Words by Erik Brits, pics by Erik Brits and Bushwise
As a young child, I thought that money was something you got from your parents so that you would play outside for longer (I was a noisy child). Naturally, I wanted to grow up to become a game ranger – imagine how much I would make! It was not long before I developed a more traditional outlook, and consequent to this I worked hard at school, completed a respectable financial degree, and then accidentally became a journalist. Although my love of the bushveld had not abated, my intentions of waking up at 4:30 to drive foreign tourists around certainly had!
It was with an equal blend of excitement and sadness, then, that I viewed my recent invite to travel to Limpopo and spend a day or two with the guides-in-training at the Bushwise Field Guides training facility (read, vast open bushveld). I looked forward tremendously to being in the bush ‘for real’, as opposed to being pampered on the back of a Land Rover, but was terrified that I would find out I was in the wrong profession. The GVI Bushwise Field Guides Training course takes in complete rookies, and through the careful application of expert training and hands-on experiences, spits out some of the top FGASA qualified guides, and I hoped that over the two days that I was to spend with them, I would pick up a tip or two.
By virtue of being late, as is the Capetonian way, I walked in while the trainees were doing blindfolded rifle drills. Seeing the blindfolded girls in uniform, with their big guns, I thought I was being treated to a show, and boy, was it impressive. Fire three rounds, calmly reload, fire three rounds again. Repeat. This became even more impressive when I was allowed to fumble my way through a few reloads without the blindfold. Besides just looking cool, the practical lesson is invaluable - a field guide should know their weapon well enough, that in a life-or-death crisis they can concentrate fully on the situation and trust that muscle memory will take care of the rifle, should it be needed... and from my fumbling, I can attest that this only comes through practice upon practice!
The midday sun became too much for me, and I retreated to the coolest room I could find for a nap, while the students hit the books before the afternoon activity. If you've ever been amazed by a field guide’s all-inclusive knowledge while out on a drive, I now know that this knowledge comes from hours and hours of intense studying. The trainees write weekly tests that prepare them for the FGASA finals as well as accumulating towards their final grade from Bushwise.
Still groggy from the heat, I rushed to pack an evening bag, and we were off on the Landies. I am used to game drives being a formal affair with seven or eight city slickers, Nikon-ized to the max, listening intently as a guide explains a world so different from their own. On this trip, however, the man behind the wheel was the one doing the listening, as all the trainees sitting around me tested out their recently acquired theoretical knowledge on the trainer and on each other. The last educational environment I had been in was the cut-throat world of finance, where we all knew that we'd be gunning for the same handful of prime positions at the end, and classmates helped each other only grudgingly, so I was astounded by the cooperative spirit amongst these students. It was wonderfully clear that the ultimate objective here was to gain a better understanding of the natural world, rather than to score higher grades than the rest.
It soon became apparent that I had forgotten to pack sunscreen, but one of the girls sorted me out. Now smelling suitably pretty, I sat back and soaked in the magical ambiance of the bushveld as we cruised through big 5 territory. Besides the excitement as my sleeping gear fell off the vehicle, and the banter of students ribbing each other, the experience was immersive. Every tree, bird, and more, had a story. I learnt that zebras have canines, and can bite each other to death while fighting (I’m never feeding a donkey again, just in case), and that when you are looking for lions, there will be giraffes behind every bush. Sitting at my desk writing this, however, I would happily trade my view of the traffic for another tall horse!
Eventually we arrived at a dried up riverbed, stretched like a tongue of beach sand into the distance. A trainer scouted the site for predators before we set up camp. I thought it was only to amuse me that they started discussing how old the leopard tracks were, until the discussion turned into a detailed lesson on the difference between these tracks (definitely leopard) and the other cats. I tried hinting that the man with the rifle should scout again (and maybe again) but they reassured me that the tracks were ‘old’ - from yesterday, at the earliest. Yay.
As the students spread out over the sand to look for flat spots to camp, the trainers recounted how sleeping positions had magically contracted to sardine can formation as soon as the first hyena was spotted at the previous sleepout. Then it was down to business, and having felt rather pampered up until now, I decided that despite my meagre knowledge, I could at least help lug firewood. Well, I got very dirty and sweaty, and learnt that Tambotie is not ideal firewood whilst dead Leadwood is, but in the end resorted to the old journalist's trick of whipping out my camera and pretending to be busy. Fortunately, it was about then that the fireside banter began, with the students adamantly maintaining that, despite some previous incident that was never fully explained, they would definitely be able to make fire this time. The trainers took this as a challenge, and with a home-made wooden contraption that looked vaguely like something you'd expect Bear Grylls to use, and a furious whirring of arms, started their fire in 2 minutes flat. Alas, the students had spoken too soon, but they did learn valuable lessons as to why their own device did not work.
Such is the nature of campfire storytelling that I couldn't, with any impact, recount it here, but suffice it to say that I was wonderfully regaled while the cooking team did their job, and we laughed late into the night. Eventually the watchers' shifts were assigned and the laughter was replaced by the background noises of the wildlife around us. Only a quick emptying of the bladder and the selection of a sleeping spot stood between me and absolute bliss. I stepped around the vehicles and picked a bush, which proceeded to wiggle at me. I might be a city slicker but this is not normal bush behaviour, so I waited and watched as a brownish shape slowly solidified out of the darkness. Impala, I figured, but I decided to keep waiting anyway. At this point, the trainer on watch picked up a flashlight to chase away the hyena that was approaching me, and I began very seriously evaluating whether I needed to pee after all. Needless to say, I chose a sleeping spot as close to a guy with a gun as I could without seeming creepy!
There is something magical about sleeping on sand that those fancy mattress companies would do well to research, and I woke up to the most glorious bush sunrise, made even more special by not having any civilisation in sight (provided you kept your back to the Landies, of course). In the time it took me to brush my teeth and drink my coffee, the students had cleared the campsite to the point where someone with my limited tracking skills would not have known that human beings had been there, never mind almost 30 of 'em! They even cleared the vehicle tracks leading back to the road. One last melancholic glance back, and we were off tracking lions again. Unfortunately we lost them at a boundary, but minutes later we found a small herd of elephants, which included a few playful youngsters.
I listened with interest as the trainers explained the herd dynamics that we were seeing right in front of us. The youngest member of the herd wanted to cross the road, so the matriarch positioned herself squarely in front of the vehicles, with a sedate flap of the ears to indicate that we needed to behave ourselves now. The mother hustled the baby across the road and then turned to face us, one step behind the matriarch to show not only that she was defending her young, but also that the big lady was boss. I was impressed at the calmness with which the experienced trainers dissected the situation, whereas I know I might well have gotten a bit nervous and reversed away from the sighting.
We arrived back at camp eventually, and after a brief unpacking, the next cooking team hit the kitchen while the more energetic students offered each other ‘assisted cooling’ via water pistols. Suddenly I found myself served a spectacular helping - after all, a field guide needs to master not only the bush but the hospitality industry as well. Then the students hit the books and I hit the road.
So, did I learn much in my brief stint? As often happens, I simply learnt how much I had to learn! The Bushwise crew kept me pampered and entertained, and made me feel so welcome that I arrived home having entirely forgotten to take notes for my article. However, it was easy to see that although they clearly make the most of the experience, the impressive knowledge that a field guide has, doesn't come easy. In searing heat that would have all of Cape Town on strike, these guys are turning the pages of their field manuals, making sure they know what 'that bird way over there' is, and what uses this bush and that tree can have.
So should I have become a game ranger? I think the answer lies in how 'graciously' (read, gratefully) I accepted all the pampering!
To see their courses, check out www.bushwise.co.za