Monday, November 30, 2015

My experience at the NJ MORE Field Guide College, Waterberg

This is Stephanie Kulak,
 NJ More Field Guide College manager.
I asked her about the college
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to become a Game Ranger
 (or is the correct current term, Field Guide?)
This dream was realized when I visited the NJ More Field Guide College,
 just north of Thabazimbi.

I had been in this area in June, 2015
and experienced some of the coldest weather ever.
But, here I was, back again, 
with the mercury soaring close to 40 degrees C.

I was joining the group of trainees who are about to finish their 6 month course.
Trails guiding was the final module before they write exams
I felt like the “new boy” at school and I was fully expecting to be peeling potatoes
 or some such menial task for part of my stay…
But I was warmly welcomed by the group, 
some of whom I had met on my previous visit.

My visits to game lodges normally include air-conditioned accommodation
 that has a private plunge pool and a small fridge with a stock of ice-cold water.
But here I was a participant and not a guest.

So, the accommodation was a raised luxury tent with a fan…
that was not working when I arrived due to some technical fault 
with the electricity supply.
I did have a “moment” when I discovered snake handling equipment
 in the tent that I had been allocated.

Many thanks to Arun for giving up HIS accommodation for me

Although the tent was warm… very hot in fact, 
I chose to sit out on my deck that overlooked a waterhole and a stunning tree…

In the distance, the spectacular Waterberg mountain range.

My arrival was greeted, not by the rumble of elephants, 
but with the whine of a cement mixer as it offloaded its contents along the dam wall.
The bush is NEVER quiet, and even when the truck eventually left, 
the workmen doing maintenance in camp took up the baton…
this time the sound of socket wrenches and their chatter.
It might seem like I am complaining, far from it!
 I merely want to set the scene for what I hope will be four memorable days 
of trail walks in this incredible area.
Depending on which route you take from Johannesburg, 
the drive is about 3.5-4 hours long and is all on good tar roads.
The route that I used via Rustenburg and Sun City has several mines along the way. 
And that meant BIG, SLOW trucks. But I was in no hurry 
and neither did I want to be stressed by maniacal drivers 
that chose to overtake at the most inopportune moments.
Unlike my previous visit (in June to celebrate my 62nd birthday) 
I was alone and I did not have my wife along to share the experience.
But this is my “dream” and not hers…

Breakfast was followed by several hours of “nothingness” 
as it is really too hot to venture out after 09h00 or before 16h00.
And so I sat and contemplated what nature was providing…sans the urban soundtrack.
Birdlife that I could hear but not see (instead of Hadedas, 
here that noisy role is fulfilled by Arrow marked Babblers and Woodland Kingfishers) 
and a lone wildebeest that was grazing on the far side of the game fence.
I could smell what I thought might be lunch wafting through the camp…
and I was proved correct when the “food bell” sounded.

There was a walk planned for 16h00 and would last for a couple of hours 
as the trainees do not walk guests after dark.
(I was told the morning walks, which can last up to four hours, 
start out at 04h30 in order NOT to have to walk in the blistering heat.) 
Something to look forward to?
Marataba does have the Big 5, so all the trainees are going to benefit 
from being able to do trails guiding with dangerous animals.
The clouds came and went and with them the threat/promise of rain. 
A good thing actually as I would NOT like to be walking in the rain for several hours.
The only game drive I have ever missed was because 
there was a torrential downpour when the ranger came to wake me. 
I am not certain of my exact words, but to paraphrase what I said was
 “I don’t want to watch wet Impala watching me. THANK YOU VERY MUCH”!
The vehicle returned hours later with sopping wet guests aboard. 
What had they seen? You guessed it…wet Impala.

Stephanie is assisted by Massimo Rebuzzi who shared this with me:
And as I was to discover, there is no nonsense when out on a trail. 
There are animals with claws and teeth, not to mention those with horns and tusks!
So, single file and silence while we walk!
Although I do not need to fill out a work book, 
this posting serves to record what we saw…
I did three walks with the students and 
had encounters with “dangerous animals” on each one!
The first was a bull elephant and we got within 50m of him.
The second was three White Rhinos and they were around 200m away, 
but as the wind was not in our favor, we could not get any closer.

The final encounter was spectacular. A lioness at around 70m!
 It is not about how CLOSE you can get, 
but how you enter and leave a sighting without the animal 
reacting adversely to your presence. 
In the case of this particular lioness who was so relaxed 
that she was almost too lazy to be bothered by us.

The bird life here is vast and varied, and walking with Bruce Lawson 
was a learning experience as he knows them by call! 
But I suppose 25 years of bush experience will enable you to do that. 
I am in awe of people who can decipher bird calls 
and give species etc. based on just that.
This is what he shared with me:
So what did I learn?
I discovered Potter Wasp nests, many warthog tusks…
leading me to believe that they are one of the primary “snack foods” in the area. 
We almost walked into a breeding herd of elephant, 
but stopped in time to watch the herd pass 
less than 50m from us (and it included two youngsters.)
I was shown many sets of tracks…
some I hope to remember for future game drives/walks
I learned NOT to talk while on a walk…
something I was chastised for the last time I was at a trails camp.
I learned to be cognizant of all types of input. Smell, tracks, feeding signs.
I learned to LOOK UP when I walked. This is not as easy as it sounds. 
In an urban setting, we do not look at our feet while walking, 
yet in the bush we do that constantly. 
Looking ahead and around is therefore a learned behavior. 
A guide still has to be aware of tracks etc, but he (or she) also has to 
be alert for what might be hiding behind a bush! 
And that you cannot do if your focus in on your feet.
I learned that being a guide is a “team sport”, 
especially when it comes to walking trails. 
There has to be trust between your lead and back-up guides. 
And also the guests have to feel safe and comfortable. 
At neither the lioness nor elephant encounters did I feel that I was in danger
 or being put into a position that made me nervous or uncomfortable.
Unfortunately “khaki fever” does not include grey haired 62 year-old men…
But for just a few days, I believed that I too could don the NJ More Field Guide College
 shirt with pride, if only in the proverbial sense…
In my case it was actually a Rugged Wear shirt, 
but it DID make me feel like part of the “team”!

Guests believe that being a field guide is a glamorous job, 
and from their interactions with guides it would seem to be. 
I have seen the flip-side of that coin. 
I have come to realize that there is a lot more to donning a bush shirt
 and driving or walking guests.
The course is six months long with an additional option of a six months placement cycle.
 Unlike many other courses where attendance guarantees success, 
here lives can be on the line and the criteria for successful completion is strictly monitored. 
Students do fail, and some do not get offered placements straight away. 
It is a tough industry to make a living from (no mansions or luxury cars) 
but passion and commitment, and waking up in the bush can be a viable alternative
 to living in the urban jungle…with all the inherent dangers that that brings.

Would I recommend it? In a heartbeat! 
If only a training course like this had been on offer back in the ‘70’s 
when I was keen to become a game ranger.
 Unfortunately, I was told that the only way to get into the “industry” 
was to become a vet first…
and my matric certificate did not include maths or science, 
making me ineligible for the course.
The course at NJ MORE, follows the FGASA guidelines 
and as such does not take you school results into account.
The January 2016 intake is already fully booked!

Looking back on my visit over my final breakfast,
prepared, like the delicious curry the night before,
by Arun.

The trainees that I met come from all over the world, 
Denmark, Germany, India, USA as well as many from South Africa. 
They range in age from 18-51. 
Some have given up long standing careers (in one case 18 years)
 to come and live THEIR dream.
I discovered that aside from the obvious wildlife teachings, 
trainees learn a variety of other interpersonal skills. 
Sharing a tent can be a challenge if you are used to your own space. 
Learning to work as a team…from cleaning up to
 maintenance in and around camp. 
All very important aspects that will serve the trainee well
 when they are placed into a lodge.
Dealing with guests cannot be taught, but guidelines can be set that 
will give trainees the tools to deal with good or bad situations. 
They also need to be certain that they have the inherent authority 
to make guests obey commands when out on a walk.
I am truly grateful to have been afforded this opportunity 
to go “behind-the-scenes” and live like a Field Guide for just a few days.
It has given me a new insight into what goes into the training 
of these young (and not so young) enthusiastic trainees.
Next time you get on a game drive vehicle take a moment 
to savour the expertise that your guide brings with him or her. 
You might THINK you know better, but you probably DON’T.

And in the bush. A little knowledge can be VERY dangerous.

The BEST lecture room?

"You brought me here"?
"There is not a shopping Mall in sight...
now I am HOPPING mad"!

Who needs TV when there are views like THESE to be enjoyed?
Many thanks to the team for making me a participant
rather than a visitor.

To find out MORE about the courses on offer:

is the official clothing sponsor 
to "Travel & Things"
Many thanks to both Graham and Howard
for getting me kitted out in record time!

This is Thato at the ORT branch of Europcar.
What a nice young man...service with a smile.
I had no idea where the car rentals were at the airport,
and despite some confusing ACSA signage
I eventually found what I was looking for.
I had requested a Stepway which was ready and waiting for collection.
To date, all my interactions with this company have been
fast, efficient and very friendly.
Time to head North...well NW actually...
The Waterberg beckons. 

Europcar, the official car rental supplier
to "Travel & Things"


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