By Harry Taylor, Hugo Prinsloo, Kyle McDonald and Matthew Morkel of Fiennes Tent
The Tuesday dawn rose, introducing us to a paradise of 50,000 hectares of pristine bush, containing a breath-taking variety of game, including incredible numbers of black and white rhino. This was also our first encounter with the Malilangwe Scouts, the elite anti-poaching task force in charge of protecting this conservation area. Their PT sessions were a little more challenging than we had expected, although very entertaining.
After the PT session we were off through the reserve to the Malilangwe breeding centre where they are attempting to breed specific animals so as to jump start the numbers in the wild as well as breeding in stronger genetics, such as greater parasite resistance and larger horns. We were shown through the centre and had the opportunity to see many animals up close including many buffalo, waterbuck, roan, sable and even eland, the shyest of antelope. After the breeding centre we were fortunate enough to be able to visit a cultural village where people are trying to preserve their ancestors’ way of life and teach others about it. We started off learning about how to make fire by friction with sticks and some dung, we then got to see the traditional way of weaving baskets. We also got taught a couple simple traps that can be used to catch birds, and we also got to see the way they smelt iron and work it into arrow heads. We then learnt how to water divine (the validity of which was doubted by some members) and the chance to test our archery skills which resulted in some healthy competition. The fact that not all that long ago people struggled along with this existence shows how lucky we are today to have access to all these wonderful modern gadgets. At the same time, however, one cannot help feeling sorrow for the techniques forged by generations that will soon be lost.
We woke up the next morning, and were driven through pristine bush to physical training with the Scouts. We played “Mud-ball”, a great game with very few rules and a lot of testosterone. Two opposing teams faced each other and attempted to put the ball in one of two baskets, and you weren’t allowed to run with the ball. It was a fantastic way to experience teamwork and play a game that was so open to new ways to drive people into the ground. After PT, we were given a nasty surprise – this was to be the beginning of our survival course. Completely underprepared, with one of us wearing slops (Andrew) and most of us wearing shorts, we were not ready for a midwinter night out in the bush. It highlighted to us how important it is to always be prepared, and highlighted the old Quest motto: “Expect the unexpected.”
We then proceeded to drive around the bush, learning about different plants and their uses, from vines full of water to the cream of tartar powder found within the pods of the baobab, which we knocked down using sticks and proceeded to consume throughout the day. We were then shown how to set up a snare to trap birds feeding on seed, and then went on to set up our own at a nearby waterhole. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch anything, but this was a valuable lesson in the fact that you will not always be successful when struggling to survive. After some close encounters with elephant on foot, watching two bulls play fight, as well as a small pride of lions; we settled down for the night with nothing but a small fire to keep us warm. The night was somewhat restless, and, rising the next morning for yet another game of Mud-ball, we had far less energy than on the previous occasion. Then, in order to experience the sort of fitness that the Scouts enjoy every day, we did an 8km quick march, which is in fact far harder than running it, as the pace is relentless and very intense. During this march we enjoyed the songs of the Scouts as we marched along, and soon arrived at our destination, where we met another surprise. We were split into two teams and told to mud wrestle each other until there was a victor. Tired and hungry, but with fire still in our bellies, we fought in the thick mud – and enjoyed every second. Finally, exhausted but happy, we returned to Hippo Camp, had nice hot showers, and fell straight to sleep.
The next day started off at Malilangwe HQ, where we were shown a presentation of Rhino Security on Malilangwe, the intense and in-depth training of the Scouts and what they would do on a day-to-day basis, as well as a brief look at the type of small arms used by the Scouts. This presentation was setup by Mike Ball, an ex-Royal Marine, who is head of anti-poaching for Malilangwe. It is quite amazing that if your anti-poaching team is really good at what they do, then you have a formula for rhinos to breed and to breed really well. Maliliangwe’s rhinos have increased steadily since the creation of the trust back in the 1990s. In the last seven years the territory held by the trust has not had a single poaching incident, a testament to the professionalism and efficiency of the Scouts. In the afternoon we did a revision session on First Aid – most of us had forgotten much of our practical First Aid, and it was quite funny to see many of us making fools of ourselves. The rest of the afternoon we had off to relax and capture the beauty of Malilangwe.
Our last day was very relaxed, spending the morning having a tour around the luxury hotel on the property, a place so opulent that you could almost feel the luxury oozing out of the walls. The comparison between this and the cultural village we had visited earlier in the week was quite eye opening. We also had a talk from the chief guide there, giving some fascinating insights into the industry, and a Quest old-boy from the first ever intake, who made Quest sounds somewhat different to what it is now. We then spent the afternoon on the range, getting to fire a 308 at a charging simulator, as well as a 458 at a sitting target. The realization of how little time you get to defend yourself against a charging animal (the simulation was running at half speed but people still struggled!) made us appreciate that the life of a guide is by no means a safe cushy option.
We ended the week with a sad goodbye to Malilangwe, what has been a great experience and by far one of the best parts of Quest. Our only regret was having to leave.