Nightjar Training heads to the Serengeti.
By Head Guide Trainer, Charles Delport.
After a few hours of flying and a quick detour via Kigali, I finally arrived in Arusha, where I would be spending my first night in Tanzania. I had received only warm welcomes from the airport staff and it is clear that the people here are very friendly. The hour and half drive from the Kilimanjaro International Airport to my overnight accommodation, gave me an interesting insight into just how vastly different the way of life is here. Traffic rules are completely different and to a newbie to the country, it seems very chaotic & unorganised, yet everything flows smoothly, even after being stuck in a road block for almost an hour waiting for the Vice President to move through the town.
The following day, we set off bright and early through to the Mwiba Lodge, roughly a six-hour drive, without stopping for scenery along the way! The drive there is spectacular, again, for me, very interesting to see a Maasai, dressed in traditional Shuka outfits, herding their cattle or goats along, some heading in to town on their bicycles, their cultural heritage very clearly deeply ingrained into their lives. There was only enough time for brief stop at a viewpoint with breath-taking views over Lake Manyara, with a huge herd of buffalo seen grazing below. On the opposite side, the magnificent Rift Valley towering above us. From this distance, the buffalo looked like little faint black spots moving below, and yet, as far as the eye can see, no fences in sight! I think it is safe to say, this gives vast open spaces a new meaning.
Arriving at the entrance gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we were well informed that patience will be key. If it’s quiet, it will only take around 30 mins to get through, but on busy days in peak season, you can easily wait up to 3 hours before entering the park. Fortunately for us though, the cold and misty day was a deterrent to potential visitors and guides Vianney & Matthew promptly informed us that we were on our way!
The downside of the misty conditions was that the remaining viewpoints, particularly the one overlooking the world famous, Ngorongoro Crater, were shrouded in low hanging cloud (luckily my trip back provided a clear day for viewing!). From there, we slowly started descending into the conservation area again. For me, the most unique thing about this area, is that it is one of the only National Parks worldwide that will allow people to freely live there – this is due to the fact that the residents in the area do not eat game meat as a part of their tradition/culture.
I found the most memorable experience of the entire duration of the trip, was witnessing how people and wildlife interact in one ecosystem and found myself smiling each time we drove past a Maasai herdsmen, whilst a herd of giraffe, zebra or gazelle peacefully moved nearby. Vast open areas that reach as far as the eye can see, lies ahead in every possible direction, filled with animals, ranging from Impala, Giraffe, Thompsons and Roberts Gazelle, the occasional Coke’s Hartebeest, and by far the most common, and my favourite, Kirk’s DikDik!
When arriving at Mwiba, you leave the open grasslands behind you, and it gets replaced by amazing Granite formations, and acacia woodland, which brings with it some amazing birdlife, as well as herds of buffalo and lots of giraffe, defassa waterbuck, Leopard and a small pack of resident Wild Dogs. My arrival was just a few weeks too late to see the mass Wildebeest migration, although I did manage to see a few smaller herds during my first few days, but nothing close to what you would see during peak migration season (next time!). One thing that struck me most while out on the great plains, is that I never anticipated the weather to be the way that it was, with no trees to block or break the wind, and an elevation of close to 2000m above sea level, it gets extremely cold, and very windy out there! But still, enduring the cold and wind pays off with large numbers of Hyena, Golden Jackal, and Cheetah sighting being common, but I managed to miss out on the cheetah, as they seem to have followed the wildebeest out of our area for a few days.
Upon arrival at the lodge, I was greeted by 9 guides, I had no idea of what to expect from them in terms of knowledge, skill or even communication ability! Fortunately for me, these 9 guys welcomed me with open arms, and took everything to heart, understanding that I was there to train and assist them in bettering their existing skill sets. I have never met a friendlier group of guides, each morning their greeting ritual was enough to put a smile on my face. Each individual gets greeted with the warmest and most genuine of smiles followed by a hearty “habari za asubuhi” – “Good Morning”!
Some guides more experienced than others, but each, as it should be, with their own passions and interests. I knew from the start that it would be a difficult task maintaining the interest of all the guides with such varying levels of knowledge & experience within one group, especially as each topic could demonstrate varying levels of difficult. However, each and every guide gave their full participation with the colourful enthusiasm I had come to know the Tanzania nationals to have.
We managed to cover a wide variety of topics during our training sessions, focussing mostly on the basics, as that is the base of all your guiding skills (you need to be able to walk, before you can run). Some of the training topics covered over the course of the 3 week period included radio procedures, GPS handling (a very helpful tool in these vast open areas), 4×4 and driving Skills, Guest Interaction skills, setting up formal drinks stops, Team Building, communicating information on drives, Rifle handling and shooting practice, photography basics as well as formal hosting skills.
Another aspect we tried to focus a lot of our attention on, was approaching and habituating animals to the vehicles. As the property used to be used solely for hunting a few years back, animals were generally skittish around the game viewers, which is not ideal from a game viewing perspective. We definitely made some head-way with the general game, some of the herds of buffalo and the nearby Wild Dog den (with 9 pups!).
One of the biggest challenges came from my favourite animal, elephants! All over East Africa, elephants are being poached at alarming rates, and thus, extremely aggressive when approached by any vehicle or person. This was particularly true with the breeding herds, which is understandable with little ones around.
A few of the guides were very nervous around elephants as historically each breeding herd encountered, had launched numerous warning charges each time they became aware of the vehicle. This is great for learning Elephant behaviour, but not the desired effect when you have guests on board. Patience was key, as we discussed how to effectively and continuously read their behaviour, staying put and not racing away (creating a chasing effect) at the first sign of trouble and pointing out comfort zones were rewarded with a number of relaxed elephant sightings (and a few guides who were no longer scared of viewing Elephants!).
Above all the ‘seriousness’ of the training at hand, we had many laughs too. From extravagant stories, unexpected jokes and way too many tongue twisters, fun was definitely had (Yes, learning can be fun too!). Day by day, I saw the group of individuals become a tight-knit team. After all, having a team of guides who communicate effectively with each other on the basis of trust, leads to a smooth running guest experience.
On the last day of training, before heading back to Arusha, we had a last minute feedback session, and it was clear to see that everyone had enjoyed the training and had truly felt they had benefited from it. The overall improvement in team cohesion, guiding and driving skills was incredible. One of the comments from the eldest Guide in the group, Reginald, summed up the experience nicely: “You have given us the seed, now it is our responsibility to grow it”. I think it is safe to say, mission accomplished!
On my final day in Tanzania, I had a few hours to spare before my departing flight, and was expertly given a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of life in Arusha by two of our guides, Matthew and Vianney. Strange that my journey started, and ended with the same two talented individuals.
To the Mwiba Lodge team – I would like to thank everyone involved for being so open to learning new skills and making this a very successful training trip. Never stop learning, and continue being the great individuals you are!
Charles & The Nightjar Team
(Thanks to Vianney for the photo of Charles & Matthew)