I was lucky enough to work and guide in arguably one of the most isolated and vastly open areas in South Africa: the Orange River Basin, situated in the only part of South Africa which is part of the Desert Biome. So there I was, a hired hand, helping build a camp from scratch, and when I say scratch, I mean all that all there was, was dirt, thorns and stone; when the opportunity to guide a trip on a six day excursion presented itself. “Dr D, pack your stuff, you’re hitting the river as a hantie” (Hantie is just a nice way of saying slave donkey boy…) said my then Boss, Dr H. We referred to each other as Dr since it definitely sounded better than the usual curse words we abundantly used for each other. And so my fate was set: River guide. I cried on the first three days or so, all the thorns, the sunburn, the paddling, but, by day four I was in love with what the Richtersveld had to offer – An abundance of birds, my favourites being the bee-eaters, kingfishers and the myriad of large waterbirds scattered along the river; the hardy trees that lined it, and the stars at night, wow, the stars at night… the desert has a lot to offer, but the clarity and blinding brightness of the stars in the desert night was other worldly in its beauty. We used to tell guests to sleep with their sunglasses on at full moon, which they laughed at, until it came time to sleep… The moon turns night into day in the desert, and as a guide I enjoyed ragging the guests a bit. Out here we were more than just low-paid river rats; we were the Authority, the Fun and the Teacher. After two years of living like a bush monkey, resorting to showering on Fridays only since the river was way better to dunk into and meeting more people than I can bother to try and remember, I figured it was probably time to pursue my passion for nature and its processes in more depth. I handed in my one month resignation, did my last few trips and said adieu to the desert river that stole my heart and soul with its intrigue and mystery, and headed home. “Dylan, you are going to Northern KZN in two weeks…”
That’s what my mother told me upon my return, the smell of desert life barely off my skin, and that’s how I got my chance to study what I love: “… To study advanced guiding and nature conservation with Bhejane Nature Training.” Alrighty, I thought, and enjoyed what little time I had with family and friends before being shipped off to a camp just outside of the small town of Hluhluwe to start my adventure as a three year student…
The first thing that stole my breath was the obvious difference between the deserts of the Northern Cape to the subtropical forests of KZN – Filled with trees, colourful birds and new and intriguing butterflies, insects, mammals and flowers. This place is still has some of the most amazing birds I had ever seen, and it took me a long time to learn to identify birds using their calls, since forest dwelling birds are a rare sight. We were introduced to the lecturing component of the course, namely Ryan Tippet, a walking encyclopaedia of birds, trees, grasses, fish, Amon Ndlovu, a butterflies expert, Monica Maroun our guidance and growth lecturer, Dylan Panos, a rifle handling assessor, bird specialist and our boss man (It was here that I got the nickname Bob, since there can be only one… Dylan), his wife Christa, our geography and conservation principles and ethics lecturer, Freya van der Wiel, our marine guiding lecturer and her husband Nick, our General Major and guiding skills lecturer. Not to mention our guest lecturers Jonathan Leeming, leading expert in his field of spiders and scorpions of Southern Africa, James Bristow of Magnum Shooting Academy, who assessed our SASSETA skills, Andrew Miller of S.M.A.R.T solutions, who lectured us on Wilderness and Marine First Aid and Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson, a lecturer on biodiversity of the oceans of Southern Africa at UWC. Our first year was broken down into first obtaining our FGASA terrestrial level one, which was like injecting your brain with way too much knowledge and hoping it sticks, luckily, we had Ryan Tippet, who I still swear is a super computer that planted himself into the body of a human; after this we were split up and my group of renegade Impies (our group name, meaning ‘warrior’ in Zulu) were put through our paces with James Bristow, who made us all feel useless with a rifle, but we improved quickly, since we really didn’t want to be ‘Shot in the face’ by the big guy. After that it was training training training with the rifle, getting ready for our Advanced Rifle Handling assessment. Our fingers weren’t even properly healed from all the cocking and reloading when we were told to “pack your bags, it’s off to the bush with you!”. And so trails started, where we met Ronnie Brink, a trails lecturer and Dylans Right Hand Man in the bush. Here we walked. And walked. And then…. Walked some more. We learned about tracks and signs, natural indicators, judging the age of tracks, how to use the wind to our advantage and how to grow the biggest pair of balls imaginable to shout at an elephant as if it were a naughty poodle trying to bite your ankles. Trails was amazing: We tracked lions, found elephants playing in water, Rhinos walking with their kin, and birds that were amazing to watch as they drank, bathes and hunted. To be in the bush without the security of a vehicle to protect you is arguably the best way to be in it. Adrenaline pumps, non-smokers pull a cigarette in one go after an elephant charge, and back at camp we all swopped stories about our day and laughed at peoples renditions of pooping their pants at these experiences. It was here that we grew close, and some good friends were made. We visited some amazing reserves, namely Amakhosi, Kwazulu, Zulu Rhino Reserve, Makhasa, and a few others. Back up trails complete, it was time for Marine…
Just to put into perspective how I felt about the ocean, imagine a claustrophobic person being thrown into the boot of a car, and multiply it by at least ten: that it how scared I am of the ocean. I’ve been scared of it since I was swimming in the rock pools as a happy ten year old and saw a tentacle come out of a crevice and snatch a dead fish, only to drag it back into the abyss… I nearly drowned in half a metre of water, telling my dad that a monster was waiting to snatch me and drag me to hell to eat me. He laughed, I didn’t. Surprisingly, snorkelling opened new worlds to me: of fish, crustaceans, corals, and more, everything so alien it was hard to imagine that this was still, in fact, planet Earth. Colours so bright and contrasting I didn’t want to return to the surface. Shells so beautiful I’m surprised I didn’t try and pocket them all. My fear had turned to intrigue, then came the kicker: Our Open and Advanced Open Water Qualifications, diving with Coral Divers. Deeper we went, bigger got the fish, and more beautiful became this alien planet under water. Leopard sharks, loggerhead turtles, rays, fish, eels, nudibranchs, corals, crustaceans, dolphins… An explosion of colour, movement and shapes. I am now officially addicted to our marine world, which is under tremendous pressure to survive: Over fishing, pollution, global warming, to mention but a few.
It is a very sad truth that we are destroying this world with our ignorance. One thing that these studies have taught us is the importance of conservation, which couldn’t be any less important than LIFE, for that is exactly what it is. Our year has been filled with sad truths and juxtapositions, but that is why we are here. The importance of conservation can only be established through the constant reminding that we as guides have an obligation to do. We are, like I said, more than just jeep jockeys, khaki wearing nature lovers and hippies; we are the voice of reason, the open minded teachers and the hope for conservation to be heard. We are the future, and thanks to Bhejane Nature Training, we will be in a league of our own when it comes to ethical, conservational guiding.
So to conclude, I have met like-minded people whom have become good friends. I have learned about the ecology of the earth and all the processes which make life on our blue planet possible. I have seen some of the most amazing things that nature has to offer, and these continue to surprise and enthral me. We have had some outrageously arbitrary themed parties in our beautiful sand forest camp, which have seen us grow together incredibly. We have some amazing lecturers who are always there to help, and are our peers as well as our friends. This is not just a Training Provider; this is Bhejane: A family of conservationists, tree huggers, frog kissers, bird watchers, socialisers and the best damn people there could possibly be for the future of conservation in Southern Africa or even, the World. This is Bhejane. TIB my friends. TIB.