ACE group viewing an elephant from afar

Dreams come true in Africa

A hot day with much traveling, excitement and the unknown of the African bush awaits the students that are to partake in African Conservation Experience’s Game Ranger Course. Tired, yet full of energy, we met at the specified meeting place. I am not too sure who was more exited – me, or the students that were to spend the next two weeks with me? Any way, we got the formalities out of the way with all the greetings and the introductions and started the long hour journey into the unknown!

The bush would be our home for the next two weeks and we would have to live with it like we were humble travellers that came to look and learn of its beauties and mysteries. The excitement grew as we moved further away from civilization and into the bush and then after another long journey there it was, the Camp. An old family camp that is nestled in the trees on the bank of a large river overlooking the expanse of water that flows past. Home! With elephants and crocodiles and hippo’s present, this was the beginning of a time that surely would impress on some folks for the rest of their lives and it did.

Getting all settled in was easy and then there was the setting of the safety parameters for the camp and its users. Many animals move through the camp at night and sometimes even through the day, so all had to be safe in their coming and going. Being aware of what is around you is one of the most important things to do as a guide in the bush and no better place to start this is in camp itself.

Our days were filled with morning and afternoon walks for the first week. These walks were most often in the surrounding areas of the camp and we ventured further away as we became more in touch with nature and what it had to offer in terms of what we could learn and teach. Some of these walks ended in tracking animals and in particular one walk the group tracked an elephant. We spent a good time looking at all the signs it left and had discussed all in detail. The tracking was on! We followed the spoor, saw the dung and even at times smelt the beast, being ever mindful of the wind direction and where it was going in itself, the river. As we came onto the riverbank, there it was on the opposite bank. A big bull and to the left of it the whole family that totalled about 20 or so animals. The belief on the kid’s faces cannot be described; you had to be there in person. Some cried and I assure you they were real tears. Others just sat there and looked in belief and smiled from ear to ear. Photos were taken but the emotions could not ever be encapsulated and told over. They were for real and so tangible. We spent about an hour and a half there... just looking.

As the days progressed, the information given in lectures became more apparent and applicable to the environment, thus giving the students a deeper understanding of what is around them and how it all fits into the greater picture of their natural surroundings. Some of the lectures included dangerous game and how to approach them, birds and birding, tracks and tracking, reptiles and mammals and much more. All this would help to give a better understanding of how and what we interpret to our surroundings.

The first week ended off with us walking into a herd of elephants after following them for some time, just hearing them feed on branches and breaking trees. A glimpse here and there and with great patience, there they were! A family herd of about 10 animals, big cows and also small calves. The calves were a little tired, so they lay down and had a sleep with the mothers swaying from side to side, standing guard over them. We watched them for 20 minutes without them knowing we were there. In the same manner as we located them we withdrew into the bush and left them to feed and wander on.

That was not all; we spent the night out under the stars in the bush. No tents, no comforts, just you and the bush…Each person had to stand guard with another person to ensure the safety of the group throughout the night. A big pile of firewood was collected for this purpose to ensure that there is always light in the camp in the event of some animal passing close by to be warded off by the light. Excitement levels, apprehensions, fears of the animals etc. was there in full force and only after a full brief as to what they should do in case of an emergency did things return to semi-normal. At this point it should be worth mentioning that some individuals did not sleep at all that night…The morning light was greeted by some saggy eyes and smoke-smelling clothes with smiles radiating from behind them, we made it and “could we do it again, Mr. Ranger”. I knew this would be coming seeing that sleep outs are a huge equalizer for many and they can in the terms of the animals appreciate the silence and the sounds of the night.

Our second sleep out was more adventurous seeing that we were in a different venue and there was a watering hole in the vicinity. The following morning we walked around the sleep out area just to check for signs and spoor, seeing that some saw a vicious yellow thing in the night only to find out in the light of dawn that it was a tree with yellow leaves. We heard sounds of hyena and even a civet was sighted in the night. Upon circling the camping area we came across some kudu spoor, impala and then to the surprise of all … lion. A lion had walked within about sixty meters from us without anybody knowing or seeing it. This was a wake-up for the group as to the responsibility they have to others when standing guard.

In the time there we saw some of the most wonderful interactions ever. Hornbill birds interacting with dwarf mongoose, hippo’s and their young in the water, countless giraffe and then there was the ever elusive rhino that we did not get to see after many attempts to track them down. This was rewarded one evening after tracking lions for the whole day by driving into a pride of lions close to a dam where they layover for a drink. A total of 12 lions in the grass – young and old! The student tracking in the front had the most awesome view of the lions seeing that he sat on the tracker seat. A similar experience played off when we were driving in the bush and coming around a corner there it was – a buffalo! Only about 8 meters from us, we stopped and so did it. I believe the student sitting on the trackers seat also stopped: breathing! Eyes the size of saucers, pale complexion and more. Apart from all this, she had the most wonderful view. We followed it for a while in the bush and into a dry riverbed and saw it move off and blend into the surroundings where it felt safe.

The second week was more adventurous for the students in their own right; they got to drive the land rover in the bush. It is rather different to drive in this environment seeing the objective is not to race the guy in the car next to you or to speed down the highway but rather to slow down and appreciate that which is around you. A concept some found difficult to adjust to…Some tried to take the person off the tracker seat in thorn trees and if this did not work, trying to drive over large rocks and generally putting the fear of who knows what into the other passengers. In all honesty, I think they all drove very well in their final exam and it takes some getting used to driving in the bush. Fun was had by all and those speed freaks were teased to no end by the others.

The final days were spent in doing revision for the exams and the game drive everyone had to do. Nerves and more nerves were ever present but when it came to the actual drive, all did well even to their own surprise. Some saw nothing on their drives so they had to make do with trees and birds whilst others had elephants and giraffes.

Two weeks flies by so fast that before you look again you have to hold back those tears and swallow that lump in the throat to say goodbye in a normal voice. Thank you all for the joy of sharing in my Ranger life and I hope that these two weeks will always be part of your lives and carry fond memories of elephants and lectures under the Big Tree.