Petro Kotzé heads into Kruger’s Big Five country on a four-day walking trail, with an Honorary Ranger for protection.
“You are not here to see the big animals but to listen to the silence. To see and to smell. To rest and become quiet.” Seven of us are standing in a solemn half-circle around him, bathed in the shade of an impressive wild fig. The heat is heavy, and trickles of sweat pour down my back.
But, I stand. We all do. We are listening intently, almost like he is delivering a sermon, except Louis Lemmer is clad in ranger khaki. His gun is casually resting against his side. “Stay together, and if you are approached by an animal, don’t run.”
We are about to walk into Big Five country in the central-north area of Kruger National Park. For the next four days, the only protection between us and the world-renowned wilderness is SANParks (South African National Parks) Honorary Ranger Louis and his second guide Francois van der Merwe.
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It’s a humbling experience. Here, we are the guests, and the animals lay down the law. The earth is already laid bare by the ongoing drought, but we are still brushed by bright-green mopani leaves as we go. “Look at how they fold together to limit evaporation,” Louis says, pointing out the pair of butterfly-shaped leaves. “They will eventually drop if the drought continues.”
We follow a narrow trail through the mopani veld. It must be a busy road, littered as it is with hyena and giraffe spoor, and zebra droppings that line the path. I suspect there are many eyes watching us, although we see little life. But wait… yes… there they are. At first it’s a hint of grey in the distance and then, too close for comfort, the loud trumpet of an elephant.
Louis’s reaction is silent but swift. He holds his hand in a fist for us to see, meaning we must freeze, before indicating that we follow him away from the elephants. I shoot a relieved glance at our guides from behind the safety of a disappointingly puny mopani tree. The guides are beaming.
Take me to church
I should have known the answer when I ask Louis about his day job, back in the real world. Joburg born and bred, he says he’s always had a love for nature. “I considered becoming a vet, but then settled on studying theology.” Some call him the Green Minister, his wife Erika, SANParks’ Honorary Ranger and chairperson of the rustic bush camps, later tells me.
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For now, the minister is talking from the comfort of his camping chair, sipping coffee under the canopy of a stand of large apple leaf trees. Nyarhi Bush Camp sits snug in the bend of a dry river bed, a couple of kilometres outside Mopani Rest Camp, and was established by the SANParks Honorary Rangers to offer an authentic bush experience (there’s no electricity) that lets you think you have all the bushveld to yourself.
A perk is that you can drive to the campsite as long as you have a high-clearance vehicle, and do not have to limit your baggage too much. This is great, as the only facilities are an eco-toilet (read long drop) and an enclosure if you want to shower (if you have a shower bag), or do a thorough cowboy splash with your bucket of water.
There is no fence, no running water and no generators are allowed. You take everything – tents, bedding, utensils, food and water – that you will need for camping, and spend four days on walking trails with Honorary Rangers as guides. When you leave, there should be no trace of you left behind.
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The call of the wild
“After my calling as minister, this is where my heart lies,” says Louis, who always spent a lot of time in Kruger, but wanted to do more. This led him to the Honorary Rangers, an organisation of volunteers who dedicate their time to SANParks. Membership is open to all people with a passion for conservation and a willingness to support the SANParks cause, and volunteers contribute what they can, according to individual means, circumstance, contacts in the corporate world, education and training.
Their purpose is to raise funds, provide services and support SANParks. On the ground, their support is seen in anything from extra hands at park receptions during busy seasons, to the sponsorship of benches, hosting of birding weekends, patrolling busy roads to help law enforcers, and many other activities in between.
“As a minister I believe I am here to make a difference, and this for me is part of that,” says Louis. “God gave me a purpose, and part of mine is looking after his creation.”
One of the first volunteer projects he worked on in about 2005 was to source computers for the primary school in Skukuza. He had a stint as the vice-chairman of the Honorary Rangers’ Virtual Region and has run the organisation’s communications.
He is the former national chairperson of SANParks Honorary Rangers. He completed his Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGASA) qualifications early on, although he says he has also received much training through the Honorary Rangers.
In his heart, he says, he wanted to be in the veld, so the bush camps were an immediate attraction. “I choose this because it is the closest I can possibly get to nature,” he says. “Here, you really feel that you are only a part of the food chain, instead of an onlooker.” I’m starting to understand what he means. Walking through Kruger is a new experience. Beyond the horizon that lies just out of sight of our car window, there is a hint of potato bush in the air. The weather forecast is felt against our skin.
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At the mercy of the bush
Gutsy moths take aim for the sweetness of my cool drink and, if I don’t take care, I get close to tasting one. Fine cobwebs tickle my legs. The pace here is set by the sun. We are up when it rises; we rest under the shade of an apple leaf when it peaks, and sleep when it sets.
This is the pace at camp Nyarhi, which means ‘buffalo’, but Louis quickly points out that this is a bit of a misnomer. “It is actually the elephants that regularly come and visit the camp,” he announces. I’m not sure if it’s good news or not.
What is quite beautiful about a stay at Nyarhi is that there is nothing to disturb nature’s soundtrack, even if the song is mostly silence. At night, around the communal fire, tjoppies and wors are thrown on the grid while stories of other adventures in faraway places are exchanged. Somewhere in the not-too-far distance, a hyena laughs before we call it an early night.
Early to rise
“Morning morning”… the sun is not even up, but Louis is waking the troops to get an early start before the most intense heat of the day kicks in. This time, some of the route is along riverine vegetation, and we leave the mopani veld now to walk under large jackalberries and combretums.
Along the way Louis picks up something from the ground and shows it to the group. “It’s a bush baby skull,” he says in reference to the tiny alien-headed creature. “Really?” I ask incredulously. “No!” he answers as he and Francois break out in a giggle. “It’s a marula seed!” It’s a standard joke among walking guides, and Joburgers, apparently, are easy targets.
Somewhere along the river, Louis holds up his hand again. There are buffaloes coming to drink. One or two must be aware that there is an unusual presence nearby. Their heads jerk uncertainly in our direction as they sniff the air for clues.
We can see there’s a hesitance in the group and it spreads through them like a wave, gathering speed until they all turn and thunder away, hooves crashing against the earth. It’s exhilarating to watch them from such a close distance, although the idea of the hike is to keep some distance from the animals.
“The experience is the best if they are not even aware of your presence,” says Louis. “It is about respect. We are guests here.” It is, after all, a fantastic place for a visit. Each day’s morning hike includes a bush picnic in a shady spot along the route. Think biltong and droëwors, muffins, juice and something sweet.
And when we hit the road again, we really never know what Kruger is going to throw at us. We encounter more graceful elephants in a small forest of apple-leaf trees. In unison, their trunks lift to sniff the air for clues to what is present, before disappearing, soundless, like grey ghosts into the foliage. Later, a badger is surprised by us and scurries off through the grass.
That night, Louis points out constellations among the millions of stars scattered from one horizon to the other. He talks about young and old stars and other planets that we can see from ours. And I suddenly remember what he told me that morning, under the shade of the apple leaf trees. “This is heaven on earth.”
Visit the SANParks Honorary Rangers’ website for more information on what they do, how you can join the organisation and what other activities you can support. Their renowned birding weekends take place throughout the year in a number of national parks.
Words and Photography Petro Kotzé