Savannah de Mare: elephant

Bistro to Bush - A winning ticket...

Simone Landers, the winner of African Conservation Experience’s recent Game Ranger Guide Course Competition, tells the tale of her journey from being a bistro waitress to going to the bush to learn all about the life of a game ranger in South Africa.

“Eager and restless, tired, ready to get out! Waitressing at the small Bistro in my hometown has taken its toll and I know in my heart that it’s time to leave, seek an adventure. I lay on the couch as I do everyday, waiting for 5pm so I can put on my all black uniform and head to work. 'Tring!' goes my phone. I reach for it at my feet expecting junk mail. It’s an email from African Conservation Experience…

“'We are looking for someone adventurous, spontaneous and with a love for the bush to give away a fully expenses paid place on our Game Ranger Guide Course. Please submit a motivation if you are interested, you have 2 days.' (Obviously better wording was used!)

“'Wow,' I thought. 'This is my chance to pack up and leave!' I had 2 days to put my story forward and hope for the best. I spent the next 24 hours thinking about what to say, then emailed my story. I left my email alone thinking it best to just forget about the entire thing, not even think about it.

"Two days later around 4.30pm I get an email. 'Congratulations! You are our lucky competition winner!' I almost fell backward off my chair I couldn’t believe it! Me, the girl from Durban South Africa with no plan for the near future. This is it!

"A week and a half of planning, flight booking and shopping went by very quickly and before I knew it I was on a plane to Johannesburg, calling up Martin and telling him that I’d arrived. 'I’m in the pink gumboots,' I said.

"A very intimidating crowd of mostly British girls sat around a breakfast table, consumed by the awkwardness of conversation making in Fourno’s Bakery. We head off for the 8 hour drive to Struwig Eco Reserve. Finally we arrive at the gate and we have to wait for another vehicle to fetch us. Relieved to stretch our legs we start some conversation to break the ice; literally our voices cut through the cold air like ice. Nobody has spoken because we spent the whole trip recovering from our previous journeys. We learn that there are 7 of us doing the course and a second later a breeding herd of elephant present themselves about 10m away as if to say, 'Welcome! We are what you seek and aren’t we magnificent!'

"A real game vehicle like the ones in safari movies arrives, open on all sides and vulnerable to the elements, groaning, we reload our luggage and climb aboard not anticipating the hour long journey ahead. Impala, elephant, giraffe, impala, elephant, impala, impala, ZEBRA, impala, rhino, impala. Reaching camp we unload and unpack our luggage for the last time for 2 weeks and head to a boerewors and rice dinner. Everybody has a chance to formally introduce themselves…

"As the days go by, way too fast, everybody is getting to know each other and it feels more like a family than people we’ve just met…

"Every second week the camp culls an impala for population control and the ground staff slaughter it for its meat and skin. We witness the whole gruesome thing, it’s great! The whole animal is used for something from the skin to the brain to the hooves- eat or be eaten is the rule of the bush.

"Going for our morning walks is the best part of my day! Although we never see anything when we’re out, we learn so much about birds, trees, plants and tracking… Eight in a row keeping in time to our own version of Colonel Hathey’s March, dodging twigs, Jurassic thorns and rocks and all slamming in to one another each time Trevor, our guide, stops. White rhino have been near the camp and the tracks are still fresh. Following scuff marks to a make-shift game path and picking out the prints we can make out. I can’t see anything to be honest but before we know it we are surrounded by elephants only a 15m radius away. Bumping left, right rear and head on, elephant breeding herds seem to be everywhere as we make our way towards our overnight camp. Our only option is to move quickly, quietly and steadily away to avoid attraction. We manage to escape the elephant fort and continue on our way.

"We are led to a water hole for our next Game Ranger Conservation Experience. We are to hide out, spot, count, sex and age everything that we see. A croc slithers stealthily in to the water escaping the midday sun. One hour, two hours, two warthogs pass through for a dip in the mud to cool off, some excitement. Three hours and a numbed bum later Trevor calls me over to show me a marula seed. 'Look,' he says, 'it’s ET!'

"We then push on to camp, an enclosure of long grass and thorny trees which Benjamin, our chef, has transformed with a fire, mattresses and a table strewn with snacks and juice. As the night closes in and the real beasts awaken, I clench my fists in the hope that the laughter will ease my secret fear of the dark. I don’t think that the others realise just how outdoors we are. Although the black night cheats my eyes with the illusion that we are alone, I know that hyena slink around our false safety as they do at camp every night.

"The thing about being in the middle of nowhere is that the sky is so clear and pure as you lay under the blanket of stars each light is so fantastic. I spot the most beautiful shooting star fall from the sky with a blazing fire tail trailing behind. I don’t need to make a wish…

"When our new guide, Hennie, joins the group and Trevor sadly leaves us behind, everybody anticipates our new approach to the bush. Our first night with Hennie closes with the thunder of a lion’s roar and a troop of baboons going crazy. Two male hippo get into a tiff nearby and we satisfactorily head to bed.

"Day one with Hennie begins at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, another part of ACE, to see some animals we may not see in the wild. I get excited about a potential photo of a man eating lion, or potentially man eating, we all hear the story differently, and I get electrocuted by the fence which feels like the lion has just smacked me with his huge paw. We touch a chubby leopard and my camera lens is licked by a cheetah. After our trip we go and see the second largest baobab tree in the world which is about 3 000 years old, then end up at the reptile park where we have lunch surrounded by tiny monkeys and some taking parrot that only know the word “hello”. An evening game drive surprises us with four lionesses lounging in the grass. Finally we see something awesome!

"At camp we head for an early night’s sleep preparing for our Kruger National Park trip in the morning, never expecting the lazing leopard we will spot in some nearby trees, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

"Our days at Struwig are drawing to a close and I feel a heaviness on my heart, resenting the day it will all end. Hennie takes us out on a walk to show us shards of a clay pot from a community that lived in the area about 800 years ago. I breath in the cool, dry morning air and gaze upon the Olifants River and never ending landscape of leafless acacia trees which surround it. I imagine what it would have been like 800 years ago, exactly the same, maybe more green.

"Our last few days are spent cramming in all the information we need to know for our test but we can’t help being distracted by the desire to drive the game van and shoot a rifle. Hennie eventually agrees and we take turns on the tracker seat and driving at which point I almost get driven in to a giraffe that leaps out of a bush and on to the road. Jenny has her first ever driving lesson and only stalls twice! Later we go for target practice and I’m surprised at how well everybody does, a little unnerved.

"Our days end with extremely late night drives with the volunteers where we see nothing, and lots of sleepovers to spend as much time together as we can. Hennie leads us through a crocodile infested river to get a close up of some hippo and their young which while everyone awes over the sight I wet myself! Why are we walking through crocodile infested waters!? I fear that Hennie believes us to be well trained enough to do some really exciting and wonderful things but I worry that we all may be trampled or eaten because nobody has mastered walking quietly on crunchy leaves… Eventually I calm down and enjoy the buffalo herd we have to hide behind a tree from until they all move on. Our last game drive and we see nothing, it all ends the way it started and it’s perfect!

"For our last meal together, Hennie organises us a proper English breakfast of fried eggs, beans, bacon and toast. We laugh and joke but everyone is really sad to leave. We take our last pictures and board the game van one last time to the gate for another 8 hour journey. As everyone is dropped off at their specific destinations we say our last goodbyes. I take one more glance over my shoulder at the terminal and realise that I’m alone. All I can do is hope to see them all again.”