August 01, 2006
AFRICA 1999 - PART ONE
South African Field Guide Course (with photos added July 2001)
The South African Field Guide Course is offered by a tour company called Drifters, based in Johannesburg (firstname.lastname@example.org). They appear to be quite a large organization with a good reputation for adventure tours in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and more. Their Environmental Ranger Course is designed to be an intensive learning experience for the participants. It turns out that the company also uses this course to screen potential Drifters guide applicants. There is a comprehensive 3-4 hour written exam at the end, which is intended to be equivalent to the Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGASA) Level 1 exam (I believe that there are three levels), and I'm told that the Drifters exam has approximately a 30% pass rate.
I arrived in Johannesburg where I was met by a Drifters transport van and driven to the lovely Drifters Inn. Like every other building and residence of any worth in this city, it is surrounded by a high wall and protected by an electronic gate. Inside is an attractive enclave of gardens, a small pool, comfortable residence rooms, a small shop/administrative office, lounge areas, a dining room, and a small bar. Since the rest of the course participants had not yet arrived, I decided to join a couple of other visitors (an American father and daughter) for a third-party tour of Soweto.
Soweto Tour - May 9
Soweto Tour - May 9
Soweto is one of the townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Most people have heard of the place due to the fame of the Soweto uprisings that took place during the struggle against apartheid. We were collected by a local guide (who was actually born in Soweto) in his own car. On the way out of the city, he gave a somewhat rehearsed (and quite accented) spiel about how Jo-burg was created around a series of gold mines, and pointed out a few mine shafts that are still in existence (mostly as historical sites). The problem of car theft in this city is staggering. Sidewalks actually have parking guards who (for a small tip) will watch your parked car while you nip in for some groceries. Radio ads for satellite-tracking services "helping you get back what's yours!" are quite frequent. The guide pointed out one of the pounds where the authorities will take your car if they happen to recover it. He also mentioned that if you don't collect it within about half an hour, things will begin to go missing from it. This comment was confirmed by the youths who were rolling out two wheels as we drove by. (By the way, the rumours of flame-throwers being built into car doors and women not having to stop at red lights after dark are apparently true. Car jackings are a very frequent hazard.) BMW means Break My Window (for the pessimist) or Be My Wife (for the optimist). Oddly enough, even though we were the only whites in sight, there were lots of BMW's and Mercedes around, implying that there may in fact be a growing middle class after the years of race struggles.
Our first stop was a taxi stand/market (that reminded me of the Mexican equivalent) next to Baragwaneth, the world's largest hospital (with 3500 beds in 173 hectares). We then moved on to "Mandelaland", one of the squatters camps found in the townships. When the guide pulled up we were quickly surrounded by a number of friendly youths. He told us that we were going to go for a walking tour of the camp. Once we were out of the car and nervously standing there, he mentioned that two of the youths would be our personal guides - he would be back for us in half an hour - and off he drove. For the next 30 minutes we walked through some pretty extreme living conditions. We were told that these people were not necessarily 'poor' - many of them were simply waiting for government housing. Clearly what constitutes 'poor' was different here. Government housing usually consists of a small structure with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, a sitting room, and an outdoor toilet with cold water (the only water) - accommodation for 10. Still, apparently about 90% of them have a TV and 75% have a telephone. We were told that petty theft is not a problem here - the threat of death effectively discourages that. But Soweto is not all poverty, shacks, and gloom. On the way out we drove through the nicer residential areas, including the houses of Nelson (once - now Winny) Mandela and Desmond Tutu - probably the only street in the world that once held two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
The Team Assembles - May 10
Today I met the other 9 people that I would be sharing this field guide course with for the next 18 days. The cast, in order of appearance, was Steve (a South African from Durban), Lena and Fedrico (a Finnish translator and Italian banker, both living in Luxembourg), Henry (an East German from Hosena, near Dresden), Nicholas (another South African from Capetown), Rick (from Florida, y'all understand), Andrew (an Australian from Brisbane), Clayton (a third South African and, at 18, the youngest member), and Carl (a fourth and final South African and, at 38, the oldest member). Our guide was Sandy, a very capable young woman who appears to spend most of her life in the custom-built safari truck that we were all piling into. The truck, which was to be our home base for most of the next three weeks, was quite a creation. It had seating for 16 passengers (not including the 'DJ' in the cab), cooler boxes, interior lockers for our gear, exterior lockers for tents, supplies, tires and what-not, a water tank, and a ladder to get in and out. It was also capable of going through some very rough terrain (as we were later to learn).
We were soon underway to our first destination: South Africa's Drakensburg mountain range, for a three-day, 45km hike up and down about 3000' of rock. The hike would briefly take us into Lesotho (pronounced Lesootoo), a small country entirely contained within South Africa. A brief stop to look at the massive Tugela-Vaal dam and pumped storage water system gave us our first taste of not just looking at the sites, but frantically taking notes as well. Anything that we see or hear from now on could (and probably will) be on the exam. The evening at the Drifters Mountain Lodge was spent dividing up food and packing for the hike. Sandy inspected all of the packs and gave us a quick lecture on sleeping bags, blisters, hypothermia, and altitude sickness. Finally - something that I, for one, did not have to take notes on.
Drakensburg Hike - May 11, 12, 13
Well, there's nothing like a long hike in the mountains. I really seem to do well at this activity, at least on the going up and along parts - the down again is a lot tougher for me. We spotted our first wildlife - a group of eland (the largest of the antelopes) grazing in the distance. After a fairly steep climb, we spent the first night in a 10 x 24 cave set into the side of one of the cliffs. The weather is pretty much equivalent to a North American Fall, but at these altitudes it can get quite cold at night. The second day, we went down one peak and up a higher one to another cave. This one was larger but not as deep and not quite as treacherous to get to. We have been noting several bird observations (mostly rock pigeons, vultures, etc.), and the cliffs seem to house the occasional baboon troop. The trails vary in places from fairly obvious narrow paths (often over scree) to completely non-existent. We had a second guide with us who was supposed to be leading the way, but he and a few students left so early that they were never in sight (and hence utterly useless). I often took over from Sandy bringing up the rear when she was needed up front, although I think my training, fitness, and preparation were obvious when I was in front. (Forgive me - I was so pleased with my performance!) On the third day, Sandy and I were up early to fetch water from the nearest river way below the cave (an extra hour and a quarter of very steep hiking). I later regretted any additional climbing, since we had a very, very long walk down to meet the truck. The hike ended up at a very fancy hotel, complete with helipad, stables, chess on giant lawn boards, formal waiters, etc. We must have looked quite a sight to the regular guests. We didn't stay there, mind you. We moved off to a place called "the Homestead": a large very English-style country inn, but complete with a double perimeter barbed wire fence and a team of quite business-looking Rottweilers. Welcome to South Africa.
Durban - May 14
After waking to roosters and downing a true English breakfast (sausage, eggs, bacon, baked beans, toast, and tea), we headed for Durban on the coast. Durban reminded me of some of the medium-sized coastal cities in Florida or California: hot, big surf, large boats off-shore, many hotels, tourists, trinkets galore, and a well-developed beachfront. We were on our own for lunch and most just ended up at fast food joints. After lunch, we were on the road again.
Today was predominantly a trucking day, but for this crowd, that means a study day. The truck carries a metal ammunition box which contains Sandy's personal on-board library, with references on mammals, snakes, insects, trees, grasses, animal behaviour, birds, history, geology, you name it. Any time that we are in transit, most of us are studying these texts. For one thing, most of this material will be on the exam, and for another, Sandy often starts her nature walk talks with questions like "OK, what can anyone tell me about this tree on the left?", or "Does anyone know what this rock is and how it came to be here?" - naturally we all want to appear brilliantly well-informed. I have also started reading "The Climb" by Anatoli Boukreev, which I picked up in Heathrow. It is the story of the 1996 Everest 'disaster', as presented by one of the lead guides - a very different perspective from the one given by Jon Krakauer in his book "Into Thin Air". Krakauer (for some reason) was not at all complimentary of Boukreev's conduct, and so this book comes across largely as a defensive rebuttal. It is not as well-written as "Into Thin Air", but it does provide a very factual account.
At night we pull into the Hluhluwe Bush Camp, which consists of a lovely wooden semi-covered lodge, complete with a very small swimming pool and several 3" Golden Orb spiders. The accommodation is permanently erected 2-man tents scattered amongst the trees. We did our first late night game walk, heading into the fields and woodland surrounding the camp. We spotted herds of Nyala (a large antelope) and Wildebeest, but they were primarily seen as just these eerie pairs of green eyes reflected in the flashlight beam - move too close and there is a brief thunder of hooves as they move off to a 'safer' location.
Hluhluwe Bush Camp - May 15
The morning began with a trip to a recreated but legitimate Zulu village. Granted, it was created by a local hotel as an attraction, but the villagers actually live there in (from what we saw) a traditional manner. We received a tour and short talks on spear and shield making, clothing, courtship and marriage, traditional healing, family life, hut construction, and more. We were also offered a puff or two from a water pipe with some local marijuana and a swig from a pot containing the local homemade beer (quite a milky brew) - both of which are authentic Zulu practices (of course we take their word for that). It is still common to practice polygamy (as with other tribal groups in Africa). In the case of the Zulu, a wife will cost you 11 cows - I got the impression that that price has not changed in hundreds (if not thousands) of years. I guess inflation is taken into account in the cost of the cows. Of course, no trip to a Zulu village would be complete without a high-stepping tribal dance to the beat of thundering drums.
Later we did a nature walk in a coastal sand forest. This was our first intensive tree lecture, and we were shown several species, how to recognize them, common, Latin, and sometimes Africaans names, and various traditional uses for them. One of the more fascinating is the Buffalo Thorn (Ziziphus mucronata), recognized by its paired thorns - one straight and one hooked back. The Zulu call this the Tree of Life for several reasons. It is said that the straight thorn represents your future, and the hooked thorn represents your past. The leaves are high in protein and also believed to be a female aphrodisiac. A branch of the tree can carry the soul of a loved one - hence if a friend dies far from home, a Zulu can go to the place where they died, collect a Buffalo Thorn branch, and carry it back to the home village. While on this mission, they cannot speak, and, since the branch represents a person, they will often get separate food or transport tickets for the branch. Another interesting tree is the Tambotie (pronounced Tambooty) (Spirostachys africanus) which has a dark fissured bark, is usually found near water, and produces a milky sap wherever a leaf is broken off. The sap is quite poisonous - in fact you can fish by throwing a Tambotie branch into the water and waiting for the fish to float to the surface. The wood has a wonderful scent, which is even stronger when burned, but the smoke can be toxic and would poison any food cooked over it. The natives used to use it to kill an exposed tooth nerve - permanently. Then there's Euclea divinorum, also known as Magic Guarri or 'toothbrush tree'. Its Latin name relates to the fact the its branches are used to divine (i.e. locate) water. The fibrous bark makes a very good toothbrush, especially since the sap is said to kill most oral bacteria. You can also rub guarri leaves on exposed limbs to repel insects - something that many animals take advantage of.
In the afternoon we drove around the well-known Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Game Reserve, where we saw impala, warthogs, grazing white rhino (at some distance), wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, and a few buffalo. A highlight for me was waiting by a watering hole with no results, and then just as we are about to leave, a spotted hyaena came in for a drink. For some reason, this said "Africa" to me more than all the previous animals - perhaps because it lacked the 'zoo feel' of watching a bunch of grazers.
Our second night back at the bush camp was a real 'bonding' night for the group. We started with a fabulous but simple dinner: spaghetti with a white sauce that used Knorr mushroom soup instead of flour - excellent! Later we all gathered around the campfire with numerous bottles of 'flat coke' (aka brown sherry), and played Vroom!, a drinking game that we liberally modified as the course went on.
Kosi Bay - May 16, 17
After departing from the tented camp, we stopped in to a secluded gravel pit for our firearm training. This was not so much a shooting lesson as a workshop in firearm safety and an opportunity to fire a handgun (.357) and two sizes of rifle (.30-06 and .375) at various tin cans several meters away. The regulations on whether a guide is required (or indeed permitted) to carry a firearm in the bush vary from place to place. To be certified as a big game guide in South Africa, you must be able to hit 2-inch targets at 30m, 20m, and 10m, within 9 seconds, starting with a 'safe' gun. After shooting at things and mainly missing them, we drove to the Kosi Bay Resort (on the East coast, near Mozambique), where Drifters maintains a reed fenced enclosure for camping. We set up our tents, which were simple and comfortable enough, but were quite a contrast to the expensive resort lodge and cabins with its pools, fountains, bars, pool tables, etc.
The next day we all boarded a canopied boat and set off for a tour of the three lake estuary system, connected by narrow riverways through marshlands. We saw several Tonga fish traps, which are elaborate stick fences designed to corral fish into a small enclosure where the native fisherman can spear them. We also encountered several hippo and lots of birds (of course), leading to more frantic note taking. We had lunch on a secluded sandy beach, followed by a walk into the woods to find a stand of Raffia australis, an introduced large palm tree, used by the locals to make small boats. The Zulus call these lakes Amanziyamma(?) meaning "black water", due to the water's high tannin and iron concentrations. On the boat trip home, we bought a massive Nile Perch as we passed its captor. When we returned to camp, Sandy gave us a lecture on the geomorphology and ecosystems of the Drakensburg mountains, and the pens were flying once more. And that one fish fed all of us!
Swaziland - May 18, 19
On the road again, this time crossing into southern Swaziland near Africa's east coast. I have developed a hypothesis which states that the importance of a country and its desirability to those wishing to enter it are indirectly proportional to the amount of time, visa fees, and passport stamps it takes to cross its border. At one of our enroute shopping stops, I decided to live it up, buying two bottles of excellent South African wine and some wine glasses. (The thought of consuming my vino from the tin mugs just didn't work somehow.) Anyway, we pulled into a gorgeous site called the Mantenga Cultural Village. It has a large kitchen area with a beautiful tiled countertop, massive reed-thatched huts where we slept, and lovely toilets (with seats! a real treat in Africa - many public flush toilets are missing such luxury). A separate set of huts houses a group of natives living in the traditional manner, and the whole camp sits on a river in the shadow of mountains.
On the second day, we headed off to the local river for our river guiding lessons. We were each issued with a kayak-style paddle and then paired off into 2-man inflatable canoes called crocodile boats (or 'divorce boats' - we soon learned why!). The whitewater varied from get-out-and-pull shallows (where I had to leave the craft in order to move) to grade IV rapids (where I left the craft through no choice of my own on at least three occasions). We also covered some elementary river rescue techniques, and generally a great time was had by all, even though I retained some bruises for several days afterwards.
Hazyview - May 20
Still more trucking to get back into South Africa at the northern end of Swaziland. Tonight's accommodation was supposed to be in the incredibly picturesque Hazyview Lodge on the Sabie River, but another Drifters tour of less intrepid travelers has forced us back into our tents in a field nearby. We spent the late afternoon on a guided tour of the riverine forest, learning the subtle differences between the endemic (naturally occurring, good guys) vegetation, and the exotic (invasive, bad guys) species, as well as distinguishing pioneer (first to arrive after clearing) species from climax (those that stay around) species. The lodge manager also gave us an enthusiastic (though somewhat less than scholarly) lecture on butterflies and moths - out come the notebooks again, as the Latin terms begin to fly fast and furious.
Kruger National Park - May 21
Our drive through the famous Kruger National Park had to be a bit rushed - even though we were up at 4am in order to get away from Hazyview in time. Still, we saw a few more antelope species, giraffes, and one lazy male lion. On the other hand, there was no shortage of bird species, and our 'must-know-for-the-exam' list grew significantly. Perhaps one of the more interesting of the large antelopes is the waterbuck. This species is always within 20km of a water source (usually much closer), and will run towards the water when threatened. It has special glands that give it an unpleasant taste, even (apparently) to crocodiles, and if hunted, must be skinned quickly to prevent the meat from becoming unpalatable. This time, our waterhole patience did not pay off, and we had to press on to Mariepskop, a mountain sanctuary further inland. Given some rain combined with very steep and uneven dirt roads, this was the most impressive driving that our truck (and guide!) had to perform, and they both did extremely well. The evening meal was a traditional South African lamb stew layered with vegetables (called a potjie, pronounced poykey, which is also the name of the round cast iron pot that it is cooked in). After dinner, Sandy gave a lecture on the operation of a diesel engine, including a hands-on look at the various components that make up a clutch. Yes, the breadth of knowledge being covered in this course was truly remarkable. Not long after we crawled into the tents, the rain started up again, followed by an impressive thunder and lightning storm.
Blyde River - May 22
Today we learned that it was more than our memory and learning skills that were being tested. We were first lulled into complacency by a long lie-in and a big leisurely breakfast. Then Sandy and I went to the cliffs to set up ropes for a 20m abseil down the rock face. This being my particular area of specialty, we actually reversed roles for a bit as I improved their standard top belay system, adding in an Alpine Butterfly knot and a Münter hitch, both of which she carefully noted down for the future. About half the group found the abseil to be an extremely challenging activity, but all persevered. My own comfort was short-lived however, as the next activity involved jumping from a rock ledge into an extremely cold river 12m below. I almost bailed out, but in the end I simply pushed myself off. Needless to say, at that point I didn't notice the water temperature at all. We were then led on a 500m swim down and back up the river.
Leadwood Lodge - May 23
The hands-on learning continues, this time with snakes. We drove to a well-stocked herpetarium (snake and reptile zoo), where Lee, an extremely knowledgeable and experienced young snake handler, gave us a slide lecture on snakes, with special emphasis on the poisonous ones and the effects of their venoms. We were then shown how to handle a puff adder (one of the most frequent snake bite culprits in Africa), several boomslangs, a snouted cobra, and an African rock python (and yes, we did have to handle them - sometimes with a snake stick, sometimes in our hands). None of these snakes had been made less dangerous - in fact, some 'defanged' snakes can grow new fangs in as few as 2 days! The python was the only non-venomous snake of the four, but with up to 120 teeth it can still give a painful bite (when it isn't giving you a little squeeze, that is).
The driving ended up in a game reserve at a cottage-style lodge, owned by Andy Dott, the managing director of Drifters. We were told that this is where we would be writing our course exam in three days, which had the effect of intensifying our studying a great deal. Most of us had been getting into small study groups of 2-3 people, running through bird pictures, leaf samples, etc. I was beginning to get concerned myself at the volume and variety of learning required, but I was also keen on doing well. This was after all the main reason for going with this program over the other potential safari offerings.
My tree identification skills advanced considerably, with the help of Henry, my unofficial study partner. Sandy also started giving us hints on what we did and did not have to know for the exam. There was not much that fell into the second category. She also went over several knots that we would have to be proficient at - the least of my worries at this point.
As we sat around tonight's fire, we heard several wildlife calls, including the wildebeest (which sounds much like a bullfrog), but the most impressive was the black-backed jackal. I can only describe it as sounding like the cry of a tenor who has just spilled hot coffee on his expensive Italian trousers while still wearing them - only a bit more drawn out. Next time, I'll get a recording.
Drifters Bush Camp - May 24, 25
The military background of Mr. Dott (who designed this course) is becoming a bit more apparent. Not long after breakfast, we were driven to a stretch of road in the middle of the hot savanna, dropped off, and told that we had a 8 km run to meet the truck at the other end. I had trained for this trip by walking long distances with a heavy backpack, but I had not done any running in a long time. I started off with the hope of finishing among the first, but later had to modify my objective to simply running the whole distance without stopping or walking, which I was thankfully somehow able to do. When we got to the truck, we learned that Sandy had been timing each of us! Well if I'd known that.... The best time was 39 minutes from 18-year old Clayton, the slowest was 59, so I was reasonably happy with my 46. Of course, Rick's comment of "Hell, I was impressed. You did pretty good for an old-timer!" did wonders to console me.
After the run, we headed deeper into the game reserve to a bush camp called Twin Figs, which consisted of little more than a shelter for cooking and an outdoor toilet. The plan was to sleep under the stars here - no tents. Given the wildlife all around (including big cats), it also meant that we would have to post guards in shifts all night. Henry and I would be on the 1am-3am shift - the worst.
In the afternoon, we all jumped into a four-wheel drive safari vehicle and drove to a dry riverbed to begin our rough terrain driving lessons. Sandy found a 45 degree rocky slope that each of us had to drive up and down again. We were then tested on sand driving, negotiating our way through some fairly challenging conditions. I had no trouble adapting to shifting with the left hand, but the clutch did take some getting used to.
After supper we got a surprise visit from a civet - sort of a cross between a raccoon and a spotted feral cat. It was remarkably persistent, clearly attracted by our food and showing no intention of being scared off. I finally had to physically chase it away with a large swatter used for putting out bush fires. We all assumed it would eventually return, and the next night it was back.
The next day was spent walking through the bush looking for animal spoor (tracks) and droppings. We found several tracks near a waterhole and along the sandy river bed, including lion, impala, giraffe, buffalo, and rhino. Nothing like more new material for tomorrow's exam.
On our second night at Twin Figs, Henry and I negotiated the somewhat easier 5am-7am guard duty, which was mostly spent with the bird field guides. We also had a long night game drive before bed time, but we didn't see much - another civet and a few spotted hyaena. In the morning, on the way back to Leadwood Lodge, the truck developed a flat tire and we all got a quick lesson in replacing truck tires (which, by the way, are a lot heavier than car tires!)
Exam Day - May 26
The fateful day arrives. We were given the morning 'off' to study, and then we sat down just after lunch to begin several hours of something that I had not done in about 17 years (yikes!). We got some nasty surprises in the General Knowledge section, calling for information that we had not been specifically given, but then that's what general knowledge means, so fair enough. We were warned that such a section would be there, but how do you study for it? Other than some embarrassing guesses for that section on my part (the population of South Africa is about 48 million, not 5 - hey, we didn't see many people where we went), I did very well. I may even have got 100% on the mammal, tree, bird, and snake identification sections. I don't know how I did relative to everyone else, but my final mark was 82 (Theory: 79%, Practical: 85%). So there you have it - I now have my field guide certificate, and a head full of the most fascinating but useless information for North America.
Since everyone was pretty burned out, Sandy took on all the cooking tonight, making crepes and a variety of fillings for all. We were almost able to enforce a 'no-exam-discussion' rule, and tonight's campfire drinking games got very intense.
Return to Johannesburg - May 27
Apart from brief stops at two tourist traps (an impressive meeting of two rivers and a restored frontier town), today was spent doing the long drive back to Johannesburg. A commuter traffic jam on the outskirts was our welcome back to civilization. I think it safe to say that every one of us was thrilled with the course, and found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience. Certainly I have never retained so much knowledge from trekking through a foreign land, some of which would actually prove quite useful in Kenya. But that was still more than a week away. For now, I was just happy to return to the Drifters lodge, where I spent my final night before beginning my next adventure in Tanzania...
© 1999, Andrew Welch
All sit in a circle. First person can choose to send play clockwise or counterclockwise by saying "Vroom!" to the person on their left or right. The next person and each person thereafter can say any of three different things:
Make a mistake and you take a drink. Tactics such as looking at the wrong person when you say your thing are valid and encouraged. After a while, we added some additional possibilities and rules:
And as if that weren't enough, the day after we had a flat tire on the truck we added a further option that I must confess got a bit tricky to regulate:
As a rule, I'm not a big fan of drinking games, but this one was a lot of fun, and we enjoyed adding rules and new choices to the challenge.
Contents (c) Copyright 2002, Andrew Welch. This page was last updated August 23, 2005