First Taste Of The Field Guide Life
At Umlani Bushcamp we run a student program that allows young guides to experience living and working at a lodge, giving them practical experience and a real understanding of the industry. Just over a year ago Oliver Lane joined us at the camp as a volunteer but quickly found out that he would like to make a life out of working in the bush, so he has spent his time with us learning the different tools of the trade and recently got a chance to get in the hot seat and conduct his first game drives, this is how it played out for him.
Guests at Umlani Bushcamp often approach me with many questions, “How do I get the hot water working in my shower?”, “Where do Rhinos lay their eggs?” or “What's the Wifi password?”, but some questions seem to come up more than others, one being “How long have you been working here?”. Every time I find myself doing mental gymnastics over this question, on one hand I feel like it was just the other day I was getting lost around the camp and feeling too awkward to ask the chefs to cook me breakfast, but on the other hand, my previous life in and around Cape Town feels like an eternity ago. Ultimately, I end up more invested in the question than the guests care for and force myself to quickly make an assumption “Around a year and a half” was my usual go to.
After matriculating at the end of 2014, much of my time was spent doing a whole lot of nothing, wasting time in hopes of a sudden spark of inspiration. Months later, after learning of my fathers connections with Umlani and the potential position of a camp “Volunteer” floating around, I made a concious decision to get myself out of my comfort zone whether I liked it or not. Not only did I like it, I loved it. The camp, the staff, the never ending stream of knowledge from the incredible rangers and trackers, I was hooked. After a few months, my sights were no longer locked on the life of a volunteer, but a ranger, a life in the bush surrounded by the best nature has to offer and the opportunity to pass my steadily increasing knowledge to others. There was no question about it.
My volunteer position slowly evolved into a student ranger position, tasked with getting my qualifications in order, I got to work. The days of juggling Town Trips, Hosting, Studying and a myriad of other duties all paid off on the completion of my FGASA level 1 theory. With the next step of completing my practical assessment, I needed to learn the tricks of the trade. Nights spent listening to a hand-held radio locked to the “game drive channel” gave me the tools needed to communicate effectively with fellow guides, now all I needed was a spot in the drivers seat to bring everything together.
I entered the camp office one morning to find the managers desperately trying to brainstorm a solution to a full camp and one of our guides being away on leave, words like “freelance ranger” and “I know an old guide friend that might be free!” flew around the room. This was my shot. After a good half an hour of pleading my case, it was mine. Not only the 4 day relief whilst our guide was away that I had fought for, but a whole 6 days of additional camp driving was in my hands. I began preparing myself, not only with the mass of books at my disposal, but how I conducted myself, how I relayed my information in an interesting way, so as not to make myself sound like a book on tape. All this paired with the knowledge, wisdom and endless patience in the form of my tracker, Ephraim, I was ready.
The drives started great and only got better, with cats eluding us for the first few days we locked our attention to the remaining “Big 5” as well as the more under appreciated mammals and last lingering migrant birds, I feel like taking some time to appreciate what else the bush has to offer makes the adventure that much more special
The game quickly heated up as the cats began to move out of the shadows and join the rest of the animals in their day to day life. One particular afternoon proved this assumption with the introduction of 2 male lions, both looking quite young, but with definite potential.
Little did we know quite what these 2 males had in store for us the next morning, a sighting that I don't think myself or my guests will be forgetting any time soon!
One of the last mornings of my time driving and everyone was in high spirits, we had heard multiple lions roaring from different directions the previous night, so the morning was already off to a good start. Upon picking up guests who had that night slept at the Umlani Treehouse, they excitedly relayed to me that 2 male lions had been to the dam below for a drink just hours earlier, without wasting any more time, we were off to find them.
They managed to clear a substantial distance and were found across our traversing area, a few hundred meters away from a large buffalo herd. While sitting with them, the buffalo herd began to get restless and started to move in the opposite direction of the two males. Under the assumption that the lions had blown their chance, I began to ask my guests if they were ready to move along, but was interrupted by Ephraim, pointing out that one of buffalo at the back of the herd had an injured leg. At almost the same time, this became apparent to the smaller male and as swiftly as we could turn our heads he was off in their direction, with his brother quickly in suit. They closed in and proceeded to make calculated jabs at the injured animal, after a short bout, one lion managed a lucky swipe and distracted it enough for his brother to bring it to the ground. As the dust settled we found one of the brothers latched to the buffalo's neck while the other kept watch.
No more than 30 seconds later we saw in the distance that the herd was bounding at full speed towards the lions in a last attempt to save their helpless friend. Proving the pure power of a herd of buffalo, the injured animal was quickly dismounted and within a few seconds the lions were hastily on their way. Better luck next time.
As my days were slowly coming to a close, there was still one animal I was after, The leopard. We had seen a decent amount of glimpses and flashes of skittish leopards through the bush but I was still hopeful for a sighting we could really spend the time to digest their raw beauty. Well it seems the stars aligned and as the morning drive drew to its end, like music to my ears, the radio started buzzing with confirmation that Marula, a beautiful, relaxed leopard had been found lounging up in one of her name sake trees.
We began to immediately make our way to her direction and within just a few minutes were in her presence, and what a presence it was.
We initially sat in silence, in awe of her immense beauty, as she lounged around the tree, moving between branches occasionally, keeping a vigilant eye out for a potential meal. At one point she even began scent marking up in the tree, very odd behavior for a leopard but who are we to judge!
Slowly she began descending the tree, in an effort to continue her hunt and patrol the area, as we left her gracefully making her way through the bush we could take a last moment to appreciate her beauty and reflect on the incredible sightings the bush had granted us over the days.
As I write this my 10 days of driving has come to an end, I am left with some photographic momentos, but more importantly the memories, the wisdom enthusiastically and concisely gifted to me from Ephraim, the early morning coffee breaks, late night astronomy lessons and everything in between. Every day in the bush reconfirms my decisions, and solidifies its place in my heart. I look forward to getting the rest of my qualifications and more opportunities to get out and follow my passion and share knowledge with guests as I continue to live my dream and I cant wait to get back in that drivers seat in the near future.
Written and photographed by: Oliver Lane