The November course was fully booked, with 2 students from the UK and the rest from South Africa. The ages of the students varied greatly too from 19 to 63. There were 3 ladies and 5 men on the course, so all in all there was a great mix and this created a great sense of unity within the group.
The course started of really well with us walking into a herd of elephants about 300m from the centre on our very first walk. For the next 3 weeks the elephants visited the waterhole almost on a daily basis, to the point where it became very difficult to keep enough water in there to maintain it. The rains then came and the elephants seemed to move off elsewhere on the reserve and so we were given somewhat of a reprieve. At one point it was almost as if the students were thinking “oh, more elephant, never mind let’s carry on studying!” We had more elephant sightings than anything else. I have to admit the reserve is starting to show the effects of what an overpopulation of elephant can do in a very short space of time. The students too, became very aware of the problems faced by almost every reserve in South Africa today with an ever growing population of elephants.
There were many nights too, when the students were privileged to listen to the roar of lions in the vicinity of the camp, although yet again they became very elusive when we were on walks and drives and we had to be content with seeing their spoor. There were many buffalo sightings as well as the normal array of common species such as zebra, wildebeest, kudu and warthog. The giraffe made an appearance about halfway through the course, which was fantastic, The impala started dropping their fawns which was a real treat and in the last week we had news of a baby zebra on the reserve as well as 2 male cheetah.
Once again the visit to the reptile park was very successful. We had a number of snakes around the centre during the course, which was a great learning experience for the students. The students found a Garter snake (unknown species) one evening and took some photos to show me the next morning. This was disappointing for me as I have yet to see a Garter snake in the wild and so naturally this was a first for the centre. They also saw a Snouted Night Adder a few weeks later, another first for the centre. We also went through a spate of Eastern Tiger Snakes in and around the centre. I was very happy about this as they are relatively harmless creatures and help to keep various other organisms in control.
Another notable sighting during the course was a single Ground Hornbill. These birds are uncommon and are hardly ever seen on the reserve so we were really excited about this one. I am sure there must have been more in the area as it was calling away, presumably trying to make contact again with the rest of the family.
The visit to the Kruger was probably the most memorable trip we have ever done with students and may be for some of them as well. After a long hot drive through the park to Satara camp, we pitched the tents and everyone headed off to the pool to cool down. I went back to the tents and was sitting talking to James about the amazing clouds that were forming and enjoying a bit of relaxation before we started with the evening chores of cooking etc. I decided to light the fire so we could get the chicken cooking. No sooner had I done that and the wind got up and started blowing the glowing embers all over the place, at which point a bit of panic set in as the bush is still very dry and all I could think about was runaway fires. I managed to extinguish the flames quickly but then I heard shrieks coming from the students and turned round to see a couple of them hanging on to the big tent as it got uprooted and blown about 20m through the air. Jeff at one point in my recollection was horizontal to the ground and he then got swung into the poles as it came back down to earth again. That was the beginning of the end of our trip – it was almost over before it had begun. The tent flysheet was ripped in one corner, the poles were all bent and broken on the one side and the tent was not usable. We had to find alternative accommodation for the night and pack up the next morning and head for home. As Mel said, she hadn’t even sat down in camp to relax and it was over. Anyway the students all agreed that it was a fantastic experience and learning curve in disaster management. We had some memorable sightings in the one and a half days we were there including some lions defending their kill from a pack of hyenas. Unfortunately there were so many cars at the sighting that I decided not to stay for too long but we did get to see them chase the hyenas off on one attempt. There were the elephants as could be expected including a couple of really big tuskers which is always a treat to see and loads of birds species.
Coming home early meant a couple of extra days for the students to study prior to the FGASA exam which this group of students really appreciated. We were also given a chance to climb our own little “mountain” on the reserve and take in the breathtaking views from the top. We came across dung from elephants all over the side of the mountain which made the students realise just how agile these massive creatures can be.
As I write this we have just experieced 3 days of good rains which has been most welcoming. I hope that this will be the beginning of more rain as the veld desperatley needs it. I have also just seen the first of the wildebeest calves for the year. Despite the experiences of the Kruger, this course was very successful. Let’s hope that next year proves to be as good as or even better than 2006 was.