Travels with Susan


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How to deal with an elephant

Posted on December 18, 2008 at 1:41 PM Comments comments (0)

Most guests want to see the Big 5. Usually what I like to do is find out which of the 5 they would most like to see, so I know which part of the reserve I should head towards. They asked for elephants, which I was happy about because I knew exactly where to find them –so we made our way south towards where I had found them earlier that day. It was a long section of road with a ridge on either side. I had briefed my guests before driving into the middle of the herd, so I felt quite comfortable letting the elephants completely surround us. The trees were quite thick around us, so we would find ourselves seemingly alone; and then the ‘grey ghosts’ would reemerge into the open. After about half an hour of enjoying the herd, we decided to be on our way to see what else we could find.

On the way out of the herd one of the other guides called in that he had found a big bull elephant. We were still close enough, so I decided to turn around and show them a full sized male elephant. As I got closer the other guide, Miles, cautioned me to be careful when I approached the bull. I smelt him before I saw him. He was in full Musth, and his legs were dripping. I turned off my engine and we watched. Miles’ Gameviewer was hidden behind a tree, so I couldn’t really see what was going on, but I heard a big thump. I assumed that the bull had gotten a bit too close and he had had to smack the side of his door to ‘show the elephant whose boss’.(The truth was there was nothing you could really do if an elephant wanted to squash you – but there were ways you could make your chances of survival higher. This is also the day that I started talking to the elephants. I talk slowly and calmly repeating ‘easy big fella’, and it seems to work. I’ve been guiding for four years and I’ve never been charged, so I reckon I'm doing something right.)

This definitely put me in the right state of mind, knowing what to expect from this big boy. I pulled as far off as I could (to give him as much room as I could), and waited while he approached us. He was big. I had to remind my guests to stay relaxed. He was really big – and heading right to us. At first he headed towards the passenger door side, which made me a bit uncomfortable. To make matters worse, other guide, David, pulled in right behind me. This is a guiding no-no: makes a quick escape impossible, although ideally it is better not to drive off because this usually makes matters worse.

Luckily, for my nerves sake, the bull turned and made his way towards my side. Don’t ask me why, but the closer they were to me, the more comfortable and in control I felt. Maybe it was because I could see them and gauge their mood, although I’m not sure.

I hadn’t noticed a termite mound next to the driver’s door, but the elephant had. He actually climbed onto it and raised his head. If he was hoping to terrify us, he succeeded, although I wouldn’t let my guests know that. He noticeably seemed to relax when I started talking to him, “easy big fella, it's okay. Easy”. Just then, he started reaching over with his trunk. I’ve known from previous experiences from other guides that once an elephant touches your truck, they get a bit braver and usually end up pushing you. I smacked the door “hey!”

He pulled his trunk back, and almost seemed to be thinking “what the?” – Before very slowly trying once again. I smacked the door again, feeling a little braver now. This was the last straw. He didn’t seem use to my defiance, and found me completely terrifying. He turned around and headed back towards the rest of the herd, and I realised that I hadn’t been breathing. I turned to my guests and congratulated them on handling everything so well. When Miles passed me, he told me that that thump I heard was the elephant smacking his Gameviewer, not him. He had a big dent in his bonnet. I turned around and followed Miles passed David. A little way away I stopped to look at a bird, when suddenly I heard the horrifying sound of a trumpet behind us. David was coming straight towards us at high speed with the big bull right behind him hot on his heels. We decided it was definitely time to get the heck out of there.


Cat Fishing

Posted on September 17, 2007 at 3:09 PM Comments comments (0)

Now if you’re a guide you probably know that catfish don’t need a lot of water to survive, but that didn’t stop us from rescuing some that were stranded. It was particularly dry and the main reserves lake had gone down quite a bit. One section of the lake had broken off and almost dried out completely. We had made a decision to collect as many barbel as we could and release them into the section of the lake that still had water in it. We found an empty plastic water drum and headed out. There were about eleven of us, as well as our boss, Allen. When we got there we saw that the pan had dried even more. There was only a small damp patch about a metre wide in the centre. While we all stared in wonder at the dry pan, Travis (one of the older guides) decided to demonstrate his barbel catching skills to us. He strutted out, calling “let me show you how it’s done youngsters”. He was cut short when suddenly the hardened clay broke and he fell through, waist deep into mud. We all burst out laughing, while he tried to climb out. He ended up spread-eagle, belly crawling off of the brittle clay crust. After we calmed down, we eventually joined Travis in the mud. At first we were a bit wary. The barbel’s were so tightly packed that we kept feeling them brushing against us, and we would catch one almost immediately after the previous one. In the end we had figured out the best method was grabbing the fish and throwing them on the shore, while another guide ran after them and put them in the plastic drum. It was even half an hour when our drum was full, and we hadn’t even made a dent in the amount of barbel still in the lake. Allen was the first to decide we had done enough. The next problem to overcome was how in the world we would get the now very heavy drum back into Gameviewer. Seeing I was the only girl in the group, I climbed into the back and helped guide it in while the boys lifted. Because the truck was already full and there was a canvas roof, we had to lay the drum at an angle across me and another guide. It was really heavy, and I was having trouble holding the drum high enough so that the barbel wouldn’t fall out. Just then a huge noise, like a release of air, came out from the drum. All the guys burst out laughing, saying it was me. Just then, all of the other barbels in the drum started doing the same thing – just my luck. The guys couldn’t breath they were laughing so much. We arrived finally, and unloaded the drum. The reserve I worked at was a public reserve, so there were a lot of tourists driving around in their own vehicles. Allen told us to put on a good show for anyone watching. We noticed a pod of hippo’s close by, but they were far enough away for us not be too worried about them. We carried the drum to the water’s edge and emptied all of the barbel’s out into the water. We were waiting for them to swim away, but to our surprise (and horror) most of them didn’t move. The fish were dead. The weight of all the other fish must have crushed the ones at the bottom. We all were in shocked silence for a while. The tourist’s were far enough away that they couldn’t hear us, but they were eagerly watching us and waving. “Just smile and wave”, Allen reassured us. We hopelessly started throwing them in deeper, hoping to revived them.


Suddenly we noticed the hippo’s were starting to get anxious and were moving towards us. Just then, we saw that the barbel we had thrown in deeper seemed to be coming back to life. “We need to throw them in deeper” Allen called out, trying to go quicker because of the approaching hippo’s. We went as fast as we could, until everyone’s nerves gave in and we retreated back to the Cruiser. Luckily for us, it looked like all the fish survived and, bonus, the hippos didn’t kill us.



Mrs. P. and the lion kill

Posted on June 4, 2007 at 11:43 AM Comments comments (0)

Wildlife programs pack 6 months worth of full day driving into half an hour show, so no wonder tourists are disillusioned when they don’t have a predator filled game drive. Another thing to remember when watching those wildlife shows that involves predators making a kill. Most guests usually say they would like to see one. The thing is that those programs edit out most of the gory bits. The lions are chasing the impala, and in the next clip the pride is suddenly all gathered and eating their prize.  Mind you, there are some shows that do show the actual kill, but a shorter version – and people usually change the channel or look away if it gets too much for them. This is what I try and explain to my guests when they ‘request’ to see a kill. Strangely enough, sometimes guests are lucky enough to see the things they request. The woman directly behind me, Mrs. P., kept asking when we were going to see a kill, even though we had seen quite a bit that morning. I had part of a large group on my vehicle - which is always hard, because they have competition amongst the vehicles on who has seen the best sightings. There was a bit of a road block of private vehicle up ahead of me viewing something, even though all I could see was zebra’s. I slowed down to a stop and tried to have a look, but became completely boxed in by the other cars. I told my guests that we would have to just be patient for a while until a space opens up. Suddenly out of nowhere, two lionesses came out of the bushes and ran for the zebra herd. The lions ran straight towards us and managed to attack one about 2m away from us. I laughed and told my guests that I had organized it especially for them. It was incredible. It is not a pretty thing to see, but it was fascinating. The zebra was crying out while the lions tried to get a better holds of it. One hung onto its throat, while the other put all her weight on its rear and seemed to be too impatient and started biting at it, eating. Ironically, Mrs. P. behind me was the first one to begin weeping. I tried to explain that sometimes kills can sometimes take up to eight minutes or more before the animal dies. The zebra refused to fall even after many minutes of the lion relentless attack, and poor Mrs. P. begged me to leave the sighting. I aplogised, saying we couldn’t as it was unethical to start the vehicle so close to the kill, and we wouldn’t have been able to leave if we wanted to. Finally the zebra fell, and the lionesses dragged it a bit further away from the road. Poor Mrs. P. was shaking, and we could leave. When we got back, Mrs. P. was the first to brag to the rest of the other guests in her group about what we had seen. I had seen a family of warthogs getting taken down on my first day in the park a few months ago, but this was my first up-close kill, and even though Mrs. P was horrified; I didn’t find it not too bad. I had imagined it being so much more gruesome, so I think that is why I managed.

The Magnificent Seven

Posted on March 10, 2007 at 11:42 AM Comments comments (0)

Seeing all of the magnificent seven in one day is something that doesn’t happen often. For those who don’t know what they are, it is the cheetah, wild dog and the ‘big five’ (Elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopards). I have been “out there” basically every day for the last four years – once in the morning and again in the afternoon on game drives, so I have been lucky enough to seen the ‘big five’ or a combination of the seven a few times, but never all at once. This particular day was nice and sunny, but not too hot. I decided it was a perfect day to search for the parks elusive buffalo. I found them and left a while later feeling happy with our close and uncommon sighting. I wouldn’t usually travel on the particular road I was on, but my guests were due to be staying at the lodge for the next few days, so I didn’t feel pressured to stay in the busier section of the park. We stopped along the way for the little things that would usually go unnoticed, until we came across a fresh mud rubbing on a tree. After explaining to them that it was from an elephant, we continued on while searching for other signs. With what seemed like perfect timing we found the herd around the next corner. They were browsing happily, and we were the only ones around to enjoy them. I waited for another guide to take over the sighting before moving on, and to my surprise heard another guide calling in a cheetah further along the road. I was sure we weren’t going to make it in time, because they aren’t really known for sticking around for very long. To my dismay it disappeared just before we got there. I stopped the cruiser and decided that it would be worth our while to have a look. Just before we were about to give up, it materialised behind a bush. It moved stealthily through the long grass, and eventually moved off into a thicket further away from the road. It was truly a fantastic start to the day, and we make a decision to stop for coffee. We only had about an hour left of our game drive, so I decided to make our way to the centre of the park for our stop.

Just before we pulled into the hide, another guide called in lions not too far away from where we were. I gave my guests the choice of either going to the lions, or having coffee, as we probably wouldn’t have time for both. Obviously the chose the lions, which made me happy; as they are my absolute favourite animal. The lions were eating maybe three warthogs, which was probably killed the night before. The other guides had already been there for quite a while, and left me in charge while they went for their coffee stop. We stayed with them for a few minutes before the lions got up and moved off. I was explaining something about lions to my guests when I suddenly noticed something black moving by the kill. I grabbed my binoculars and saw the round black ears of a family of wild dogs. I quickly called the other guides back to the sighting. We were in a fairly open area, so we could see a small group of white rhino in the distance. I called myself out of the sighting, with my plan being that we would slowly head back to the lodge while bypassing the rhinos. Suddenly one of the guides called me, saying I should come back because they’ve just spotted a leopard. I quickly turned around, and was just in time to see it crossing the road in full view for my guests. So besides the fact that we had somehow managed to see all seven in one day, which none of the other guides did, we also had travelled on a route that usually is quiet. The best part of my job is that I never know what we will find that day. Even if it is a quiet drive, you never know what’s around the next corner, and that’s why I love it.



Viewing Comet McNaught

Posted on January 13, 2007 at 2:59 AM Comments comments (1)

This was truly a once in a life-time occurrence. I was lucky that the person I worked for was a very involved boss that wanted us to experience absolutely everything. It was fairly late in the evening, but we all piled into a Landover (his preferred vehicle of choice for his adventures, even though most of the Game Viewers were Cruisers), loaded on as many spares as we could, and headed out to see Comet McNaught.

Even though we were in the bush, there was still enough light around to make the night sky fairly unimpressive. This is what the spares were for. Our boss, Allen, was taking us off-road, away from the lights. We went to the far north of the property. It was exciting, and we all laughed and joked as we tipped 30 degrees while Allen navigated the terrain. Suddenly we heard a huge noise. Allen immediately stopped the Landy and we all jumped out. We had a flat tyre – that is, a rip from one side to the other. We had completely destroyed the tyre on a rock. We were so ready! There were over ten of us and more than enough spares – but no wheel spanner! We ended up using an absolutely huge ‘baboon’ wrench to undo the nuts. After about an hour, we managed. Thank goodness everyone was still keen to go see the comet, but we hadn’t come this far for nothing! Eventually Allen came to a flat section on top of a hill, which I had a feeling was a place he had been to before. We turned off our lights and looked up. There it was, in all its glory. It was beautiful and huge, stretching across the sky. We tried to take photos, but none of our cameras were capable. It is forever in my memory, and even a photo wouldn’t have been able to convey how vast it was. We didn’t want to go back, but the night was nearly finished and we needed to get back for morning drive with guests. The trip out of the 'wild' side of the park was much quicker, be the whole time I kept my eye on the comet. It was so surreal.

On the way home we found a huge herd of White Rhino. While we were watching them, a huge bug (which looked like a ?wasp?) landed on Allen's head. It was so huge that he actually felt it land, through his cap. He is allergic, so he completely freaked out, sending the Rhino's running in all directions, and left us out of breath with laugher.

It was visible for the next few days, but nothing like what we saw while we were in the middle of no where.





Rain, rain, go away

Posted on November 15, 2006 at 1:41 PM Comments comments (0)

Some days, you just won’t see anything out there – and the pressure is on. As a guide you know it’s more than likely that this is the only chance your guests have to come to Africa. They’ve probably been saving for years for this short visit – but there you are, in the middle of the bush, and there’s not a single animal in sight. I spoke about other things, but I knew they weren’t there to see the termites, but their amazing attitude only made me feel worse. On this particular day it was also raining. The thing about a rainy day is that it either goes one of two ways: The first is you see absolutely nothing; the second is you see absolutely nothing and something amazing.

So there I was driving completely soaked, trying to remember why I had chosen to be a guide, when nature reminded me. Out of nowhere, out comes a cheetah. He was walking like we weren’t even there, straight into the road in front of the Cruiser walking towards us. Finally, my luck had changed. Now for all you newbie’s out there, the best thing to do in this situation is turn off your engine and make sure your guests keep it cool. If you play your cards just right, you’ll get the animal passing within a breath of your Gamedrive vehicle. Luckily for us, he did just that. My guests were happily snapping photo’s when, to our delight, he jumped up onto a rock and took a nice, big, leisurely poop on top of it. While I tried not to burst out laughing, I could hear the clicks of the camera’s seem to double in speed.

Ever since that day, I am always on the look out for what’s waiting for me just around the corner. Nature never ceases to amaze me.



Watching us, watching them

Posted on August 6, 2006 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

Once all the evaluations had been done, training was not something that was on the forefront of the minds of management. Now at this stage I was an extreme novice, and in desperate need of some guidance. Guiding was something that got into my mind after working as a lodge receptionist a few months earlier. I completely fell in love with the bush, and often had guests coming in to ask wildlife questions - which made me start reading nature books, which fed my interest….and the rest is history.

So I found myself in the bush, volunteering my time (about 20 hours a day) in exchange for training (which I wasn’t getting). Each day I would find out what airstrip pickups and drop-offs I needed to do, help with any jobs needed at the lodge, and studied in-between. Although this wasn’t ideal, I actually am incredibly grateful because it taught me how to study. After a few days of this, one of my many boss’, Rob, felt a bit guilty and decided to take me and a few of the other guides out for a day trip. After driving for a bit, we came across two white rhinos grazing in a semi open area. We all jumped out the vehicle, and Rob checked the wind direction. We all followed closely behind him while he crept closer to the rhinos, and stopped about 5m away from them behind a bush. After sitting and watching them for about a minute or so, we headed back to the vehicle. Once we were all safely inside, he told us that viewing the animals without their knowledge is the perfect situation. Just then we saw that, right in front of us, in the open, on top of a termite mound, was a young leopard. Who knows how long it had been sitting there, watching us watching the rhino – but there it was. We sat dumbstruck for a moment, while the leopard gathered its courage to approach the rhino. It was obviously inexperienced, as there was no way it was taking a fully grown white rhino down, but it was clearly curious about what they were. The wind was not in the leopards favour, and almost immediately the rhinos smelt it and were instantly uneasy with the situation. The leopard ducked into some tall grass, and managed to miss a mock charge by a few inches, but it didn’t give up until it had to leap into the air to avoid a horn. After this it moved on, looking back at its missed lunch every so often. This was a very good start to our day. We spent the rest of the day viewing birds and plants until we came across a giant pile of elephant dung. We once again jumped out the Landrover and had a closer look. While Rob showed us the half digested fruit inside, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to witness an entire herd of over 100 elephants running across the road in complete silence. Incredibly they were only about 50m away from us, but they made barely a sound. Apparently the reserve was darting elephants with the birth control drug from helicopter, and these elephants were most likely remembering the mass cull that had happened to them many years ago. There were so many of them and we were out in the open, so luckily for us they didn’t make us a target. We were in awe. It was definitely a VERY good day, that’ll never forget.


Green Hunting and Game Spotting

Posted on July 23, 2006 at 8:14 AM Comments comments (0)

I have finally finished my training period, and immediately ran back to Natal. I did enjoy the training, but after a few months of sleeping an average of four hours a night – I needed a break. So I left Limpopo, at least for the time being, and started working in different lodges throughout KwaZulu Natal. I was planning of finding permanent work when the opportunity to help with a ‘game count’ came up. This was something I couldn’t turn down, although I promised myself I would find a full time guiding job when I was finished.

The reserve is 22 000 hectares, which is fairly large. I was getting paid for two weeks of driving around a beautiful east coast game reserve with Katy, the reserve ecologist. She turned out to be a really pleasant lady, and we got along fabulously!

Each day, we grabbed our GPS’s, binoculars, notepads and a few snacks to keep us going. Every time we would spot an animal (or a herd of them), we would take the co-ordinates, write down how far away from the road they were seen, count the different males, the females, the unknowns and the youngsters – and log all the details onto our notepads. Each day we would do a different section of the reserve, and did each section twice. It was a lot of work, but we had fun trying to spot animals before our eagle-eyed driver/game ranger, Tom, did. Most of the time, we would get distracted and end up stopping the vehicle and swopping facts about birds, trees and animals. This is where I learnt how to tell the difference between the tracks of a black rhino and a white rhino. At one point Katy and Tom decided to show off their skill at tracking a white rhino. I ended up filming this from the safety of the Land Drover. It was thick bush, and the tracks looked fresh. They had disappeared into the bush by the time I spotted the rhino in an open area. It was acting strangely and had obviously smelt them (or something else). I decided it would have been a bad idea to shout out, so I whistled. Tom seemed to understand and he and Katy went behind a tree for a bit of safety. The rhino didn’t know where their scent was coming from. In confusion, he spun around in one spot and created a huge cloud of dust. There was a lot of snorting going on, and finally Katy and Tom admitted defeat and returned to the Land Rover and we had a good laugh while I showed them the video playback.

A few more days passed, until we had about 2 days left together. We had been listening (via the radio) to a group tracking a specific white rhino for about 3 days. We just happen to be about 10 minutes away from them when suddenly they found it. Katy huffed, and said it is a pity we couldn’t join. Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I like to try my luck when it comes to doing things I’m not supposed to. I was quiet for a little while, and then innocently mentioned that we had done so much that day, so I was sure we could take half an hour to just go and have a look. I could see she was thinking about it. I pushed a bit more, and reminded her that we were so close to their location. She took a breath out and said, “Okay, let’s do it!”

She asked over the radio if we could join them, and luckily we were given permission. We raced over to their location to find the rhino already down. The vet was checking its vitals, while I made my way to its side and placed my hand on its skin. It was harder and rougher than I imagined it would be. I was in awe, watching it, while the others drilled the horn and placed a tracking device inside. Word to those who don’t know: rhino horn is like your hair or fingernails’, so drilling the horn was completely painless. We also took clippings out of the ears for identification purposes – which I’m sure isn’t painless, although I have seen a rhino pierced through the stomach by another rhino’s horn and fully recovered, so I was not worried about a bit of ear skin. We were then told to head back to the trucks while they woke him up. We did as we were told and sat in the trucks, while we looked on at the game rangers running in all directions as the rhino woke up a little too quickly. We could barely breathe and one ranger managed to climb a thorn tree with no problem. Like we always say in the bush, “You don’t know it has thorns until you climb down.”

In the end, the ‘hunter’ got his photo’s next to the huge magnifcent animal (and we gave him the skin from the ears), while playing a part in Africa’s conservation efforts. What a pleasure. If only more hunters chose the Green Hunt over Trophy Hunting

Early days 7 of 7

Posted on June 16, 2006 at 5:02 AM Comments comments (0)

It was the last day of our Initiation training. We spent the first half of the day on a drive. At midday, Mark announced that we had all passed and were allowed to stay on for training and then he gave us the rest of the day off to relax. That night was the Initiation Party, and the whole reserve was invited. I was told to cook, but no one was interested in eating. The night started off with the new inductees having to stand up on the table and make the rest of the reserve laugh at a joke. If they didn’t laugh we had to down a drink. This carried on until they laughed, but I had a feeling they were trying not to. The rest of the night was lots of fun. At one point John and Nathan pulled me aside. They said that because Mark was the only one with a real bed to sleep on, they wanted to hide it from him. I said I thought it was a bad idea, but if they really wanted to do it I couldn’t stop them. They did it. Near the end of the night, Mark went to get something out of his tent and saw it was missing. He told the guys that they had better get it back into his tent before the end of the night. They went behind the bush and found that the entire bed, the mattress and the frame, had been completely eaten by a hyaena! The saliva was so thick and slimely, and pieces were everywhere. The two boys ended up having to give up their mattresses to Mark to sleep on. We all eventually said our good byes to the other staff and went to bed. The next day was the official end of the Initiation and time to start the real work!

Early days 6 of 7

Posted on June 15, 2006 at 5:01 AM Comments comments (0)

Finally the day arrived to do shooting! This became one of my favourite things to do. I am not a hunter, but I do enjoy handling and shooting a rifle. I was using a .458 and it left a big bruise on my shoulder by the end of the day. It was a fun day. We arrived at a small dry riverbed next to the side of a cliff-face. At first we got the hang of it by shooting at the cliff-face, and then we used a 5 litre plastic bottle for target practice. Eventually we started playing a game that Mark thought of. We would have our backs to the cliff wall, and Mark would throw the bottle behind us. As it hit the ground, we would turn around and have to aim quickly and shoot.