Walking with the wise

Sabi Sand | September 2020

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

I have always believed in the importance of a strong guide and tracker relationship, one which must be nurtured to create a timeless bond. Through time spent together with these incredibly wise men who hold the knowledge of an ancient art, true learning can be achieved as well as an extraordinary sense of connection to both nature and tracker.

My tracker Ruel is without a doubt one of the most passionate teachers who I am very privileged to call my friend and “work husband”. He is always ready to teach anyone who is willing to step foot into the bush and be awakened by what I like to call ‘his world’.

There is no better time than a day off from driving guests to spend with your tracker, and so a few nights ago on one of our days off, I called Ruel and planned to head out in the morning for a walk. Some time for us both to get out and be immersed in wilderness with nobody to interrupt us, just pure enjoyment.

We set off early and walked down toward the river, west of the lodges where we observed as the sun drenched over the large, green, fruitful ebony trees and the twinkling water flowing in the Sand River reflected with golden light. Tracks told us a story of a large bull elephant moving down to the water to drink during the previous evening and that a troop of baboons made their way to their nightfall resting place. We watched further upstream as a large male leopard crossed the river and waded through the water whilst two buffalo bulls began their morning routine. It was magnificent!

From here the class had begun, we both decided on our plan of action and that was to walk up and along two prominent dry riverbeds which stem through the property. The first was the ‘July Drainage’. After appreciating the utter splendour at the riverbank, we began to move south and made our way along the dry riverine.

This was to be a morning of nests with our first being that of the African paradise fly-catcher, a petite nest made of very fine twigs, wild cotton and the web of a spider to hold it all together.

We continued and reached a spot where a few days beforehand we found the nest of an arrow-marked babbler, this nest held two very small, naked chicks who were left unattended in the nest whilst their parents were out looking for food. They had grown a few more centimetres in the two days since we last saw them and for Ruel and I this was very exciting to see! Apart from these two beautiful nests, Ruel made sure to keep my tracking knowledge on its toes, testing me every now and then on different sets of tracks and signs left by different species. He explained to me that when there is a crime scene, police would do an investigation, out here it is the same when looking at tracks and signs, that we must do what is called in Shangaan – a “vuxokoxoko” (an investigation).

Around two hours had passed and we were reaching the point of our second dry riverbed, which runs through the central part of the property and back into the Sand River further downstream, east of the lodges. We came across a large Schotia brachypetalaor more commonly known as a weeping boer bean. A beautiful tree flushed with bright red, clustered flowers. We observed a herd of impala a few days beforehand, feeding on the fallen flowers and Ruel explained that the flowers were very sweet, hence why so many species made their way to feed. So naturally when we were standing at the foot of what is called an “umvomvombo” tree in Shangaan (relating to the sound of many bees feeding on the nectar) we had to try some for ourselves. It was delicious!

Moments later we noticed a small herd of elephants, also feeding in the shade of another nearby umvomvombo. We quietly moved past the elephants unnoticed and continued along the drainage line. A few hundred metres further we found the nest of a spotted eagle owl in a hollowed-out area of a rocky cliff face, deep along the river line. The owl noticed us and flew out of its nest in the hopes that we would be distracted away from its eggs which were now on display. Three beautiful white eggs rested in the small cave and we decided to continue past, leaving the owl and her eggs undisturbed.

The sun was now high in the sky, we were approaching midday and getting closer toward the Sand River. The area we were walking through was thick with vegetation and the visibility was becoming quite difficult. Ahead of us we spotted four white rhinos busy feeding, however they were still about 600 metres away from us. We watched and decided our best plan of action would be to cross through the drainage line and walk up to view them from the opposite bank where the wind would be in our favour. Little did we know, as we walked down toward the dry riverbed, that a female rhino with her very young calf were resting exactly where we planned to cross.

She stood up quickly and we remained dead still, while she assessed the situation we very quietly moved toward the only cover, a very small mound with a very small bush growing from it. The female and calf within seconds burst out of the drainage line to the exact spot where we were standing moments ago and all we could do was keep still and quiet while they stood less than 15 meters away from us. Nothing can quite compare to the feeling of being THAT close to such a tiny baby rhino and realising the absolute privilege of being in its presence. Then, like a flash, the mother and calf ran off and we were left to catch our breath again at the unbelievable situation we had just experienced.

We continued with our plan toward the river, bypassing and observing the other four rhinos as they fed, completely unaware of us. A few more dense thickets and we made it to the river! Finally!

Being out in the bush in the middle of the day, lends a great understanding of why so many species prefer to spend their time in the river. It is wonderfully cool, there is a plentiful water supply and for the herbivores, vegetation is still very green and juicy to feed on. Although it makes a great place for animals, this doesn’t necessarily make it the greatest area for us to walk through during the day. So, Ruel and I moved along the river dodging the many elephants and buffalo who were enjoying the pleasures of the water still working on our vuxokoxoko of tracks and signs as we went.

At last, after just over seven hours walking, we were back home and filled with excitement and new stories to share together. Moments like these spent out in the bush together are priceless. They are memories which Ruel and I will always share and be able to relay back to our guests, but most importantly we gained a deeper connection. Both with one another and with the incredible wilderness we are able to call our home.

I am always extremely grateful for all the lessons in which Ruel teaches me and of the knowledge that I begin to collect as we spend more time out in the bush together, he is truly a one-of-a-kind teacher and an amazing human overall.

On a side note: Ruel and I went back out a week later to check on the Arrow marked-babbler chicks. Only to find that they now had feathers!