Our students recently enjoyed a highly educational birding day out in the St Lucia section of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, where they recorded numerous species in a variety of habitats.
Highly diverse, St Lucia offers some of the best sightings of birds in coastal, estuary, grassland and forest habitats, making it ideal for training purposes.
Paul Jossop was a Bhejane Nature Training student some 13 years ago, and was on the first advanced course we ever ran.
Now a renowned birding guide who works all over South Africa and further into Africa, Paul helps us out with training and lectures.
During the birding field trip to St Lucia, Paul showed the students how to use spotting sights to catch the various birds in their different habitats, and they were rewarded with some incredible sightings, including African Finfoot and Green Twinspots.
With the abundance of wildlife in South Africa, our birdlife is often overlooked, including by prospective nature guides.
But a knowledge of birds, their habitats and their behaviour is crucial for guides, as birding tours have, in recent years, become very popular.
There has been a surge of birders since the Covid-related lockdown when people had time on their hands to sit in their gardens – they started noticing and taking an interest in birds, and now they want industry professionals to teach them more.
At Bhejane we have always gone above and beyond, and offered fully-comprehensive nature guiding courses that train guides up to be knowledgeable about our whole ecosystem.
We keep to our mandate of providing only the best training for guides coming through our ranks, by making sure birding is covered in both our long and short courses. Students on the Bhejane Advanced Nature Guiding and Wildlife Conservation Course spend time each year, exploring some of Southern Africa’s most exciting birding hotspots.
The Regional Birding Specialist Course is a specialist short course that can be done on its own or completed as one of the modules on the longer career courses.
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.
By Laila Rouhani
We lead the way . . . follow us into Bhejane Territory!
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