Sunday 13 October 2013

2013 Bhejane Nature Training Trails

With the smell of Zululand smoke still fresh on backpacks, we make the rifles safe and put the boots down after the last trails course for 2013. It’s difficult to believe it’s this time of the year already but what a journey it has been!
One of the most exciting aspects of walking trails is waking up every morning not knowing what today has in store for you. Then you start unfolding and reading the ‘newspaper’ of the environment around you and no matter what your level of guiding and knowledge, you always return with new lessons learnt! Seeing is believing and in the case of trails; seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling is believing and there’s no better way of learning!

We walk 4 different Game Reserves in KwaZulu Natal. All are Big 5 properties and most of them have healthy populations of Black Rhino, which always adds another dimension to being out in the bush. This year also proved to be the year of the Lions for the trails students. Every year we leave slightly short on cat encounters but in 2013 this all changed. Students commented that Zululand Rhino Reserve is better described as Zululand ‘Lion’ Reserve as we had daily, quality Lion encounters.

The Impi group was our last trails group for the year. They all qualified as Back- up Trails guides in 2012 and this year we started working towards their Full trails qualifications. We were extremely fortunate to have Collin Patrick join us for a tracking course and assessments. This opened a whole other world for most of the participants and we were truly blessed to learn a great deal from Collin. As the world is today, we are constantly being bombarded with information. Billboards, radio and TV throw things into our senses without us even noticing it. Being out in the wild you need to teach yourself again to actually pay attention to your surroundings and physically search for some clues or signs to complete the picture in your mind of the environment around you. Some people find it very difficult to be quite and always need to be kept entertained through conversation or music for example. An exercise we did with Collin one afternoon was a perfect demonstration of this. The noisy shoes and sock protectors came off and we walked through the bush in a silence that overwhelmed your sense of hearing. So much so that we nearly stepped on a Red Duiker feeding right ahead of us that had no idea of our approaching group. When you are listening to somebody or something, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words or the sound, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not just part of it.

Two incidents took place where groups confronted poachers that we found while on trail. With the increasing amount of poaching taking place in surrounding reserves I knew it would only be a matter of time until confrontation is made. You walk in areas where game drive vehicles cant access and other than the reserve APU patrols not much people ever cross through. The first night in camp, Dylan Panos briefed everyone on procedures to follow in the case of encountering a potential poacher. Little did the group know that the very next morning we would find ourselves bumping into a strange character. He was submissive from the beginning and showed no real signs of threat but there was definitely a sense of nervousness in the air, from both sides. Not knowing whom else could be hiding in the dense riverine or whether they are armed or not sent the senses into over drive. The APU was contacted and a few minutes later they arrived on the scene and we set off looking for dangerous game that hopefully would not include humans again.

As the hot, dry and humid winds swept over Zululand the fires broke out and we soon found ourselves putting the rifles down and piking up Quarries. Fighting fires was a great experience for the Impi’s, although a few people returned back to camp with less hair than they left with. After a hot day of fire fighting nothing was more welcoming than lying in the rapids of the Mkuze River with the cold water massaging the sore muscles while viewing the aerobatic hawking of the swallows above us.

Rob, Helene, Axel and Gerry keeping that fire from jumping!

Coenraad Having to move his tent in a hurry as the fire approaches camp

BarOne: For a 25 hour day!
Bath and Back Massage
Some of the experiences shared by the trails students of 2013 will definitely keep the camp fire stories alive till late night but is something that one article can’t cover. There are, however, some experiences we can highlight from the year and who better to tell us than the students themselves. The following extracts are taken from the students Dangerous Game Logbook entries:

Student: Jean Michau

Total hours on trail: 9

Great morning walk. Heard baboon’s alarm calling and decided to go investigate. As we got closer we found fresh lioness tracks heading in the direction of the baboons along the Msunduzi river. We got to the river after a very slow walk while scanning the area. We saw the baboons on the opposite bank and could hear the sounds of either mating lions or lions feeding. Yesterday we found them mating about 4km from this same area and we knew it could very possibly be them, still at it. We decided to sit
down there for awhile and listen to try place what we are hearing and where it is coming from. After a few minutes of sitting down and listening one guy from the group went back the way we came from to go and relieve himself. Next minute he comes running back to the group, white in the face. His words don’t make sense for a few seconds and then eventually he gets the words out, “Lioness….is….. Right there!” We looked up and about 20m above us on the bank, the lioness is looking at us. We just stood dead still and watched her. She showed no signs of aggression or agitation. She curiously watched us and slowly proceeded to our left. She stopped again at one point looking very intently at the opposite bank and emitted a soft contact call in that direction. She turned and looked at us again for a few seconds and then crossed the dry riverbed in front of us. Great sighting! Walking further down river we found the tracks of where the male and other female had crossed but because of the danger factor of lions mating in rather dense vegetation we did not follow up any further.

Student: Quinton Paul Josop

Total hours on trail: 6

The morning was really quite with not much activity along the Mkuze river except for
some general game. Spotted a scaly-throated Honeyguide and then saw a Greater Honeyguide that followed us for more than 2km! We picked up fresh White Rhino tracks on the corner of the road we were on. Continued to walk just scanning our surroundings. As I looked behind us, already a kilometer uo the road, there were two very conspicuous shapes lying on the ground. After investigating through my binoculars we realized that it was 3 White Rhino. We walked back to make an approach. Approached into the wind along a tree line trying to stop Zebra and Wildebeest from alerting the Rhino of our presence. We managed to get within 40m from the Rhino resting in the open patch. As we extracted from the Rhino sighting the lead noticed Lions on a kill 200m to our left. We approached the lions very slowly, using the tree line for cover and keeping the wind in our favor. A broken tree served as the perfect concealment to sit down and observe the lions from about 100m. The lioness got up eventually and walked to some near by trees. Next the younger female got up with a piece of meat in her mouth and went to ly down in the shade with her mother. The young male continued to feed for some time and eventually got up with the whole kill in his mouth, and took it to a shady spot where he continued to feed.

Student: Helene Mertens

Total hours on trail: 7

As we approached the Nandi dam area (from the North), we saw a lioness who, quickly moved off out of view. We looped around and found a great position with height advantage on the eastern side of the dam with a great view of the male and another lioness, both lying down. The one lioness saw us and observed calmly for a while, then gets up and walks towards the male where she shows her readiness to be mounted. After a short mating session the male the male dismounts and lies back down. Then the other female approaches and presents her readiness to the male, which then mounts her and after a short mating session both lie down as the other female observes. The male looked quite tired at this stage! One female looks up at us at this point and gives us an intense stare for 5 minutes before all three lions take a short snooze. The one lioness gets up and suddenly approaches the male again wanting him to mount but the male retaliates and aggressively chases her off and then lies down next to the other female. The male and lioness then mated twice more as the rejected female looks on in envy. She tries once or twice more but is chased away every time. After some time of viewing we decided to extract and leave the lions to carry on with their business. Great sighting!

Student: Greg Heasman

Total hours on trail: 9

We were about to fall asleep on our sleep out when we heard braking branches. We
waited the sounds in for a while and soon a bull elephant came down to the water to drink. We just lay there under the stars and watched him mess around in the water. It was amazing to just be watching him like this but he soon got curious to our presence and came to investigate. He came in for a closer look but then decided to rather leave and he moved off and made his way back into the dark bush to continue feeding!

Student: Helene Mertens

Total hours on trail: 6

After the sighting of the male lion at 12:30, we went to meet another trails group. I joined that group to go back to the male which we left sleeping close to Nandi Dam. We walked a wide loop around to the dam and found the male had changed his position from where we left him last, sleeping above an erosion donga that ran around him. We approached to about 25m from him, the donga serving as the perfect 
barrier between us and the lion. The lion had an easy escape route and for him to get any closer to us would mean crossing the very steep donga first. He kept on sleeping in the afternoon sun but after about 10 minutes he woke up, sat up and started looking around. He scanned his area around him and then suddenly his eyes met ours! Wind was in our favor and his face gave a real look of amusement when he saw us, which was quite comical. He remained very relaxed and didn’t seem to mind our presence too much. We viewed him for another 10 minutes when the wind suddenly turned and blew our scent right to him. He turned once again to look at us. This time, however, it was a bit more intently. At this point we decided to extract as soon as he relaxed and took his eyes off us so to not over stay our welcome in the sighting.  Animals have a 6th sense when it comes to being watched and last thing we wanted to do was to disrupt the beautiful lion from his afternoon rest. I lead the group out of the sighting the way we walked in as the lead guide stayed behind to keep an eye on the lion as we moved out.

Not one encounter will ever be the same as a previous one and there is always something to learn from every situation. We would like to thank every Bhejane student who was part of the trails journey in 2013 and we look forward to keeping up with your careers and know that the foundation has been laid for a successful and fruitful future.