South Australian Marine Biologist Brinkley Davies and her partner Tyron Swan swapped the deep blues of the Great Australian Bight for the dusty roads and verdant flood plains of the South African bush. The pair spent seven days with WildArk and EcoTraining on an EcoQuest course in the Makuleke Concession, of South Africa.
Sunday: Elephants, elephants everywhere!
This was one of the first elephants I saw as we crossed the Luvuvu River into the Makuleke Concession. It was almost a surreal feeling, seeing them up close and in the wild. They were as beautiful as I had always imagined. Elephants to me have always been the kind, wise elders of all the animal stories I read as a child. They give off a really powerful energy and for such large animals they have such a graceful presence as you watch them go about their day.
Monday: All things become equal when on foot.
Exploring Makuleke on foot was one of the things that I looked forward to the most, leading up to this trip. It is a rare opportunity to be able to be walk with guides, instead of being in a vehicle. You never know what you are going to come across, and you learn how to act and react to all kinds of wildlife encounters. We often set off on walks early in the morning before sunrise, and came home after sunset, which made for some encounters with limited visibility. This meant that you needed to be tune in with all your senses to feel what was around you.
Monday: The art of tracking
Elephant tracks were one of the first tracks we came across, and I soon came to learn that Makuleke has no shortage of great, grey pachyderms. Learning about their foot structure, and the way that they move their legs, was really interesting. Our guide Quentin Swanevelder always had a humorous way to explain features of some animals, which I loved and he made me laugh a lot during this course.
Tuesday: Morning Rituals
Mornings were crisp, and coffee was my saviour against the cold. We often enjoyed a coffee back at our vehicle after our morning walks. It amazed me how the temperature changes up here. It is freezing early, and by midday it is 30 degrees! I really enjoy the heat and coming from winter in South Australia, I had been craving some sunshine. What better way to experience warm weather than watching wildlife on foot surrounded by endless African bushlands.
Tuesday: Best Seat in the Bush
I have always enjoyed spotting wildlife, and have worked on boats spotting marine life in the ocean, so the tracker seat was a really awesome place to sit.
With nothing to obstruct your vision, you feel as though you are floating through the wilderness, with an elevated view of what is in front of you. It also means that for any animal interested in the vehicle, you are the most exposed and often the first thing to be investigated. It was my birthday on this day, and it was just my luck that on our way home from our afternoon sunset walk along the Limpopo River, we came across a breeding herd of elephants. Before I had a chance to get comfortable with the fact that approximately ten elephants were right in front of me in the dark, a big female walked right up to the front of the car, lifted her trunk to check us out, then continued on eating her way through the forest. Luckily I’ve had some experiences that have taught me to stay still, and quiet with large wildlife, especially when they have young with them, so that’s what I did. Shortly after another that, a mother elephant approached us, she stood right in front of me just staring at us, probably trying to figure out what we were. She was followed by two of the cutest baby elephants I have ever seen, who left no space between them and their mother and made their way back into the forest where they were rummaging around the trees. It was such a beautiful moment, and one I’ll remember for a lifetime.
Wednesday: The Sound of Hippos
We reached this really beautiful pan just before sunset one evening, and it was full of hippos, that were extremely curious. They would submerge themselves and then pop up ten meters closer to us, then submerge themselves again. Every now and then they would come up and make a loud puff as their exhaled, and water splashed everywhere out of their large nostrils. It reminded me of how whales exhale through their blowhole. The size of hippo’s is pretty crazy, and its easy to see how they can be one of Africa’s most dangerous animals!
Thursday: Life at Camp
Everyday between breakfast and lunch, we had some downtime to relax, recoup and enjoy our little tents that were always surrounded by vervet monkeys, baboons, and squirrels.
We had been given some awesome hammocks from Sea to Summit, and set them up on our balcony, which often led to balcony naps in the middle of the day.
I really enjoyed staying in these tents and having no electricity. It meant we needed to charge our cameras with solar panels, and it was truly a beautiful thing to not look at a screen all week! Falling asleep to the sounds of wildlife, and being able to see the stars through the screens of the tent made for a few great nights rest.
Friday: Climbing a 1000 year old Baobab Tree
I found myself to have some kind of fascination with Baobab trees during our time in Makuleke. A fellow guest on the course, a German lady called Heike, was a Baobab expert, and we learned a whole encyclopaedia about these ancient trees from her.
This tree here, known as the Big Baobab, is approximately 1000 years old, and we thought it looked like it would be fun to climb, so we did. Being up the top was actually a lot higher than I expected, but the view was worth it!
Friday: Meeting a Buffalo Herd or Two.
I guess there aren’t many things that prepare you for coming across a herd of buffalo on foot. We were told most importantly to never run, as running is a sign that you are the less dominant species and it is more than likely you will be chased. We walked as quietly as possible through the long grass following ‘Q’ and Katherine our ‘backup’ guides, while we kept our eyes on a giant herd of buffalo, fronted by a couple of bulls with head armour that was seriously intimidating. Slowly the herd became very curious, and came closer, forming a line and facing us directly. From my memory of David Attenborough documentaries, this is the behaviour that buffalo exhibit right before they charge!
We were instructed by Q and Katherine to keep quiet and to stand our ground and that the herd would turn away, then come back, as if they weren’t sure what we were and incase we were a threat.
After some time the herd seemed to lose interest and we continued walking past them through the grass, as they went on about their day in the flood plains munching on grass.
I am fascinated by all animals, and I gained a whole new respect for buffalo after this trip.
Saturday: The Fever Tree Forest
I was excited when our guide told us about the Fever Tree forest during dinner on our first night at camp. A place where you can go, and be surrounded by complete tranquillity, often see herds of elephants pass by, and listen to rare bird species sing, in amongst the giant fever trees that grow here. We visited this forest a few days in a row, and it was all and more of what the guides had described. It reminded me of some of the scenes in Avatar where they visit “ The Tree of Souls”, and it had a very special, cleansing feel to be amongst such a lush landscape.
I took our guides advice and hugged a few different fever trees, I felt it was necessary and also it was my way of saying thank you to Makuleke for the amazing time I had there.
Saturday: Across the River
One afternoon we went on a walk near the part of the Limpopo River where you can clearly see Zimbabwe on the other side. Being the dry season you could walk the whole way across if you really wanted to, the river was incredibly shallow. It was a pretty unique feeling standing on the border between two countries, learning about the issues both countries face, and this border being a gateway for many things, from animals to poachers, to illegal immigrants, and the way of life that is currently happening on both sides. The sunset was really beautiful this afternoon, it lit up the riverbank with pastel colours which made for an awesome end to another wonderful day in Makuleke.
Sunday: Lanner Gorge
We visited Lanner Gorge on our last night of EcoQuest. It was my favourite view of the trip. Expanding far out over the wilderness you could see the Luvuvhu river running in the distance while the sun was setting.
We had sunset drinks here, and just took in the fresh air and all of the awesome encounters we had had during the week here in Makuleke. It was a beautiful chance to reflect on what an incredible experience we all had just had in this magical place.
Interested in doing Brinkley’s EcoQuest experience? Visit: http://wildarkorg.wpengine.com/travels/ecoquest-wilderness-experience-7-days/ to learn more or email [email protected]. The EcoQuest is an affordable way to experience the African bush and immerse yourself in the wilderness.