In Conversation with a Game Ranger in the Bay, Nicola Schwim

  • 29 March 2017 | By Anje Rautenbach

With the big seven in close proximity to the city it is no wonder that Nelson Mandela Bay can be a bit on the wild side.

Nicola Schwim, a game ranger in the Bay, knows all too well about walking on the wild side. 

She qualified as a game ranger in 1999 and after spending a few years in different wilderness areas in South Africa, she arrived in the Bay at Gorah Elephant Camp in 2002 where she spent several years studying, experiencing and guiding in the Addo bush. During this time, Nicola achieved her SKS Qualification (Special Knowledge & Skills), as well as an Assessorship enabling her to train Rangers/Guides for Wilderness Trails and she developed a great love for the area.

She says, "there is calmness about Addo, a gentleness"...

We had a chat with Nicola and she shared her passions, the challenges of the job, her favourite things in the Bay as well as some experts tips for going on game drives and for those who want to pursue a career in the field of nature conservation and guiding.

 


In Conversation with a Game Ranger in Nelson Mandela Bay, Nicola Schwim 

Q: You’ve been a game ranger for almost 20 years now; where did the interest and passion come from to became a ranger?

Nicola: When I was at school my passion for geography and biology was at the fore, not knowing all the options available to me I thought the most sensible thing to do was to become a Geography teacher. Ironically it was my high school geography teacher that advised me the world was big and the classroom too small for me. It was she who explored into it further and advised me that game ranging, she felt, would be a great option for me, as it was theoretical as well as practical, it involved teaching as well as constant learning, and that there were so many aspects to it. She was right; from the first day I felt it was the right choice for me. I LOVED the studies and once I found my feet in the industry (at Gorah) I never regretted it. Loved it!

Q: What is the highlight of your career so far?

Nicola: There were and still are endless highlights every day, small and big, it is so difficult to choose one. The career in itself, the lifestyle overall is the highlight. This profession has lead me on a self-fuelled passionate affair of many kinds. I have seen the most incredible things, like the sunrise and sunset every day, season changes, small miracles, wild animals being born (elephants, whales, buffalos), I have met the most incredible people - diverse from all walks of life, famous and infamous and many of these people are still intertwined in my projects to this day. Writing my books was also a big highlight. Reaching the Head Rangers post at Gorah was a big one for me. Representing Gorah and Addo in many presentations has also been an honour. There are so many wonderful highlights.

Q: As a game ranger at Gorah Elephant camp; what does a typical day look like for you?

Nicola: I was a game ranger at Gorah for many years, but have not been posted there permanently for a number of recent years. My involvement with her is still intrinsic though, and I am constantly one way or the other involved with Gorah, either as an ambassador, or presenter, sometimes training enrichment or mentorship. My connection with her will always be there and be a part of me.

But to answer your question, on the ground, on a daily basis, in all positions, you never know what the day will hold and at large you just need to be ready for anything that comes. Some days are so peaceful and smooth you can hear the breeze tickle the flowers and all seems to be in slow motion, and other days it seems that everything that can happen, is happening, and all and sundry needs attention at that moment. Tornado comes to mind...

Seasons change, and job roles change as per how many guests are in camp, what the weather is doing, what shifts are up and of course, your rank in the pool of it.

Mostly for everyone, it is very early to rise (before sunrise) and late to bed, on most days for a basis. Things have changed a bit since I was in the field regarding working over-time, back in my day there was no such thing as over-time, it was simply all the time!

Life is extremely full and there is seldom a wasted minute of the day. Junior ranks can be tough going in that you often need to lap up some of the harder grind of washing vehicles, changing tyres, packing cooler boxes, meeting guests, conducting game drives, and all and sundry tasks that may be required of you. Some of the tasks can include changing gas bottles, fixing water pipes, removing spiders or frogs from guest tents, running a task for the kitchen, and carrying a suitcase. Then there are the more fun out in the field tasks which require brush cutting, road management, cleaning waterholes, repairing pipes after the elephants have been there and repairing fences. All and anything goes, and its what makes it so special and exciting. There is no such thing as “it is not my job”. The staff involved are more a family, and you do what you need to do to help anyone, in any department to keep the torch burning bright.

In the more senior roles one starts to acquire more management responsibility, training the younger guides becomes a more involved task, keeping the team motivated and inspired especially through hot days or tired days. One can be asked to assist in the lodge with tasks, staff management, and these things are over and above all the things I just mentioned above. Even in senior roles you still need to pull your weight, if not more, and get the tasks done. Sometimes it is pouring with rain, and other days its near 50°C, either way the show goes on!
 


Q: What makes Addo Elephant National Park and the Greater Addo so special?

Nicola: When I first arrived in Addo I was very reserved. My big question, after being in Kruger and up north was simply, “Eastern cape? What’s in the Eastern cape?” It didn’t take me long to realise, well, everything is in the Eastern cape.

Addo is vastly different to our other wild areas in South Africa. I always got the feeling with guides that came through over the years that, either you totally got it, or you just never get it at all. You don’t simply like Addo a little bit. In a sense it’s more spiritual, I don’t want to use the word tame as that’s not the right word, but there is calmness about Addo, a gentleness. The elephants in particular I find are in a way, almost enjoying you being around and as long as you respect their personal space, they appear happy to share their world with you. I often got the feeling that they were saying, "come, I have something to show you” most of the time. One can park ones vehicle next to a waterhole, and just relax, delight in their antics and play. One is so often rewarded with incredible sightings of tiny babies, and relaxed play, that it really is so special. They are not on the defense all the time.

I also love the immense diversity of Addo. Just in the one section I worked in for a while was 112 different vegetation types. The botany in Addo is mind-blowing. And not just in one section, I used to take leave and travel to the other sections in the “Greater” Addo and feel like I was in a totally different place.

I love the idea that Addo as a National Park is never stagnant. Right from the beginning but especially in my personal ‘era of observation’ since when Dr Anthony Hall-Martin had his acquisition for a Greater Addo accepted in 1997, things as I have observed have been happening. One is always seeing the Parks Rangers working at this expansion project, dropping fences, building new boundaries, buying up new land, rehabilitating land, managing alien vegetation. I love that. It’s a living, growing, dream.

I also love the history of Addo. One can drive through the bush and still find old things, particularly in the northern sections in the Karoo, you can stumble on an old ox wagon, or old tools, old graveyards some of the headstones of which have the most interesting captions, or barrels, old weapon, or rusted milk churns. It’s like a step back in time, in a way. Even around Gorah and the old farmstead, we found so many tell tales of the people who lived on the old farm. Discovering their stories in archives became one of my personal passions, it was like one massive treasure chest, and you never knew when something new was about to rear its head. I especially loved exploring the bush after heavy rains, when stone tools or other artifacts would wash up. It is the most amazing place. Wilderness trails brought in an entirely new aspect. Walking in Addo is like no other place; suddenly the tameness turns into wildness, dangerous, impenetrable thickets, and you realise what those early farmers and hunters experienced; the “thorny hell” it was dubbed. Those walks kept me on my toes, and I loved it!

There are so many things about Addo I love!

Q: What are your top tips for going on a game drive?

Nicola: Don’t be in a rush to see the big things. Nature will show you what she wants you to see. There is so much joy in the small things, and most often it is while you are enjoying the fine details, that the big things happen. Have no expectations, and the experience will blow your mind away. Early morning and evenings are usually a more magical time, there is a beautiful energy in the bush at these times, however I have seen all sorts of things at many ridiculous hours around the clock. Just be in it, and experience the wholeness of it. You also need to give it time. One game drive is great, but try at least give it three days minimum to grasp the experience in its entirety. We are also inclined to want to take photographs of EVERYTHING. Try to put the camera down and simply soak in the memory of what you are seeing, it will have a far longer lasting and deeper impact on you.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Nicola: For all positions in the lodge environment, whether a guide, ranger, chef, front office, is the being away from “normal” life, which sounds a contradiction but it is what we all miss. Being in the bush is very much an all or nothing LIFESTYLE (note not job). You lose track of day of the week, or date of the month. There are many amazing people in the team, and one becomes a close-knit family (I still to this day have unspoken bonds with members of my team from years ago) but there are limited people to choose close relationships with. Many people are single, and once you start moving into marriage or children stages, it becomes very difficult to maintain your career in the bush. It works for some people, but for many it becomes a hard task. You miss special occasions; socializing with friends, sleep…did I mention sleep? But for the most it’s worth it. For the LIFE you experience, it’s worth it.

Q: You wrote a book, Elephant Footprints, tell us more about it. 

Nicola: I actually wrote and published the first edition of Elephant Footprints in 2003. Shortly after that I published a small rendition of History of the Gorah, which was a tribute to the people of Gorah over many years, and such a beautiful collection of old photographs and stories of the old Gorah farm and its being there all this time, and now renovated into the beautiful Gorah Elephant Camp in the heart of the Addo park. The first Elephant Footprints was basically an account of my first year in Addo at Gorah. It was an amazingly exciting time as it was the era that “we” introduced the Kruger bulls into the Addo herd to increase the gene pool, the park was expanding into many new areas and the Greater Expansion project was unfolding in front of our eyes, and “we” also introduced predators into the Park then, which came with a whole array of events.

Not only was all this going on from an Addo perspective, but for me personally it was a time of great discovery in so many aspects, both in the field and in my personal growth. It was an extremely happy and exciting time of my life. I loved the people of Gorah, I loved the Addo bush and the elephants in particular. The words poured from my heart and the book kind of just wrote itself.

Ten years after that publication, I joined forces with a guest and friend from Switzerland, who assisted me in printing a second version of Elephant Footprints, the first edition having been out of print for some time. So the second edition, the one that is out now, is an elaboration of the first edition, and all that transpired over the following ten years from when the first book was written. I added to it many stories that I had acquired from the now Greater Addo region rather than just around Gorah, as well as the individual stories on the Kruger bulls, how they had featured, the lions and hyena and how they had faired. I loved putting the new edition together and it has proved a great success.

My books were never intended for mass sales, best sellers, and flooded book store shelves. My books are deeply personal, and those that acquire copies understand what I mean by that. You need to share the love and passion for Addo. When you read it, you get it, you understand it, you identify with it. When we first went to find an official publisher for the book, it was criticized as having too many components. But that is exactly the point, about Addo and my experiences in this place, through Gorah, it is so multi-faceted, so many magical parts that make up a whole,  that it has to be presented like this. One is not anything when not combined with the others, and the whole makes up the unique and deeply special Addo. The same applies to the books. When you hold one, and own one, you know you are a part of an elite group who “get it”.

For more information about how to obtain a book, click here.

Q: Besides being in the bush, what other places do you enjoy visiting in Nelson Mandela Bay?

Nicola: Ironically Schoenmakerskop is one of my absolute favorite places. I never get tired of visiting it, especially on the eastern side. Everyday there is a different mood to this place. I always feel that it has no memory, and whenever I visit, I find myself completely in the moment, it is extremely refreshing and filling for the soul.

I also find Maitlands extremely beautiful. I love doing the circular drive down sea view, and back past Elephant Walk through Kragga Kamma. I never get tired of that drive.

Cape Recife is my next favourite, especially for photography.

I am always finding somewhere to drive around the area. I feel so many of our visitors are too quick to land in Port Elizabeth and move out, but there is a lot of small things around not broadcasted to our tourists, almost like you need to see them through the eyes of the locals. I love Nelson Mandela Bay!

Q: Do you have any favourite restaurants in Nelson Mandela Bay?

Nicola: I love the quiet quaint places. I frequent the likes of the Grass Roof, Nanga Farmstall and Sacramento at Schoenies. I love supporting unique individual places with real people and real food and real charm. Eastern Cape has many of these places which I love!

Q: What advice can you give to someone who is also interested in becoming a game ranger? 

Nicola: There are many “ranger schools” now available to young people entering the industry. One need just look for those that are accredited. I still support FGASA, the Field Guides Association, and while its not necessary to have their qualifications, I have always supported what they stand for, and I enjoyed the ranks they offered which gave qualified guides something to keep working towards once they were settled in the industry.

There are also other institutions like SAN-Ecosystems which now provides enrichment courses to qualified guides to keep them expanding on their knowledge and experiences while respecting that their hours in the field are long and not always in access to facilities. As far as advice is concerned, this is an all or nothing career. You got to give it your everything or don’t bother at all. The pay is weak, and the end package as far as financial stability needs careful consideration, this is in no way a job for the money! You need to consider this in the long term, as while game ranging is great in your twenties, you need to have a plan for when you hit your thirties and forties and where your career can take you, as options become more limited the older you get. So before going into it, speak to people who have had many years in the industry and know what lies ahead. If after this you decide its for you, then give it everything you got, and suck the marrow out of it, you will not regret it! Where “normal life things” fall short in this industry, the lifestyle, experiences and dreams fulfilled along the way make up for every cent of it. One feels you really “live life to the fullest”!

 


And now we have a few quick questions...

Bush or beach? Bush

Tent or lodge? Lodge (now that I am getting older and have been spoilt).

Hiking or Off-road driving? Errrr….. off road driving (LOVE IT) but really enjoy hiking too. I always said driving in the bush was like watching the movie, but walking in it was like reading the book. There is place for both.

Camera or binoculars? Used to be camera, but nowadays enjoying my binoculars more. I have learnt to put the camera down and observe more.

Snake or Spider? Happy with spiders any day, still very cautious of snakes…too many close encounters!

Land Rover or Land Cruiser? If I am not having to pay for it Land rover… love their drive in the bush, but I think economically Land cruiser the more viable option. Both great vehicles.

Sunrise or Sunset?  Hard one, both have special magic, but if I have to chose one, sunset.

Mountain or Desert? Can’t choose, love both equally.

Braai or Potjie? Potjie.

 

Well, there you have it! A whole lotta inspiration to explore the wild side of the Bay!

If you want to have your own wildlife experience in the Bay then don't forget to get your hands on a Nelson Mandela Bay Pass! With the pass you can get free entry to Addo Elephant National Park, free entry to Kragga Kamma Game Park, a free game drive and lunch at Kuzuko Lodge, a 15% discount on a full day safari at Hlosi Game Lodge as well as a free entry to SA Marine Rehabilitation & Education Centre.

If you want more wildlife experiences in the Garden Route, you can also get a 20% discount when you visit Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary, Birds of Eden and Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary.

Click here to have a look at the other experiences up for grabs with your Nelson Mandela Bay Pass Card.

If you want to find out more about Nicola and life as a game ranger, you can join in on her adventures via social media.

She is on Twitter,
Facebook,
and Instagram.

Her website and blog is called www.elephantfootprintsbook.com

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