July 30, 2015

Tracking - an unforgettable experience

If you ever thought of joining a Tracking course, then this testimonial will surely persuade you to sign up! Terry Black joined EcoTraining on a recent Tracking course and sent us the most rewarding feedback:

"I very much enjoyed my time in Makuleke, I'd been travelling through East Africa for two months before arriving in South Africa, but I think my time with EcoTraining was probably the highlight of the whole trip - and you can tell Alex that I think Norman was a very important part in making that the case.

We identified and looked at nearly 100 different species over the two weeks, and many more signs if you include spoor/scenting etc, and despite this vast amount of information coming right at us, it was absorbed very easily thanks to the perfect pace of the instruction and the fact that we were having fun every minute of the day.

Norman was an exemplary instructor. I honestly couldn't praise him highly enough. I have no criticism or suggestions whatsoever. He was very keen to ensure we were learning what we wanted to learn, asking early on if we had any other interests in addition to the tracks (medicinal use of trees, bird calls etc), and he was very conscious to make sure that everyone was OK all the time; asking 'Everyone still, OK?', whenever on a long drive or walk. I felt safe, valued and important at every step. His tone, pace, (and patience!) made the learning experience easy and fun, but it was his unbridled enthusiasm that was absolutely infectious. His charisma and love for the bush was plain to see and made the whole two weeks an unforgettable experience. I'm enjoying his 'after-care' as well (emailing me pictures of tracks to identify) and I hope I will see him again next time I'm in South Africa, I felt like I made a good friend.
Norman Chauke in action
Walking in the wild outdoors
The other EcoTraining instructors were all absolutely relaxed in their approach and professional in their execution. I would like to make special mention of Alan, who brought another dimension of expertise and experience to the course - it isn't just the stuff on the 'tracking syllabus' which informed my time in the bush, but every anecdote and story of the flora and fauna, history, culture, geology, ecosystems and daily life, and I owe Alan a great deal for enriching the experience.
Elephant encounter a few meters away

I felt honoured to have met Alex when he came to visit the first few days. I had very high expectations from the Tracker Academy and EcoTraining, and I am very pleased to say they were all highly surpassed. The work of the Tracker Academy is fantastic, Norman is an incredible ambassador for both The Tracking Academy and EcoTraining. I will be telling everyone I know about the course. I can't thank you enough."

The next 14 day Tracking course starts 10 August in the magical Botswana. Contact us at enquiries@ecotraining.co.za for to book your spot today!

July 27, 2015

Community spirit

Rarely in this day and age does a sequel top the first instalment, but a mere 2 weeks after the local school received a much needed lick of paint, the peaceful community of The Oaks was about to be shattered by a second rank of young, enthusiastic Americans.  Moondance had returned, and this time, with a vengeance.  Armed with nearly 200 litres of excessively bright and vibrant paint, the group surveyed its target: a 46 meter long stretch of marketplace; the focal point of the village.  The stakes had been raised and the pressure was on!
Marketplace before...
Youth however knows no fear, and within minutes of our arrival, the fa├žade of the building was under constant assault from flailing rollers and brushes.  The relentlessness of the attack soon brought the local residents to the scene, and before long, both young and old were helping us apply the initial layer of primer.  The entire expanse of market front was primed in less than 2 hours and after a brief stop to stock up on caffeine, the group (and in fact, the community) wasted no time in applying the colour.  With over 20 market stalls to liven up, the decision was made to adorn each in a repeating sequence of colour to rival that of the ripe fruit shining from their displays!  The market owners had also arrived by now with most of the women ecstatic with the new look and each took great pride in helping spruce up their livelihood!
Getting down and dirty
Who says you can't have fun while working?
Some owners joined in
With all the help at our disposal, the kids had more time to do what kids do best, and before long, their once clean clothes, not to mention any available exposed flesh, were transformed into a cacophony of colour that would rival the tie dye phenomenon of the swinging sixties!  It also allowed time for them to immerse themselves into the community and the whole scene was lit up with the infectious laughter and smiles of small children as they learnt new games ranging from ‘Simon Says’ to ‘Ninja’.  The day had taken on a carnival atmosphere.  It was a perfect cross section of the community, and for hours on end, all language and racial barriers were destroyed by the endearing innocence of youth.
Having some fun with some of the children from the community
Despite the best efforts of everybody involved, the massive project could not be finished in a day and by sunset it was time to pack up and head home for a well-earned shower before returning the following day to apply the finishing touches.

With the pressure off after a very productive day, the kids returned eager to enjoy their last involvement with the local community, and once again chaos ruled.  It was decided to put a few hand prints on to the end walls as a reminder of the collective effort of these remarkable and selfless decorators, but before long the local kids got wind of this new game.  A rainbow of digits now adorned the end wall and clothes become emblazoned with prints of all sizes as the bonds made over the last 36 hours were immortalized in paint on material.

The once dreary brick-faced market place had been transformed almost overnight into a bright, vibrant and fun epicentre of this typical South African rural village.  We even realised that some of the local wildlife had got involved when a goat walked past sporting a red stripe down its side after straying too close to the freshly painted wall!!  I have to be honest, when I saw the size of the task awaiting us I was not sure what we could achieve in such a short time, but thanks to a work ethic dwarfing their young age, and a huge community effort, all I could do was stand back and admire what had been achieved.  The delight on the faces of the market owners was evident as the ladies hugged and thanked us before showering us with free fruits before our departure!
The Marketplace after...
It is people that change lives, not policy or ideas, and the dedication, motivation and selfless nature of the Moondance organisation had now most certainly left its mark in this once dark corner of Africa.  I travel to and from work through this unassuming settlement but from now on I will be reminded of these 2 amazing days every time I see this dazzling stretch of colour.  Thanks to the hard work of a group of school children from America, The Oaks now shines like a beacon amongst its neighbours. 
Students from Moondance after a long day of painting.
Blog and photos by Ben Coley

July 16, 2015

Ollie Ballarano: My life as a back-up

Ollie Balarano is currently busy with his 6 month placement at the EcoTraining camp in Makuleke, Northern Kruger Park. Ollie summed his experience up in a few paragraphs. 
"It’s hard to put a life as a back-up into words.  I can spend hours talking about walking up to wild lions or speaking to elephants at a mere 5 meters away.  I can go on about keeping the guests and students save who passes through EcoTraining's Makuleke camp or to walk in the most stunning area I have ever experienced so far in my life.  I can go on and on about working alongside such knowledgeable and experienced experts of the bush.  I could even tell you of all the little things that you would never see on your average safari, such as a Water Monitor diving out of tree into a pan or a Chameleon shedding its skin, just to name a couple, but what I find most exciting of all is to watch people start their journey, and to see what becomes of them at the end.
Very recently, we had a group of three people come for a Tracking course.  Fortunately, I got to walk with them on their Tracking Assessment.  By the time they left after their two week course, they could identify most tracks they came across and followed them successfully.  One of the students have never set foot in South Africa before and he is now a good quality certified tracker with a skill set and a memory he will never ever forget.
Even more exciting was to watch a group of year long students do their Back-up Trails Guide assessment and doing well enough to be invited back as part of the Back-up family here at EcoTraining.  The two new additions arrived in camp a couple of days ago and I already know I have two new friends for life, with whom I share a connection and a passion with: Walking through nature and experiencing it on a level not many get to see. 
To have assisted with helping people experience this side of the world brings a lot of fulfillment for me.
This is all just a glimpse of what goes on in our lives here at EcoTraining and so I urge to all reading this to come along for a unique experience that you will never forget.  Come and see what the world is really about and where all of our roots come from."

July 9, 2015

Making a difference

Tourists spend millions of rand every year to come and visit South Africa.  Their trip is usually wildlife orientated with fingers poised above shutter release buttons to hopefully catch a glimpse of the fabled Big 5 and all the other elements of the intricate ecosystem we call the bush.  High on many’s agenda is also to visit Cape Town, the stunning winelands close by and maybe some other areas of interest such as Soweto.  Unfortunately most tourists spend their time here shrouded in a protective westernized bubble;  fancy lodges, 5* service, private transfers and fine dining.  Few are bold enough to visit true Africa.  This land is the birthplace of man.  We talk of culture, but the culture of man (whatever that may be) originated here; our ancestors originated here and thus we all have an undeniable connection to this magical continent.

Whilst there is no doubt that the world we live in is overpopulated, this does not excuse millions of people, including young children, living in heart-wrenching conditions.  “I can’t make a difference on my own” I hear some of you cry, but there is an old African proverb that says: ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.’   Every little helps and we as a nation, and a continent, thank all those who have contributed in some way.

Recently, a group of school girls visited EcoTraining’s Karongwe camp to learn more about Man’s place in the wild.  Of course, the major focus of the trip was to view some of the spectacular wildlife on offer, but it was also important for them to experience life in the local community.  At their request, EcoTraining in partnership of Toine Vos (Outreach Manager at Daktari) organised for the group to visit the Maahlamela High School in a small village close to the reserve and help to improve learning conditions for the hundreds of amazing local children that attend it.  Three of the classrooms were nothing more than bare shells with only basic equipment, the walls drab and dreary:  hardly an environment conducive to fun learning.  But that was about to change!

Always time for some fun
Armed with paint, brushes and rollers, we arrived at the school gates eager to begin transforming the classrooms.  For the next day and half, the girls toiled selflessly and by the time they had finished painting the walls yellow and red, the classrooms looked like new!  Admittedly, I think more of the paint ended up on us than on the walls but the whole experience was great fun and very rewarding.  Their enthusiasm for the project was contagious and I was hugely impressed by their desire to get involved.  It is very easy to shun responsibility and ignore the plight that so many rural areas face, but I have to say that the group applied themselves admirably and seemed to relish in the chance to make a difference.   I myself have not had the opportunity to do much work in the local community and cannot speak for all, but I am very proud of what we achieved and the thanks from the principal and local children were a more than sufficient reward! 
Halfway there
Adding the finishing touches
Despite being a public holiday, many children were present and the girls took great pleasure transcending language barriers getting to know the local children and members of the community.  Names and contact details were swopped and many promised to keep in touch.  We would love to have done more but the group also made a very generous donation to the school to aid in the purchasing of better equipment, stationary and books.  Every little bit helps and it is a warming feeling to know that our work, and the group’s donations will have an impact on shaping the opportunities afforded to the next generation.  These kids will inherit the Earth that we leave behind and the more help that we can give them, the better!  

On behalf of EcoTraining, we would like to thank Toin Vos and Daktari for going through a lot of trouble sourcing the project, putting us in contact with the school principal and making the necessary arrangements. Last, but not least, a big thank you to Moondance for the generous donation to the school. The money will be used to buy the necessary stationary and equipment the school need.
Spending some time with the pupils
The group of students
Getting down and dirty on the playground
Blog and photos by Ben Coley

July 2, 2015

Hard Graft

The bush is the greatest classroom there is.  Yes, theoretical knowledge is important, and trust me, there is a bucket-load on a FGASA Field Guide Level 1 course, but there is no substitute for time spent in the field.  In addition to EcoTraining's twice daily activities in game rich areas, the students are expected to get their hands dirty and help out with some reserve maintenance.  If it wasn’t for reserves and conservancies, we would not have the opportunity to offer these courses and perhaps tourists would not even have a chance to see these areas, such is man’s habit of developing land at all costs.  Despite there being a module dedicated to conservation management, what better way to give something back than by helping to keep the bush looking as pristine as possible.

Getting ready to blow off some steam
As an added bonus, the students get the chance to blow off a bit of steam and frustration after weeks of hard learning.  Where possible we try to clear over-hanging branches, fix erosion channels in roads and place bolsters and mitre drains, which are designed to funnel water off the road and reduce weathering effects.  There is nothing like a bit of hard labour to clear the cobwebs of mental over stimulation and without exception, students throw themselves into exercises like this with great gusto!   There is something very primal about welding a panga and both men and women attack the cause with equal enthusiasm!

Despite the fun and games, the students also learn about the perils of poor management.  Many of the reserves are old cattle farm, with soil that has been pillaged of nutrients by hundreds of head of hungry cattle.  The grass is destroyed, removing competition for the wooded plants, and thus dense thickets of pioneer species inhabitat large areas of the land.  Pioneers are designed to rehabilitate the soil by adding nutrients and sheltering the soil from weathering, but it does this at the detriment of species diversity.  Sometimes these thickets can become so thick that animals simply cannot penetrate them and the carrying capacity of the area (especially of grazing animals) is significantly reduced.  This is one of many challenges that face many private reserves in South Africa and they need all the help they can get.

Let the bush clearing begin
Hard at work
Something as simple as clearing roads of overhanging branches can make a huge difference to a guest experience; and since EcoTraining students are training as guides, it is imperative to understand that guest satisfaction is massively important.  Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist world whereby the only way to protect most wilderness areas, is to make them a viable commercial operation and make money.  Like it or not, no guests means no income for the reserve and soon there will be no reserve.  If guests are constantly bobbing and weaving more than a young Mohamed Ali, they will not return!  Simple little touches such as a comfortable ride without the perils of losing an eye to rogue thorn go a long way!

Blog post and photos by Ben Coley