Ngwenya and the cheetah

Sabi Sand | March 2020

Ruel and I have been a guide and tracker team for well over a year now. In this time Ruel has become an incredibly close friend of mine and has taught me a number of things, from bush knowledge and craft, to his history and ways in which his culture intertwines with the environment, life lessons and everything you can imagine in between.

In learning about Ruel’s culture, one thing which has always stood out for me was the earthly connectivity between ancestors and mortal men which, to this day, is still in practice. In the Shangaan culture, a family will often visit a marula tree with an offering to be able to speak to the ancestors and ask them in return for guidance and protection.

Now for Ruel and I, this has become quite a tradition of our own and often at the end of our afternoon sundowners, if there is a small amount of wine left in a bottle which guests have not finished, we will take what is remaining, pour it at the base of a large tree nearby (preferably a marula) and give this as an offering and sign of gratitude to the ancestors who have provided us with yet another amazing day in the bush together. 

However, a few weeks ago we came across something which entered another level of association with the ancestors. Ruel and I crossed the Sand River to work on the northern side of the property and happened upon a deceased crocodile lying a few metres off the road. As guides and trackers spending our daily lives in the wilderness, we have become almost accustomed to the circle of life and have learned to deeply understand that death is a natural part of our existence, but for Ruel, this was no ordinary animal. 

The Shangaan people have a profound connection to animals and many have the name of an animal as their surname, which in Ruel’s case is ‘Ngwenya’ meaning ‘crocodile’. Therefore, to Ruel the crocodile is greatly important to his family heritage and thus what sparked his attention when we came across the lifeless ‘Ngwenya’.

In this moment I stopped the vehicle, Ruel and I climbed off and he asked me, “When you go to a funeral, what do you usually give as an offering?” to which I replied, “Flowers?” He agreed and suggested I pick some flowers whilst he versed the guests and I on what they do in his culture as an offering. He explained that they would usually place a coin on the burial site, however in our present situation we didn’t have one and so Ruel grabbed his machete and cut a single button off his shirt.

With the red-star zinnia flowers which I had picked, along with the single button which Ruel was grasping, we walked to a point a few metres away from the crocodile and placed them on the ground as an offering of respect to the ancestors of the great Ngwenya. This for me was such a humbling and uniting moment to share with both Ruel and the guests. It was incomparable with anything I have ever experienced throughout my lifetime and it was an event shared with Ruel which I will always cherish.

Fast forward to a number of days later, where Ruel and I were guiding a family down at Castleton Camp. One morning Ruel and I were discussing what our plans were for the morning and what we should be looking for when he began to describe a dream he had during the night. He said, “In my dream, we found a male cheetah, he had a full belly and was laying on top of a termite mound. The place was not familiar but the dream came through so strongly that I believe we should go in search of a cheetah this morning.” With that in mind we headed out into the southern portion of the property where there is a magnificent open expanse, the ideal habitat for a cheetah.

It was a truly beautiful morning, with a slight crisp to the air and yet a comforting warmth from the sun. The birds were in full song and the scent of nature was awakened by the sun on the damp earth. It was one of those mornings where you can take a deep breath in silence and be truly grateful to be alive in that moment.
We arrived at an area around 40K pan, a large waterhole in the south eastern part of the property where a large number of zebra had gathered together to bask in the morning sunlight.

As I stopped to look at the zebra, Ruel looked at me as though he had a thought in mind and with that, he climbed off the vehicle and asked me for the hand held radio. I asked, “What are you doing Ruel, where are you going?” to which he replied, “While you watch the zebra, I’m going to have a look around south of here for any track or sign of the cheetah.” Now I always trust in Ruel’s plans and ideas but for me this was seemingly a bit ridiculous, to say the least. Finding a cheetah with no indication was like going off in search of a very small needle in a very large haystack, however I agreed and let Ruel follow his instincts. 

About ten minutes passed by, then fifteen, we continued to watch as the zebra danced in the morning light, chasing each other and jumping around. A little black-backed jackal even moved onto the scene and became the centre of attention for a few moments until I heard my radio. “Chene come in.” I heard Ruel’s voice say, “Go ahead Ruel.” I replied with anticipation. “I have some tracks for a male cheetah moving in a south westerly direction but they might be old, I’m still going to follow up.” This baffled me. How in the world did Ruel even find a track for a cheetah in this haystack! I informed the guests that Ruel had found some tracks and even they were astounded by this discovery.

Not another five minutes had passed when I heard my radio again. “Chene, I have located the animal.” He had to be joking right? But he wasn’t! I turned to let the guests know that Ruel had found the cheetah and the entire vehicle and I screamed with excitement! We quickly made our way around to where Ruel was waiting for us to guide me into the position. The smiles on both our faces stretched from ear to ear. There is honestly no better gratification than to see the happiness in your partner’s face after finding something in such a way!

There he lay in the golden light, a male cheetah on a mound with a very full belly. We spent a long time with the cheetah and watched as he finally got up and moved off through the long grass. It was a marvellous sighting with an utterly gracious animal who so elegantly emanates his power and frame.

Decisively we left the male cheetah to continue in his ways and made our way towards a prominent Marula tree where we often enjoy a break from our game drive to reflect on the moments passed by. 

Collectively and with the utmost exuberance, we discussed the morning’s adventures over coffee (with Amarula for the guests of course!) and home-made shortbread. Ruel expressed to us that when he got off the vehicle, he couldn’t explain the force that was guiding him to look for this cheetah and that whilst looking for footprints he came across a herd of buffalo which threw him off track and that was what ultimately lead him to finding the cheetah tracks, followed by the cheetah.  

For me, this truly magical experience connected both nature and spirituality in an incredibly moving way. It was in that moment, under the marula tree, a place in which Ruel and I had given many offerings to the ancestors at sunset, where we realized that perhaps it was the ancestors of the great, fallen Ngwenya who were responding through divine acts, with respect to us both in the form of the cheetah.