Bush Bound with Eco Training
Read on to hear more about Sarah’s experience and if you were interested in taking your own first steps in to a career in conservation then check out the options available below!
As no stranger to the South African bush, I practically snapped Max’s hand off when he offered me the invite to visit EcoTraining camps in South Africa and Botswana, in partnership with EcoCompanion.
As a wildlife lover and animal behaviourist, there is nowhere as simultaneously tranquil and adrenaline fuelled as the African bush! It’s the perfect mix of iconic predators and spectacular bird life, not that I would consider myself a twitcher at all, but who wouldn’t appreciate the eye-catching blues and pastels of Botswana’s national bird- the lilac breasted roller! *(look it up, it’s a beaut!)
Eco training, is run by three managers who have combined their skills in education, to form the perfect base camp for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in nature or for the more intrepid explorers to begin or advance in a career as a professional field guide. They currently offer a number of courses including a 50 day safari guide course through to a year long professional guiding qualification with FGASA (see website for more details). So we went to sit in on their guide training and get involved with their course in tracks and signs. Myself and camera man, Tebogo Malebogo, boarded a plane from the cold winter of Cape Town (shortly after the biggest storm in 50 years?!) at the first opportunity, which happened to be the end of June.
When we arrived at O.R. Tambo, we were met by a very friendly driver, Jacques, who we made polite conversation with whilst being completely distracted by the incredible scenery. The highlight was the Drakensberg Mountain range, which in Afrikaans it means ‘Dragon’s mountain’ – quite fitting for something that could easily be part of the original set of the Lord of The Rings! These fierce rocks flanked us all the way into Limpopo, one of my favourite places in the world. In my first ever experience of Africa, I spent three months wandering around a small game park here, while working in a field research station and generally going on crazy adventures every weekend. Needless to say, for me it felt like home as soon as we arrived.
‘You have two options, you can stay here in camp tonight, grab a shower and have a cup of tea or you can head out in 20 minutes with our sleep out crew and spend the night in the bush?’ This was the first question on Mark lips when we arrived in camp at 4pm.
My response- ‘Is that even a question?!’
Yes, to be fair we probably did smell a bit and could have used a quick shower and I’m never usually one to turn down a brew (English), but what an insanely obvious choice! We threw our things down in the camp tents and proceeded to the Land Rover. When I say tent, they were more like small chalets in size, each comprising of two comfy single beds with their own veranda and chairs.
After a short but scenic game drive, in which we watched an infant giraffe feeding alongside a couple of zebras, (it’s mother potentially using them for alarm calls while she browsed from a tall Acacia tree nearby), we arrived at our spot. A BIG, marginally flat rock in the vast open bush and set down our sleeping bags. The guys on the course had arrived a little time before us, so a camp fire was crackling away already and food was not far behind. As the stars pierced the night sky, we were treated to some stories and had a lovely lesson in astronomy from the charismatic Jaspar. That said, I’m not sure how confident I would feel navigating my way home from this spot just yet, even with the night sky this crystal clear!
As part of the course, guide students were tasked to keep the fire burning throughout the night and to watch out for any potential threats that may waltz into camp on four legs. As this reserve houses all of the BIG five, a threat may or may not include a visit from lions, leopards, cheetah, hyena, elephants, rhino, buffalo… (etc). With that in mind, I offered to get on board with a shift too, so at 12pm I was awoken from my brief slumber, to get dressed and remain vigilant with the boys until 2am. Though we did hear a few branches snapping in the surrounding trees, aside from the sleeping wildebeest nearby, our watch was fairly uneventful. At 3.30am however, I was happily woken again by the cackle of two spotted hyena calling to each other about 50 m away. When we arrived back at camp, we were all feeling incredibly smug about our little walk in the bush and the sunrise we had witnessed for our troubles. Until we heard that the other group had a fantastically close viewing of buffalo and a local leopard, which had been spotted walking through camp the night before we arrived! Ah such is the beauty of wildlife viewing, it wouldn’t be wild unless it was totally unpredictable!
If I felt at home in Limpopo, then I was in LOVE with the Botswana campus. This place was a complete surprise! Having spent a decent amount of time road tripping through the East of Botswana in the past, I thought I had experienced most of it’s natural beauty already, but when I arrived at Mashatu, it turns out I was completely wrong. This place was like a cross between the Great Prairies in North America and the harsh desert of Utah. It was scattered with huge rock Kopjes, jutting out the ground like islands, some of which had ancient Baobab trees growing on the top. As it was winter, the grass was yellow in colour, but the whole area was far more open than Karongwe with just the odd tree and ginormous cactus for cover, making wildlife spotting much easier (especially from a high vantage point).
As soon as we crossed the border from South Africa, we were greeted with wildlife encounters, including impala, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and elephants! The temperature was decently hot, but inside the tent it was perfect and at night time, there was a beautiful breeze that ran past the camp fire and into the camp.
Here we spent two days with the Wildlife Tracks and Signs course, which mostly takes place on foot and wow it was fun (think CSI does wildlife). As a story teller, it was incredibly thrilling to find and follow animal prints at sunrise, piece together the animal’s activity from the night before and in the best case scenario, actually discover the animal in real time in it’s natural habitat. The tutors, (local guides Jerry and Norman), passionately imparted important information about the local ecosystem and talked a lot of s**t (literally). Animal poo is a great tell tail sign about animal behaviour and they really knew their stuff, along with so many other crazy cool facts about animal tracks! During our morning in the bush, we were even fortunate enough to encounter a large male elephant on its own, browsing from one of the sparsely placed trees. Together with the help of Moses (a Masai Mara tribesman who will be running the Kenya site soon), we were treated to a really close viewing, which put us and the back-up guides through their paces.
At 5pm, we went to Managwa, a huge Kopje with a famously engraved baobab tree overlooking the whole of the reserve. This was possibly THE most awesome location that I have ever set foot on and with a Savanah light in hand, I was able to witness a spectacular sunset and give a quick nod to a sacred rock in the distance. So sacred in fact, that only the president himself has permission to climb it. What a time to be alive!
After a cheeky 5 am wake up call from a nosey hyena, which was curiously sniffing the walls of my tent, I swiftly decided to postpone on my toilet trip and instead, I took time out to listen to the ruckus of the panicked baboons and the roaring lion in the distance. This place is super cool.
During our stay with Eco Training, we we’re surrounded by passionate staff, great teachers and happy course goers. The atmosphere was relaxed, yet, there was a camaraderie that had clearly developed between staff and students so it was hard not to fall in step and soon we found that we were exchanging banter, stories and even the odd facebook profile too. I would highly recommend one of these courses for anyone thinking about a career in wildlife guiding or anyone interested in learning more about African nature. In fact, I’m almost considering retraining here myself to finally get that REAL job … maybe 😉