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Lapalala Wilderness School, South Africa.

Game Warden

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Game Warden

@ and I had been invited by John Hanks to visit the Lapalala Wilderness School, and this tied in nicely with our trip to Botswana – so early on the morning of April 30th we set off leaving Limpopo Lipadi behind us, driving that long graded track until reaching the main road, some 70 odd kms further on. We turned left and headed for the Martin’s Drift border point: exiting Botswana was a breeze, no queue, no traffic, no need to change pulas into rands and everything else that had delayed us upon our arrival.


Soon into South Africa, we had to stop the car – I hopped out to assist a large and slow leopard tortoise cross the road. I popped it into the undergrowth in some shade: I wonder what would have happened to it had we not stopped – there were a number of fast moving trucks and we were later to see instances of roadkill. Hopefully this was considered my good deed for the day and one more tortoise lived to cross another road. It was a long but easy drive, mostly on main roads: stopping off at small shops in out the way towns to stock up on pies and drinks, the beard continued to be an icebreaker, making everyone smile and want to chat. I found people friendly, happy, keen to talk and spend time with me. Never once did I feel awkward or out of place – we, as tourists, or potential tourists to South Africa may read a number of negative reports in the media but certainly during my stay never once did I feel unsafe and especially not on these roadtrips through the country. I would shake people’s hands, embrace them, laugh a lot with them, smile in a cheeky manner and engage them – make them talk about themselves. More than once people wanted their photos taken with me… Dikdik also has an extremely good way with people and oft were we delayed by a few minutes with people coming up to us. I mean, he’s almost 7 feet tall, and I come to his shoulder, but more people noticed the beard than his height: perhaps a beard is considered a sign of wisdom, perhaps I was seen as an elder. Or an idiot. The latter more likely. But it did not matter, what mattered was the connection with people, whoever they were, whatever their racial background.




An example of one of the small shops we stopped at, it seemed in many places, the shop was the town, there was nothing more, these were the social centers in the middle of nowhere….


There's an amusing anecdote about dikdik, his extreme 4x4 vehicle and a certain South African Off Roading magazine, but I feel it better he tell it ;)

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Peter Connan

Looking forward to the rest of this report!

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Game Warden

The long straight drive on a well maintained highway, the N11 saw a complete contrast in farming methods, ecosystems. Both dikdik and I regret not stopping to photograph the most obvious example shortly after entering South Africa. On the left side of the road a monocrop farm with great circular irrigation spinners. The single crop sprouting up through the red earth like a recent hair transplant - red, dusty and dry soil exposed to the blazing sun. No variety of plant life, everything at a single uniform height, no shade, no wildlife, no insects, no birds: it was literally that stark, barren. Whilst directly opposite, the high fences of a game farm, the ecosystem behind with its flourishing veldt, varied flora, obvious wildlife and insect life, in turn supporting birdlife - holistic conservation of a land mass compared to the sterile space opposite. I sincerely doubt chemical fertilisers or pesticides are used on such a farm. Of course, one can argue that food production on huge commercial scale is important, demanding monocrop agriculture, and those opposed to hunting will also point fingers at the game farms in which wildlife is hunted: I was inbetween wondering just where was the balance. Along the N11 one saw signs for biltong, wors, meat etc, I would assume a byproduct from the game farms. Solely in terms of land conservation, the game farm model must be the best way of preserving nature, despite the fact that I don't like hunting. And yet I still eat meat, from farms perhaps where they only keep cattle, or pigs, sheep. On a game farm there are many different species all managing the flora in their own way. Grazing, browsing, free range. But those who oppose hunting only see the fact that the wildlife is hunted, not how such a farm protects the veldt. It was one of the many points we discussed at length on our drive to Lapalala...

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Game Warden

Shortly after Bochum, (a single shop marked the town itself, on the junction), we turned right onto the R561 which took us as far as Marken. The differences in agricultural practices in this area were less marked as there were more game farms, and mixed farms. What marked the R561 was the number of pot holes - there were many occasions we were to be driving on the hard shoulder and verges as the holes were just too severe, even for the suspension of our Jeep. Perhaps said condition of the road helps as a traffic calming measure, slowing everyone down - you knew there was wildlife on each side of the road, some hemmed in, some not and it was sad to see this black backed jackal road kill buzzing with flies.




It must have been a day or more old, the air surrounding it buzzed with flies and there was the rank smell of putrification. The asphalt was hot, it was cooking the rotting remains...


The scenery from Marken onwards was quite stunning with mountains, stunning veldt, private game farms and reserves - the R518 took us in the direction of Groesbeek, close to which we turned off the main road and reverted to graded dirt tracks which wound up into the hills. It was just following the junction we avoided the second roadkill of the trip, what we think was a Cape Eagle Owl. I got out to photograph it and moved it from the road to the verge. It was much fresher than the jackal...




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Alex The Lion

Any pics of the Seven sisters?

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Game Warden

We may well have seen The Seven Sisters in the Waterberg, though I didn't know at the time: we didn't take any photos but the rugged mountainous terrain was certainly impressive on our drive to the entrance gates. Upon signing in, we were handed our instructions, map and waited to be collected by Wilderness School Director, Dr. Doug Loewenthal...



Other than the short drive to our accomodation, we were to be driven everywhere in the reserve, the school itself being centrally situated. We stayed in one of the camps, consisting of a series of comfortable and well equipped rondavels: equipped for self catering groups, researchers etc. Once settled in, we rode with Doug to the school where we joined staff and some researchers for a simple lunch - we had not been expecting to be fed and the pies which we'd had en route sat like a stone in my stomach... and here's proof that @ helps clear away and does the washing up.



Following lunch, we were guided around the school facilities by Patricia, "Mibbs" Marsh, one of the educational staff. At this time, there were no classes running which gave us more time to talk with the teaching staff. Founded in 1985 by conservationist Clive Walker and Dale Parker, (both instrumental in the creation of Lapalala Wilderness itself), and its mission is thus:


To promote an appreciation and respect for the extraordinary diversity of Africa’s natural world and to develop and encourage a passion and commitment to conserve nature and ecological processes, where possible identifying and nurturing the conservation champions of the future.


Able to accomodate up to 60 students at a time, (children 11 years and above) and, depending on numbers, divided into 3 different course groups based upon ages, accomodation is comprised of single sex dormitories, with seperate bedrooms for teachers, all centered round a large courtyard area, close to which are the classrooms, offices and canteen.







In the evenings, after dinner, students gather round the camp fire for stories, talks and Q&A sessions with the educators and other researchers.



Of course, most of the teaching at the school is conducted outside, beneath the trees, by the river, up on the lookout points, in the wilderness itself. However there is an interpretive centre and auditorium:






Note Doug laughing, it was something he did alot. Here in this room is where children, (many of whom are growing up in underprivileged conditions), have hands on experience, a tactile learning experience accompanied with films, commentaries and interesting interactive lectures. Skulls, bones, skins & hides, horns, (fake), faeces etc are all part of the students education. And for those not of faint of heart, they can handle, (under supervision), Mmabotse, “pretty” in Sipedi, a large Burmese Python/Boa Constrictor cross who was born and raised in captivity and later given to the school for educational purposes, not being able to be released into the wild.





Don't confuse the look on my face for one of calm reflection, the snake had by this time wrapped itself and my beard snuggly round my neck, Patricia thought we were posing and came to join us for a pic whilst in reality I was trying to wrestle Mmabotse from its death clutch... ;)




Doug was busy during the afternoon so we snuck in for a quick photo opportunity with him at work before we were taken to see the San Bushman cave paintings which you can read about here.

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Game Warden

There are a number of loops to drive in the reserve close by the school, (which is seperated from reserve proper by fencing thus to ensure the safety of the children), upon which, during the afternoon, both prior and following our cave visit we had good sightings. We were able to get out of the vehicle with our guide and approach on foot closer to some of the wildlife - being able to do so really gave one a sense of being out in the bush. A huge Kudu bull with incredible horns dominated the plains in the setting sun's golden light in front of Clive Walker's old and empty house. I made the suggestion to @ that we should rent the house every year, do it up a little, it has a most amazing vista out across the plains which dip away in front of it, down towards the Lapalala River.


John Hanks had made sure we were well looked after, a large dinner awaited us upon our return to the rondaval, beers and wine in the fridge... Doug joined us before we set off on a night drive the aim of which was to spot an aardvark or pangolin. Alas we saw neither, but I did spot movement in the low brush, Doug stopped and we hopped out with spotlight in time to see a honey badger delving into the undergrowth. We tried to follow it as a waddled from sight into the darkness but the fleeting glimpse was all we managed. It was enough for me, I'd not seen one before. In honesty, we hadn't come to explore the reserve and felt to be imposing upon Doug to bring us out, but he was as enthusiastic as we were and whilst not the most productive of drives, it was an opportunity to be out, with the stars above us, the silence of the wilderness, the fragrance of the plains blown into the car through open windows, the glare of a bushbaby's eyes in the spotlight. I was hoping to see one of Lapalala's elusive leopards, but perhaps they saw us, whilst we never saw them...


The night was marked only by the snoring of @ in the room next to mine...

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Game Warden

When the school is full of groups, by necessity those groups are split into 3 for a rotational programme of activities, all with an aim to educate the children about environmental protection and responsibility, wildlife conservation and for an appreciation of the wilderness. Let us not forget that some of the students coming to Lapalala will not have had any contact with wildlife or the wilderness before so hopefully when they leave, they will take that appreciation with them. In fact, the school is often contacted by past students from years back who were inspired by what they learnt whilst there to follow conservation as a career/life choice. Likewise, how schools which visit then set up their own conservation clubs, volunteers who clean up litter and give talks to local communities based upon what they learnt at Lapalala. Even if only 1 child from each of those groups goes on to do something worthy for South Africa's wildlife, it is a great achievement. That is what the school strives for and I believe, it is succesful - you can see this in the manner of the educators, how enthusiastic they are to make a difference and change lives.


So I'd like to include one of the rotational programmes from the school's own cirriculum.


Day 1. Arrival.


12h00 Arrival

12h00-12h30 Rules and regulations, groups sorted.


12h30-13h30 Lunch


13h30-16h00 Amazing race

16h00-18h00 Resevoir swim

18h00-19h30 Evening drive


19h30-20h00 Supper


20h00-21h00 Campfire / shower time

21h30 Lights out.


Day 2. Mosetse. (Mosetse is a house within the reserve which is without electricity)


06h00 Wake up

07h00-08h00 Breakfast

08h30-13h00 Interactive nature walk including spoor identification


13h00-14h00 Picnic lunch at lunch spot


14h00-15h30 Obstacle course

15h30-17h00 Rhino conservation talk

17h30-18h30 Toiletry bag inspection. (Note, not a search for stolen goods but a talk on chemicals, products, recycling of rubbish etc)


18h30-19h30 Supper


19h30-21h00 Conservation Indaba around the campfire at Mosetse


Day 3. Sleep Out.


06h00-07h00 Clean up Mosetse and return to the school


07h00-08h30 Breakfast


08h30-10h00 Creepy-crawly talk

10h00-12h00 Game drive


12h00-13h00 Lunch


13h00-14h00 River ecology

14h30-16h30 Mud fight

16h30-17h30 Depart for the sleep out camp, for night activities and star gazing


Day 4. School.


06h00 Wake up


07h30-08h30 Breakfast


08h30-10h30 Biodiversity game

10h30-13h00 Goal setting, conflict strategy game


13h00-14h00 Lunch


14h00-16h00 Adaption and evolution

16h00-17h00 Reservoir swim

17h00-18h00 Shower time


18h00-19h00 Supper

19h00-21h00 Talent show for all 3 groups


Day 5. Return home.


06h30 Wake up


07h30-08h30 Breakfast


08h30-09h00 Reflection and wriiten solitaire and tribal council.

09h00 Depart Lapalala Wilderness School.


Pupils really enjoy the camp out, the mud fight, the river/reservoir swim, game drives, over everything else but nothing is seen as a chore, it takes part in a fun way, to get the kids involved, enthused.

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This sounds like an incredible time.


Love that shirt, @.

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Game Warden

Obviously it would be a different experience for a visitor like me if school was in session: having met Doug he probably would've roped me in to give a talk. I got on well with Doug, we quickly established a rapport, the three of us, Dikdik, Doug and me. In the short time I had known him, I had seen how passionate he was about the school: he was from an academic and research background, a bird specialist, focusing mostly upon conservation of the African Black Oystercatcher. But upon becoming director of the Wilderness School, he'd told me how much of a great change it had been upon his life, how he really felt to be making a difference in conservation. How removed this new role was from that of his old life. How much he hoped to be making a difference. He was already stamping his laid back authority upon the school and making it his...


This was not a "touristy" visit. We weren't here to see the big five, sit out round camp fires, focus on photography etc, the usual safari: this was a discovery trip, to see the school, how it worked and meet the staff. If it weren't for John Hanks, I wouldn't have visited and wouldn't have met Doug. @ was keen to visit the school as well.


So we had a good old fry up breakfast with Doug and whilst he went to work, Mashudu, one of the senior educators gave us a guided tour of the school and its grounds...




Whilst not the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, the football pitch of the school was well loved and used: football, (soccer), is very popular with young South Africans and in their spare time at the school a game of footie was very popular...



One of the school projects was a permaculture vegetable garden which was the students responsibility to maintain. The produce would be used in the kitchens, it was fenced off to stop monkeys and some of the more cheeky antelope from having a free and healthy meal...




The crops were certainly doing well, putting my own efforts back at the HQ to shame and I was keen to find out as much as I could in order to apply it to my own vege patch.



Close by was the pathway to the obstacle course and obstacle number one was the spider web: this was a group effort where it was important for each member to get through it without getting caught in it. It takes thinking and concentration. The pathway itself was also educational: prior to the kids walking down it, teachers would place things that shouldn't be there. Rubbish, tin cans, crisp packets etc - it was an observation test and when these items were "discovered" it would lead to discussion. The obstacle course is a team event: not who finishes first, quickest, but who works best as a team. Remember, there is no I in team...







(dikdik is not your average sized student but had as much fun as they do...)



You can see why the obstacle course is a favourite of the students. (And tall Safaritalk members).


Next to the obstacle course is the Lapalala River. Also a favourite of the students and teachers, this is where they get a chance to swim in one of the pools. I wasn't about to don the Safaritalk Mankini and have a go myself, but we took a nice walk along the rocks of the river: from somewhere, we could hear hippos.



I had this awful premonition that I'd slide on the rocks and end up in the river anyway: luckily it did not come true.


We walked back to the canteen for coffee before we looked to head off back to Joburg, where Patricia joined us to talk about the serious issue of rhino poaching in South Africa. One thing the school uses to get the kids attention is this crate which they bring into a packed classroom, having warned the students that there is something of great importance inside. Sound effects add to the drama and of course the class are invited to guess what is inside. No one ever gets that it is in fact a cuddly rhino which holds its own passport.



Everyone meets the rhino and it forms part of the rhino conservation talk. Students are invited to write letters and stories about the rhino issue, draw pictures, there are a great number of these archived at the school and on display. Will one of these students go on to help save them? That is the hope.

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Game Warden

John Hanks writes in the school's 2013 Annual Report,


The big challenge for all of us involved with the Lapalala Wilderness School, (LWS) is to get across the message that environmental conservation is not a luxury. It is, instead, an essential prerequisite for building a sustainable future for South Africa; a fact that applies to all industries and businesses who must commit to promoting well-conserved and managed natural systems. Increasingly those who spend time at the school come to appreciate and understand the vital importance of protecting biodiversity and ecosystems that support life and provide us with clean water and air, soil genesis, pollination and other key ecosystems services.


I could not agree more, and the more children who pass through the school, learn from the lessons and take back to their communities this message are ambassadors for everything the school is seeking to achieve. The school is a charity funded NGO, but which offsets the cost of hosting community schools and children from disadvantaged backgrounds for free. Therefore there is a balance between fee paying groups and those which are hosted for nothing. During the last ten years over 24,000 students have attended courses at LWS, and 1500 educators have visited the school taking part in environmental education programmes. An incredible figure.


Over coffee I discussed with Doug how Safaritalk could help the school, whether we could sponsor one of the community schools to attend, perhaps whether sponsoring the cost of the annual internet charges would be a better tie in. We shared many ideas and I left the school and Doug behind wondering just how could Safaritalk and the Lapalala Wilderness School tie together, other than me offering more exposure to a wider audience than they were already receiving. The values of the school are so important and it is making a difference in the lives of young people...


It was a shame to leave the school behind but there was still much to do on this trip to South Africa. After many goodbyes to staff, we were away, the gates to Lapalala Wilderness closing behind us. We were headed for Joburg and a flight down to Cape Town...


Two days later, I had an enjoyable dinner with John Hanks and his wife, @ and his wife down in Cape Town's Water Front where it really was a privilege to be in his company even if only for such a short time. A person with incredible experience, knowledge and a shed full of stories to tell from his time as Director of the Africa Programme at WWF-International, Switzerland; Chief Executive, WWF-South Africa; First Executive Director of the Peace Parks Foundation; Director of Conservation International’s TFCA Initiatives and Wilderness Program in Southern Africa. All I could do was listen and absorb. Of course it gave me opportunity to thank him for his hospitality and arranging the visit and I'm keen to stay in touch.



View from the restaurant balcony.


Post meal bloat with John.

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Game Warden



A few days following my return to the HQ I received news from John that Doug had been killed in a car crash whilst at Lapalala on May 18th. I was devestated. I had not yet got everything together from my trip and was the following week planning to write and thank him, send him the photos I'd taken, talk more about how we could do something together for the school. His words about how this was the happiest time in his professional life, being in a place where he felt he was really making a difference in conservation, how much he loved the school and what it was achieving rang in my ears. In such a short tenure he'd achieved so much at the school and was going to do so much more, and then it all ended for him.



Doug's obituary from the Lapalala Wilderness School.


Doug's obituary from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, South Africa.


RIP mate.



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I do love to hear about initiatives like this and I would love there to be many, many more. How fortunate for us that you were able to visit but the fact that Doug was killed so soon afterwards makes this a bittersweet report to read. I can imagine that the trip will always be tinged with sadness for you. That is how I feel about my 2012 visit to Southern Serengeti with every photo reminding me that it was an exciting trip but with the sadness of Karen's death also in a car crash so soon after my return. I think we always live with those sadnesses.


Thank you for posting this Matt, and I hope your experience will lead to a continued involvement with the school despite Doug's death.

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Peter Connan

It is with great sadness that I read your last post about the passing of Doug @@Game Warden. My condolances to those who were close to him. Such organizations are so often dependent on the enrgy and enthusiasm (not to mention vision)of the leadership, and I sincerely hope the successor is capable of taking this worthy organization forward!


I dug out my box of old photos and scratched out the ones I took at Lapalala. Unfortunately there are no dates on them, but looking at the size of the kids involved I think I must have been around 12. Also, I had on a primary school hat, which kind of bears that out. If this is the case, then I must have been among the first students "processed" through the wilderness school (as I was 12 in 1985). At the time I obviously neither knew nor cared how old the school was. Ours was not a school group, and I have no idea how the group came about. I knew only one other person in the group, a childhood friend called Steven Walker. The only person who may have remembered (my dad) pased away last week. A group photo shows eight boys, one girl and the guide (a lady I remember as being British), excluding myself (the photographer).


Conditions were considerably more basic back then, although I suspect we may have been at a "satellite camp". There was one small building, possibly best described as an open lecture room (if I remember correctly it had walls on two two sides and a thatched roof) which we never used and a row of tents in which we could sleep if we wanted, however most of us simply slept around the fireplace (simply made in a ring of stones in a clearing with some sawn-off stumps as seats, all cooking was done here and all classes not conducted in the field as well). I remember three of us sleeping in a tent the first night. It was bitterly cold, such that one of the boys' running shoe (which he had left outside) broke in half the next morning as he tried to donn it. Thereafter we also slept around the fire. Also, I cannot remember any ablution facilities, although I am sure there must have been.


There was no soccer field, obstacle course, nursery or fence around the camp. We also spent one night in a huge tree house built in a massive leadwood tree.


I remember swimming and canoeing in the river, visiting the bushman paintings and several nature walks, but the mud fight was not yet part of the itinerary, more's the pity. I remember a hilarious incident when a boy we called Snolly (boys are quite vile creatures and should probably be drowned at birth) dissapeared down an antbear hole while carrying the canoe back after our rowing session, only his firm grip on the canoe preventing his complete disapearance!

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@@Peter Connan That's great feedback, many thanks. I've spoken with John who is currently at the school and will be taking a more indepth read of the topic upon his return to Cape Town. Would you be able to scan the photos and any of the archive material you might still have from 1985 and add it to the topic? It would be great for the school to have some historical material and I know John would like to see it. Do you remember if you had any lectures from Clive Walker?



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That is a very sad loss at the end of a very positive story.

I was going to say a sad end - but hopefully the good work being done will continue.

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Very sad to hear about Doug's untimely death. These things are always awful when they happen but even more so when someone so vibrant and worthy is lost. At least you got to meet him, Matt - and it sounds like he inspired you. I too hope that your involvement with the school continues.

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Peter Connan

@@Peter Connan That's great feedback, many thanks. I've spoken with John who is currently at the school and will be taking a more indepth read of the topic upon his return to Cape Town. Would you be able to scan the photos and any of the archive material you might still have from 1985 and add it to the topic? It would be great for the school to have some historical material and I know John would like to see it. Do you remember if you had any lectures from Clive Walker?



Matt, I do not have a scanner but will have it done, however it will take a few days.

Unfortunately I never got the opportunity to meet Clive Walker, he was always an inspiration to me.

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What a loss...hopefully his legacy will continue to inspire.


@@Peter Connan Also sorry to hear of your father's recent passing.

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Such an uplifting and hopeful account. Never knew Dikdik was that tall, making his name all the more ironic. The snakes were entertaining. Including the daily schedule was a nice touch; I especially liked the mud fight and toiletry inspection. The mission and other quotes regarding the school were inspirational and so encouraging. And then the tragic death is so shocking and sad.

What a loss...hopefully his legacy will continue to inspire.


Edited by Atravelynn
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  • 2 weeks later...
Peter Connan

@@Game Warden, I compromised by taking photos of the photos.


The group:



The school bus:



The fireplace:



Making a broom:



Playing in the Palala:



And the water-bearer. There were two rucksacks in the group, one carried by the teacher, the other by the kids taking it in turn:


Can't believe I used to look like that...

Edited by Peter Connan
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  • 2 weeks later...

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