Following on from the Trails guide course at Mashatu, the same group had their Navigation and Orientation week. In some ways I thought perhaps this would have made more sense to do before they went off walking in the bush on trails - but I guess they were always with a trained instructor so in no real danger of getting lost!
Russell, a relatively new EcoTraining instructor, was fully prepared and excited to teach his first navigation course. We caught him at his tent the evening before the course started bent over a map and measuring things out - making sure everything would go smoothly! It is so nice to see how seriously the instructors at EcoTraining take these courses, and just how passionate they are about making sure they provide the best experience for the students.
Some of the navigation course unfortunately got rained out due to the threatening Cyclone Dineo, but the group still had plenty of activities to help them hone their new-found navigational skills. Once again they had to put on their walking shoes as almost all of the activities were walks. In between walks they learnt about the difference between true north, magnetic north and grid north, how to change a magnetic bearing to a grid bearing and vice versa, how to use a GPS and methods of orienting yourself in the bush and determining where you are just by looking at natural features like the sun and your surroundings. There was also quite a lot about how to use features to guide you on a walk to make sure you don't get lost. Things like catch features (something in the landscape that if you reach you will know you missed your intended destination), attack points (a more prominent feature close to your target but easier to find - e.g. a major rock), hand rails (linear features that lead to your intended destination) and also how to 'aim off' (when your target lies on a linear feature e.g. a drainage line, so you purposely head for a known point directly above or below and then turn and follow the linear feature). There's a good chance my explanations above don't make total sense, but I guess you'll just have to sign up to do a navigation and orientation course (or indeed the Professional Field Guide course) to find out for yourself how to translate it all into action!
All of the activities were designed to put these newfound skills to the test. My favourite activity involved one group driving to one location and the other driving to another location a few kilometers away (as the ostrich runs) and each group had to walk to the other car as directly (and safely) as possible. The complication was that there was lots of thick mopani in between and so each group had to plan their route using catch features, attack points, hand rails etc to get there (and preferably in one piece). The group I joined probably didn't pick the best route, as they decided to go straight through the mopani, which is not the safest option as it's very thick. Sure enough, not long into our walk we come across some elephants feeding on the mopani, only a few metres away (but not good enough visual for photos as the mopani is too thick). We turn around and go another way, only to bump into more elephants! At this point we decided it was time to exit the mopani but that was easier said than done, as there was so much of it in the area we were walking!
Finally we got ourselves out of the mopani, and walked along for a while, until we spot another animal on the edge of the mopani…. A LIONESS! I was pretty excited as I really wanted to encounter a lion on foot. She was probably over 100m away, so it wasn't quite as close as I was hoping, but still a pretty cool encounter. We arrived back at the car to find the other group had already made it to their car and driven back to ours, but their gloating soon ceased when they heard about our elephant and lion encounters! It was a very valuable lesson to learn: choose an alternative route when walking and AVOID MOPANI!
The coup de grace of the navigation course was meant to be an 'amazing race' style activity, where each group would need to use their navigation and orientation skills to get to find various places in Mashatu, where they would get clues they need to solve/answer to find the next place. There would again be two groups, effectively competing against each other. HOW COOL IS THAT? I was pretty excited, but unfortunately the weather gods were not as enthused and decided to rain our last couple of days out. No amazing race for this group (or me for that matter), but fingers crossed it works out for the next group!
So that was the navigation and orientation course. I learnt quite a bit and I'm sure the students will use much of it to help them in their future careers as guides to avoid getting lost on foot or even on a vehicle (and avoid walking into elephants in mopani trees)!