June 26, 2015

Achievement unlocked - 13 000 hours on the clock

It was a bit unusual to be starting a walk that early in the afternoon but if we wanted to get to Makwadzi/Limpopo Lookout by sunset we would have to leave early and without lunch. The group walking with me wanted a walk as it would be their final walk for the course, as it was the second to last day. The 10 of us gathered on the outer firebreak for what they were expecting to be a very thorough pre-walk brief before departure.

They quickly realized this walk was going to be different when all I told them was I would not be doing much interpretation on the walk. We had all learnt a lot in the month of walking and now we were going to use this walk as a REFLECTION on all we had achieved and experienced in the last month. Quintin, my new back-up and I cycled our rounds before loading up.  With a final walk “where you want, make as much noise as you like and run like hell if something comes for us” we set off for Lala Palm Windmill and the floodplain along the Limpopo.

From the first step out of camp I just felt like something was different or going to be different about this walk.  I saw everything in great detail, I heard everything with sharp clarity and knew the students walking behind me were experiencing the same.  Unlike other walks on the course I did not stop for much but just pointed out things that were of importance.  Yellow-billed Oxpeckers calling from ahead – knowing there were buffalo around, Grey Go-away-bird shouting from the Mashatu Trees to the north – knowing they were shouting at a resident Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Yellow-billed Hornbill cackling away from the basalt ridge next to us telling us there were Dwarf Mongoose there, were all things I knew the students behind me were picking up. Circling the windmill to the north, from the downwind side Quintin whispered from behind “elephant”. He had spotted a lone bull in the long grass to the east of us.  It was a young bull so our immediate reaction was to look for the rest of the herd.  Nope, just a young bull on his own enjoying his solitude.

We left him and continued crossing the floodplain to the north of LP Windmill heading towards Hulukulu Pan in the Fever Tree forest. The slight breeze was into our faces as we walked but the sun was getting low into our eyes.  I kept the pace constant macking Hulukulu in a good time.  Here we took a break and did some birding.  Tamborine Dove came down to drink while a noisy Gorgeous Bush-Shrike called from the thick forest.  An African Crowned-Eagle circled above while calling and four Bomhs Spinetails did a flyby.

It was amazing how the water had dropped in the pan in the month we had been visiting the pan.  It would not be long before it was completely empty. However this did not stop the birds from enjoying the remaining water and it did not take long to clock up a quick 40 species. We unfortunately could not spend too long there as we knew we had away to go yet so we continued west inside the forest heading towards Sandpit.

I had the feeling I was being watched so stopped and slowly looked around.  Not 15m ahead of us were 4 Warthogs staring at us through the long grass.  The standoff lasted a couple of minutes until some movement behind me set them off at high speed.  The sow ducked between two low bushed and did not appear the opposite side.  Next thing this bush started swaying from side to side with the sow coming out backwards with a snare around her neck. She was panicking trying to get away but just getting the snare tighter round her neck.  We dropped kit and charged in to free her but is was very difficult getting at her without being tusked by her.

Eventually she started slowing down which enabled us to get onto her and hold her head and tusks while trying to cut the thin cable snare. The snare had cut off her oxygen which caused her to pass out which in turn got me working a lot quicker on cutting the cable. The cable cut and off her we moved back waiting for her to up and move off.  She eventually took a gasp of air, then another and slowly stated to breathe again. Her head lifted and she wobbled around a bit but eventually found her feet and sped off into the bush.

High-fives all round, a sweep for more snares and we were off again heading for our destination. We path took us to a dried up pan, through a small drainage line into a very large clearing amongst the Fever Trees.  Once again my trusty back-up spotted elephant a mile off, this time a breeding herd heading our way. I veered off into the thornveld to the south of us and continued on, boxing them by a good 200m.

Sandpad came and went before we walked round the final ridge and Makwadzi Pan opened up ahead off us. Crocodiles lined the shores as did African Openbill, Yellow-billed Stork, Spurwinged and Egyptian Goose. Smaller Three-banded Plovers, Water Thick-knee and over wintering Common Greenshank paraded the shallows while a pod of hippo guarded the deep water.

Makwadzi Pan in the late afternoon is something to behold and I think this afternoon it was even better. The group were quiet, which told me they were thinking about the month and just enjoying the last time at Makwadzi Pan. Leaving Makwadzi Pan I headed North straight towards the Lipmpopo wanting to walk the last kilometer or so in the river while watching the sun go down.

Watching the sunset in the Limpopo, while walking upstream, is definitely something special. The fact that this was some student’s last walk and my 13000 hour walk just made it all the more special. All to soon we were at the pick-up where there was a lively game of volleyball on the go.  What a great way to end a course and clock your 13000 hours.

Thank you everybody for an amazing course and for being part of this special occasion for me.

Some inspiring comment from the Trails guide students and colleagues:

"From an elephant in the floodplains to saving a warthog in a snare to one of the best walks I had on my course…… And some “mint”  condition birding really really “very lekker”. I feel honored in being a part of it! Congratulations and I hope to be there for 14 000." Quintin Koekemoer

"Bwana Bruce
You are somebody I aspire to be in our world of trails guiding.  You have set and will continue to set standards that all will respect in the future. Many more happy safe hours in the Gangeni…….3 000hrs WENA!!!" Jacques (Head guide The Outpost)

Great to share another milestone with you and Dee". Sean (Patrick)

"13 000hrs! Amazing feat Bruce. So proud to be a part of it.  What a walk! Thanks for all the training." Paul Lyons

"Congrats Bruce!
13 000 hours incredible accomplishment, I’m glad I got to be here and share it with you. Not everyday you are a part of something so incredible in someone’s life.  Hopefully many more to come!"

"Congrats Spotted Ground-Thrush! I shall give your regards to the Queen and tell her about your 13000 hours.!" Tim Flavell

"Oom Bruce
Baie dankie vir “n ongelooflike tyd hier in Makuleke, did was ‘n ongelooflikke eer om saam met oom te kon stap en leer van oom af! I enjoyed everything from the ARH, to the assessment walks and so much more! The lessons learnt of life and the knowledge gained from the bush have been extremely valuable to me! Baie, Baie Dankie, en veels geluk met die 13000 ure! Ongelooflik! Sterkte en groete, ek is seker ek sal weer vi room sien, en hoop ook so!" Reinhardt Visser

"Hey Bruce
Thank you for your great wisdom and fun spirit, this final camp has really been the greats of the greats.   Congratulations on your 13 000 hrs!" Myke with a Y

I feel truly lucky to have done this trails course with you.  It’s easy to see why you are such a legend in this industry.  I learned a lot and laughed even more.  Congratulations on 13000 hours. An incredible accomplishment full of incredible memories and encounters in the bush I’m sure, as well as scratches, scrapes and ticks!  Hope to cross paths once again someday! Til then, best of luck and on to 14000!" Mujon Baghai

"Meeting you was the best dangerous game encounter there was. Its been a pleasure to go on walks with you and learn from you. Congratulations on your 13 000 hours! I will see you in Feb." Sirah Shaikh

"Awesome walk Bruce! Good luck with the next 13,000 and keep that chin above the bar.  Thanks for everything." Shelley

"Congrats Bruce! Very well done! Thanks so much for everything and really awesome to meet you." Elizabeth Bruce

"From 1 bat to another, what a great achievement. So honored to have been part of the walk. Here I thought Ironman took a lot, well done! Kudos Brother." Gary Ray

"Yess Oom Bruce
Baie dankie vir al swat oom vir ons, en meer specific vir my als gedoen het, dit beteken baie vir my, did nie altyd wat mens “n 2de of (haha) “n 3rde kans kry nie. Dit was vir my “n groot vooreg gewees om tyd saam met sulke kwaai awesome instructors te deel." Phillip Snyman  # BMW GS

"It’s unbelievable to think that I get to write this on your 13000 hour milestone as a colleague here in Makuleke.  Thanks for the inspiration back in 2012 on a Wilderness Trails Skills Course and continued mentorship.  To many more!"  Andreas Fox

"Dear Bruce
I would just like to say thank you for everything you have taught me.  You are such an incredible man and you have achieved so much greatness in life.  You are definitely leaving a major positive mark on nature and people. May you continue to preserve the world and teach people how to appreciate the bush and animals and be forever happy.  Kind regards.    Sarah Brown
Congratulations Bruce.  It’s not everyday you get to walk with someone that hits 13,000 hours in the bush.  That is unless you’re a Makuleke back-up, so I’d like to say a big thank you for letting me be a part of it." Ollie

"Bruce! Congratulations! It has been an honor to be here and to have walked with you.  Thank you for the opportunity, knowledge and fun! Kudos."  Tanith

"Legs!!  It has been a lot of fun walking the game paths of Makuleke with you, especially looking at all the birds and ignoring the stampeding buffalo.  I’ve learnt a lot and am sure 13,000hrs have taught you a lot too.  Keep up the good work. Very best>"  Jake

"Thanks for the opportunity to be here.  Can’t ask for a better role model in life.  Well done on the 13,000hrs. Hope there is a lot more! Can’t wait to learn more form you and hopefully get fit with you.  Thanks for everything so far, looking forward. #Death before Thanks Giving#  (It’s a horrible  workout)." Renoux

"Congrats Bruce!! Inspirational to all guides, thanks for setting us off in the right direction and imparting your wisdom and experience with us! To many more hours!  I’ll be your back-up one day!" Michael Kirby 

June 22, 2015

Civet Midden

The African Civet is a common but rarely seen nocturnal omnivore.  A member of the Vivieridae family, the civet marks its territory with an anal gland that secretes a very strong smelling hormone.  This substance, called ‘civetone’, was widely used in the cosmetic industry until as recently as the 80’s as a fixative to help bind perfume’s scent to human skin.  Thankfully, we can bow synthesize a similar substance and thus the harvesting of civetone is no longer practiced. 

Civets also mark the boundaries by frequenting middens and are well known for their seeming immunity to the noxious secretions of millipedes.  The chintinous shell cannot be digested however and the bleached rings are often scattered amongst the remains, known as a ‘civetry’.  Civet dung is unusually large and could easily be confused with lion scat were it not for the contents!

#Fun Fact by Ben Coley

June 18, 2015

Flight of the Fish eagle

What are the iconic sights and sounds of the African bush?  The honking of hippos at dusk; the eerie whoop of a hyaena under the soft glow of a full moon; or perhaps the bassy rumbling of a lion’s call as it echoes out across the savanna?  These are iconic sounds of the night for sure, but what of the daylight hour?  Birds dominate our auditory senses during the day as they scramble for perches from which to announce their intentions.  The air is usually awash with this avian symphony and sometimes, such is their diversity, that they blur into one, becoming discernible to all but the keenest ear.  But one, above all else sums up the African bush:  the African Fish Eagle.

Often seen surveying its favourite aquatic hunting grounds, the fish eagle ticks all the boxes for an icon: beautiful, majestic, imperious and formidable.  To add to this, its unmistakable shrill call has become synonymous with the African bush.  A sighting of this impressive raptor is always special but the bush likes to add to the drama at times and as we rounded a bend, she had laid on a special moment for us!

In the drying mud of a seasonal pan, a fish eagle stood proud, its razor sharp talons gripping a barbell like a vice.  Such was the size of its prize, it seems unsure of its next step and amused us for some time by comically dancing from A to B as it tried to decide on its next move.  We wondered whether it would be a little too heavy for the raptor to take to the skies with its meal but nature’s power is immense and with a few muscular wing beats, it was airborne and heading for the safety of a nearby dead tree.  Such is their strength, that 2 kg of fish can easily be carried into the blue to be devoured at a more suitable, and safe spot!
The fish eagle however seemed un-content with its choice of spot however and soon gave us a great display by launching from its perch and disappearing into the sky with the lifeless barbell still in its talons.  Soon after, we found it again sitting alongside its mate but with no sign of the takeaway sushi.  Non-migratory raptors such as the fish eagle breed during the dry season to avoid competition with its biannual visitors and will engage in courtship feeding where the male presents the female with gifts to cement their monogamous bond for the coming clutch.  Perhaps this explains its reluctance to feed at the time and it was merely securing a nuptial gift for its mate?
Whatever the thought process of the eagle, the sighting was spectacular.  There is nothing more iconic in Africa than the sight of a fully grown fish eagle taking flight from a skeletal tree.  Contrasting chestnut and white being displayed twixt each wing beat is a breathtaking moment and one that every safari goer should experience!

Blog and images by Ben Coley

June 12, 2015

The final hurdle

What does it mean to be a qualified field guide?  People come from all walks of like to attend this course and to enrich their understanding and personal experience of the bush.  I personally have trained people from probably 20 different nations and from age 18 right through to 70!  This is perhaps the greatest gift the bush has to offer: it doesn’t matter what your knowledge levels is, where you are from or how old you are, the bush has something for you.  Whether that be a holistic connection to your ancestors or something as simple as escapism shouldn’t matter.  The bush is the bush and how we interpret it is our own private experience.

The students on the latest FGASA level 1 course came from far and wild.  South Africans, Germans, Belgians, Portugese and even Sri Lankans came together to share their thirst for knowledge and passion for the bush.  The programme was as intense as ever and come the last 2 weeks of tests and the final assessment, stress levels were rising!  I’m not going to lie to any prospective student on such a course, it’s not easy.  It would be impossible for me to explain the sheer amount of knowledge that is expected of you in a relatively short space of time, but the bush gives back what you put in, and the more you learn, the more you begin to appreciate the myriad of subtle intricacies that often go overlooked on a day by day basis.
 The latest group of students worked and played hard.  There is no better classroom than the bush itself and twice daily activities certainly gave them great exposure to their new world.  The bush was being extremely kind this month and lions were seen regularly, 4 leopards, hyaena pups and even 2 aardvark sightings were just some of the highlights laid on for us by Mother Nature!  The students rewarded her generosity but knuckling down when the time came and we are delighted to report that they achieved a 100% pass mark in the FGASA theory exam!  All that remained was one final practical assessment:  a chance to show their assessor that they were able to take all of this new-found knowledge and package into a 3 hour drive designed to entertain and inform guests from all walks of life.
This exercise strikes fear into most but the hard work has been done.  The assessment is about sharing a genuine love of nature with like-minded people and putting your own personal stamp on the proceedings.  Anyone can read a guide book on safari but the true skill of a nature guide is to be able to involve and entertain and host guests, interpret behaviour and signs and most importantly, link every aspect of the natural world with another.  The bush is not made up of hundreds of individual organisms, it is an intricate network of symbiotic relationships honed by millennia of evolution!

Students excelled themselves and enjoyed a host of sightings during assessment week including daily giraffe encounters and a few white rhino along the way.  Markers were set with regard to interactivity on drives such as the tea made fresh from russet bushwillow (Combretum hereroense) seed pods, spinach from the leaves of the buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) and even a necklace made from impala dung!  Suffice to say that the students performed brilliantly across the board I am delighted to report that their high standards set in the theory aspects were upheld, with all passing their assessments with flying colours!  I can honestly say that the standard was hugely high and as an instructor, it is so satisfying to see a group of strangers coming so far in such a short period of time.  I joined EcoTraining to try and do my part to uphold the standards of the guiding industry and on the evidence of this group, the future of guiding in SA looks bright!  

Article and photos by Ben Coley

June 8, 2015

Common Scents

Giraffe Flehman
Males use the hormones present in a female's urine to test her reproductive status. Many animals can be seen drawing their lips back and exposing their teeth after smelling in an expression known as a Flehman Grimace.  An organ called the Organ of Jacobson is situated in the roof of the mouth and the grimace opens the pathway to the organ, allowing the smell particles to enter.  From here, specialized receptors in the brain decode the hormones and provide the male with all the information pertaining to the urine's owner.  This may include age, hierarchical status and even mood, as well as her reproductive condition.  It is worth noting that an animal can only decode the hormones of its own species (species specific).  If this giraffe analyzed the urine from a wildebeest for example, it would not be able to interpret the information.

There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that humans used to possess this ability, and still do to some extent.  Modern technology has enabled us to see a similar organ developing in fetuses in the womb but then regressing before birth.  Our sense of smell is potentially the most powerful that we have and a mere whiff can instantly transport us back to a very specific time and place. 

Thankfully, humans have developed a hugely sophisticated, and diverse, vocal and visual communication repertoire that has negated the need for us to smell each other in such an obvious fashion!  Can you imagine the perils of the dating game without our ability to read, write and talk!?

Fact and photos by Ben Coley