This is a bit of a throwback to 2010, when husband and wife team Michelle and Riaan Garforth Venter , and sidekick Nicola completed their FGASA Field guide training course with us at Bhejane Nature Training. We really enjoyed having them on the course -it was a blast start to finish! Very entertaining bunch.
This is what Michelle had to say about her experience.
It’s 5:30 in the morning and there’s a knock on my door. The sun is just starting to warm the Acacia tops here in Zululand. It’s time for another 5km walk and I still can’t believe that I am six months pregnant and my feet barely fit into my boots. The motivation of knowing that I’m almost a FGASA level one qualified ‘Dangerous Game Field’ guide is what propels me from my bed and into the shower. It’s what I’ve been working towards for almost two years.
When I started the tv show Wild Ltd 1 in 2004, I never knew the profound impact it would have on my life and before long we were knee deep in production for Bush Radar, our children’s series. The culmination of these two series has meant that I spend almost two weeks a month in the bush.
Wild Ltd has grown from strength to strength, with our viewership now sitting at a staggering 1.4 million people per week. That is more than a million people each week listening to our conservation message, and this is what sparked the original idea that I needed to become qualified. As a media figure, I need to speak from a place of knowledge, ensuring the information I’m presenting is factually correct. We have a lot of researchers and journalists watching the show and it would be a tragedy if we were to give out the incorrect information, facts and figures. I joined FGASA, as it is the regulating authority for nature guides in this country and the course makes practical experience mandatory, which for me was the deciding factor. We started with Mark Lowes who accompanied us on shoots and sat down for lectures after we had filmed and did practical walks whenever possible. Unfortunately our shoot schedule was just too hectic to continue in this manner.
My producer, Nicola, found an advertisement for Bhejane Nature Training in Zululand. This suited me perfectly as I was pregnant and this is a low malaria area. Riaan, my husband, myself and Nicola took time off work to complete the course. Dylan Panos is the head ranger and along with his team went out of their way to ensure my comfort. We would start out with a morning walk with him and ended up never walking more than 3 km’s, because we were asking so many questions. After breakfast we would have lectures and study time and boy – did we study – we were so nervous about the test. Dylan and his wife Christa also had module specific lecturers join us for certain parts of the course. Herpetologists, geologists and ornithologists added to our fast growing knowledge of the South African bush.
Needless to say, the day before and the morning of the exam were very stressful but we passed it with flying colours. I’m already seeing the benefits of the course in our everyday work.
We are now working on the new season of Bush Radar and are already implementing our new knowledge into the tv series. It has been paramount for us to not only learn from the course and the incredible people who have shared their knowledge and talent with us but through these amazing people who fight the good fight of conservation, we are now able to send out an even stronger message to tv audiences.
After a rough year due to the pandemic, camp life turned out to be far more than our field guide students expected. Although there are no dangerous animals in camp, you can never stop a leopard. They roam where they want to.
Field Guide Camp Life
Every day camp life is never boring. There is always something new to learn or see. But we weren’t expecting to see all this leopard activity.
Our students have been blessed with experiencing regular leopard activity in and around the Gobandlovu Base Camp. This has been one of the highlights for them this year.
One of our Career Development Course Students, Kyla Labuschagne, posted the updates below after finding fresh leopard tracks and dragmarks.
With student life getting back into full swing, the Angasi group has been getting the Activity Center ready again. They are in charge of planning and running early morning activities for all students in camp. Ensuring we don’t miss out on any fun.
There has been a few highlights during the morning guided activities and the leopard activity has certainly made the Track and Sign activities more exciting.
Bhejane Nature training is situated in Kuleni Game Park and as tourism is slowly starting to pick up, our Bhejane students are excited to share their knowledge and skills with local guests. Surely the guests will be entertained with a few leopard stories in the conversations.
Like many other business, we have also suffered substantial losses due to Covid 19, and have had to reduce our team substantially. Only a small essential staff compliment was allowed back at work in July and August and we are very grateful for the valuable contribution of the intern team over this period as well.
July saw the start of an unusually small Professional Field GUide Course, due to the many cancellations enforced by travel restrictions. This however provided an early opportunity for our two newest interns, Thando from Kosi Bay and Nosipho from Ermelo, to join the group and complete their NQF 2 Apprentice Field Guide Qualification. Both have worked really hard to earn their places, and have successfully written their FGASA Theory Exams. With only the practical assessment ahead of them, we look forward to announcing them soon as fully qualified guides.
Thando’s dream is to join in the footsteps of her late father who worked as a guide in the Kosi Bay area. She will be staying with us for the foreseeable future in order to complete her Marine Qualification, after which we hope to see her start a successful career in Kosi Bay.
Nosipho’s passion is for the dusty ground! After her second work period she will proceed with the Apprentice Trails Qualification.
We look forward to welcoming more staff back in September / October!
Bhejane Fortuner is not so fortunate!
Certainly one of the most reliable “members” of the Bhejane Team is the Fortuner doing many of the supply runs and transfer trips. The Fortuner however is currently out of action after real Bhejane encounter! Whilst helping with a Rhino dehorning operation at Somkhanda, Dylan and the Angasi returned to the spot where the vehicle was left – only to find this sight! It seems the vehicle ended up in the path of the rhino as it was being pursued by the helicopter, and it it took some time out to leave its mark! We hope to have the Fortuner back in operation as soon as possible!
After a long and very uncertain lockdown period, the Bhejane camp slowly kicked into gear again as students started rejoining for courses! We have made a really big effort this year to take our little tuck shop to the next level – and that gave birth to what has now very proudly become Khoffee Khaya!
Khoffee Khaya is a concept that has been long in the making! It started simply as a desire to make camp life a little more colourful during off days and especially for those that could not get to town but it was soon identified as a really good tool to help us achieve our community training goals! After about 18 months of operation, Khoffee Khaya is now 100% run by our intern team, and the little bit of revenue generated here, goes toward supporting the learning programmes of the intern team. They are therefore truly working for themselves and gaining some entrepreneurial skills along the way! Even though it is still a baby, we are very excited to keep growing the Khoffee Khaya / Intern project and looking forward to writing about the amazing careers that started here.
Khoffee Khaya had a bunch of first milestones achieved in the short period past lockdown! Student Katinka Soller took the lead in getting involved in the shop, and baked some brownies to sell in the shop! Part of the Khoffee Khaya goal is to be the platform for a mutually beneficial network of partnerships between Bhejane and the student community! All students are encouraged to use the shop to trade their products!
Another first, inspired by the suggestion from Student Prakash Kannan, was the very first Reading Night! This was a great success. While story-telling is a much needed guiding skill, this was more about connection and sharing what is important to you. All students were given the opportunity to contribute and simply share what they loved!
Nicole is the Khoffee Khaya Manager – are you thinking of making your own weekend money? Get in touch with Nicole to brainstorm some ideas of what you can sell via the Khoffee Khaya Platform!
Contact Khoffee Khaya on Whatsapp to get involved!
079 510 8729
Follow Khoffee Khaya on Instagram!
News from The Bhejane Outpost Camp at Somkhanda
With many weeks of no activity at camp, we soon found out when we returned to normal operations, that we have to reclaim our space! The young and very curios lions on the reserve kept things very interesting at the Outpost on Somkhanda! If you have not seen it – watch 2nd year student Pierre Barauss meal time tussle with a female lion visitor!
Thats my Potjie! Video by Pierre Barau
We have spent every spare minute updating and making the Somkhanda camp feel more homely! Student Misae has done an excellent job adding some decorative elements to the central dining area, and the 2nd Year Angasi Team has put in enough blood, sweat and muscle to truly call this their camp! We hope they will leave Bhejane with many happy memories as the first senior group of the Bhejane Outpost! A big thanks also to Ncgebo Mhlambo – ex Bhejane Intern now guiding at Ndaka Game Lodge in Nambithi – who spent much of his lockdown time with us and showed us how to build a traditional Zulu fence in front of our birdbath at the dining area.
We have installed a few camera traps around camp to keep an eye on what is happening around us, and some of the highlights were Leopard, Brown Hyena, Serval and Bushpig. No traps are needed to observe the lions that have been hanging out around the camp, and it seems the elephants have now also discovered an additional source of water in the camp jojo tanks! We are grateful for all the volunteers, interns and ex-students that helped us keep an eye here over the quiet times to make sure everything stays in tact!
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.
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.
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