This is our original programme, Ian’s favourite and the starting point for Flooglebinder. Back in 2008, the journey began, starting off with 2 months in the African bush and learning how to become a field guide. This place lives up to the hype, drenched in culture, a lot of it painful but there's so much hope, beauty and human endurance, it's truly inspiring. Then there’s the spectacular animals, grasslands, savannahs, rivers and mountains that give this the true feeling of ‘wild’.
This is an incredible place for students and adults to learn, realign, experience true conservation and simply be at one with nature.
After we arrived at the airport we made our way through the bustling, colonial and raw streets that make up Johannesburg and onto our rustic accommodation. Rustic is a much better word than basic :) This lodge supports local street artists to entrepreneurs and families all based within the community. We felt the love as soon as we arrived and just knew that we were in great company. It’s the sort of place where they keep the fires going and feed you until you burst. It's the perfect time to enjoy the food, braais (bbq’s), bunnys (not the rabbit, its curry in a loaf of bread - delicious) and malva pudding, like sticky toffee but better.
A great way to see local life is on a bicycle. We did the 3hr tour and it was brilliant. But, if you go between November and March make sure you're wearing a hat and have plenty of water as at times it feels like you're riding in a furnace.
We visited the famous Vilakazi street, the only street in the world to have two Nobel prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
We saw Hector Pieterson memorial, the iconic image of the 13-year-old boy being carried through the streets, a very powerful site and a turning point in South Africa's history. We then managed to get to a viewpoint over the Soweto township, it's a beautiful but gentle reminder of the hard realities that the people here face.
The next day we made our way to Maboneng precinct, an awesome spot to check out local street food and art galleries, and a great way to see some authentic stalls for those souvenirs. We then rested our tired legs and made our way north to the programme.
We had to go through a number of checkpoints, the last one being the most exciting as we could now see into the reserve alluding us to the reality that it doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Checkpoints are here purely for the safety and protection of the animals, mainly the rhino. We are reminded that all photos taken within the reserve must have the location setting turned off or better yet just dont take photos of any endangered or highly sought after species. We quickly learn that people in need often get paid a lot of money, sometimes a year's salary, just to give out any information on the possible whereabouts of rhinos. A stark reminder for the need of front-line conservation efforts...
It takes about 45minutes to get to camp, it's not a huge reserve (88 square miles) but it's big enough! Our senses were on high alert, with every slow turn meandering through the bush we hoped to see something but jeeps aren't known for their subtle approach. About 20minutes in, standing half in the track and half in the bush bending this huge tree was a bull elephant (Loxodanta Africans), one of many scientific names you'll learn. We felt a slow sense of concern/excitement move through the jeep with only the field guide grinning from ear to ear saying: "just think we’re going to walk near these guys tomorrow!". This was an awesome reminder of how nature kindly informs you of just how small you are. Our concern slowly turns to happiness knowing that this animal is free to roam and is highly protected within this beautiful reserve.
Camp is a very simple set up, canvas tents, wooden shower blocks, an open thatched research hut and of course the campfire area, arguably the most important part of the camp. We learn that this is one of the first camps to be classed as eco… no concrete is used here and solar panels are installed to heat the water, its rustic but beautiful and being set 20metres from a small river that faces west, gives us the most incredible sunsets! There are no fences here so it's easy to be shaped and influenced by your surroundings. We are welcomed by the chef and immediately felt at home.
Being in camp has a certain order, there are rules (of course) this is one of the only reserves in Southern Africa to have free inter-roaming big 5 but we quickly learn that mornings start with a rusk in one hand and a hot drink in the other :)
It doesn't matter if it's summer or winter here, the mornings are pretty chilly so remember to pack something that will keep you warm, but don't worry you'll be taking it off by 10am :)
To say there is so much to learn is an understatement, the guides are walking encyclopedias who can tell you everything you need to know including medicinal uses (flora) and quickly name what you are looking at, be that an invertebrate, small or large mammal, amphibian, bird or reptile in at least 3 different languages and its scientific name.
This programme was established in 2003 and designed to promote nature immersion by providing a complete disconnection from the modern world by teaching you on how to survive in the wild, understand and interpret animal behaviours, calls, tracks and signs but most importantly on how to reconnect with nature, learning how to slow down and still be productive.
One of the most heart-pounding moments was about an hour into a 4hr walk and the guide holds his hand up, closes his fist and points to the ground…We all quickly get down on one knee frantically looking past the person in front of you (you’re in line to decrease your silhouette and reduce your threat). We can just about make out this huge grey tank-like outline through the bushveld, we are so close we can hear it breathing, its a white rhino and it's about 2tonne, it's massive! Massive! My immediate thought process turns to ‘which tree could I climb first?’ but they’re all mostly bushes and I start to think that I could possibly make it to that acacia over there even though it's basically riddled with sharp defensive thorns my adrenaline would take me to the top in seconds. But then I calmed down and started to remember that this is a white rhino and rhinos tend to have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell. So I switched focus to the guide who I knew was now assessing the wind, as the rhino was now casually walking our way. The rhino stopped and sniffed the air, all of my senses were in overdrive, I was in full flight or fight mode and just hanging on any sudden movement from this beautiful animal to decide my future, which was definitely flight. It's still sniffing the air in our direction and all of a sudden stops sniffing, turns and runs the other way. The guide says: "so who can tell me if that was a male or a female?" :) We walk to a safe area and have an impromptu lesson all about the local APU’s (anti-poaching unit) and learn that 98% of all black and white rhinos live in 4 African countries: South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Rhino horn is worth anywhere up to $30,000 per kg and with each horn weighing approximately 10kg you can quickly understand why starving/desperate people are quickly exploited by higher powers feeding the black market.
It's a very dangerous but lucrative business but too often the finger gets pointed at the poacher and it shouldn’t. It should be towards the people creating the demand, the people supplying the guns as all too often these people fall through the governmental cracks and the poachers receive all the punishment. Be that up to 12 years in prison or more than likely shot on-site whilst in the act and all for trying to feed their own families. This is a deep discussion and one that we will revisit in another blog sometime.
Needless to say, learning here is intense: drive a jeep; identify 50 different birds by sight and call; gain at least 70% in the track and sign test; start a fire using traditional methods; interpret natural behaviours; understand conservation and management practices; explain why we should and how we remove invasive species; interpret behavioural ecology; and recognise different habitats and biomes.
We know that this project is for students who want to gain in-situ conservation and field guiding experience whilst understanding the bond between people and nature. But, also an incredible 8-day project for adults who want to re-align and reconnect whilst learning about their immediate surroundings.
Nighttime is where your imagination runs away with you and just lying in your tent at night, in an unfenced camp in a Big 5 area, listening to fiery-necked nightjars, patrolling lion roars, jackals howling or hyenas laughing is simply remarkable and a quick reminder that you are in the animal's enclosure, they are not in yours.
Camp at night is spectacular, from the campfire chat to watching the stars (many of them shooting) provides a natural stage in which to engage or simply sit back, listen and appreciate it all. Unless of course there's a storm and you get to see your entire surroundings lit up with lightning, there is nothing like it and it's these moments that end up staying with you.
After we left, we immediately missed: the morning risks; the 4/5 hour bush walks; learning how to identify tracks and bird calls; dangerous game walks; creating inverted ovens, and of course all those stories told under the stars around the campfire.
But we also left with a sense of wanting to protect these animals and the environment in which they live, although know it's going to be a challenge. There isn’t just one answer but the best place to start is to experience it for yourself, fall in love with it as we did, then share your stories to protect and conserve one of natures playgrounds.
These blogs are written off the back of our inspection trips. When we hear about a project that we think will be suitable we get the ball in motion and first do our research. After speaking with the various stakeholders, we decide if it’s a programme that meets our criteria and values, and if so, plan an inspection trip. We use this to see as much as possible not just the project but to get a feel for: the logistics; the food; the rustic little markets and back street vendors; the hidden nature spots; the core culture of the community; and the people that bring these places to life. We want you to get a real experience of these places and travel whilst understanding the social and environmental impact. Unfortunately, it means that not all of them (in fact most) don't even make it to the starting line because we don’t think they’re good enough. If they do, we then bespoke them for each of the different groups, i.e students, adults or families. The focus will always be conservation and sustainability, with the main difference being just time spent in different parts of the programme, the transport and accommodation category. The level of learning, engagement, activities and adventure is all up to you so just let us know what you like (or don’t) and we’ll help you design your perfect, life-changing trip built on purpose and impact.