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Private Game Farm

by Mark Woollard

My 3 weeks stay (April/May 2010) at the Private Game Farm was one big inspiring adventure. Leaving day-to-day business behind you, end up having new experiences on a daily base. I cannot think of one day resembling another.
It is not difficult to feel at home in the camp as hospitality is great. No effort is spared by the owners and project management to get the most out of your project stay and find the right mix between voluntary work, education, bush practice and excursions.

A short summary of my experiences:

The first morning I already hit the jackpot. Instead of the usual morning bush walk we went out for a game drive with one of the neighbouring lodges. After an hour or so we came across a male lion and 50m further again a male and also a lioness. We noticed they all had pretty fat bellies and a (for me) strange smell was filling the air. 100 Meters down the road all pieces fell together. The full pride of around 15 lions was still lying around a fresh giraffe kill. The elderly were already on their backs enjoying the morning summer with their filled stomachs, and the cubs were still messing around with the spare ribs. The scent of the giraffe's stomach content is what we smelled and I will still be able to recognize it in 10 years time.

During the first week we were invited to assist during a game capture at a game park in the region. They had to capture approx. 125 impalas. We were explained about the whole set-up and were allowed to take station at the curtains. After we practiced when and how to "run" the curtain, the typical African "waiting game" started. After 2-3 hours waiting we got news that the helicopter broke down and the game capture was postponed. Excitement turned to slight disappointment, but they promised we could come back. On the way home we spotted a white rhino as a consolation.
The day after we were invited back again and this time the capture succeeded. Although this time we were not allowed to run the curtains, it was an exciting event.

As I was following quite a few lectures, my interest in the bush was growing. Therefore I really enjoyed the daily bush walks. Wildlife and especially the big 5 are always top of mind, but it was surprising for me how fascinating trees, grasses, droppings, etc. could be. During the various walks we spotted (baby)giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, jackals, warthogs and of course impalas. I did get my big 5 encounter on foot, as in the third week we stumbled upon 2 white rhinos. After each of us picked their tree to climb into for escaping a potential rhino attack, we tried to get a bit closer. Maybe for the locals it is daily business, but for me this encounter adds to making the trip a unique experience. Also, the drives will offer plenty of excitement. We drove around quite a lot in the "bakkie", a pick-up with benches mounted on top. With a car you can approach the game a lot closer than on foot, but you will still experience some mock charges. Also, driving out at night to track the roaring lions and have the bakkie break down in the middle of the reserve will train your nerves.....

Already before I arrived the volunteers and students that were staying for a longer period were waiting for a survival, a 24 hour or longer stay in the bush with just your sleeping bag. I was not expecting to join the survival as I was only staying for 3 weeks. I thought they would probably go in the weeks after I had left as a few more students were arriving. Surprisingly, in my third week the project leaders were at the breakfast area at 7.30 am telling everybody to collect their sleeping bag and get ready for the survival. During the bush walk to the selected overnight camping area in a dry river bed, we had to collect various bush items that had been topics in the various lectures on tracks, droppings, edible leaves, roots and berries, etc. At the camping area we had to build a shelter, dig water holes and collect fire wood. With 4 guys we also had an unaccompanied bush walk to find more food and build a snare. Although walking without one of the project leaders did not give us an optimal sense of security, I would have never thought of it before the trip. In only 2 weeks time I got the sufficient level of comfort about how to behave and react in the bush. It was still a little bit scary to hear afterwards that during the day 5 lions and a few elephants were spotted in the same area we walked around. We certainly did not see them, but did they see us...? We'll never know. The evening was spent around the campfires enjoying bread stick with water from the water hole, (tall) tales and the frequent lion and jackal calls. The night was spent looking at the incredibly beautiful milky way and wondering how close the lions were with each roar. For the (un)lucky few sleeping was an option if they were not on duty for keeping the fires running. In the morning we were all still there and we walked back to our home base feeling hungry, but also proud about surviving.

Did we have time to do some voluntary work? We certainly did. During a week we were involved as volunteers to do some charity work. It involved cooperating with building up the Sustainable Living Festival in Hoedspruit and assisting during the Festival. In exchange we were allowed to view a musical performance of the Lion King and enjoy the concert of the local band Lemongrass. It felt good to contribute to an event on sustainability and we certainly had a good time during the performances.

Besides the usual bush walks & drives, lectures and voluntary work, the project staff make sure you can fit a full range of excursions into your program. I started with the micro light flight, a fun way to get a different perspective of the area. It is amazing to see the vastness of the game reserves. Bush all around. And it is fun to spot the game from above. I also joined the Manoutsa Hike. After all the bush walks it is nice to change scenery to a mountain area. This trail leads you up and down rocky foot paths, steep ladders, in, out and through caves and crossing the stream and waterfalls numerous times. Thrilling highlight is the jump into the water from a rock around 8m high. We did it twice just to make sure we had it on film! That afternoon we went to the Reptile Park, a must-do on the list. A very lively introduction to the do's and don'ts around snake handling and the opportunity to have a scorpion and baboon spider on your face and/or hand.

I did not select the 2-day Kruger + Panorama Route as I had already been to the Blyde River Canyon etc. on a previous trip. Make sure you do not miss out on this trip as both Kruger and the Panorama Route are marvellous. Instead I joined the FGASA-group on a 2-day study trip to the Kruger Park. Instead of just hunting for the big 5 we were looking at grasses, trees, birds, droppings, etc. etc. We also got our share of elephants, lions, hippos and buffalos. Especially the lions! We were lucky as we followed them front row crossing a bridge. It took us about 20 minutes to get to the other side, so we had quite some time to study their behaviour. Overnight we stayed at Skukuza Guesthouse and enjoyed a braai (bbq) and a good laugh.

I definitely recommend people to join the Private Game Farm. All you need is time, flexibility and a general interest in the bush. The project will take care of the rest!

Mark Woollard
The Netherlands