May 29, 2015

Important Leadership lessons through Wilderness Trails

Most nature guides spend up to 7 hours a day in a 4x4 viewing wildlife with their guests, getting real close to large charismatic mega-fauna and some micro-fauna.

Their guests spend the rest of the safari time lavishing on decked accommodation, wining and dining and then depart in a light aircraft and view earth from above. The experience is above the ground and the guests as well as the guide’s feet, body and soul seldom touch and connect with our dear mother earth.

Nature’s intricacies, her spirit and soul are best understood from ground level via direct experiences with her. Living in her intertwined web of life, drinking her water, hearing her heart beat and realising that to live with nature/wildlife is not life threatening, but rather peaceful, real and timeless.

Great Plains Conservation decided to get some of their guides reconnected to nature and contracted EcoTraining in Botswana to set up a Wilderness Leadership Trail. The trail was 5 nights of absolute emersion into wilderness, carrying backpacks with only required food, no tents and no bottled water. The focus was “a leave no trace” philosophy. In addition was to provide the guides with leadership quality realisations eventuating to a philosophy of respect for everything and everyone as well as to enlighten them on conservation principles such as every action we have has an impact and knock on effect.

In the searing heat of February 2015, Great Plains guides and the trail leader, Clinton Phillips set off from Explorer camp into the vast 300 000 acre wilderness of the Selinda Spillway. The main plan was complete emersion into wilderness and to go with the flow that nature offers, and of course to arrive alive at Selinda Camp 6 days later.

No cell phones, watches and even toilet paper – we were venturing for a timeless experience away from modern day to day life interferences.

Little rain had fallen so drinkable water was hard to find in the first two days. The first and biggest hurdle to overcome was to drink murky and mud tasting water. This was tough for all especially in temperatures soaring over 42 degrees. We dug filtration holes and boiled water to purify and although it tasted terrible, it was safe. On day two there was a near boycott by some as they knew that we could simply call on the emergency radio and get fresh bottled water brought in. The option was given for those whom wanted, to do so but they would not be acknowledge to have completed a wilderness trail. After a long discussion all the guides decided to get over their mental block against drinking murky/dirty water and we continued down the dry river with the aim to find fresher water.

Leadership quality – there was a goal to achieve, a standard to stick to and along the way there will be tough times and stumbling blocks. It would be easy to give up, but leaders continue and get over their mental, ego and emotional block and reach the final goal, even when resources are lean.

Wilderness Conservation process – Water is life blood of the planet and if not conserved, earth and its organisms will perish.

The next process was sleeping on the ground at night time around a very small fire with lions, leopard, elephants, buffalo, hyena and hippos about? Typically most people feel the urge to burn a wasteful bon fire with roaring flames all night for protection.

In the Wilderness, we conserve fire wood as it is an essential part of the nutrient cycle. We construct a small fire, big enough for one pot/kettle and simply keep a flickering flame going all night. In fact it is not the fire that keeps wildlife away, but rather the continued movement of a human with a flashlight that keeps them away.

Each trailist took time slots of night duty, walking the perimeter of the camp and keeping the fire going. Many were scared, thinking that lions and other would surely stalk and attack us/or the night duty trailist.

Leadership quality – each person in the team has a role to play and others depend on them, in this case, the other trailists lives depended on the one to keep watch and wake the next person. Secondly, in life one should overcome ones fears in tough situations. By taking up a challenge, one soon realises that it was not as hard, or scary as initially anticipated. So don’t give up just because it seems difficult

Wilderness Conservation process – to conserve firewood, or any resource, even those that are renewable such as firewood. Only use what one needs and never be wasteful. We had our own method of time keeping without a watch – modern day life is far too rushed and we get lost in time keeping, forgetting to slow down and look and listen to our surroundings.

The second days walk to fresher water down river was very tough. During rest times, trailists slowly sipped their murky water and toward the end, dehydration was sure to set in. Some wanted to strive on, but others were taking strain. The bonding of the team had begun and this resulted in a group decision to slow down for those weakening, offer assistance to carry some of their load and rest where required.

Leadership quality – never leave others behind and if they struggle, offer assistance. Each person in the team is important so respect them and their possible weakness and focus on their strengths. Grow together! Encourage each members input to the team.

After trailing through some real hard core wilderness habitat, tip toeing around elephant herds in the heat of the day, we arrived at the permanent water of the spillway. We replenished our thirst and took a good swim. This water was not “so called fresh” as it was murky, had many hippo and elephant activity in it, but the fact that it was not muddy slight flow, made it easier for the trailist to drink.

A well needed rest was taken and off we ventured, down the spillway to our seconds night’s camp. Leadership quality = team members cannot continue on the mission unless their energy levels are replenished and ready for the goal ahead. Never push a team member to the point of exhaustion and then expect 100% effort of performance. 

We all need a break at some point. But, one team member cannot impact negatively on the rest of the team. All should go the extra mile for an agreed goal – so give a little extra! The team should support a tired member. “Help those around you, offer support as one day you may need some support”.

The rest of the trail was smoother sailing largely based on proximity of fresher water. We now had time to focus on walking skills, stories, timelessness, wildlife viewing and wilderness ethic. The bond between members was set as all were now more comfortable in the “unknown, scary and supposed dangerous environment”. It was time to absorb our surroundings.

The Leave no trace philosophy
The message in the process does not come from words, facts and lectures, but rather by thinking of
the outcome of one’s actions and then doing. Be subtle, soft and light in footprint so that what you leave behind does not negatively impact the environment, or at least, impacts it in the least.

Secondly and most importantly in this message is the psychological impact of one’s actions on others. In other words, by saying “I do not want to impact the environment negatively by driving through pristine and sensitive waterlogged floodplains has little meaning. What has far more meaning is ones actions!
Example; when you see a pride of lions walking through the flooded plain and your guests want to get a photograph, your actions will determine the type of guide you are in their eyes and minds – If you comment to guests, stating that by driving through the flooded plain is not sensitive, so I would rather not. But, as a solution, I will try to find a more sensitive route to the lions by driving on dry land, getting as close as sensible, then you have kept their interest in mind without negatively impacting on the environment = Leave no or as little negative trace as possible.

Wilderness Conservation process – The central idea behind Wilderness Camping revolves around taking the bare essentials into the wilderness and departing with as little impact as possible, utilizing from the wilds, only what is required and thinking before acting, projecting and comparing the negative and positive impacts of one’s actions and only then making a decision.

The hope in the above philosophy is that guides and people will take this message to heart and implement it in their daily lives, jobs, home living and more.

Fire making, its management and cleaning up the camp site?

Most guides/camp staff and managers simply collect lots of firewood, make a huge bon fire and in the morning dig a big hole and bury the ash. What goes into the fire at night is never thought of in terms of impact – food, plastic, bits of paper with tinfoil etc. Once this waste is buried, it contains odours of whatever was put in and within a few days, scavenging animals have dug it up and exposed not only the unsightly ash pile, but all the debris inside.

Our ethical, conserving policy is:
We made small fires big enough for a pot = had a strict wood burning policy, so that we did not leave huge burnt logs lying around and we had a very strict policy of what goes into the fire as waste such as:

  • Tea bags are dried on the edge of the fire and then burnt, any paper containing plastic of tinfoil, was put into rubbish bags which we carried with us and out of the wilderness, no wet food put in fire – finish the food and do not throw away.
  • We dug a small hole in which we could drain water only from cooked rice, pasta etc. which was covered up on camp break down.
  • The fire had a sand base so that we could properly dispose of all ash during camp break down. The process is to cover the small fire with sand, add water slowly and mix it up like cement, ensuring all coals were extinguished. This muddy cement like mixture of ash and sand is then spread widely in the bush so as to leave no sign of a fire ever being there, or spread the ash in the rivers where is it quickly disappears.
  • Spreading ash and sand sensitively
  • The fire place is then spread over with dry sand, leaves, twigs or elephant dung.

Lastly, before departing camp, a thorough check is carried out by all to ensure the site is clean of modern day human life = leave on footprints.

This process almost becomes a religious, spiritual process with the message being drummed into trailists minds with the hope they carry the philosophy of respect for the environment, not only in the wildlife areas, but also back home to their daily lives, family and friends.

The KGOTLA system – or introduced as the INDABA system 
As per Wilderness Leadership ethic, at key times, a Kgtola was held. This involves sitting in a tight circle and introducing the Kgotla Stick, or talking stick. The central idea is that the person holding the stick is respected in what they wish to say. Further, in respect to the person giving their message is that others should respectfully listen.

The Key for Kgotla/INDABA is that there is no right or wrong statement, there is no debate, but rather to realise that every person and organism has a message that should be listened to, and listened to with respect. To show respect, one must listen with intent, properly and without distraction.

Leadership quality - The intention of this system is to allow people to take courage in who they are and what they believe in. Further to this, is the hope that trailists leave with a more humble approach to life in that as humans, our egos often get the better of us to a point where we have blinker vision, focusing only on what we as individuals think is best for ourselves and our progress, rather than realising that we live together with one another and mother earth. We must listen to our surroundings and take everyone’s message into consideration before acting.

Wilderness Philosophy/Conservation – Wilderness is best experienced when listened to, then understood and therefore respected.

KGOTLA –The Talking Stick
Lastly, the KGOTLA/ talking stick methodology allows different people, with different backgrounds,
culture, race, colour, opinions, knowledge and stories to feel free and confident about who and what
they are.

In the remaining days of the trail we all settled in quite comfortably to our home in nature. The
process of living became easy and many trailists took solitude time to reflect on whatever they
reflected on.

Personal journeys were accomplished, many overcame their fears of the Wilderness and memories of this trail will stay in the minds of the participants for the rest of their lives. Strong bonds were made between the trailists and I’m sure strong bonds were made with trailists and Mother Earth.

History was made and all in a pioneering spirit – but Key to all was and is respect for all.

As the trail leader, a wilderness trail guide and from EcoTraining, I cannot thank each guide enough for their valuable input and participation.

EcoTraining and I would like to thank Wilderness Leadership School for the use of their Trail Equipment for this trail. Further, I would like to thank Wilderness Leadership School for the enlightenment given to me my mind and soul at a very late stage of my guiding career.

I look forward to the next trail...

Blogpost by Clinton Phillips
Photos by Lets Kamogelo

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