Nobody ever expected a lockdown to happen. But it did and as some of our nature guide students had to stay behind at the Gobandlovu camp. In this article Paapi tells us about his lockdown experience in camp.
Life of a Nature Guide Student during Lockdown
My name is Paapi and I would call myself a simple citizen of the world. I do not believe in man made borders, however without a choice I hold a passport from India. I am an avid traveler and love to travel to the places my heart takes me. But this isn’t always true as my heart does not understand such a thing as visa requirements.
When a nationwide lockdown was announced, I had the choice to go back home, but for a traveler each stop feels like home. I felt at home here in a camp we call Gobandlovu.
Gobandlovu is a Zulu name for a species of tree commonly known around Africa as the Torchwood. The best decision I have made in 2020 has been to call this camp my lockdown home. As a traveler you are bound to have a few favorite places and Bhejane Nature Training happens to be one such place for me.
Nature Guide Students Staying Behind
I have been here for a few months. Learning about the bush and the ways of life in the bush as well as to respect the gentle and the mighty creatures. I am not a master of any specific field at the moment but I do know I am a ‘jack of all’ for sure. If I had to pick one area of interest it would have to be birds. I would pick birds in a heartbeat!
While a lot has been said and done about the lockdown, there are two sides to every story if not more, so here is my side of the story about lockdown. The lockdown was unexpected, was not heard of before and not even in the wildest of jokes would anyone imagine it to happen.
So when the lockdown was announced on a noon of Thursday, the camp that was bubbling with 60 or 70 odd nature guide students, was reduced to a mere 10. For the last month or so we have seen just these 10 faces and like the phases of the moon and along with the moon we too changed what we did.
My first love is birds, well food is my first but apart from that it is birds. The sudden change in the mood in the about 200ha camp was intensely noticeable. It’s not only the silence in the camp, even the highways had lesser vehicles going past and the music played outside quickly faded away.
At first it seemed like there were more birds, but I quickly understood that it was the same as every other day before lockdown. These beautiful songs were muted by manmade sounds (call it music if you want to). With manmade sounds put on hold, the stage was set for the birds to sing and be noted too.
I met a fellow nature guide student and our walk began around 5:45. We walked listening to the songs and sounds from the birds. Just like humans, they too have a party (Bird Party).
Birds of various species come together in what looks like a bird get together. It almost looks like a meeting where they discuss something – they were certainly not discussing social distancing. It was a sight you did not want to leave but somewhere your legs gave you a nudge that it is time to move on. Or was it the rumble in my stomach reminding me that the direction we should be heading next is towards the kitchen?
The winter birds are here and I had my first sighting of the Easter Nicator. Did you know that they had a winter call? It is a beautiful bubbly call, replaced by a short chirp during winter, how wonderful.
The Red-backed shirks are gone. I did see a few in the first few days of the lockdown but they left and so did the European bee-eaters, and the cuckoos. They will all be back by September.
At the same time, I heard of a lockdown birding challenge and actively began listening and looking for birds. So far I have recorded 107 birds in 2 weeks, all inside this 200ha.
Tracks and Signs
While the morning walks were already exciting and interesting, the nights turned into something special quickly. We did a few night walks and were lucky to spot the Southern White-faced owl and the Thick-tailed bush baby.
During one of our walks we clearly heard the Spotted Hyena call. The call wasn’t from inside the property but it was very close and felt absolutely fantastic. It is a privilege to watch the full moon deep into the night and to hear the hyena call at a distance, just like the bushman did.
Going on a morning walk means looking for the birds but you also look for the signs left by nocturnal creatures. You must consider yourself blessed when the substrate in the reserve is primarily sand, which means there is enough evidence left behind by the night creatures. Well, except when it rains.
If you love to look at tracks and signs, then this is where you must be. Among others one of the prominent tracks you see in the morning belong to the White-tailed Mongoose.
It seems like the white-tailed mongoose is a compulsive walker. He takes the same path every single day. The other regular tracks were those of the millipede and the dung beetle. They always leave artistic patterns. The frogs and the tortoise leave a beautiful trail too.
And then there are those which I don’t understand, no matter what angle I look from. May I blame it on the inability of the animals to leave a good track?
A Surprise Visitor
One morning, while looking at the tracks, we stopped at something I have never seen before in this reserve, nor have I seen it in the recent past. I knew who the track belonged to, but didn’t want to call it.
A few days before, I was so excited when I saw the tracks of a Spotted Hyena in the reserve. I was excited and thrilled and quickly went to report it to a senior nature guide. He hurried to see the tracks and within a second confirmed that it belonged to a dog. Now please don’t judge me on my tracking skills, every dog has its day and today belonged to a domestic dog and not a Hyena.
Well the tracks that we were looking at now, belonged to a cat. A big cat at that. And we were sure it belonged to a leopard. The previous night I thought I heard a leopard but it felt like it was far way and I wasn’t sure. I know for a fact that the leopard’s call does not travel as far as that of the call of a lion.
So it seems the leopard wasn’t far and these tracks confirmed they were well inside the reserve. The next few days we noticed the tracks everywhere. They were walking in the paths we normally use.
Lions and leopards will take the set pathways to move around. Soon we saw two sets of tracks walking side by side. With a bit of experience, you learn to paint a picture of what happened based on the tracks of the animal.
So we had different versions of what happened. One of us said that it’s the same leopard that walked in circles. Another opinion was that it could be two sub adults walking together. Or it could be two different leopards walking in the same area at different times of the night.
None of which could be wrong because we don’t know for sure.
Hoping to find an image of the leopards, we decided to set up few trap cameras. These leopards were sneaky, it seemed like the leopards always avoided the path where we set up the trap cameras. It was frustrating to see the tracks going pass the cameras but no animal showing on the camera. Maybe they are technology aware or shy.
But luck was on our side and one morning we saw tracks passing in front of the camera. We eagerly looked to see if anything was captured and lo and behold, we saw our first glimpse of the owners of those two sets of tracks.
It was a male and a female leopard walking side by side. To know you are standing on the same piece of land that was visited by this massive male and his pretty partner was such a beautiful moment.
With all the activity during lockdown, I can tell you, I never regretted staying behind in camp at Bhejane Nature Training. Life as a nature guide student is never dull.