As jigsaw puzzles go, Phinda Private Game Reserve is a challenge. With 14 000 hectares, seven ecosystems, 400 types of bird and hundreds of flora and fauna species, it’s the kind of place where you need to know your way around the bush.
Which is precisely how I found myself behind the wheel of a two-ton Land Rover, desperately scanning the road ahead for tracks while watching the foliage for the telltale ear twitch of a male nyala. I also had to keep up a witty banter of animal factoids, and ensure everybody was having a good time. Oh yes… and try not to drive the Landie into a ditch. It seems that turning a died-in-the-wool city slicker into a khaki-clad safari guide is not as easy as it looks.
Meaning ‘The Return’ in isiZulu, after the massive game relocation that took place in 1991, Phinda is a gorgeous slice of northern Zululand. It’s here that safari operator &Beyond trains guides for its lodges across south and east Africa – putting them through a gruelling six-week course that covers everything from tracking to tyre-changing – so there are few better places to learn the language of the bushveld.
And for guests looking to add some spice to their safari getaway, the nuts and bolts of those six weeks are helpfully compressed into a four-day ‘Bush Skills’ course that combines lazy nights in the reserve’s luxury lodges, with busy days spent learning the ways of the wild. It’s the ideal way to get a taste of what it's like to be the bulky game ranger up at the front of the Land Rover; rifle slung over a shoulder, a name for every leaf and feather.
While the word ‘course’ conjures images of dreary days staring at Powerpoint presentations, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The bushveld is your boardroom for ‘Bush Skills’, where your notes are jotted in the dusty soil and the agenda can be interrupted at a moment’s notice when a grumpy elephant gets in the way.
By the end of it, softie safari tourists will know how to handle a vehicle, track game, fire the .375 Brno bush rifle, identify fauna and flora, and speak the subtle language of the bush. A language that seems to be second-nature to game rangers in this paradise for pachyderms and all-things-toothy.
The four days are tailored according to what your group is interested in, but for a little taste of everything it’s best to let your ranger and tracker set the pace. Tracking is the basis of understanding the bush, so don’t be surprised if you spend more time looking down – not up – for animals.
And the best way to do that is to head out on foot, keeping your eyes and ears open for what’s around you. If you listen closely the bush will talk, says our ranger Grant, hunching down in the sandy track.
“Tracking is not just footprints in the sand though, you need to use all five senses. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle; you just need to fit all the pieces together. But see the whip-mark from the tail… and the deep impression in the sand? This is where a pride of lions slept off the heat of the day,” explains Grant. “That grass pushed down over there? It looks like rhino, heading into that valley… probably from yesterday when they went down to drink.”
They’re all tiny whispered clues to what was here before us, but piece them all together and the puzzle begins to take shape. Grass is not just crumpled; it’s where elephant have trundled through. Those tufts of fur on a thorn tree? The lion probably moved through here quickly. The jackal was definitely here after the buffalo… see how the claw marks are on top of the chaos of hoof-prints?
After a day on foot learning how to track, Grant ups the ante. Now we have to look for spoor while showing ‘guests’ around the reserve. But first we need driving lessons, so Grant hands me the keys and invites me to go off-road.
“You never have the vehicle in low range when you encounter elephants, and you always plan your escape route,” says Grant from over my shoulder. “If they become uncomfortable, or if there’s a mock-charge, you need a quick getaway.”
Sound advice, particularly when we take turns in the exposed tracker’s chair up front. Zipping along at 25km/h, with the gravel road a blur and the prospect of a grumpy pachyderm around any corner, I start to appreciate the incredible skill of the tracker silently scanning for spoor.
While we certainly saw the Big Five – and more – during our days in the pristine Phinda landscape, this isn’t your typical safari holiday. It’s rather a bush escape aimed at the safari tourist who’s seen the Big Five, done time on the back of a game vehicle and is looking for something more. It’s a chance to understand the bush and enjoy a slice of life as a game ranger. To imagine, for a moment, that this wild world is your office. It’s a beguiling thought, although I’m not sure I’d fit into those too-tight khaki shorts.
For more information on the Bush Skills course at Phinda Private Game Reserve, visit www.andbeyond.com or call 011 809 4300.
Kruger and Karoo classrooms
The bushveld is the perfect place to introduce young ones to the wonders of nature. For family-friendly wilderness escapes, try these two options:
EcoTraining has been teaching professional field guides the language of the bush for 17 years, but also offer a good selection of short courses (from 1-14 days) for intrepid holidaymakers who want to learn more about the Kruger landscape. The accommodation is usually rustic, but it’s an affordable way to enjoy a taste of the ranger’s life.
Visit www.ecotraining.co.za or call 013 752 2532
For young rangers, Samara Private Game Reserve, north of Port Elizabeth, offers a specialist ‘Aardvark’ programme geared specifically for children. Apart from giving parents a break, kids will learn to identify spoor, head out tracking with a ranger, go star travelling through the Milky Way and plant carbon-storing Spekboom.
Visit www.samara.co.za or call 049 891 0558
First published in Discovery Magazine