It has been some time since the camp has been so quiet, for this long! As Covid hit South Africa, everyone had to rush to catch flights and get home before lockdown started. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) a group of 9 students had to stay behind Gobandlovu Camp while waiting for lockdown to end.
Staying Behind at Gobandlovu Camp
Our interns Stephan and Misae was keeping watch at the Bhejane Outpost on Somkhanda. They were blissfully unaware of the chaos of the outside world. Thankfully we managed to evacuate them from the Outpost and they got back to base camp just in time.
While we were all sad, stressed and uncertain about what would happen next, we weree also enormously privileged to spend the lockdown period at Gobandlovu Camp. Students have used the time to go on walks and add to their birding and tracking skills.
Student Prakash Kannan, more affectionately known by all as Paapi – has written a great blog about all the leopard activity in camp. We were fortunate to have some late summer rainfall in March and saw an explosion of Mushrooms and Butterflies in and around the Sand Forest.
Life has been strange – and very different to say the least. We all went about our own ways of keeping busy each day, and creating a new routine. The students in camp pulled together like the amazing team they are and are doing an amazing job sharing kitchen space and keeping their spaces clean and tidy!
Sticking to Lockdown Rules
All Bhejane staff have been sent home in accordance with lockdown rules, but those living on site at Kuleni has been working hard on getting content online and planning for what happens once the lockdown is lifted.
Dylan and a few of the lockdown crew got permission this week to go to the Somkhanda Bhejane Outpost Camp to maintain the camp and make sure everything is still standing there! They have had some amazing sightings on arrival – keep an eye on our Instagram and Facebook pages for updates from the Outpost!
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.
Ons stel graag die Bhejane Loopbaan Ontwikkelings-Program bekend! n Vars en visionêre benadering tot veldggids opleiding en opwindende byvoeging tot die Bhejane Kursus Portefeulje vir 2020.
Die program bevat 3 fases. n Fondasie fase, Ontwikkelings Fase en Goverderde Fase. Studente met geen vorige opleiding of ervaring begin by die Fondasie Fase.
Studente wat reeds basiese gidswerk of verwante kwalifikasies het kan begin by Fase 2 – die Ontwikkelingsfase. Die gevorderde fase is beskikbaar vir studente wat reeds fase 2 voltooi het, en verder in enige rigting wil spesialiseer, en ook belangstel om werksondervinding te kry terwyl hulle onder mentorskap is.
Die program het n omvattende fokus en beoog om n diverse groep studente aan die industrie beskikbaar te stel. Studente het die geleentheid om in n verskeidenheid areas te spesialisser en gevolglik self te besluit hoe en waar hulle in die industrie inpas.
Die program sluit in as basis die syllabus en nasionale gids kwalifikasies van FGASA – die Veldgids Assosiasie van Suider Afrika.
Die FGASA komponente word verder gekomplimenteer deur n verskeidenheid spesialis en vaardigheids modules, wat die studente volledig voorberei vir n loopbaan in die Safari en Ekotoerisme industrieë. Hierdie modules addreseer noodsaaklike werksgereedheid vaardighede soos kommunkasie, konflikhantering, beplanning en organisasie in die werksplek, entrepreneurskap en die basiese diensvoorwaardes geldig in Suid Afrika.
Spesialis modules sluit in Natuurbewaring, Marienegids, Monitering en Veldnavorsings assistent, Spesialis stapgids, Spesialis voëlgids.
Die Spesialis modules kan ook as losstaande modules voltooi word buite die die konteks van die volle program vir gidse wat reeds voltyds werk.
Kontak ons vir die informasie paket en die 2020 registrasie datums, fooie en vorms.
We are excited to introduce the new Bhejane Nature Guide Career Development Programme (CDP). Whether you are just starting out, and have no prior training experience, or whether you are already qualified but need a further boost to launch your career, the unique phased approach of the programme allows you to hop on where it bests suits you!
3 Training Phases
The programme consist of 3 phases (Foundation, Development and Advanced Phase). Students with no prior training or experience start at the Foundation Phase.
Students that are already qualified with basic guiding qualifications can start at Phase 2 – The Development Phase, while those that are looking for mentored workplace experience, and a headstart in specialist and advanced course modules can choose to stay on for Phase 3 – The Advanced Phase.
Career Development is Key
The programme is career focussed and aims to prepare students for active participation in the Wildlife Tourism industry, by developing competent guides, with well formulated career paths in the various specialist nature guiding and related wildlife tourism fields.
The course has been structured to include the national skills programmes as required by the South African Tourism Act, to be recognized and registered as a legal nature guide. These skills programmes are trained using the syllabus of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA)
In addition to these skills programmes, we have added “soft skill” components and Practical Guiding Skills that address areas of essential knowledge. This includes various topics such as Your Guiding Career Path, Specialist modules such as Birding or Marine Guiding, Industry and Workplace skills, Research and Reference skills, and preparation for further study once out in the industry. Contact us to get the information pack with fees and 2020 intake dates for this exciting new programme.
There is something about the bush, the sound of the birds singing early in the morning, the branches breaking in the distance by elephants, the roar of the lion spreading through the mountains. Waking up in the cold winter morning staring ahead with your head peeping out the zip of your safari tent, overlooking the Mkuze River, having breakfast around a fire pit still warm from the night befores boma fire,feeling refreshed and ready for a full day of walking trails – This is how you start your day at Ebandla Camp.
Working with Colin Patrick and his amazing K9 sidekick (Anne) is one of the best experiences, just by observing them work together, side by side and with a different insight! Trailing an animal gives you the courage to improve your skills. As soon as you find a fresh track, the hunt is on, bundu bashing through the bushes looking for any sign of the animal you are tracking in the sand, in the trees along the river banks – to find an animal you need to think like one!
This is such an amazing experience because you can learn a lot about the animals behaviour, By asking things like ‘What type of food it eats? Was it on its way to a specific location? or maybe just wondering around? by looking at the tracks you can see if the animal is relaxed and walking slow or on edge walking fast.
It is hard work and requires a lot of concentration, but the thrill of tracking a wild animal never ceases to excite me!
As the days go by tracking different animals and learning more about ourselves in the process just adding on to knowledge displayed all around us with every step we take. I remember how nervous I was for the assessment day -It was a perfect sunny morning, everyone was standing around the boma and you could just see the stress of test day show on their faces, but the we started walking and I couldn’t help but to look at my surroundings and just seeing how beautiful nature really helped me to calm down.
We walked for a while before Colin stopped us and split us into two groups and briefed us on our task at hand – one group would walk for 15 minutes to get as far away as possible and hide away and the opposing group would have to track the hiders down! The assessment has begun. After 15 minutes one person was chosen to lead the track for the hiding group – As we tracked and trailed we finally found them and it was now our time to hide.
This process went on until everyone had a chance to track spreading this experience on for 2 days! Every moment as exciting and challenging as the next, when we were all done leading, Colin sat us down and the feedback process began.
After meeting with each of us, we were all happy to hear how well the assessments went.
I was sitting outside enjoying the beautiful view that Ebandla camp has to offer and it just got me thinking of how amazing this week was, how wonderful it is to learn something new everyday and how amazing and thrilling it is to track an animal and become one and more connected with this beautiful country.
The day I decided that I would dedicate my life to the conservation of the superbly beautiful ecosystems that still cover a large part of the African continent, I was only a 6-year old boy that had just moved to Africa, without any understanding or knowledge about the complex world I was about to discover.
But this dream accompanied me over the next 13 years, motivated me every single day, shaped my way of doing things and caused me to collect every piece of information available to me, desperately hoping that it would eventually bring me a bit closer to that big goal. When I found Bhejane, I would never have thought that this would mean the ultimate break-through for me in achieving my dream. At the same time, the course gave me more than just a confirmation for what I always wanted to do: It opened a whole new world for me.
It was like looking for a sparrow and finding a twinspot (I have no issues with sparrows!). In fact, I didn’t even know that twinspots existed. Or what the difference between a sparrow and a starling is. This winter, not even a year after I left Bhejane, I returned and passed my regional birding.
This is only one example for how Bhejane changed my life, my way of thinking and my relationship with nature. The unbelievable perfection and creativity of evolution that Bhejane allowed me to discover still makes my heart beat faster every time I think about it, or realize how crazy it is that spiders can detect stress allelochemicals thanks to the lyriform organs on their legs (first example that comes to my mind). You never stop learning! And there is no bigger honor than working for nature and with nature.
The environment Bhejane is operating in would be more than enough to amaze every lucid-thinking human being. But additionally to that, I got to meet people that think like me. It may sound crazy, but I actually never had considered in the past that there might be other people that share my passion. I probably don’t have to mention that I got to know a large number of special persons that became some of my closest friends and my idols. I had the privilege to meet some people with phenomenal knowledge and skills, to watch them and to learn from them.
It was like coming home. And it will always be like coming home when returning to the places where all this started. Because it’s not going to end soon.
I am often told, how lucky I am to live where I live, and do what it is I do for a living – I am sure people in similar positions, also often hear this and over time you really get use to being told how privileged you are from someone else’s point of view- so much so that I have developed a pretty standard response – I smile, and then agree with them not thinking about it too much.
After all it is what I do every day, if I had to articulate the way I really feel about this place called the Elephant Coast- I would not know how as it triggers an emotion so immensely strong I can barely control myself and in that moment words become meaningless and the only words I am left with, sound a little something like this..
“It left me speechless”
I write this today, although I have been writing this in my head for the past 5 years, forever letting it linger until I can find the perfect words to be able to formulate a sentence, never mind string them into a story for anyone else to share into this experience, and too be sincere I am not sure I would ever find the right words to describe the impact the Elephant Coast has had on me, this is one of those “see it to believe it” cases and I highly recommend that you do.
The Elephant Coast is a narrow stretch of land, touching home to the vast warm waters of the Indian Ocean & multi diverse Zululand (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa). It is here where you can come to feel the breath of the Sub tropical, it is here where my words become buried so deep beneath the history that these soils contain and spread so far across the floodplains and into the open ocean. The only place in the world where you can come to witness so many different ecosystems, vegetation structures, and climatic character variations flow together in perfect harmony earning the right to be classified under its own biome, namely the Indian Ocean Coastal Belt. A pure example of outstanding ecological processes, superlative natural phenomena and scenic beauty, and exceptional biodiversity and home so many threatened species.
How does one even begin to explain something so diverse, unique and endemic in simple forms?
It is in these sand forests where the last remaining herds of ‘Big tusker’ elephants roamed for centuries and left their mark on the very tips of our tongues. It is here where coral reefs have formed on remains of ancient sand dunes creating one of a kind reefs, home to over 1200 fish species, including the Coelacanth, a fish species thought to be extinct but still lurks in the depths of these waters – described as The Living Fossil. It is here where the largest estuarine system on the African continent, you can come to see the largest population of hippopotamus and crocodile share a space with the Bull Shark that follow the high tide in to feed on any juvenile life hiding among the aerial roots of mangrove trees that stand as guards along the edges of our coastline, giving chance for other habitats to develop, it is here where King Shaka’s right hand man fled to after fearing he too would suffer the same fate and be assassinated- found himself emerged deep in the beauty of the flat, vast and open land with many lakes in 1828– It was the home of the Tsonga people, then known as Tembeland – Upon arriving, the beauty that overwhelmed him set the core for the naming of this region, the name so perfectly chosen for this region ‘iSimangaliso’ meaning miracle and wonders remain as true today, as it did almost 200 years ago.
Once it lures you in, it has got you for life. I cannot recall the exact day I fully grasped the magnitude of the words “You are lucky” meant for me. I was raised in the guiding industry, both my parents are guides and passion driven people, passion not only for the natural surroundings, but for creating a community of like-minded people to create, spread and share more moments of magic.
A passion, I guess you can say it is in my blood.
I was born with it and so I will continue to grow with it every day being reminded through a series of moments- like the first time I got to witness a loggerhead turtle emerge from the comfort of her aquatic environment to lay eggs in the coastal dunes of Bhanga Nek, Kosi Bay. That moment upon realizing that this turtle has survived the odds, living through natures natural process and unpredictability, that realization of “Here I am, in her presence, watching her… what a rarity” , even walking back up the beach, with every step brighter than the next as my feet shuffle and awaken the bioluminesence hidden beneath the surface of the faintly wet sand. The first time I ever got to witness a Humpback Whale and her calf swim right by me while diving a spot called Pinnacles in Sodwana Bay, sharing a momentary glimpse of each other as one tail movement sent her meters ahead of me and within seconds they were gone again and just like that, an appreciation for these waters I find myself in. I am quickly reminded that these are not only the breeding waters for whales, but some of the most unique reefs dominated by soft coral and marine life so diverse, significant that with every breathe fueling your lungs as you sink down deeper you become almost instantaneously humbled.
It is in these moments when it becomes clear, how lucky I truly am.
The Elephant Coast captured my heart and became my home and my office – Privileged to share the stories of the past, determined to keep a sustainable present and looking forward to many more once in a lifetime experiences, never failing to appreciate any moment whether I find myself under a blanket of stars on a clear night or even just hearing the rumble of the ocean on a windy day.
Speechless is the only way to describe the feeling one gets upon realizing that every day you get to live and breathe in a place of miracles, a literal heaven on earth, a sacred place.
Ek het nog altyd geweet dat my liefde vir die natuur diep binne my gewortel is.
Van die dag wat ek gesien het wat Bhejane vir my kan bied het ek onmiddelik besluit om deel te word van die 3 maande kursus, min het ek geweet dat ek kort daarna sonder huiwer sou aansluit by die 3 jaar kursus. Ek het nie besef ek stap in by een groot familie nie. Ek was eintlik so bevoorreg dat ek so kort nadat ek die grootmens wêreld betree reeds my tuiste kon vind. Bhejane is my huis weg van die huis af. Om te kan wakker word in die getjirp van die voëls & te kan rustig raak in die aand voor die ongelooflikste sonsonderdergange hier in Zulu land, gee net nuwe mening tot lewe want ek dink selde aan hoe baie ek eintlik het om voor dankbaar te wees.
Elke gesig wat mens in die oggend sien straal ń ander emosie uit. Emosie van blydskap, emosie van hartseer, emosie van verlange of emosie van liefde. Almal bied altyd ń skouer aan, almal is altyd daar om saam jou bly te wees & daar is altyd ń ekstra handjie wat wil help. My hart word warm as ek besef dat daar steeds sulke goeie mense in die wêreld is.
Bhejane bestaan uit slegs hoendervleis oomblikke uit. Daar gaan nie ń dag verby waar mens nie sê “wow, dis crazy” of “ek het nooit geweet nie”. Jy leer elke dag iets nuut van die natuur & selfs meer as wat jy besef iets oor jouself. Bhejane stel jou nooit teleur as dit kom by die natuur nie. Jy groei & verander saam die seisoene. Ek is bevoorreg om my fondasie in hierdie industrie by Bhejane te kan neerlê, om blootgestel te word in alles waarin ek nou blootgestel word maak my net nog meer opwindend vir wat die toekoms vir my inhou. My huis is waar my hart is & my hart sal vir altyd by Bhejane wees.
Waking up to the sound of the waves crashing, the wind rustling through the trees are the best sounds to wake up to.
This is the second year the Bhejane Nkonkoni group have been privileged to be assisting in the Mammal Research Institute with their whale monitoring in Cape Vidal. The aim of this research project is to track the Humpback Whales on their migratory paths from their cold feeding grounds in Antarctica to their breeding grounds up north in warmer tropical waters.
The walk to the whale watching towers definitely gets your heart pumping as it is a steep walk through dense forest, soft sand and torturous stairs. But all of that is worth it because once you get to the towers and see the most incredible view out over the sea through the canopy of the trees you forget about the walk up and how out of breath you are.
Stepping up into the towers and seeing the view is like seeing it for the first time every time no matter how many times you go up into the towers.
If you are doing the first shift of the day you have the pleasure of carrying up the theodolite to the towers which weighs about 10kg. You have to set up the tripod legs, mount the theodolite to the tripod and make it level. Once you have set all that up you are ready to track whales moving past.
The main keys when spotting a whale are blows, breaching, fluking and lobtailing. If you spot anyone of these you pin point the whale in the cross hairs of the theodolite and call time. Once time has been called you read off the horizontal and vertical reading to the person scribing and they plot all that data down on a map. To make all the readings on that group more accurate we try to get five readings on each group with five-minute intervals between each reading before the group moves past.
On a clear day with perfect conditions you can see further than 15km out to sea. From that distance you can see these whales breaching out of the water with the naked eye. Sometimes if you are lucky, they will breach really close to the shore and that’s when you can see how big and strong, they are because they literally launch their whole body out of the water over and over again.
The best thing to do between shifts is to go down to the beach either to swim or to explore the shoreline.
One of the best memories I have from last years whale monitoring was seeing a mother and calf humpback whale swimming past the towers just beyond the breakers. This calf was still a new-born because it was so small and you could see that it was still testing out the waters.
As the last shift draws to an end it is time to start packing up the theodolite and all the data sheets from a bust day’s work. Before we head down, we take about five minutes to enjoy the sun getting ready to go down behind us over the dunes while enjoying the final view over the sea for the day.
Then it is time to face the stairs back down to where the bakkie is parked waiting to take us back home for the night only to start this all again tomorrow.
“Warwick dis tyd vir jou nagdiens…” breek Quintin se stem deur die koue. Met die ysige koue wat deur die loop van die aand in my tent in gekruip het, prober ek met ‘n swaar lyf uit my bed kom.
Die vuur het begin bedaar en ek besluit om nog hout te gaan haal sodat ek bietjie warm kan word.
Ek loop na die hout-hoop toe en kry my eerste lekker stuk hout, ek besluit om nog te kry wat ek langs die vuur kan op hoop vir later. Ek kry my tweede stuk hout en met die omdraai slag vang my flitslug twee gloeiende oë wat in die pad afgestap kom langs Graham en Robyn se huis… my liggaam word yskoud en ek voel die lewe uit my tap…
‘n Leeu wyfie, rustig en tyd-saam gaan staan so 15 m van my af weg.
Met ‘n benoude stem roep ek vir Graham oor die radio. Toe ek my weer kry is Graham langs my met sy .416 Remington… saam staan ons en kyk vir haar terwyl sy ons aanstaar met n swaar intensiteit en nuuskierigheid. Na so 5 minute, wat vir my soos ure gevoel het, besluit sy om weer aan te gaan met haar nag mars en het weer in die skaduwee van die donkerte verdwyn.
We lead the way . . . follow us into Bhejane Territory!