As part of the training at Londolozi, all prospective rangers are required to spend 7 days walking the Londolozi property. The purpose of this is twofold. Firstly, after walking the roads for 7 days, you will have covered the entire property and should be comfortable orientating yourself wherever you may be on the property. Secondly, and probably more importantly, you spend these 7 days walking alone which provides an amazing and unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the bush and learn about both yourself and how you react to certain situations as well as the fauna and flora amongst which you are moving.
The brief is simple. You are assigned a daily route which is drawn onto a map of the property. You are to be out of camp from 6am to 6pm. You pack whatever you may need for the day, and off you go.
This was something I have wanted to do ever since I heard that it was part of the Londolozi training. That said, I still had a sense of apprehension. Even though I have spent many hours walking in the bush and encountering potentially dangerous animals during my past 2 years of guiding, there is something slightly daunting about walking in the bush on your own for 7 days, regardless of previous experience. In 84 hours of walking in the bush, there is no doubt that you will have some interesting experiences….
Knowing that there would be times during the 7 days that I would be tired and long for the walks to end, I decided that, before I started, I would step back and consider how privileged I was to have this opportunity. When else in a guide’s career, or anyone’s for that matter, does one get to spend 7 full days walking in the Greater Kruger National Park, alone? You will either be walking guests or be a guest on a trail. Seldom, if ever, do you have the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the bush.
The most exciting aspect for me was the chance to learn from the bush whilst I was in it. To me, learning from the bush means letting it speak to you, rather than reading from a textbook. I was not disappointed. If I compare how I moved, my awareness, my senses and how I dealt with potentially dangerous situations from the first day to the seventh day, the improvement was remarkable.
On the first morning I remember being quite nervous. Each step seemed to be so noisy that any animal would surely hear me from miles away. My senses were definitely sharpened but it seemed to take time to process everything. I checked for tracks as I went, but each time I saw some, I would have to stop to determine age and direction. A consequence of all this was that any encounter with potentially dangerous game was likely to take place at fairly close quarters and would likely involve a thought out process. I was operating in a safe and competent manner, but was far from the proverbial well oiled machine.
As with many things, adjustments were gradual and almost unnoticeable. By day 7, things had become almost instinctive. I felt like I was moving more quietly, tracks jumped out at me and I could immediately determine age and direction whilst continually scanning around me. I felt like I could orientate myself from the angle of the sun on my cheek and was always aware of the wind direction. I felt like I had developed a sixth sense for when there was an animal in the area. Maybe rather than a sixth sense, it was that information was subconsciously being processed by the other 5 senses without me noticing.
The culmination of all this took place on the final morning as I was walking through an area of dense vegetation and noticed very fresh elephant tracks going in the same direction as I was. The tracks were so fresh they still shimmered and there was dung that was still warm when broken. I moved as slowly and quietly as I could, until I saw a grey ear appear out of the bush just metres in front of me, as an elephant bull flapped to cool himself down. I retreated a couple of hundred metres and watched him for over an hour as he moved from tree to tree feeding as he went, slowly creating the space I required to pass by. Had this happened on day one, I would have likely moved too quickly or doubted my initial analysis. In both instances the elephant would have likely detected me first and this would have been at very close range. Being in dense vegetation, the elephant’s reaction would be less predictable and what ended up being an amazing encounter could have potential turned into a tricky one.
By the end of the 7 days, I had safely walked into all combinations of the ‘big 5’ as well as hippo out of the water, proving that if one is aware and in tune, there is no reason to have a ‘close call’. The experience was hugely valuable to me. I will definitely be a better guide for it and hopefully, too, a more rounded individual.
Written by: James Crookes