I regard myself as a late visitor, tourist, to South Africa. I was 26 years old when I made my fist trip to the country and the destination of Durban in KwaZulu Natal (KZN). I had caught the travel bug at an early age after travelling in Australia, Polynesia and New Zealand. The travel bug quickly developed into a serious case of khaki fever. A condition which I live with to this day which is only eased with regular trips to KZN and the wearing of khaki shirts & shorts.
There are theories I have about ‘holidaying’ in KZN which can apply to almost anywhere: The more tourists that visit, the more jobs are created. People who spend time in protected areas, game reserves, which are home to wild animals are contributing to the protection of these animals, some of whom are endangered species. Lastly, get ‘young’ visitors into areas, educate them, inspire them and hopefully they will develop a passion for those areas and all that they contain. They may not all develop khaki fever but they all have the potential to become future tourists.
So here I am in Somkhanda Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu Natal. A place where I am to learn that all my theories are being put into practice and are working. I am here to explore the reserve and meet up with a college group on an educational visit. Purely by coincidence the college happens to be Moulton College, very local to me and my home in Northamptonshire, England. They are spending four days on the reserve, as part of their overall trip, and I will be their guest for three of them.
Before the students and their tutors arrive I get a chance to be shown round the reserve and learn a little more about how things work. Bonnie Kaufman, the lodge manager, takes a break from her working day to give me a tour of the reserve, its camps, and even makes me lunch. The reserve is community owned and was handed back to the Gumbi tribe following a land claim back in 1998. There are several parties involved here: Wildlands, KZN Wildlife & WWF, ensuring that the Gumbi people are well supported. African Insight manage the tourism side and the educational visits which includes offering internships to both local and overseas students.
There are fifteen full time staff at Somkhanda, eleven of which are from the Gumbi tribe, all of whom have been trained on site. Other members of the community have been trained and have moved on to other lodges and reserves. Nompilo Gumbi, a community member, came to train with no previous tourism experience and has progressded to head of house-keeping. Mpilonhle
Gumbi came to the reserve on three month volunteer placement, was offered full time employment following this, and is now head of lodge & kitchen. All South African citizens, local or not, can take up a three month internship free of charge and train within many areas of the tourism industry. Their board and training is free but they must be able to support themselves with food.
Michael Belton, a young man from KZN, came to Somknda on a South African citizen internship and ended up staying on in full time employment as an intern assistant. He helps in the looking after of students plus he presents academic modules in the classroom along with hands on educational acts in the field. During my stay I got to spend with Michael as he worked with the students.
In camp there are two interns from the UK. Izzy Wynne is taking an internship in conservation after finishing her degree in higher education at Sparsholt Agricultural College. Small world I also spent some time studying at Sparsholt after leaving school, many years ago. Izzy originally came to the reserve with her college two years prior as part of her animal management course. She is now working on her own project which involves the identification of spotted hyenas on the reserve. Jo McKillop the second intern, like Izzy, came with her University Roehampton on a previous trip which was anthrologically oriented looking at the relationship between humans and animals. She did admit that she really on came on that first trip because it was a cool thing to do! She left after her first visit with more questions than answers on the reserve’s ecosystem. So now she is back to answer them. She is also studying how the effect of food abundance and relative density co-varies with fecal worm load and its effect on the body. For questions on this and her experiments creating potash fertilizer and wormeries for the local community, its best to contact her!
All lodge staff were on hand to greet the twelve students from Moulton College, their lecturers, Chloe & Alex plus their appointed freelance guides Stef & Marc. The latter were appointed by African Insight and would accompany the group throughout their trip. Again, it’s a small world. Stef had spent some time training as a mountain guide with my wifes grandfather. Both guides are extremely experienced and great with the students. I should also mention that the students, a mixed group of ten females and two men, ranged in age from 18 to 32.
On arrival and either side of dinner there are introductions to the area, general safety and awareness talks. The main lodge building makes an ideal classroom and from here over the duration of the stay there are lectures covering the history of the reserve and surrounding Gumbi & Zulu cultures. Poaching is covered in a separate talk concentrating on the plight of the rhino and how numbers are declining through the demand for horn in the east.
From the classroom Michael uses a power-point presentation to discuss the use of camera traps on the reserve. From here the group, split into two, head out to designated traps. Students learn how to check the cameras, change the memory cards, and then back in the classroom analyse the collected data. The traps catch an array of animals including porcupines, bush pigs and elephants. However the traps are used specifically in the identification of leopards. Students are given leopard identification kits to try and match the camera traps photographs to those of known leopards on the reserve.
There is something special about being on foot in the bush. Here at Somkhanda after the camera traps there are bush walks and rhino tracking. During the bush walk we learnt about the geography and topography of the reserve. We looked at the smaller things on the ground from baboon spiders to dung beetles. Trees were identified and their various uses explained. From simple firewood to medicinal uses. With the reserve having big game such as elephants and buffalo (and soon to be released lions) guides and students have to be on high alert when walking. During the rhino tracking we are taught how to use radio-telemetry equipment. Not only do we track the rhino, we also check on the location of elephants & buffalo. We do not want to meet either of these on our walks. On finding a general location of the rhino we head from the vehicle towards the signal. Footprints are found and we are not far from them. We are down wind of the animals, we do not want them to smell us, and in a silent single file. A zebra bolts from the thick bush and we all get a shock. This is proof of how difficult it can be to see an animal even at close quarters. The rhino prove equally as difficult. They are there and we can make them out through the bush, probably only one hundred meters away, but they are more nervous than we are. A head lifts, its a de-horned rhino, and we are spotted. The rhino turn and run a short distance into even thicker bush. We have tracked them, found them, had a reasonable sighting, so we make our way back to the vehicle leaving them to graze in peace.
Sitting around the fire under a vast blanket of stars I reflected on what had a been a very special few days. Somkhanda is a reserve where theories have become realities: Community members are in employment and creating new jobs. Animals, including endangered species, are being conserved. Students have the opportunity to walk in pristine bush and be converted into future ‘tourists’ passionate about the environment they have been exposed to.
A very special thank you to Charlotte Cornwallis (social media coordinator) All staff at Somkhanda and African Insight. And to the staff & students from Moulton College.