In the footsteps of safari guides in the African bush

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

I am seated in front of my tent, browsing through my notes from last year’s Tracks and Signs course as we have just come across a leopard track during this morning’s game walk with our EcoTraining instructor Tayla McCurdy. Suddenly the atmosphere changes and I sense a presence. I look up from my notebook when a 2.5-meter (8 feet) tall elephant appears out of the thickets a mere 4 meters (12 feet) away from me, approaching silently. I stare at the grey giant who casually grabs loads of fresh grass. “Hello beauty”, I speak in a calm voice while rapidly scanning for more of his family members. “I am seated right here… Do you see me?” The elephant looks at me, reacting to my calming tone with which I have just announced myself. He sticks his trunk up in the air to smell me. From its round skull I make out it is a young bull, maybe 15 years old. He gets a bit closer and starts to reach for the bark of the marula tree that shades me from the African sun. Feeding in a relaxed way, he shows no sign of annoyance nor aggressivity and has clearly acknowledged my presence. With his acute senses, he must have known for a while I was around and he decided to pass by our small unfenced camp deliberately. For a few precious minutes, I observe the gentle giant as much as he observes me, before he wanders off to another patch of fresh grass. Despite the seemingly peaceful moment, all my senses are on high alert and I am very aware of my surroundings. The rest of the large breeding herd feeds on further away thickets. As the magic moment has just passed, I recall Tayla lecturing us earlier on dos and don’ts with wildlife and the power of our voice: this EcoTraining Field Guide Course in the Greater Kruger, South Africa, has already come in really handy…

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Reflecting back, if I did nothing to put myself in a position where I was clearly too close from this elephant, I could stay calm and react properly thanks to the knowledge I have gained through extremely experienced safari guides on game drives, game walks and theoretical classes here in the Pridelands Conservancy. The 55-day professional field guide course with EcoTraining means a continuous and deep immersion in the wild and the learning is intense. “Your voice has a lot of power”, Tayla explained earlier to the group of students present in the open game drive vehicle that we manoeuvred on the sandy tracks. They are smart, curious and sensitive beings who communicate with each other over large distances. “However, it is important to set your boundaries and stay away from calves”, she added. Reading their behaviour is also essential. Clearly an encounter with a lonely bull in musth, a state during which they can be aggressive and unpredictable due to high testosterone levels requires a very different approach. And obviously, picking up from a distance that a bull is in musth is critical to stay safe and at the appropriate distance.

***

“Wake up time… Coffee is ready…” I hear still half asleep in my tent. It is 4:30am and still dark. I dress quickly, grab my camera, notepad, binoculars and sunglasses and a cup of instant coffee that works wonders at this early hour. Other students are also getting ready to either go on a three-hour game walk or drive, depending on the group. I nibble on a rusk, observing a couple of vervet monkeys playing in the tree above us as the sun rises. The melody of the bush transitions: the sounds of the night with crickets, whooping hyenas, roaring lions and excited frogs change into an orchestra of birds excited to have survived the night and claiming loudly their territory with the most beautiful songs.

Now that the sun is up, there is enough light to start walking out of camp safely. Tayla and Sean Matthewson, EcoTraining head instructor in Pridelands, load their rifles that are mandatory on foot in a big 5 game reserve in South Africa. We gather: “Please, list the five rules on game walks,” Tayla instructs the group. We repeat them religiously:

  1. Walk in a single file within an arms reach.
  2. Don’t talk while walking.
  3. Never ever run. No matter what.
  4. Follow all instructions of the instructors.
  5. Always stay behind the first rifle.

A few impalas drink by the dam while we head out of camp in a single file. Walks are not about spotting big game but more about tuning in with our surroundings and focusing on the small things. For guides-to-be, it is also the ideal moment to learn more about rocks, trees and grasses. If they are hardly noticed by most safari-goers, they are essential to grasp for guides: a palatable grass type is sought after by herbivores, themselves sought after by predators such as big cats… The whole ecosystem that we are part of makes sense as we walk through the damp high grass. Tayla spots a jumping spider. Harmless to people, it is a cute little spider which keeps jumping on her hand as we study it from up close. “Knowing which spiders are venomous is essential for safety”, Tayla explains and continues: “you will learn more about them during the spider lecture.” Meanwhile Sean points out to a flower mantis, a subspecies of the praying mantis and a master in mimicry looking like a tiny flower to attract its preys. In another patch of grass, brightly coloured elegant grasshoppers are mating. “Insects have different techniques to protect themselves”, Sean explains. Flash coloration is very efficient in scaring predators away.

We move on while our instructors stop at many trees and flowers, from the chocolate-smelling foxglove, to the wild bushveld gardenia (which flowers of the cultivated version have made the success of Chanel perfumes), the red bush willow which pods can be brewed for tea, to the African weeping wattle commonly referred to as the toilet paper tree with its small soft leaves and absence of thorns… How to identify trees, the leaf structures, medical usage, etc. are eagerly written down by all students. Tayla stops enthusiastically by an indigenous lantana rugosa: we crush the mint-smelling leaves and suck on the small purple edible sweet fruit, avoiding biting the toxic seed. It tastes like candy, which makes me realise I am starting to get quite hungry as we are walking back to camp…

***

Back in camp we savour a hearty breakfast of fresh fruits, boerewors sausages, eggs and vegetables, while a cheeky red-billed southern hornbill catches caterpillars he brings to his female and chicks in a hole in a tree. Sean gets us out of our contemplation, calling us in the lecture tent for our test – astronomy that we covered yesterday – before the daily theory. “Today: snakes!”, Sean announces enthusiastically as he is about to cover one of his favourite topics. The presentation covers the essentials from identifying reptiles to understanding venom types to know how to react in case of a rare bite, and is the prequel to an intensive self-study.

As I am sipping some coffee, head in a book, I am started: “Wild dogs!” I hear. I get up instantly and look towards the commotion. A pack of South Africa‘s most endangered predator is running around the waterhole, their minds set on the breeding herd of impala just next to the lecture tent… Before we can even grasp the surreal scene, the pack brings down a young impala and savours it within 15 minutes! Before we know it, the wild dogs disappear: always on the move they never stay for long and I feel privileged to have witnessed this extremely rare encounter. Still mesmerised I hear the drums: lunch is ready.

***

Days are long in the bush, living to the pace of the sun. Excited by our sighting we chat over yet another delicious and satisfying meal with fellow students from all over the world. Once the tables are cleared, one fellow student approaches: “Hi! My name is Bryce and I will be your guide for this afternoon’s game drive.” he announces a bit shy, as if we did not know him. Field guides-to-be practice their skills by taking turns in guiding game drives, preceded by a thorough briefing: if guests’ interests are discussed, safety is key and Bryce does an excellent job recapping rules and going over his plan for this afternoon. We have half an hour to get ready, and I briskly walk to my tent to grab a full camera battery when I notice a loud chirping coming from the bush next to my tent. Three pairs of bright yellow eyes are staring at me! This is just one of the cutest scenes I have encountered in the wild: three juvenile barred owlets study me while screaming for more food to their elusive parents. The three grumpy and tired looking owlets jump up and down the branch displaying their own version of Angry Birds, turn their heads around and start catching grasshoppers, lizards and caterpillars that I had not even noticed on the ground!

I hear the sound of the engine, and rush to the Land Rover. After a safety recall, Bryce continues enthusiastically: “This morning our tracker spotted a lion spoor, so I want to check if they are still around.” Obviously, no one objects, and all excited, we start scanning deep into the bush.

Bryce is focused on the dirt track while keeping his passengers as comfortable as possible, avoiding branches and thorns while providing explanations and looking for game. Suddenly, he stops the 4×4 to study a track. With only a glimpse, I smile and look around: our EcoTraining instructor Graig Beaton confirms my thoughts: “Three lobs, a slow gate of one solitary cat and a drag mark…” A hungry leopard with a prey has passed by recently! “Let’s follow the spoor”, Bryce suggests. We pass by large marula trees, perfect for a leopard to savour its meal. We look for a hanging tail but to no avail. After following the track for about a kilometre (0.7 miles), we stop to take another look as I have a doubt. “No way!”, Graig exclaims: we are now following a hyena track! The hyena must have stolen the leopard’s prey … Another kilometre further, the drag mark leads straight into a hyena den. We stay around for a little while until a pup gets out. If we have not seen the fight over the prey, it is extremely satisfying to be able to read the bush and make sense of it all like an open book.

The radio starts making noise… It is Jean-Pierre Le Roux, instructor for EcoTraining and host of the famous daily WildEarth documentary followed by millions of wildlife enthusiasts all around the world. He announces that he has successfully tracked a pride of lions and kindly passes on the location. Luckily, we are not far, and soon a lion in its prime appears on the dirt track. The majestic king of the jungle is rolling around in the dust like a kitten. “Everything here has a purpose though”, Bryce explains trying to score a few points on animal behaviour towards his graduation. “This is the same lion we saw devour an entire impala during last night’s game drive, after his lionesses hunted it down. Now, he is marking his territory as he guarantees safety for the pride: he has to stay strong and gets to eat first, even if some of his cubs are starving.” Only the strongest genes get passed down.

We follow him a bit more before Bryce moves on to a safe spot to watch the sunset. On our way, this morning’s breeding herd of elephants is bathing in a large waterhole. The calves are playing like kids, throwing their trunks clumsily in the water, splashing, and sinking each other. On the other side of the waterhole, a lonely hippo observes, powerless: if he is not very social, he is not strong enough to defend his territory against a whole herd of elephants! The matriarch eventually signals to the herd it is time to move on, and they all follow the well-respected decision maker.

After some sundowners, the students who stuck to soft drinks take turns shining a light at night from the tracker’s seat, while the instructor drives. Nightjars fly up in front of the vehicle, shrub hares confusingly run up and down the dirt road while owls and bush babies take over the tree tops: monkeys have already gone to sleep and birds have gone quiet.

***

Back at camp, after a dinner lit by oil lamps, everyone is ready to go to bed. It is only 9pm and the alarm will ring in a few hours at 4:30am for another day filled with interesting lectures, stringent tests and incredible wildlife encounters in the biodiverse conservancy.

The night is a magic moment, filled with sounds: the orchestra of crickets, a lion roaring in the far distance, the whooping hyenas… I listen carefully if I hear the leopard as well. I hear some scuffing sounds of an animal walking through camp but before I can get up to see what it is I fall asleep in the deep satisfaction that I am here and never felt so much part of the circle of life as now…

Travel tips:

  • To fully get immersed in the South African bush and enrich yourself, follow one of EcoTraining’s courses, from a week for nature enthusiasts EcoQuests to professional trainings leading to FGASA certifications.
  • Check out WildEarth TV to start learning about wildlife from your laptop!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more wildlife inspiration, click on the images below:

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