to me that he needed a break in the two weeks and someone needed to fetch fresh provisions during the course. I cooked a breakfast of pork sausages, mushrooms and fried eggs for a few of us. Martin Bornman, the ACE South African coordinator, arrived to fetch Chuggy to take him to Phalaborwa to extend his visa. I went with Johann and Natalie the 75 minutes to Hoedspruit. I spent about two and half hours in an internet café while they replenished provisions. Got back in the early afternoon and spent a lazy afternoon. We had an early dinner of boerewors rolls, mashed potatoes, peas and salad.

Friday 28th September – Day 7

Left the house at 06h20 and returned four and half hours later. Heavily overcast with intermittent drizzle for two hours. Parked near Rhino Pan and followed the tracks of a giraffe along the road and to the water hole. Looked at other tracks and droppings. Very little game around.

We then walked beyond the pan. Johann positioned each of us alone about three hundred metres apart and told us to stay there quietly and observe our environment until he fetched us. On his instructions we had left our watches at the house. Shortly thereafter there was a shower of heavy drizzle which left most us quite damp. We were left alone for two hours and each person had a different experience. I became very aware of the sounds of birds and other animals. I picked up immediately on any movement, including seeing Johann at a distance keeping an eye on us. I noticed the water hanging in drops from the bush branches and looked closely at the vegetation around me. I examined a Jennet footprint in the sand near me. I was relatively alone in an area where predators roam freely. I was not afraid but very alert. It was quite an intense experience. Johann later told us that the exercise was called Solitaire. We walked a distance back to the truck, drove for a while and returned to the house. Some of us were quite cold and damp.

Juls and I were on duty again and helped Johann make a brunch of Jungle oats, Vienna sausages, bread rolls and a dish of brown rice, lentils garnished with pear and apple.

At 14h30 we had a two hour lecture on photography, particularly as it relates to game and clients

At about 17h00 we helped prepare spaghetti bolognaise and salad which we ate, for the first time, on the stoep.

We left as it was getting dark for a river bed about 3 kms from the house where we were to spend the night. We arrived in the dark and immediately collected fire wood. We started a fire and maintained it throughout the night. Half the group had sleeping mats while the rest of us laid our sleeping bags directly on to the river sand. We lay in a circle with our heads about a metre from the fire. I was very pleased that I had bought a head torch which permitted me to work with both my hands when collecting wood or making coffee or doing other tasks. The night was quite mild with a low temperature of probably 15°. There was constant cloud movement with the sky being completely overcast at one point and then being clear an hour later. The full moon of three nights ago was waning and provided lots of light. There was light dew from about midnight and a few drops of rain at about 03h30. One person was on guard at all times, responsible for ensuring that no predators approached too close. The person on guard had to stay awake, keep the fire going and every ten minutes, use the search light to scan the surroundings and make sure that there were no predators approaching. Juls was on duty from 20h30 until 21h30 and I was on duty from 02h30 to 03h30. I was quite uncomfortable on the ground and spent a lot of time awake in my sleeping bag and walking around the campsite. The only animal that was seen with any clarity was a genet that crossed the river bed about 100 metres from us at about 02h30 and was fully illuminated by the search light. This was a special experience and well worth doing. A camp bed or mattress would have made it more pleasant.

Saturday 29th September – Day 8

We woke at about 05h30 and had coffee and rusks around the fire. We packed up over the next half an hour and then did a forty five minute walk along either side of the river bed. On all these walks we heard and saw lots of birds and have become quite used to looking for the source when the birds start giving alarm calls. The reason for the alarm calls is often a bird of prey in the area. Today’s was a spotted eagle owl. We came across a giraffe in the river bed and sat down as a group to see what he would do. He stood in the same place for at least ten minutes watching us. He eventually moved off when we stood up. We returned to the farmhouse for a breakfast of paw paw, pineapple, Jungle oats and eggy bread. A strong steady drizzle did not worry us as most of us went for a nap.

It is appropriate to consider the progress made to date. All the participants have previously had a fairly extensive experience of game viewing but I think that it is fair to say that we have all made a big leap forward over the last week. The biggest tool has been the walks where we have learnt to read the signs of what has happened. We look at tracks with understanding, identify animals from their droppings, understand other marks or disturbances in the ground, recognise damage to vegetation and are alert to bird calls. Much of this is backed up by the lectures. The Solitaire exercise of yesterday and the camp out last night were both quite fundamental experiences which were enhanced by the knowledge we have gained in the last week. I think that we all think that this has been well worthwhile to date.

We met at 12h00 to be given assignments for Monday. Johann also talked through the responsibilities of a guide on a game drive.

We went for a ninety minute drive at about 13h00. I drove for half the time and Trevor drove back. We had hoped to see elephant but didn’t. There is not a lot of game around but on most game drives we see impala, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, warthog and lots of birds.

We left on a game drive at about 16h00 and Chuggy drove to the area around Johann’s house where three lions were lying just off the road. They remained lying and eventually we moved on. We watched four ground hornbills for a while and then went to the far corner of the conservancy looking for elephant. We followed the trails of a large herd for several kilometres. Their footprints and eating damage were clear to see. We gave up when it got dark and got back at about 19h30. Throughout the drive Johann talked us through the proper way to present things to clients. The day remained overcast throughout.

We had a dinner of roasted vegetables (sweet potatoes, butter nut and courgettes), couscous and tomato and avocado salad. This was my least favourite meal to date. I am disappointed that we have not had a braai yet. Some people are having a plate of cereal when they wake but otherwise we are having two meals a day. There is plenty to eat at every meal and there is no reason for anyone to be hungry.

Sunday 30th September – Day 9

The first real rain of the season fell overnight. There was heavy rain (which I slept through) totalling about 15mm. The temperature was about 15° at 06h00.

Johann was late and we left at about 06h30 and were away for five and half hours. Gary drove us to the same area we had been in yesterday afternoon. We parked next to the wide river bed and walked on either side of it for about two and half hours. We saw a herd of nyala and otherwise saw almost no animals but read the story of lots of activity from tracks, dung and vegetation. The elephant herd had been there in the last 24 hours and three lions had passed through since the rains began in the night. Johann walked in a very alert manner with his rifle at the ready. He raised it when there was a sudden disturbance as some ground birds burst from the ground cover near us. All previous tracks had been washed away by the rain but we did see fresh tracks of giraffe, hyena and porcupine. It rained for a few minutes a few times so we got back to the truck in quite a wet state. We saw a herd of water buck and several duikers on the way back. We got back, warmed up and had a breakfast (at 12h30!) of Jungle oats, fried eggs, chipolatas, fried tomatoes and toast.

(I was writing this on the stoep and looked up to see five giraffe browsing 50m away. An hour later the three lions from yesterday were at the far end of the airstrip in a fairly relaxed state. A solitary wildebeest seemed to be frozen two hundred metres from them but then sidled away. A giraffe and her foal came round the corner and froze as she realised that the lions were there. They then withdrew slowly and then both bolted. Meanwhile a jackal made a run at the ground hornbills who reluctantly took to flight. This really is magic!)

The intense cloud cover of the morning cleared in the afternoon and the day warmed up to a temperature of probably just over 20°.

Johann returned at 17h00 and we walked a sort distance over the river bed at the back of the house. We talked through survival techniques including finding and collecting water and making twine for traps. We then made twine ourselves from the fibre under the bark of a Velvet Raisin tree. Johann had meanwhile made a trap for a korhaan bird using the twine he had made plus some twigs and the branch of a tree.

We returned to the house as it got dark to have tea and cake that Pam and Angie had made in the afternoon. Dinner was then prepared and we had a chicken and cabbage stir fry with rice and roasted pineapple.

Monday 1st October – Day 10

Some heavy rain for a short while during the night. Overcast for most of the day except for about three hours of sun from about 11h00. Probably about 23°.

Slept late and had a breakfast of Jungle oats, paw paw, fried pork strips and fried tomatoes at about 08h30. Given the advanced age of most participants most people are up early whatever is happening.

We spent an hour refreshing our rifle handling skills learnt last Wednesday and then headed out to a dam wall bank to create a makeshift rifle range. Juls elected not to shoot and stayed at camp. No one was obliged to shoot and it was made very clear that anyone could drop out at any time. We each had a turn to shoot. We first used a .22 rifle to shoot five times, in our own time, into a target at 15m. We then repeated an exercise four times where we attempted to hit targets at 15m, 10m and 5m respectively within 10 seconds; thus simulating an animal attack. After everyone had completed this exercise we switched to a .375 rifle and shot three times, in our own time, with a half grain charge into a target at 15m. Safety procedures were paramount at all times. I did reasonably well shooting in my time but less well under time pressure.

This was an interesting exercise. Most of these people have no interest in shooting and most had never shot. However, almost all were quite excited by the prospect and exhilarated by the experience. The women particularly were both fearful and excited. Angie’s pulse went sky high. Pam touched the trigger of the .375 rifle too early by accident and shot into the ground half way to the target and burst into tears. She, however, insisted on shooting the remaining two shots and when everyone had shot asked for the opportunity to shoot one more shot. I suspect that most of the people will never shoot again but loved this opportunity to do it.

While the shooting was going on I retreated from the sunlight by sitting on a log under a tree. I spent a while watching a small lizard in front of me and then was attracted by a small movement to the left of me. I was horrified to find a Mozambican Spitting Cobra, about 1.2m long, about one metre from me and heading straight for me. I yelled and leapt from my seat, surprising the Cobra which turned on its tail and slithered back into the bushes. We calmed down. About ten minutes later the Cobra appeared again, heading right past the truck towards a clump of bushes behind us. We all sprinted in different directions as the snake got slightly diverted and then got to its destination.

On the way back to camp we found a female Leopard tortoise and lay on the road to get photographs at its level. We returned to camp and did final preparations for our presentations later in the afternoon. The birders went through their notes and concluded that, since our arrival, we had seen 98 different bird species.

We had each been asked to prepare a short presentation on an unusual animal which had been allocated to us. It was supposed to be five minutes long but some went on much longer. People supported their presentations by using flipcharts, drawings, photographs, porcupine spikes, pangolin scales and droppings. The presentations were:

Bobby              Scrub hare

Juliet                 Honey Badger

Pam                 Pangolin

Chris                Springhare

Trevor              Porcupine

Angie               Zorilla

Gary                 Dwarf mongoose

Chuggy Brown hyena

This was another interesting exercise. Everyone had become quite expert on their subject and had gone to some trouble. The audience all benefited from the varying presentation styles. I wonder if it would work to require the participants to do a presentation every two or three days. Johann paid the group a compliment and said that we had risen to the challenge better than any previous group. If that was true and not just flattery then that might be because we are an older group than normal.

Natalie had attended the presentations and joined us in a dinner of prego steak rolls with tomato relish, potato wedges and salad.

Tuesday 2nd October – Day 11

It rained at about 05h00 just before we got up. We left just after 06h00 and got back at 11h00. Both Angie and Chris drove for about 30 minutes each. It rained for ten minutes while we were driving and then cleared up so that by 09h00 the sun was shining very warmly. The temperature probably got up to 23°.

We left the truck for about three hours. We came across signs of elephants have browsed high up on a koppie. Our objective was a large hippo pool where we sat high on a bank above it for about 45 minutes. There were about fifteen hippos in the pool although we never saw all of them at the same time. I thought that they were very wary of us but Johann later told us that after an initial wariness they relaxed and most were sleeping. Apparently when they sleep they sink to the bottom of the pool and as they need air they float upwards with only their nose protruding from the water. They breathe in and sink to the bottom again. We saw plenty of protruding noses!

The rains are having their effect on the bush. There is suddenly a lot more green about. Everything is far softer. The dung beetles are active and the flying ants are out.

We returned to camp. Juls and I were on duty for the last time and helped Johann prepare a brunch of Mabele sorghum porridge, pineapple and pear fruit salad, corn cakes, fried potatoes and fried tomatoes. We then had a long break with some people having a nap, Angie and Pam concocted another cake from the ingredients they could find in the cupboards, I washed my underwear and socks and then had a swim.

We had an early dinner of Seswa (a very bony beef stew), mealie meal and a salad of oranges, onion and sugar. This was a low point in the catering. It was presented by Johann as a typical Tswane meal but the meat was not all tasty and in my mind was another opportunity to do a cheap meal.

It had been the plan to then do a long evening game drive. Johann, however, advised that pregnant Natalie had had a show and he needed to take her immediately to Johannesburg. We all wished them well and he left.

Wednesday 3rd October – Day 12

Johann had said that Martin Bornman would replace him. I received a text from Johann, just after 08h00 to say that he and Natalie had arrived safely in Johannesburg and that Martin would arrive at midday.

We prepared a breakfast of Mabele sorghum porridge, paw paw and fried chicken livers then grilled with cheese on toast. Chuggy spent some time talking about and showing photographs of his experience of several months with ACE in Tuli. The project in Tuli in Botswana on the South African border has been running for three years, is based on an area without fences of about 7,000 hectares, has about eight students at a time, who stay an average of six weeks at a time and who monitor the movements and habits of elephant and hyena. The project is financed by the payments from ACE which are a part of the payment from the attending students. ACE publishes their findings every month and hopes to make this a project of several decades duration.

I have discovered that Chuggy has a watch that measures the temperature. This was the hottest day since last week Monday. The temperature at midday outside in the shade was 31° which is a lot hotter than I would have guessed. That may mean that all my previous temperature estimates (except the first day) might be too low. I think that there should be a thermometer on the stoep so that anyone can check the temperature.

Martin arrived, at 13h00. We were then out for over five hours until 19h50. We travelled into Pidwa South and Makalali in areas that we had generally not been before. Martin stopped about six times for us to get off the truck to look at or investigate something. We first stopped at a high point to look over the lowveld to the rising escarpment in the distance. The views were quite spectacular. We came across elephant tracks and followed them for several kilometres crisscrossing a large river bed. As the light started fading at about 17h45 we saw five elephants, all browsing separately, about 200m away across the river bed. We climbed off the truck and watched them for a while. It was a gorgeous evening and we then boiled water and had tea or coffee and cake. It was a lovely experience. This was only the second time that we have stopped for tea on a game drive, which is a pity. I think that we should have a tea break on every trip longer than two hours.

Martin has a quite different style to Johann although it is difficult to pin down the differences. They are both very knowledgeable and committed to conservation. Martin seems to challenge the audience more and focus on bigger issues. We are very lucky to have been exposed to both of them.

Martin is about 38. He is not only a trained guide but also a qualified massage therapist. He did one year of B Comm., two years in the SA marines, worked in Germany, France and England, worked on conservation projects on Reunion and Mauritius, was game and farm manager for Garonga, worked his way up in a game lodge for CC Africa and about eight years ago was recruited by ACE. He is now the equivalent of their SA Operations Manager. He is in his final year of studying for a degree in psychology through UNISA. He believes strongly in the signs of the zodiac.

On the way home we ran out of petrol which is not a good thing to happen to a guide. The situation was saved by (a) Martin calling Bert, an ACE participant from earlier years who had arrived with Martin, who then brought petrol to us and (b) Martin giving us a twenty minute astronomy lesson focusing on Scorpio and the Southern Cross. This was the first night we could have had such a lesson. The moon was too bright on the first few nights and the skies have been overcast at night since. The night sky tonight was quite spectacular.

We got home and prepared a meal of boerewors, potato wedges and roasted vegetables.

The group left again for a night drive at 21h30. Gary, Juls and I elected not to go. They were away for an hour and saw conventional day animals but no nocturnal animals.

Thursday 4th October – Day 13

Up at 05h00 and out at 05h30 for four hours. We saw several giraffe and stopped and talked more about them. We also talked about the ground hornbills. We were looking at some very clear lion tracks in the road when a hyena called from nearby. We drove up the road hoping to see it without success. We then walked into the area for about an hour but still did not see it. On the walk we sat on a fallen dead tree and Bert read the story of ‘What the squirrel saw’ from the book ‘When Lion could fly’ told by Nick Greaves. On the way back to the truck we stopped while Martin told us about the Apple leaf tree or Rain tree. When we got back to the truck Martin read various medicinal uses of the Rain tree to us from the book ‘Zulu Medicinal Plants, by Anne Hutchings. A while later we stopped at a dry dam and Martin read an extract from ‘Shaka’s Children by Stephen Taylor about the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi. All these readings were quite moving and appropriate. We took out the gas stove and Martin made pancakes for all of us. His pancake recipe was:

800ml water

200ml cooking oil

6 eggs

400g flour

Mix the water, eggs and oil with a whisk and then add the flour to create a liquid mix.

Ladle the mixture into a pan dedicated to pancakes (never used for anything else).

When cooked add lemon juice and sugar.

This was certainly a game drive with a difference.

While eating our pancakes Martin encouraged us to identify animal collective nouns. Some of them are:

Dazzle of zebras

Parliament of owls

Murder of crows

Crash of rhino

Charm of larks

Raft of hippos

Clan of hyena

Pride of lions

Kingship of zebras

Journey of giraffe

School of porpoises

Pod of whales

Pack of dogs

Leap of leopards

Troop of baboons

Troop of mongoose

Cacophony of parrots

Shoal of fish

An hour after getting back we left again at 10h30 and drove ten minutes into the bush. For the next four hours we were taught and practiced first aid as it relates to the bush by Pieter Papsdorf, a doctor from Africa Safe-T (www.africasafe-t.com). We learnt how to deal with a trauma patient who was bleeding from a buffalo attack and who had stopped breathing. We practiced helping a patient breathe using a BVM apparatus (BagValveMouth). We learnt how to bandage a broken arm, a heavily bleeding arm and a snake bite. These lessons were all put into practice. This was a very useful, relevant and focused session. The temperature in the shade on our return was 36°. Most of us had a swim.

Martin then prepared a lunch of tuna, boiled eggs, baked beans, pineapple, salad, cheese and bread. The tuna had been intended for dinner tonight of a tuna penne. Dinner on the last night was planned to be lamb potjie. Martin was surprised to hear that we had had no braais and had sent Bert to Hoedspruit to fetch meat for a braai.

Just after 16h00 we went for an hour long walk from the house. In common with most walks we did not see any game. We saw a Bateleur eagle and other birds. A storm was brewing with heavy clouds, thunder and lightning and towards the end of the walk Martin stopped us in front of a dead tree with the spectacular backdrop of the approaching storm. It was a special view. Martin then recited the poem written by Karen Blixen as she left Africa. His approach is quite romantic and I am not sure is appreciated by all group members. I enjoyed it however.

We returned to the farmhouse and watched the storm get closer. Eventually we gathered around the dining room table and spent about ninety minutes considering the issue of elephant numbers, culling and contraception. The main tool was seven articles from a magazine ‘Africa Geographic’ special report called ‘Elephants and Us’ published in April 2006. We each took a turn reading an article. The articles presented different views of the subject and left one with plenty to think about. At the end we did not discuss this emotive subject in any detail but were left to make up our own minds.

The storm had passed through while we were busy but it was still raining when we finished. This would have made the braai an uncomfortable experience. We postponed the braai to tomorrow night. Martin then used the lamb potjie chops intended for tomorrow night to make a lamb curry.

Some of the participants studied for their tests tomorrow. There is a library of about 40 books on mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, snakes, trees, plants, astronomy and FGASA syllabus notes.

While were waiting for dinner to cook we heard spotted hyena calling nearby. We quickly piled into the game drive truck and went looking for them. After ten minutes we found two of them on the airstrip. We stayed about 200m from them and watched them with the red cover over the search light. A black backed jackal then appeared on the scene and started harassing one of the hyenas. Jackals are highly territorial and this one was almost certainly objecting to the hyenas being in their territory. We watched for about fifteen minutes as the jackal kept darting towards the hyena.

We then had our dinner of lamb curry, rice and butternut squash.

Friday 5th October – Day 14

We had planned to leave very early but delayed it as it was raining. We left at about 06h30 for about four hours. Everything was fresh after the rain. We went looking for rhino without success. We travelled on many less travelled roads that we had not been on before and passed three water pans or dams that we had not seen before. Martin read us the story of ‘Kudu and Jackal’ from the book ‘When Lion could fly’ told by Nick Greaves. When we stopped for coffee, rusks and oranges near a pan a few people took turns to read the cover article from the September 1999 issue of Africa Environment & Wildlife on Impala. This helped us understand that they have prospered as man has created more ecotone habitat (the transition zone between open grassland and closed forest habitats). On the drive we came across a jackal who, unlike most jackals, did not run away and in fact seemed to be quite nosey and interested in us. Martin linked this unusual behaviour and the unusual behaviour of the jackal in harassing the hyena last night to signs on an Indian totem pole and said that indicated that (I think I have got this correct) that we should avoid making important decisions today. Martin is certainly more spiritual than most game guides.

We returned to a breakfast of Jungle oats, scrambled egg and mushrooms.

We left again at about 11h30 for two and half hours to do the practical game drive test for me, Chuggy, Trevor, Gary and Juls in that order. We each drove for twenty minutes and took the role of the game guide. It was quite intimidating as we knew that the passengers were all quite knowledgeable even though they had to pretend to be new to the bush. They were very tough on me and Chuggy, after which point Martin told them to be fairer to the remaining candidates. I managed to get some of my prepared subjects including elephant impact and river beds and was fortunate to come across signs of hyena and porcupine, which I could talk about. My obvious weakness was birds.

Some people made themselves sandwiches for lunch on our return. Martin then heard from some workers that lion had been seen nearby. We piled into the truck and spent 45 minutes searching without success.

Just after 16h00 we started the written test for the course. Martin asked us a number of questions on the stoep and then took us for a walk into the bush. He then asked a variety of questions related to the droppings, tracks, animals and trees we saw as well as more general knowledge questions. He asked a total of 42 questions although some had several sub questions. A few of the questions assumed that we had covered a subject when in fact we had not. We handed our papers in as we got back to the house. In relaxed discussions it became apparent that lots of people had got several questions wrong. Martin expressed some concern that the results might be lower than they were used to. Martin did not indicate when we would get the results, which I think was wrong, but I assume that will happen in the next week by email. Everyone realises that the results are of little consequence but for most people there is a wish to do well. Interestingly the three who elected not to do the game drive test, Angie, Pam and Chris, did the written test.

We then had a braai in the boma of lamb chops, steak, chicken, boerewors, corn on the cob, potatoes baked in the ashes and garlic bread. People sat around while the meat was being cooked and talked and argued. There was a wonderful atmosphere. I was in heaven. We should have done this a few times. (Although we didn’t need so much meat. Martin was clearly trying to make amends.)

At 21h30 there was a night drive for an hour. Juls and I skipped the drive. The main sitings were two bush babies.

Saturday 6th October – Day 15

We were up at 05h00 and out at 05h30 on a game drive. The skies were very dark. At 06h00 we started a walk and after about twenty minutes we stopped and Martin intended doing a reading. However, rain drops started falling so we headed for the truck which turned into a dash as the heavens opened. We sat in the truck under cover for ten minutes until it became clear that the rain was not going to abate. We drove back to camp in heavy rain with most people getting fairly wet. Water was suddenly running everywhere with small river beds running with water and pools of water all over the place.

We then had Jungle oats, fried eggs, the remainder of the meat from last night and Martin made a pile of his lovely pancakes (this time with some vanilla essence added).

We packed up and left camp for the last time at 09h30 and made our way to the tar road in continuing rain. We thanked Martin and bade him and Bert goodbye. The transfer kombi took us to Hoedspruit and the airport where we separated and returned to another world.

In my view this was a wonderful experience with leadership from two very different but outstanding guides. It will be a lovely and happy memory for me for the rest of my life.

Statistics

We saw 106 different types of birds.

We spent 49 hours on 20 game drives.

We walked for 18 hours.

We had lessons (including on the shooting range) for 21 hours.