Tag Archives: learning

A Dazzle of Zebra, a Journey of Giraffe and a Crash of Rhino

The journey was long, an 11 hour flight overnight and a three hour transfer into the Waterberg region in the North East of South Africa. We were particularly relieved to arrive at Ants Hill Safari Lodge not just because of the journey but due to a “mix up” with some paper work which could have seen on the next plane back home again without setting foot outside of the airport… I won’t go into detail here as I don’t want to get myself or anyone else into trouble but I will say that from now on I’m going to check, re-check and triple check all paperwork before I leave home. Thankfully the kindness of a stranger (and probably some middle class, married, white privilege) saw our holiday wasn’t ruined before it had started! And even more thankfully that was the only minor hiccup of what was otherwise the most perfect family adventure ever…

The welcome at Ant’s Hill at around 2 o’clock was warm, friendly and instantly relaxing. The weather was also warm, sweltering in fact and so some cool drinks and a light lunch was perfect. The kids were far too excited for sensible things like naps after the long journey so we had a dip in the pool before getting geared up for our first horseback safari that evening.

It was Rob’s first time ever sitting on a horse and luckily he loved it. The kids took to it too, although Alfie was a bit nervous as he still has a clear memory of our friend Angela getting kicked in the face by her own horse on our farm a couple of years ago… frankly I’m still pretty traumatised by that myself so it’s no wonder it’s well imprinted in Alfie’s mind! By the end our four days at Ant’s Hill Alfie was cantering.

On the first evening though it was a matter of easy going walks around the huge 12,500 acre reserve. Orla took to her mischievous and elderly pony and enjoyed riding so much that she started to fall asleep! I noticed from a few horses back that she was slowly slumping and sliding to the side… we had to keep her talking until we reached the sundowners.

Sundowners… drinks at sunset. Yes it is a slightly colonial concept but it’s also totally awesome to ride on horseback to a high spot for the best views over the South African mountains to watch the sunset with an ice cold glass of wine or gin and tonic. We were on holiday!! The other guests all meet at the same point so you can compare notes on animal sightings and horse riding experiences.

Us being us, we were rather relieved that there weren’t any other Brits staying for the first couple of days, although most guests were European, which, let’s face it, are rather embarrassing to be around these days whichever way one voted. At least Brexit wasn’t off bounds in conversation until other Brits turned up at which point it becomes a rather basil faulty-esque case of “don’t mention Brexit” lest we should disagree! Ahhhh… Brits abroad, all our funny ways are inflated and seem more comic than normal. Anyway, I digress…

After sundowners we get safari trucks back to the hotel, as we’ve let the horses go off into the wild to make their own way home. A bright torch scans the trees for elusive bushbabies and spots nightjars and mongoose. Dinner is superb; impala fillet, but we’re so exhausted it’s a struggle to get through and little Orla falls asleep at the table with her mouth full of impala. When Rob picked her up she woke up and carried on chewing!!

The days at Ant’s Hill are relaxed and don’t involve the traditional safari early starts; Breakfast at 7.30am-ish, hopping on the horse about 8am for a morning ride, getting right up among the zebra, giraffe, warthogs and antelope. Back for a swim about 10am and a leisurely lunch at 12ish either at the hotel or out in the South Africa bush. More pool time and parents taking turns for naps followed by another horse ride to the sundowners spot. What more could you ask of a holiday? Not a lot… but we certainly got more!

One evening instead of horse riding we climbed into the game drive vehicles and headed to the sister hotel, Ants Nest on the far side of the huge estate. The owner, Ant (obvs), is dedicated to the Save the Waterberg Rhino conservation project and to that end has a Rhino breeding programme on the reserve. At this time of year, the tail end of the dry season, they are feeding the rhinos and other animals on the reserve – an expensive necessity in this arid landscape. However, for us this meant we were able to get extraordinarily close to these magnificent, pre-historic beasts as they fed on hay just below the platform we were on. We also got to see the two week old baby rhino feeding from her fiercely protective mum. I’ll write more about the plight of the rhinos in a future post as it warrants awareness raising efforts all round.

The other incredible experience at Ant’s Hill was the opportunity to take part in a game capture. Within a managed reserve such as this it’s vital that an active game management strategy is employed to control populations and ensure the health of the various herds on the estate. There are a few leopards within the reserve but no lions or other major predators so it’s all the more important for humans to manage them. An old, lone, male buffalo was causing problems and given his genetics were already strong within the buffalo herd it was time for him to be moved to another reserve were he could sow a few more seeds. Also a male eland (the largest of the antelope) was unwell and needed to be assess by the vet and potentially isolated for a time. It was an earlier start and a picnic breakfast in the car that day as we set off in the direction of the helicopter noise. It was a rapid and bumpy drive up the mountain to where the buffalo in question had been spotted and by the time we got there the vet had already darted him (from a helicopter into exactly the right spot… IMPRESSIVE!). It takes a lot of strong men to get a buffalo onto a moving stretcher and then into a trailer. And it has to be done before the sedative wears off! It’s also important they keep his gigantic tongue out and a blindfold on him. The eland was next and after another speedy drive across the rugged terrain (because helicopters are a hell of a lot fast than cars!) we found him staggering around having just been darted again with incredible precision by the vet. This one was treated and hauled onto the stretcher but instead of going to a trailer he was moved onto a neighbours patch for a while and we got to see him being woken back up and wander off looking a bit confused.

Other highlights of our stay at Ant’s Hill include waking up to a noisy squirrel looking at me from our bathroom and watching a warthog wander past the bedroom window and then there was Craig… Craig the snake man whom our kids developed a major hero worship for. He keeps snakes; big snakes, little snakes, harmless snakes, highly poisonous snakes, fast snakes, slow snakes, friendly snakes and very unfriendly snakes… most of his snakes were a combination of those things. For example the brown house snake which is harmless, fast and friendly. Or the puff adder which is highly poisonous, very unfriendly but thankfully also slow! He brought us snakes to meet. It was an experience! The kids loved it… me? Not so much. But Craig was also great at catching lizards and geko and was an absolute font of knowledge and Patrick has decided he wants to be Craig when he grows up. He spent a fair proportion of the sundowners creating villages for the giant millipedes and then gathering millipedes to populate them faster than they could crawl away (pictured below was one that settled in his new house!).

It spoke volumes about the area that with so much on their door step Ant’s Hill was popular with people from Johannesburg as a weekend getaway and we were lucky enough to hit it off with a family whose son was Alfie’s age. I say lucky… basically they got my kids playing a game which involves rolling impala poo in your mouth and seeing  who can spit it the furthest and eating live giant flying ants. I didn’t (boring!) but the rest of them and Rob did!

Ant’s hill was only the first half of our trip, next we moved onto Madikwe Game Reserve which I’ll tell you about soon.

For all the photos from the trip follow me on Instagram @MumaDean or on Twitter or Facebook.



The majestic Sable antelope was the logo for Ant’s Hill


Brilliant Bushcraft at Earth Knack!


We arrived in the afternoon on the Tuesday with plenty of time to set up our tent, arrange some dinner and settle in. But the place was deserted! Certain we were in the right place on the outskirts of hippy-ville, (otherwise known as Crestone, which makes our home town of Lostwithiel look positively un-hippyish!), we waited a while to see if our host, Robin would appear. We made a fire and as all Brits do in such circumstances… we had a cup of tea. Eventually my phone graced me with the ability to make a phone call (a rare luxury with an iPhone!) and we got through to Robin’s voicemail which confirmed she had been delayed in her journey from California which should have seen her return the night before. So we pitched our tent, found the compost toilet, made dinner and when to bed, optimistic that our new warm sleeping bags would keep us toasty warm.

campfire at Earth Knack

A fire is an important moral booster for outdoor living!

After a long night freezing our butts off we rose to find Robin had arrived home in the night and after introductions and explanations we settled in. Later that day some other people arrived for their “internships” learning primitive skills. We spent the day getting to know each others stories and learning the ways of the Earth Knack camp… how to empty the buckets of “communal compost”, how to avoid a bear trying to share your tent and other such delights.

Earth Knack, Crestone

The communal camp area with the outdoor kitchen in the background

Earth Knack

Bridge over carefree waters

As family wwoofing goes, this is spot on. Robin is like a child whisperer and instils calm and respect from all three of our increasingly feral children. She believes strongly in including the children in the adult work and they are encouraged to stoke the fire, partake in the primitive skills and ask questions. As such the work is arranged so that the while family can join in. We are mainly digging over and weeding a set of flower beds to be planted next week and there is a communal garden in the town where we are all pulling, digging, chopping, rotorvating and generally getting filthy. Other tasks include collecting wood and preparing the communal evening meal.


Collecting firewood as a family affair – Orla is in her element!


Family wwoofing at it’s best when we can all join in

After a couple more freezing nights we obtained a couple more blankets, found our warmer winter clothes from the roof box and have learned how to wrap ourselves in such a way that the last couple of nights have seen us warm and cosy and sleeping just lovely.

After watching the interns, Grey and Susanna, learning to use a bow drill, Alfie has been utterly determined to have a go. So last night Rob and he worked hard preparing their bow drill set and set to practising the technique – with huge success! Fire from friction surely has to be one of the most satisfying skills one can learn.

Bow drilling

Alfie learning to make fire by friction with a bow drill – aged 6

As the weeks go on we’ll be learning more about the edible plants in the area, Alfie will have a chance to make a bow and arrow and I’m hoping to have a chance to learn some basic flint knapping techniques to take home. Talking of home…. You’ll have to wait a little longer to hear….


From East to West – The Road Trip Days, Part 1


Memphis to Oklahoma

From New Orleans in Louisiana to Mesa, Arizona with various detours has taken us about 2,500 miles across this vast continent. Very little time has been spare for such matters as blogging so I’ve got rather a lot to fill you in with now, from my room in Flagstaff while the other four members of Team Dean sleep quietly around me.

We bounced into Memphis and it was sooo cool! Sadly the Civil Rights Museum was just closing when we arrived but they have a fantastic interpretation display outside the incredibly persevered Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. It’s a truly humbling experience and we used it as an opportunity to discuss race issues and inequality with Alfie… a little beyond him I know but good to introduce young in my view… lest we forget.


Standing in front of the Lorraine Motel is a humbling experience. An opportunity to reflect on our history, mistakes and hope for the future.

If you’re going to visit Graceland then check into the Days Inn across the street. It’s cheap and totally what you would expect from a hotel next door to Elvis’ place. With a guitar shaped pool and tacky memorabilia everywhere you get the chance to meet all the other real life pilgrims making their way to this iconic, bordering on ironic, place.


The guitar pool at Days Inn, Memphis. It was freezing but Alfie braved it and jumped in.

Graceland is unexplainable and quite honestly I don’t want to attempt it as you need to visit this place for yourself. We aren’t particular fans of Elvis, which admittedly resulted in us feeling somewhat like frauds or fakes amongst the silver haired worshippers, who needed to don their reading glasses every time we changed the number on our audio tour gadgets. The children were under stricked instructions not to ask who Elvis was whilst there. We had tested them repeatedly with the various Elvis pictures in the hotel room the night before but alas, by the morning they had forgotten and we were nervous of being caught out as intruders.


Graceland, surprisingly understated and homely.

Graceland tickets

Tickets to Graceland… keepers for the scrap book!

It really didn’t matter though. That place is spectacular! The house is uber cool with it’s mirrored ceilinged TV room, the Jungle room and the humble kitchen and sitting room. It’s a home. And it’s a reflection of the man, undoubtedly an interesting character regardless of personal favour for his music. If you do find yourself making the journey one day then definitely get the ticket to the aeroplane and car museum too… They were so fun. His private jet, bigger than many a house with it’s bedroom, dinning room, bathrooms, sitting rooms, all complete with gold plated seat belt buckles is like a dream, it doesn’t seem real, except you can walk through it and touch it and it is real. The car museum is a super fun time machine housing the most spectacular vintage vehicles from pink Cadillacs to toy snow mobiles altered to run on grass, Ferrari’s to a John Deere tractor – That man enjoyed his toys!


Inside Graceland

Elvis cars and plane

Elvis’s toys. His plane, Lisa-Marie and a few of his cars

We had really hoped to visit the Sun Studios but sadly children under 6 aren’t allowed in so it was off the agenda for us and by lunchtime we were crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas. A quick flick through the Rough Guide I’m increasingly relying on these days and we were detouring off the interstate down to a town called Hot Springs to visit the Fordyce Bathhouse, a Victorian spa. It was pretty fascinating to see the old tubs and it’s been impressively persevered. The town was a quirky place, long past it’s hey day when the rich and famous flocked there for it’s waters. It reminded me very much of Matlock Baths in Derbyshire, in as much as it was a Victorian holiday town struggling to maintain it’s tourism, encouraging the motorcyclists and hippies who naturally came for it’s surrounding beauty… I liked it! I didn’t like the revolting meal we attempted to eat at a little café there, ergh… shudder. That’s the last time I order Gumbo outside of New Orleans!


The gym at the spa reminded me of my days at a convent school with much of the same Victorian equipment, probably still in use now!

We decided to press on after dinner and drive as far as we could. With a film on for the kids and full tummies we made it past Fort Smith and stopped further down interstate ready for an early start the next day.

The early start didn’t seem to happen quite right though. We got up early enough and realised that we had paid as much for a room with no wifi or breakfast as we had the night before for both plus board – a rookie mistake we won’t make again. I scouted out the gas station opposite for sustainable and to improve the mood of the children but alas it was poor pickings. We packed up and headed for the Interstate, hopeful that the next junction or so would offer more appealing options. It did. We found a fantastic little diner, kitted out in true Route 66 funky glory… and then waited for what seemed like forever for the chef to cook a couple of eggs and some slices of toast! Man it took ages… by the time we set off again it was mid morning and we felt frustrated, vowing only to stay places where breakfast can be swiftly dealt with in our own time frame.


No breakfast served here!

Pressing on to Wednesday’s detour we headed North of the interstate, now in the state of Oklahoma. This beautiful dive took us closer to the Great Plains and we arrived at Woolaroc after lunch. There was a fun play park for the kids to burn some energy and there was what must surely be the most impressive museum and art gallery in this region of the States. The paintings and sculptures were utterly captivating and despite Patrick’s best efforts to ruin this little excursion (I’m sure they have an organised rota for their turns at being utter monsters) Alfie, Rob and I learned lots about the Native American history in the region from the fascinating artefacts and accompanying interpretation. If you are even vaguely near this place then detour to it.

Artefacts from Woolaroc

From top left, An Indian headdress, Stone axes, a fire drill and shrunken heads – warrior trophies!

We left after ice lollies and pressed South again to the interstate, stopping my a creek to get the kids into pyjama’s and making a cup of tea on the stove so as to drive on later and make some miles up around Oklahoma City. We made it to the edge of the city to a room with Wifi and breakfast. I did a couple of hours of work and slept well.


Learning to use binoculars at Attenborough Nature Reserve


It was a proud day for Rob and I – taking our boys to Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottingham to teach them to use their binoculars and the basics of bird identification.

The last time we visited the reserve was before we got married and long before the children arrived. We used to go to Attenborough often as it is a particularly good reserve for wetland birds and was on our Nottinghamshire doorstep before we moved to Cornwall. We have missed the days of easy bird watching where you can just pick up your coat, binoculars and scope and head on out. Those of you with children will appreciate the mammoth task of simply getting three little ones out the door, let alone being prepared for quiet time in hides and long walks along muddy paths.

Keeping quiet is important and a major reason we haven’t taken them before now. It’s not easy for kids to keep quiet and other bird watchers don’t appreciate it if your kids scare all the birds away! Luckily we didn’t have Orla with us (she was at home with Grannie).

Learning to use binoculars is no easy feat for adults or children as it takes practice to continue to look at the desired bird/animal etc. whilst bringing your binoculars to your eyes. Scanning around with them is even harder. So we were pretty impressed with how easily they both picked it up. I had imagined more frustration for them trying to focus and keeping them still. Patrick successfully focused on a moor hen and identified it from the field guide by looking at the colour on it’s head, bill, legs, wings and tail. Alfie identified a coot. We also saw lovely tufted ducks (pictured above) and great crested grebes as well as cormorants, Egyptian geese, pochard and a redwing amongst plenty more.


Alfie mastering his binoculars at Attenborough Nature Reserve

Although they did well and showed perseverance with the binoculars and prolonged interest in identification, they are just five and three years old and it did occur to us that our wildlife spotting and bird watching are going to be significantly limited to short bursts when we reach the states. An hour is about absolute tops… but that’s fine… we are a family and a team, and a team travels at the pace of it’s slowest member. We can work around the challenges by taking it in turns with one child each and other techniques for dividing and conquering. Mixing activities up helps too… Alfie found some big dog prints and tracked them along the path for a bit!

The visitor centre at Attenborough is really good too. In addition to a shop supplying all your birdwatching needs there is a children’s learning area which is engaging and interesting. The boys enjoyed the interactive activities and we bought activity sheets for them to do as well.


Patrick at one with the geese… I swear he can converse with animals!

Wetland reserves like Attenborough are great places to ignite an interest in nature and wildlife as they are generally accessible with good paths and flat terrain and the birds there are so interesting. Wetland birds are great ones for amateurs to start with as they are all pretty distinctive and interesting looking, easy to spot on the water and a good size. The boys were both full of enthusiasm and chatter about the birds and binoculars on the way back to Derby.

Attenborough Nature Reserve is open daily from 7am until dusk and the visitor centre is open 9am-4pm daily. Parking is £1.50 donation for upkeep and there is good public transport links to the reserve.


Black headed gull (in winter)

Personal Goals


Setting personal goals is a good way of getting the most out of our experience. Although they are obviously flexible and overlap massively with each others we hope by focusing on specific areas individually we will all get a chance to really experience the things we want to.

It’s also a good way for focusing the children to key areas of learning and will ensure that we don’t just drift aimlessly around. We don’t intend to be “slaves to our goals” but these are all achievable and fun areas of focus.

My goals

Tracking animals and people in the wild and gain practical experience in the art of tracking. Tracking is a skill which has long interested me yet I rarely have time to pursue. I spot animal tracks and signs regularly, probably daily, which living in the countryside is relatively straight forward. But spotting them is a lot easier than reading them and knowing who made the track, when, why and where they went next. When you have the ability to know those “W’s”, who, when, why and where, suddenly the natural world is a constantly changing newspaper.

Photography – I’ve bought a decent lens for wildlife photography and I obviously want to gain experience with landscapes. But I hope to focus on portraits too of the people we will meet on our journey.

Geology and ancient history really captures me and I want to learn to “read the landscape” so I can look and understand how it was formed and altered both naturally by the earth’s processes and by man’s intervention.

Rob’s goals

Bird watching and identification – Before we had children Rob and I were keen bird watchers. Not the sort that would drop everything because some rare migrant had been spotted at Lands End. But the sort who, as a birthday treat, would get up at 5am and travel 3 hours to a particular reserve to see waders and terns. Since having children our ability to go bird watching is significantly limited and our skills in identification are dwindling. On this trip Rob wants to reignite his passion for his feathered friends and increase his identification skills, particularly bird songs, for which he has a natural flare.

Minimalist living is an area Rob struggles with! The whole “2 bag” thing is a lot easier for me than Rob. He just really likes having stuff that does stuff. He likes tools that make jobs quicker and easier. I expect there’ll be a bit of huffing and puffing along the way when we have to fix something or do something and he knows that in the shed at home he has a specific tool that would make it such an easy task but that right now we have to compromise with what we have and it will take longer as a result. But in the long run, being able to live more independent of “stuff” will be a great skill and unbelievably liberating!

Alfie’s goals

Fire lighting – he’s been practising a lot already and is skilled with a fire flash and a flint and steel. He’s really rubbish at the preparation stage though. He knows a lot about the theory and can identify and find a number of natural tinders but he wants to get straight on with the spark. Without a carefully built fire to light the spark is pointless. So building a proper fire is Alfie’s main goal. Once he has mastered the preparation and actual fire lighting we will move onto other techniques like the bow drill for creating embers and sparks.

Carving and knife skills – again he is already getting going on this with the little pen knife he got for Christmas and occasionally using our bushcraft knives. By the end of the America leg he wants to have carved a spoon.

Patrick’s goals

Using binoculars is a skill that we think Patrick is ready for. He’s mad for the bird and animal watching and is already a good spotter. He got some good binoculars for Christmas but mastering them takes patience and perseverance which for a 3 year old is quite something.

Bird identification is something he already has a bit of a flare for. He can identify quite a few birds already from robins and woodpeckers to barn owls and buzzards. This is obviously something he and Rob can really work together on which will be nice for them both.

Orla’s goals

Walking – Although she is already a competent little trekker and can walk about a mile without complaint, we are not going to have a pushchair (I think, it’s still a little in debate!) so she’s really going to need to strengthen those pins. We’ll have an ergo carrier though so please don’t worry that we are literally making her trek North America!

Keeping quite for wildlife watching! Keeping quite is definitely not something Orla is much good at yet. But learning to be calm and quiet in hides and along paths is key to spotting birds and wildlife… leading by example will be the way forward on this one. She’s soon get the hang of it, I’m sure.

History and Nature of North America


Over the last few months we’ve watched loads of DVDs and read lots of books and articles about America and there are two DVDs I want to tell you about because they are simply brilliant.

The first, North America, is a nature programme about… You guessed it, North America. I’m going to make a statement about this program and I hope you can appreciate the gravity of it: I think this is the best nature program I have ever seen.

I am a BIG Attenborough fan and have watched a vast amount of other nature programmes by numerous producers from around the world and this one really is something special. You don’t have to have a particular interest in America to appreciate this programme. The filming is mind blowing, the narration is deliciously captivating and the whole experience is breath taking, thought provoking and enriching.

Since buying this back in August we have watched it over and over, when the disks are knackered I’ll buy another copy.

The second series is America: The Story of the US. We’ve only just finished this series and its not something we watched with the children, perhaps slightly older children would be okay, 10+ I’d say.

It’s concise and speedy but the history of America is not a long one so they have been able to cover a surprising amount in the 9 ¼ hours of this box set. From the first settlers to beyond the millennium this series provides an insight into the American people and culture which certainly Rob and I had been totally unaware of before…. It all makes sense now! The stereotypes, which lets face it are generally well earned are given clear and incredibly respectable roots! Indirectly it explains the American love of guns, apocalypse planning, obsession with freedom, fear of communism, reaction to terrorism, entrepreneurial culture, consumerism and disregard for global warming. And it makes all of those things look utterly reasonable!

The one element of American history not made to look in anyway reasonable is the racial division. This aspect of the programme at times makes for uncomfortable viewing and it was frequently paused for speculation and discussion. Neither of us have significant experience of racial division and honestly find the concept of racism hard to grasp in this day and age and I worry that I will not be able to sufficiently teach our children the importance of eliminating racism from the world. British parents and teachers can explain why Hitler was so evil and it’s easy because it wasn’t us… It was them. Slavery and segregation on the other hand are a little harder to approach… Why? Because it was us! In the same way they don’t do too much about the war in German schools and I doubt they teach about Pearl Harbour in Japan, white children across the globe are not being sufficiently taught about our previous atrocities.

This, brilliantly made, programme addresses it… And does it well. If you want a brief overview so you can teach your own children about acceptance and tolerance then this is a good place to start with an easy to digest overview of American history. It will challenge your own, (possibly sightly racist?) view of Americans people too and give you an insight into the world’s super power.

Alfie’s Knife Safety Instructions


Bout yor lbaoz on yor neez.doant mes a rwond wiv a nighf.

Our five year old, Alfie, came home from school today and announced he needed to use the computer. After much confusion over what he wanted to do on it, on account of him not really having a clue what a computer does, we established that he wanted to type something. So I set him up on my laptop, showed him the space bar and delete button and then shut myself in another room with the younger two so he could get on with it.

He wanted to type up instructions on safe use of a bushcraft knife for other children.

Translated, the above screen shot reads “Put your elbows on your knees. Don’t mess around with a knife.”

He wanted to also add, “always have your first aid kit and hold the knife properly” but alas, what you see took him about an hour and fifteen minutes so he’ll have to add the rest over the weekend.