Professional Field Guide students, Sarina and Joya, take us on a walkabout through the newly built EcoTraining Karongwe camp.
EcoTraining is pleased to announce a brand-new partnership with wildlife broadcasting experts, WildEarth.
The white-backed night heron is an elusive and rather poorly known species of crepuscular piscivore. A relative of the much more common black-crowned night heron, this secretive and shy inhabitant of slow-flowing rivers and dams are generally regarded as rare throughout a rather wide distribution. They can be seen from the east cape of South Africa along the Indian coastal belt through to the Lowveld and into parts of Southern and central Africa.
But they can only be spotted in their suitable habitat which makes finding them for your life list that much trickier.
The species stronghold is undoubtedly the Okavango Delta where local mokoro based excursions from many lodges in the area offer a good chance of connecting with this sought after skulker. Birds are most often seen when flushed from bank waterside vegetation where they roost in the deepest shade during the daylight hours. They are generally active from early evening into the night before flying back to their roost sites as dawn approaches.
Their hunting methods
White-backed Night Herons (Gorsachius leuconotus) as with most herons are opportunistic feeders with fish, arthropods, frogs and freshwater crabs comprising most of its diet. Some of their prey will simply be seized because it is available. A strong spear-shaped bill is used to spear passing prey at such speeds that the prey passing won’t know what hit them.
Underwater prey is waited for patiently, usually from vegetation overhanging the surface of the water or from a waded position just out from the bank. These birds can sit motionless for long periods of time until the opportunity arises. Like all herons, they possess specialised neck vertebrae. The neck is able to kink in an S-shape, due to the modified shape of the cervical vertebrae. This acts as a coil spring which gives their hefty bill incredible speed when the head is shot forward towards unsuspecting prey.
Another incredible feature of this hunting method is that these birds automatically take into account the refraction that takes place when looking into the water. The head of a heron corrects for light refraction at the water’s surface by adjusting the position and keeping a constant relationship between real and apparent prey depth.
Where do they occur in South Africa?
In South Africa, there are very few reliable places to find this endearing species with several sites along the garden route and Eastern Cape, Lake Phobane in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Lake Albasini in Limpopo offering some of the better chances. Something that is quite exciting is that this special species has been recorded quite regularly at EcoTraining Karongwe Camp. Most records are from the weir along the Karongwe River within the reserve, but birds have been seen at nearby Spectre and GVI Dams as well as from within camp itself.
This is wonderful news for birders who have been eluded by this beautiful bird as here at Karongwe there is the potential, for those who are fortunate, to access one of Africa’s most desired birds while taking in the beauty of the African wilderness and the stunning Lowveld.
If you are a keen birder or want to learn more about birds, why don’t you try your hand at our EcoTraining Bird Challenge?
Karongwe Camp is situated in the southern parts of the 21,000-acre Karongwe Private Game Reserve. This Reserve not only boasts the Big Five, and other various species of mammals but also a massive diversity of habitat and a bird species list to rival any other reserve in the region. So, what can students expect from Karongwe Camp?
If you have not yet experienced being immersed in a wilderness area this is a brilliant way to start. EcoTraining’s Karongwe Camp is unfenced, students are accommodated in tents, hearty meals are prepared over the open fire and lectures are conducted under a large thatched open-aired classroom.
Each of these buildings have multiple functionalities. The bottom left-hand thatch building is a drinks area and above it a library. There are ablution facilities under the office in the centre and there are sky beds above both the kitchen and the lecture room (building on the right). This is where you will start your journey, arriving here filled with excitement and exhilaration at the adventure that lies ahead.
Faith is the camp coordinator of Karongwe Camp. Listen to what she has to say about her role, an average day at Karongwe and a little bit about herself.
Students get to share accommodation while in training. The tents become home very quickly with small touches making the space more personal. The tents in Karongwe are spacious enough to accommodate two beds as well as shelves where the students can unpack items that are used regularly. They are also able to hang items inside as well as outside.
This is where the magic happens! Students are amazed at the variety and quality of the food that can be produced on a small stove and two gas hobs. Although the students do not have to make the food, the groups are broken in duty teams whose job it is to collect the food from the kitchen and place it on the tables (buffet style) in the dining area.
These rotating ‘duty teams’ consist of two students who will present the meals as well as choose the order in which the remaining students collect food at mealtimes. This can be as simple as those –wearing-open-toed-shoes to using bird calls or frog sounds to decide who gets to the buffet first.
The instructors offer lectures on a variety of required topics. Each instructor has a unique style of transferring knowledge, but all of them incorporate the information in an educational and entertaining way. The courses are not all intense learning but are interspersed with fun and interesting activities.
A requirement for several of the EcoTraining courses is a walking component. Before each activity, a briefing is held to prepare the new students for what might lie ahead. The two most important rules? “Stay behind the rifle at all times’ and “don’t EVER run”!
Although not all the students might have been on a walk before joining a course, many might have been on a game drive of some description. On the courses, it is not exclusively about big five sightings. Instructors will take time to describe trees, grasses, and tracks as they see fit. Can’t hear the bush sounds around you? Cup your hands behind your ears and you will be amazed at the amplification.
What a great way to end off a day, in true bush style. Swapping stories and experiences around the campfire before and after dinner. It is here that friendships are formed that will last longer than the flames will. The guiding industry is almost insular and even though the students will be ending up at separate lodges, there is every chance that they will meet up again somewhere down the line.
Are you ready for a new challenge? Consider joining one of the variety of courses that EcoTraining have to offer.
Still not convinced? Watch this EcoTraining TV video as past student Aagje describes her experience on the Professional Field Guides course.
July 31st we celebrated World Ranger Day. And by extension, it should also be celebrated as World Field Guide Day.
If you are a Field Guide, Game Ranger or involved in the conservation and eco-tourism industry, then thank you for your time and dedication. We appreciate all those who put in the effort every day to conserve and teach those around us about Africa and the majestic wilderness that surrounds us. If you have ever thought about learning more or getting involved in the industry, whether as a full-time profession or just to learn and broaden your knowledge, then read on…
If your answer is yes, and joining the guiding industry is something that you are passionate about? Or perhaps you just want to up-skill your bushcraft. If either of these is an option, then an EcoQuest course might just be what you are looking for.
If you find yourself on Safari or on a game drive with friends, and your thirst for knowledge and your need to know more about the wilderness around you is too much, then look no further than an EcoTraining EcoQuest Course.
The course is a ‘snapshot‘ of the Professional Field Guide Course that we offer.
Time in the bush is not always about dangerous game and encounters with those that have teeth, claws and horns.
It is also about taking time to appreciate the ‘smaller’ inhabitants and how they contribute to a particular eco-system.
Some of the course’s unique selling points are:
The EcoQuest courses can be tailored to suit individuals or groups.
Participants can sign up for either a 7 or 14-day course, depending on how much time they have at their disposal.
Do you have a speciality that you would like to highlight?
We can structure your course time to focus on that.
It is an immersive experience, in world-class wilderness regions.
The course is designed to inform, educate and entertain. Finding skulls and identifying them is just one of the activities that can be experienced during an outing.
Each of the EcoTraining camps in South Africa, Selati, Karongwe, Pridelands and Makuleke are situated in different biomes.
Thus making the vegetation very different.
Did you know that there are about 100,000 insect species in South Africa?
Most of the reading material only mentions a fraction of these, however, you can find out more about some of those on the walks from the various EcoTraining camps where this course is presented.
Luckily, most of the species found in South Africa are harmless but it does help to know which might sting or bite.
What does the EcoQuest course cover?
The course consists of drives, walks and lectures.
Each activity covers flora, fauna as well as tracking and spoor identification.
Aside from the underground construction by this insect, termites also build these above-ground structures.
They can vary in height and are made out of clay that is stuck together with saliva. Should a portion of this mound be broken, they can repair it in record time.
Walking back to camp as the sun sets.
A perfect ending to a day filled with exciting new experiences.
Share experiences around a roaring campfire.
There are stories to be told and it is here where friendships are made and lifetime bonds formed.
EcoTraining Managing Director, Anton Lategan sat down with David Batzofin and shared his hopes and dreams for EcoTraining.
Where we have come from and where we are going. Listen to the interview here.
Night game drive is offered to students as an exciting and different experience when it comes to wildlife encounters.
When you are driving in the bush and you come to a river crossing, do you
- A) Trundle through irrespective?
- B) Stop, look, wonder and THEN trundle through?
- C) Send a student to walk across and back?
Izaan, one of the EcoTraininings’ interns was only too keen to get her feet wet. As it turned out, it was a lot shallower than was first suspected.
The roads in the northern area of Karongwe can be somewhat confusing, so finding this small herd of elephants took longer than expected. The search was not wasted, as assistant instructor Michael Anderson was able to use it as part of the EcoQuest curriculum.
This particular individual was rather disdainful of our presence and although she might look aggressive, she actually turned her back on us and continued eating!
A breathtakingly beautiful African sunset ends another perfect day in the African bush. Vanishing as it did, first behind the tree line and then dipping below the horizon to awaken the Northern hemisphere. The participants were most impressed.
As the sun vanished, the moon rose. Not yet a full moon, but offering enough light to make out more than just shapes in the impending darkness.
An exciting sighting. We had actually heard this large lion vocalizing when we stopped for our evening drinks break. He sounded closer than he was but it was decided to cut the stop short to go and find him.
Lying on the warm sand of the dry river bed, he was in command of all that he surveyed. He astounded the group with an extended vocalization that reverberated off the walls of the river bank.
Nature has an innate manner of throwing a curve ball when you least expect it. The EcoQuest group was heading back to camp when they surprised this White-tailed Mongoose crossing a road.
The largest of the mongoose family, it stopped momentarily before vanishing into the thick grass on the side of the road.
Field guides have a ‘trick’ for entertaining guests by finding chameleons at night. Although not a single one was spotted in the beam of the spotlight, their place was usurped by a plethora of Lesser Bushbabies. These tiny creatures were everywhere and if not sitting quietly staring straight at us, they were leaping from tree to tree with amazing agility.
The excitement was not over yet. The EcoQuest participants were treated to this awesome sight just a short way from the campsite. A young female leopard in hunting mode.
While sitting at dinner, this male moth decided that he would pose in the torchlight at the dinner table.
A superb ending to an entertaining, informative and most educational night game drive.
Karongwe Camp is on the banks of the Karongwe River (mostly a dry river bed) in the 9,000ha (22 239-acre) Karongwe Game Reserve, which is to the south-west of the Kruger National Park. Three rivers flow through the reserve, all tributaries of the Olifants River, carving their way through the bedrock and dividing the reserve. So what can you expect from EcoTraining Karongwe Camp.
Like all of the EcoTraining camps, the one at Karongwe is unfenced, giving course participants an immersive bush experience. This is the first view that new arrivals get to experience. New students arrive at around mid-day and are welcomed by the friendly EcoTraining staff contingent. After a short walk around the camp to orientate the participants, they are given time to settle into their accommodation before lunch is served.
The thick foliage hides the tents from each other, allowing total privacy for the occupants. The spacious shared Meru tents fit two people comfortably and are equipped with two single beds and mattresses. There is also space to hang and store their belongings.
There are separate communal ablution facilities throughout the camp. And what can be more exciting than an outdoor shower? With the open sky above and the river in front of you, it is a wonderful way to connect with Africa while washing off the dust from a game drive or an on-foot activity.
If you sit quietly, you might be privileged to indulge in a moment like this with the resident Nyala. They are not fed in the camp but use it as a refuge from predators while feeding and when their offspring are young. Many an unsuspecting and preoccupied student has stumbled into these on one of the paths. They are normally only encountered during daylight hours.
The EcoTraining method of calling all in camp is to blow a Kudu horn. This alerts students to the start of meal times or lectures. It does take some practice to master, but the resulting sound is eco-friendlier than the raucous noise made by the ubiquitous Vuvuzela.
Who says that pizza cannot be made in the bush? Certainly NOT the chef at Karongwe camp! This delicious example is a testament to her skills. All those in the camp were suitably impressed as it was not what was expected.
When the EcoQuest group heads out on a game drive and this is where they decided to stop for an afternoon drinks sundowner. This stunning dam was home to more than one crocodile, but both the humans and the reptiles kept their distance and allowed the international participants on the EcoQuest course to fully enjoy their surroundings while sipping a beverage of their choice.
If you are very lucky, you might get to spot a leopard when out on a drive. These elusive predators can hide in plain sight and are often only spotted in the rear view mirror! This young female was seen on an evening drive and as she was rather skittish when caught in our spotlight. As a result, a red filter was used instead of open white light. In this manner, the animal is not startled by the light but conversely, it makes colour photography difficult.
Dinners, especially after an exciting leopard encounter are the ideal time for participants and instructors to share thoughts and experiences around the glowing embers of the fire.
All meals, unless the weather is inclement, are enjoyed outdoors. Delicious food, like-minded company and the excitement of upcoming activities can be shared around a table.
The expression “Early to bed, early to rise” best describes the attitude of both staff and students alike and as a result, the camp settles down to where the only sounds are those that nature provides. Be it the snort of an Impala or the vocalizing of lions in the distance.
Mornings in camp, especially for those who are not used to being woken early can be a ‘struggle’. But the aroma of fresh coffee and the promise of an exciting day can have the most reticent student ready and raring to go in a short space of time.
The pre-breakfast activity can be a game drive or an on-foot experience. Once these have been completed, it is back to camp for a full, hot breakfast.
Students are given some time off before a mid-morning lecture takes place.
As part of the EcoQuest course, participants are treated to a series of lectures on a variety of topics. This one, on tracks and signs, was given by assistant instructor Michael Anderson before the group set off on a bush walk where they could put their newly found skills to the test.
Lead by Assistant Instructor Michael Anderson and back up Trails Guide, Aagie van der Plaetse, this group on the EcoQuest course set off on an afternoon walk. The walks give the course participants a totally different perspective on their time spent in the bush. They focus on the biodiversity of the bush that game drives bypass.
This stunning flower is part of the Pea family. Although these are visible on game drives, it is only when one gets up close on a walk that their innate beauty can be appreciated to the full.
The Aardvark that left this sign is predominantly a nocturnal animal. Getting to see one during the day is an experience that not many to get to enjoy. That being said, this tentative digging was an indication that there was one in the vicinity and that with perseverance it might get seen at some point.
It is not only the large webs of the ubiquitous Golden Orb spiders that can turn one into a dancer almost immediately.
This tiny Kite spider, which is part of the Orb web family, almost turned some of the EcoQuest participants into ballroom specialists when they walked into the edge of its web!
An EcoQuest course is the ideal way to sharpen your bush skills, improve your mental well being as well as being the ideal break from the hustle and bustle of regular urban lives.
The EcoQuest course is not all about dashing in a vehicle from one Big 5 sighting to the next. It is about becoming intimate with the ecosystems and the biodiversity of the area around the Karongwe camp.
Working in nature in unfenced bush camps is a wonderful and frightening experience at the same time. We live and work in remote areas so wildlife encounters in camp occur quite often.