This was the first of our longer courses over 88 days. Initially I was not sure how well it would work but looking back at the whole course I can only say that it has been a great success and I think the students have enjoyed it immensely and have all gone away having learnt so much more than those from previous courses. The course was filled with many incidents and experiences and I will try to recall as many of them as possible.
There were 4 students on the course, 2 locals, 1 Zimbabwean and 1 Belgian. The one local student, Theo, happened to have been a guest of mine about 14 years ago when I was still working as a guide at Thornybush- it’s a small world.
I don’t suppose the course could have started any better in that during the 2nd week, when the 1st aid course was taking place, this part of South Africa suffered some of the worst floods in living memory with the local town of Hoedspruit being particularly badly affected. We measured close to 300mm of rain in a little over 30 hours. As far as the students were concerned it was a great learning experience and also one of how to recover bogged down vehicles when we spent 6 hours trying to extricate 5 vehicles that were all sunk to their axles in the mud trying to rescue each other. Even the tractor managed to sink into the over-saturated ground.
As far as wildlife sightings were concerned the course was a great success. We didn’t see all that much on the walks initially and this was due to the bush being extremely dense and visibility was very poor. There were times when walking through the bush became quite tense as we couldn’t see more than 5m ahead of us. Admire walked us straight into a bull elephant one morning and fortunately we were able to retreat and find a suitable viewing point on top of a termite mound where we could relax and watch the animal without it even knowing we had been there. 2 weeks later Theo walked us into a breeding herd of buffalo which surprised them and us and the one cow came forward a few metres before deciding to retreat and move away. Heart-stopping times to say the least especially for the students when they heard the rifle being locked and loaded, but no harm done in the end.
Jan then had one of the better ones when he looked down and saw a “pipe” between his legs, but then on second thoughts decided that pipes are the same thickness along their length and in fact he was standing over was a 3m python. Needless to say there was an immediate response from Jan and they say “Red Bull gives you Wings”, I think pythons between your legs have the same effect! In trying to catch the python for the students I managed to get bitten and this then required the students to practice their 1st aid skills as the one tooth had gone straight into a vein and the blood was flowing rather freely. Thankfully snake bites are quite clean and pythons are non-venemous so again no need for concern.
Lion sightings seemed common place on this course, probably because there is now more opportunity for night drives when they are more active. However we had our fair share of daytime sightings too. On a couple of occasions we spent 2-3 hours sitting with the lions, no more than 5-10m from the vehicle and the students had a great opportunity to watch and learn lion behaviour. Of all the sightings though, none can compare to the one during the sleep out. I had just taken over my duty on watch, when the lions started to call very close by and it required waking up the students so they could also enjoy the experience. As hard as we searched with the torches we could not see the lions although we knew they were close by, maybe 50-60m away. For 2 hours we stood there waiting for them to appear but to no avail. Once it was light we decided it was time to climb in the vehicle and look for them. We had not driven more than 10m past the fireplace and around the bush when we found the one young male lion lying in the grass. He had been there the whole time, 20m from us without a care in the world.
We could only assume after much debate that he was a young lion, probably recently chased away by the adult male and he was now alone, scared and wanting some form of company and reassurance and he had stumbled upon the campsite. We watched him for a further 30 minutes or so before he now decided it was time to move on and he casually got up and walked away. I found this to be a most humbling experience and one that I still get excited about when I tell the story to my colleagues.
The students were also able to visit the Kruger on at least 3 occasions and had some amazing sightings again. Once again the highlight was a pride of lions feeding on a giraffe. The giraffe had been pulled down by the lions a mere 50m inside the park from the Phalaborwa gate.
Another highlight was watching a pair of Great-spotted cuckoos mating. The whole ritual of courtship, mating and then the reaction afterwards was something I had never witnessed and found most interesting. The male offered her a caterpillar as a “reward” but he only gave it to her after mating had ended. It was almost as though he was making sure she remained interested in him until he had finished what he needed to do.
All in all the course was a much better product than those from before. The students had more time to study, research and importantly relax in between times. The additional time afforded us the opportunity to spend more time covering certain difficult subjects, discussing other aspects of animal behaviour and all without the stress of making sure we covered everything in the time allotted to us.