Safari Field Guide Training in South Africa (June-August 2003)
Six weeks at Antares Field Guide Training Centre
Grietjie Nature Reserve near Phalaborwa
Extracts from Natalie’s travel journal
“I was sat alone outside by the fire for ages and then I heard something not too far away – something was walking through the grass and I heard a chomping noise too. It kept getting closer and closer. After about half an hour I got up to go and get someone with a flashlight – Derek and Michael were still up. We heard a loud snort, we got down to the waterhole with a flashlight but saw nothing. We sat and waited for ages hoping to see/hear something but no luck. Still don’t know what it was!”
– on reflection, it was probably zebra coming to the waterhole :)
“The 4×4 broke down – we originally thought we’d run out of petrol but when we got back to the training center it appeared that the points were out. Anyway, we all had to get out and push! Ian phoned Mel and asked her to bring some petrol for us. We all pushed for the uphills and jumped on for the downhills – we left Bill behind on the first downhill, he didn’t jump on in time so he was running after us! Just as we arrived at the gate to the training centre, Mel appeared!!”
“During a ’10-min’ break from the insects lecture the training centre was visited by 6 male elephants. Augustin calmly told us and then there was a mad dash out the door and we sat on the steps watching as they made their way to the waterhole for a drink. It was amazing to watch them so close, and on foot too! It was the first time Augustin got his camera out!”
“I was sat out by the fire till late with Derek and Stephen and somehow we got onto the subject of elephants visiting the waterhole and hiding themselves behind bushes and tip-toeing in “duiker-shoes” (a duiker is a small antelope) so that we couldn’t see them! We really couldn’t stop laughing!”
“We were in the workshop for the vehicle maintenence part of the course and we had to go into the pit to look at the underside of the 4×4. Monica was one of the first to go down but soon was trying frantically to get out as fast as she could. There was a male baboon spider down there – and they ain’t small! (they remind me of tarantulas!)”
A visit to Swadini Reptile Park and a field trip to a waterfall:
“Patrick, our guide at the reptile park, first gave a lecture before showing us round. He gave demonstrations on how to handle dangerous snakes and he showed us their fangs. He then surprised me by saying we would each have a turn to pick up a puff adder – only the most dangerous snake in South Africa! Anyway, I picked one up – twice! Not with my hands though, with a curved stick! By hooking the snake in the curve of the stick you can pick it up and place it saftely in a container. I’ve never liked snakes, even to touch, but I did actually touch the puff adder and felt its scales. They aren’t dry or slimey as you’d imagine, they’re just cold!”
“After the reptile park we went to view the rare Taita falcons at the Abel Erasmus pass. After that we walked (climbed!) up and down a mountain and through caves to finally reach the bottom of a huge waterfall. I managed to get a splinter on the way and Monica spent ages trying to get it out but it was Stephen that was successful! When we reached the bottom of the waterfall I actually went in the water and went to stand directly underneath the waterfall with the others – the water was SO cold that as it hit me I lost my breath for a second! It was fantastic, there was a rainbow in the waterfall too. The scenary was amazing – just wish my back and my bandaged up knees wouldn’t give me so much trouble!”
We arrived back at Antares to find obvious signs of elephants – there was dung all over the place and huge trees had been pulled down – they’d even drank some of the swimming pool water, it had gone down quite a lot! The braai area was completely covered with broken branches!”
Assessments and Exams:
“This week is full of assessments – Adrian and Bill took the first bush walk. We did mainly mammal case studies today – each had a test at the end – arrgh! Didn’t do too bad on the bird identification test – was expecting to do worse but I think seeing so many different birds at Kruger Park and recognising and taking photos of them helped. Though I got a couple wrong that I SO knew – like the green-backed heron! Stayed up really late working on my mammal presentation, so did Michael, ended up not having time to prepare for my bush walk – oops!”
“Woke up with a very sore throat – had got a lot worse, not good! Bushwalk assesments again today! Mine wasn’t too bad and it went ok, though we didn’t see any of the trees I’d wanted to talk about – there were too many knobthorns everywhere! Though we did find a tree that even Ian hadn’t come across before so for Augustin’s walk we went via Ian and Mel’s house on the way back to the training centre so that Ian could pick up a ‘better’ tree identification book. We did some more case studies today and ‘Team A’ did their presentations. Was really quiet after dinner because ‘Team B’ were preparing their presentations!”
“Monica, Stephen and Michael led the walk this morning. We heard an alarm call from vervet monkeys and went to investigate but unfortunately didn’t see anything.”
“Had a lie-in! Luxury! Got up to make cooked breakfast but there wasn’t the usual rush for it. Everyone was doing some serious revising! I disappeared to my room to revise and wrote loads of notes up! Stephen kept popping his head in the door. So did Derek, and then he came in to get my camera – he’d spotted Augustin sat in a wheelbarrow with his binoculas birdwatching! I crammed like hell after lunch but didn’t spend enough time on mammals! Stephen and I quizzed each other and most of what we talked about came up as a question! The exam took 3 hours, was a nightmare exam! I was quite worried waiting to find out the result! Ian and Mel marked them that night so we’d know what we needed to spend more time on when revising for tomorrow’s FGASA exam. Well, the results were good, and it was a relief that the toughest exam was finally over! Stephen and I finished off the rum and opened his tequila – so much for revising and only having ONE drink! We stayed up pretty late, chatting till almost 2am!”
“Slept really well, didn’t wake up till about 7am, though I didn’t get up till about 9ish, and I wasn’t the last to get up either. It’s quiet today, there’s nothing much to do now that the course has finished. Michael had a friend come over to pick him up so they’re out for the day. I’m sat outside by the swimming pool writing this and there’s loads of vervet monkeys running about near the waterhole – one ran past the braai just before! There’s a few smaller ones running up and down a tree at the other side of the waterhole shaking the branches.”
Our fine game:
We played a weekly fine game to raise a tip for Betty, the cleaner. I made a note of all the fines, you can read them here! ;)
Weekend visits to Kruger Park:
“I went to Kruger Park with Derek and Bill today. Bill drove. It was AMAZING! It’s extremely common to drive for miles and miles all day long on dirt tracks and not see a single thing – but only 5 (maybe 10) minutes through the gate we saw two leopards and they weren’t far from the road either!! To see a leopard on the ground anyway is rare, but to see two together.. I was very happy! I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to take a photo of them, but I’ll never forget that brief moment, viewing them up close through the binoculars! Next, we saw a pride of about 15 lions with a kill (buffalo) – not bad seeing 3 of the Big Five (if you count the dead buffalo) on my first visit and within such a short space of time too! We didn’t see rhino or a live buffalo but we managed to see over 15 different mammals plus some birds, eagles/vultures and reptiles which is fantastic!! I’ve some really good photos of lions, giraffe, hippo, zebra, impala, kudu, steenbok, vervet monkeys, baboons, elephant, crocodile, etc. We’d taken camping equipment with us but it’s school holidays here so all the camping sites were fully booked but we’re planning for all 8 of us to go in about a fortnight which I’m looking forward to!”
“We left Lataba just after sunrise but went back there for lunch and had a look around the elephant museum. We also visited Satara and Derek bought elephant biltongue, it was sort of nice but very chewy, I much prefer Kudu biltongue. Stephen bought the chocolate biscuits he’d been dreaming of since breakfast!”
“Had an amazing day – there was a cheetah lazing on a dead tree – was fantastic! Definitely a highlight! Also saw leopard run up and down a tree with an impala’s leg or something – was so quick I only just managed to get a couple of photos!! Stayed in Skukuza overnight. The guys were in tents, Monica and I shared a chalet – phew no bugs! Went on a night drive, cos we knew so much about field guiding we kept picking faults with what our guide was saying! What was really amusing was that he said the scrub hare drank 7 litres of water a day when actually it doesn’t drink at all!”
“We were awake and up waaaay too early and set off before the sun was even up (Stephen, Derek and I). We drove south looking for rhino but had no luck. We saw plenty of middens though – for both black and white rhino. We also only just missed seeing a leopard cross the road – TWICE! We left by the Paul Kruger gate so it was a long drive back to Antares. When we got back the others had just finished having dinner – they’d driven north from Skukuza and out at Phalaborwa gate, and had seen all of the big 5 by lunch time!”
We went to Thornybush Game Reserve for our end of course sleep-out:
“We set up camp then got in the 4×4 and drove to Waterbuck Lodge so we could go for a walk. It was late in the day so we didn’t have much time before sundown. Saw hyena and giraffe spoor, and hippo dung. As we walked we saw a grey duiker. When we got to the dam there were 4 hippos lay at the other side so we sat and watched them go into the water. I love the grunting noise they make – its so cool! A young female giraffe came down to drink, was very inquisitive but too shy to drink while we were there. Had to hurry back before sundown so it was a brisk walk. Saw another duiker. Driving back to our camp we saw Impala.
We didn’t eat till late because it took a while to make coals, but Stephen cooked perfect chicken for us. Ian drew up a night watch rota and we paired up – Monika and Adrian were paired together since they never stop chatting! then after a pause Stephen suggested that we paired together, and then Ian put Derek and Augustin, and Bill and Michael together. The first shift was 8-10 and it was Mel and Ian to keep watch though the whole lot of us stayed by the fire during that time anyway – was that a cunning plan Ian? Our shift was 12-2am so we went to bed for a bit first but I’d had a few cups of coffee so was too awake to sleep – I lay watching the stars instead, beautiful! I’ll never forget sleeping beneath the stars! Then, just as it was time for shifts to change I had finally fallen asleep! We didn’t see anything on our shift and the time went by really quickly. We went to wake up Bill and Augustin so we could go to bed but I found Bill already awake.”
“It was so uncomfortable and COLD all night! I didn’t get much sleep. I think I only actually slep through Monica and Adrian’s shift at 4-6am. And when it was time to get up I was so sleepy – I could have easily stayed in that sleeping bag all day! But, I’m glad I didn’t! We set off on our morning walk a bit later than planned, saw warthogs and a herd of buffalo. Got down to the dam and there was a herd of about 40 buffalo and 6 giraffe. Didn’t see any hippos but could hear the grunting. Couldn’t stay at the dam long as there was a guide waiting for guests and we didn’t want to be there when they arrived so we moved on “chasing” the giraffe!
Not much further we came accross RHINO!! They were feeding and walking towards us (we were downwind) so we had to retrace our steps. We found a termite mound luckily and we climbed up and through the branches and managed to hide amongst the trees. It was so amazing! They got closer and closer as they were feeding – probably about 10-15 metres away from us! It was perfect – the right cover, the wind direction, EVERYTHING was perfect! We were there for what seemed hardly any time at all but were there for probably an hour at least! There were 4 white rhinos. One of them came close to the side of the termite mound where I was so Ian moved to the other side of me as he had the rifle … It was fantastic – and an amazing first sighting of rhino!! The rhinos lay down to sleep so we got up to make a move. Just as a couple of us crept out of the bushes Ian’s arm went up signalling to stay still – the rhino had seen us! Some dumb-assed warthog had run right between two of them and almost bumped right into one of them so they were alert and looking around which is when they saw us clamber out of the bushes. They didn’t get up luckily – our advantage was being downwind! I was buzzing afterwards!!
We got back to the dam and the herd of buffalo were still there, probably about 40 of them. They were feeding so we sat in the hide watching them while we had a snack of oranges and apples. By the time we got back to camp it was almost lunch time so we had ‘brunch’. We warmed some water on the fire and everyone had a ‘bush shower’ – Ian stole Bill’s clothes and looked like a cheeky school boy! Most of us had a snooze in the early-afternoon. We planned to go birding in the late-afternoon but on the drive out we found one of the gates had a double padlock so we had to turn back. Though the drive was still good, we saw some kudu, giraffe and of course impala! When we got back to camp we started preparing dinner – spaghetti bolognaise on the camp fire! Everyone was so hungry by the time we dished it up!
Stephen and I had the first night shift and everyone was already in bed by 8pm, except of course Stephen and me, and Augustin stayed by the fire for a while too. When our shift was over I went to wake Bill and Michael. I called Bill and he didn’t move, then just as I was about to call again he moved suddenly rustling the tarpaulin sheet and scared me half to death, though I gave Bill a bit of a fright too. It was funny afterwards! I was soon in my sleeping bag, warm this time and comfy too (Stephen had moved the sand around underneath where I was sleeping :)) I soon fell asleep. I woke up again when Ian and Mel were on shift thinking that their shift was the last one and we’d be getting up soon, though when it didn’t start getting light I realised it wasn’t and was soon sleeping again! Derek and Augustin took the last shift and woke us all up with tea and coffee – and rusks!”
And the following morning:
“Slept really well, though I had a bit of a cough when I woke up but tea and rusks soon cured that. When we went on the bush walk we stopped for quite a few new trees before arriving at the dam. We saw warthogs again, also heard impala and we saw 2, maybe 3, nyala (female ones).
We continued on keeping an eye open for rhino tracks – and then there they were! The four rhino we had seen yesterday! We had to back up quickly and find cover but it wasn’t ‘cover-friendly’ bush that we were in! We huddled by some larger trees and watched them feeding. Then all of a sudden the four of them lined up shoulder to shoulder and came running towards us – Ian shouted “get the f**k up a tree!” so we all scrambled! I think Stephen was first up as he was nearest – though when he’d got to the top he realised he’d somehow managed to climb the tree with one hand as his right hand still had hold of his binoculas which he had planned to throw to the ground before climbing the tree! Monica was up next. Michael managed to scramble up another tree. Bill [who was 55 at the time] somehow managed very quickly to climb to the top of a vertical thorn tree – I don’t know how!! And Adrian had managed to climb up after Bill! I followed Derek who had twice fallen down the tree Stephen and Monica were in – his feet in circles scrambling as fast as he could but not getting anywhere. As all this ‘climbing trees’ was going on I could see Ian waving his arms and shouting in Africaans “footsak” (don’t know how it is spelt but basically it means “f**k off” and luckily that’s just what the rhinos did)! The next half an hour was spent climbing down the trees and laughing at Bill and Adrian stuck up in the thorn tree!! It was funny how Augustin ran to the weeping wattle tree only after the rhinos had turned! Ian said later that if they had come any closer he would have had to load his rifle. He said he would have only fired a warning shot though. They must have been only 20 metres away when they turned – so close!! We then started to walk back to camp keeping an eye out for the rhinos. We did see them again but they were a distance away.
When we got back to the dam the hippos were being quite noisy and I tried to record their grunting but it was too windy. A herd of buffalo walked past the dam and further away we could see the rhinos wandering about but they didn’t come down to drink. There was an African Hoopoe flying about but I didn’t see it – again!! There’s been quite a few but I always seem to miss them! It was looking really overcast as we walked back to camp and not wanting to sleep out in the rain we decided to pack up and leave that afternoon instead of packing the next morning, we wouldn’t have had a morning walk anyway so we weren’t missing anything. It didn’t take us long to pack everything away.
We stopped off at a couple of lodges on the way back. At the first lodge there were a lot of dogs about, and a few warthogs too. The larger dog wouldn’t stop barking – Derek gave it a shock when he made a baboon call and several times the dog jumped. It was a while before Ian and Mel emerged from the lodge and I’m surprised the dog didn’t bark itself hoarse! I finally got a photo of the grey lourie at the second lodge – the ‘go-away’ bird! And we were informed that there were lions by the gate – and so there were! Don’t know how we’d missed them on the way in as they were really close to the road! The weather actually brightened up a lot, but then if we’d stayed we wouldn’t have seen the lions. Oh, and apparently there was a leopard family near to the riverbed where we were camping!”
Back at the training centre:
“After the meal I was washing up and Stephen popped his head round the door “there’s an elephant at the waterhole” so we all rushed out. Stephen gave Ian the flashlight and there was the elephant – walking away from the waterhole! Not bad – 4 of the Big Five in one day and not even going to Kruger Park! Apparently Stephen had been talking on his phone and heard a branch crack a couple of times so looked towards the powerbox and across to the entrance and saw nothing. Then he shone the spotlight by the waterhole – quiet as a mouse there was an elephant drinking!! And as the braai [BBQ] area is quite close to the waterhole he put the phone down and watched. As soon as the elephant turned he came in to tell us!
I later went and sat out by the fire with Stephen and we watched a couple of zebras come down to drink. I was trying to sneak up on them but Bill came out and disturbed them … we saw 3 zebras come down to drink. I managed to sneak right up to the waterhole without them rushing off – a couple of times they heard me but couldn’t see me. As I moved out from behind a bush they moved off and left. I waited at the other side of the waterhole to where they had been, behind some reeds, but after waiting a while I went back to sit by the fire where it was a bit warmer!”
Monika, Adrian and I stopped off in Johannesburg on the way home to visit the Lion Park:
“We found out that the hostel’s organised tour to the Lion Park was cancelled so we hired a car and went ourselves, it was fantastic! Just on the way to the gate we drove past ostrich, gemsbok, and zebra. There were four ‘parks’ we could drive around. The first one we went to we saw a huge male lion eating and there were loads of little lion cubs, it was amazing, the adult females came so close to the car that we kept having to wind the windows up. We drove through a ‘hyena park’ were we saw two babies. We waited a while for them to reappear out of the den so we could photograph them, they were quite inquisitive. But the best was yet to come… we parked the car and had a walk round the smaller enclosures…
I was busy looking at a leopard cub and a lion cub curled up together when Monica tapped my arm and told me to look in the next enclosure. I saw people playing with the lion cubs, and there were white lion cubs too, but that’s not what Monika meant. And then I gasped (and that’s what Monika was waiting for), there were two TIGER cubs as well! Unfortunately, the tiger cubs were too playful (though they didn’t look it!) so we weren’t allowed to go into their enclosure. But we did go into the enclosure with the lion cubs (2 brown and 2 white lions), they were absolutely gorgeous! Such big eyes watching us! Their coats are really quite coarse, not at all like a domestic cat. One of the white lions tried to take a swipe at me, twice! Was such a good experience though, I didn’t want to leave! I just really wish that I’d been able to play with the tigers, though just seeing them was brilliant. We also saw warthogs – they came right up to the edge of their pen so we were able to touch them. They have really tough skin with long coarse hair. There was also a jackal and a giraffe too. All too soon it was time to leave for the airport…”