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Semester 2, week 3 – This week was riddled with gems. Our learning focuses were Reptiles, Amphibians and Birding, but it was the practical activities that really produced the treasures. The first of these was “frogging” on Tuesday evening. For this we drove to a waterhole in a neighbouring reserve and waited until nightfall so that we could hear the frog chorus start up. Then it was our turn to investigate. Armed with torches and small plastic zip-lock bags we waded into the water, following the sounds we could hear and trying to find their sources.

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I watched through my torchlight as a beautiful black and yellow striped frog sat upon a reed and sung his strong song into the night. His body swelled with each note, and his subgular sac (located at his throat) pushed out and filled with air like the large bubbles children blow with soapy water. I was mesmerised. The sac seemed so thin and fragile when such a force of air swelled within it that each time it looked as if it may pop! I collected him in my packet and took him back to the vehicle where a number of us were scrolling through the frog books trying to identify our finds. He was a Painted Reed Frog. We ticked our discoveries off with the trainers then waded back into the dark water, returning the frogs to their natural environment and listening intently for a new sound to follow up on. Frogging was very fun!

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Wednesday and Thursday were filled with game drives exclusively focused on birding. Our trainers had been concerned that we were not keeping up to speed on our practical knowledge of birds, so the focus shifted to getting serious in identifying what birds were all around us. Birding is not something that I had had an especial fascination with so I expected these drives to be a little dull. However, on our very first drive we identified 28 different birds – it became like a treasure hunt and my heart began to respond to the incredible beauty and variety around us. It was fun stopping and observing, searching through the bird books and learning how to find what it was that we were seeing. There are some majestic birds here! One group identified over 70 different species across all three drives! Favourites included an African Harrier Hawk, a Diederik’s Cuckoo, the African Fish Eagle, a pair of Yellow Billed Stalks, Violet Backed Starlings, a Giant Kingfisher, European Bee-Eaters and Lilac Breasted Rollers. Some birds have horrendous calls but are extremely beautiful. Others sound amazing but don’t look like much to speak of. Then there are those that are a mix, or have other interesting characteristics or habits. These were great learning drives and did a lot to increase my interest in birds.

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On Friday morning we had our optional game drive time. Eight of us opted for a guided walk instead, so we split into two groups of four and each group left with a trainer for a walk in the nearby reserve. Walks are special because there is nothing separating you anymore from nature, and you don’t have the noise of the vehicle or the restrictions of keeping to roads limiting your experience. Our trainer heard on the radio that a lone bull elephant was in a certain area of the reserve so we drove to a spot nearby and set off on foot. Guided walks can be dangerous, so you can only go with a guide that has been trained for this and who has built up many hours of experience. The guide also must have a rifle handling certificate and needs to take their rifle with them in case of rare aggressive encounters with lion or other such dangerous game. We set off on our walk in single file without talking and using mainly game trails within the bush, After a kilometre or two we heard snapping branches in the distance. Our trainer lead us quietly in that direction, checking the wind direction and stopping and listening as we drew closer. Finally we spotted him – a bull elephant about 30m away from us in a fairly dense thicket of bush willow. We kept still and watched him and knew that he was aware of us, as he himself kept very still then sniffed the air with his trunk. After awhile he moved forward into the bush and our trainer motioned for us to move to the side of the gravel road we were on and duck down so as to be less conspicuous. The bull elephant emerged onto the road and turned toward us, and our trainer began speaking to him in Afrikaans, using a reassuring voice. He told the elephant that we see him and that everything was okay. Using a reassuring voice helps the elephant understand that we are not trying to be a threat to him. Still, the bull took a step towards us and, now 10m away, strongly scuffed his foot into the dust in our direction. “No,” our trainer said strongly but calmly to the elephant, “No, no. Everything is okay. We see you. We are sorry”. Our trainer was very calm, he knew that this was a normal situation with inquisitive bull elephants and knew that we were not yet in any real danger if we just kept still and followed his instructions. The elephant turned and walked off into the bush on the opposite side of the road, head held high.

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There was a long space of silence then a couple of us began giggling once the adrenaline set in – it had been such an incredible experience! Our trainer then explained to us why he had acted how he had, and that we had come into the elephant’s space not the other way round, so we were to respect that and react without aggression, etc. It was fantastic learning, and will not be forgotten.

Blog & Pictures by Jess Talbot

Jess 2