Invisible. Inexplicable. Profound.
A typical oversight of the function shared by a game ranger and tracker is that they exist to drive guests, read prints in a sandy river bed, ensure safety and even act as hosts. In stark reality, it’s about layer upon layer of taxonomy, (classification of organisms), astronomy (stars), ornithology (birds), entomology (insects), pedology (soil), and dendrology (trees), spanning everything from the Southern Cross above to the geology of soil, rock and root systems that lie beneath. It is, in fact, fathoms of study and experience that are invisible to a tourist’s naked eye. These are unsung doctorates of the bush, sharing the planet’s most awesome wonder.
In fact, the majority of safari guests have little idea of who is driving them or who is jutting out precariously on the bonnet of a Toyota LandCruiser, inches from elephants, buffalo, lion and leopard to name a few. A small handful are unknown aristocracy and industry sages.
The Royal Portfolio’s parent property, Royal Malewane, enjoys the title of the most qualified guiding team in Africa. This intrigued me. In a world scattered with fake news, self-promotion and elaborate copywriting, how could this be justified or measured, and what does that even mean in layman’s terms?
The story starts more than 20 years ago in 1999. At the very root of owners Liz and Phil Biden’s vision for their camp, lies a specific seed, an individual recruited at inception – Juan Pinto, Scout, and current Chairman of the Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGASA). His deep passion for conservation and the community was a foundation upon which Royal Malewane reached its potential. Two decades later, the camp has celebrated four Master Trackers out of a total of 11 across the whole continent.
The title of Scout, or Master Tracker, is ultimately one of the mighty grails of the bushveld, akin to reaching the pinnacle in sport, science or the military perhaps – just a handful reach that summit – years of patience, diligence and insight required.
To ensure the plunge into an abyss of learning, Pinto proposed an apprenticeship for a pair of young, aspiring male or female rangers every two years. To join the elite, “like being picked to play striker for Manchester United,” explains one apprentice, the sacrifice is significant; living in a tent for two years, no mod cons (especially Wi-Fi), just an outdoor shower and toilet, and be sure to stay the course. During this time, apprentices build up 600 shotgun hours with a ranger, 400 self-guided hours, 300 hours on foot and 100 dangerous game encounters. Perhaps perhaps, most importantly, it insists upon the raw opportunity to become intimately one with everything the Greater Kruger has to offer.
Beyond the apprenticeship, there is further theory and practice, best illustrated by the 18 modules that take a guide from Level 1 to Level 3 but then scale through various ‘Track & Sign’ and ‘Trailing’ tests. Bear in mind all exams require a 75% pass mark.
To some degree, this career path is something that cannot be forced or contrived. It’s a calling, drawn to the wonder of the wild. Each one aspires not only to guide, belong or exist in the bush but to one day reach the pinnacle of carrying the guiding qualification or title of being ‘SKS DG’ – more formally, Special Knowledge & Skills with Dangerous Game. Royal Malewane has five of these guides from an approximate total of 20 in South Africa.
This takes things up a notch, with 1200 hours on foot. When one considers that an average lodge-based guide walks 100 hours a year, this amounts 10 to 14 years of commitment. 200 of these hours must be wilderness under the stars camping. It also demands 600 encounters of at least 30-minute encounters with all the members of the Big Five including hippo. Finally, a two-day 15-exercise intense pressured ARH
Advanced Rifle Handling (ARH) test and a 100-page scenario & knowledge workbook to be submitted. PHD, anyone?
The final summit exists beyond that. Once passed, you complete a two-night practical backpack trail with assessors to (hopefully) be signed off as one of the top guides! Upon reaching the peak of all qualifications after a minimum 25 years of study and examination, Master Trackers are only invited as an acknowledgment of both skills and leadership, an honour based upon what you have done, or can do, for others that are advancing.
Nik Vounnou, a former Ranger of the Year, may be next in line to achieve his final advanced level qualifications, achieving the summit. Vounnou’s impressive CV takes a back seat to his deeply-felt passion and commitment to his chosen path in the bush. He introduces me proudly to the diverse experts within the guiding team, pride and respect entwined as he shares their differentiators. He is exuberant about the cultivated talents that Royal Malewane has attracted, and about his new role as Head Ranger at The Royal Portfolio’s new lodge, Waterside, which opened at the beginning of July.
Vounnou explains that there are many experiences to be enjoyed ‘beyond the drive’, and, as we depart at 5.30am on a ‘guided walk’, and head out on foot into the long grass, the entire landscape shifts immediately in my eyes. How I perceive what’s around me – from the darting eyes noticing my presence, the birdsong, the swish of grass against my legs or crunch underfoot, the alertness of my senses, and the respect for those that are at ease in this environment.
During the covid pandemic, Vounnou walked and selected old elephant and game paths and named them after prominent trees in the area – the marula, ebony, saffron and tamboti trails – each different in feel, topography and distance.
Dedicated paths spanning three kilometres to 10 kilometres that guests could walk, read and watch videos about. “I wanted to really break the fear for guest guests and awaken senses of what it really means to be in Africa. At Malewane I am driven to build a huge walking culture which our other competing lodges shy away from.”
“For hundreds of years, elephants have trodden these paths without a single human walking here. It’s phenomenal to consider that,” he says. A little further up, he raises his hand for us to halt in our tracks. 20 metres beyond, on a road next to a dam three hyena skulk along a gravel track in a line. They stop, look at us with intrigue, and move on. We continue and as we reach the dam, a hippo’s black eyes and twitching ears glare at us. Vounnou’s joy is palpable. “This is another level of experience,” he shares.
The guides work six weeks on and two weeks off, from sunrise until early evening and sometimes later into the night, dining with guests. Guest relations is all-important, and one which has paid dividends to the local Hoedspruit community through international benefactors who return to support the initiatives of the Royal Portfolio Foundation.
Liz Biden explains, “Royal Malewane is rich in stories. Twenty years ago when we first launched, we employed a young American student who helped us to open the camp. He was willing to do anything and spent months with us, and when we opened, it was time for him to return to the United States. Now, as a successful businessman, he tells us that so much that he learned in life came from his days with Juan and Royal Malewane. For that reason, he has joined us in setting up a tracking school on-site. During lockdown he came two or three times a year, staying with Juan. Most recently, he came with his children and camped with Juan in the river bed. Now he wants to expand his involvement with us.”
Tracking is at risk of being a dying industry. And the Bidens’ daughter Ali who runs the Foundation is formalising The Tracking Institute on the property. “Our rangers are so well qualified and they have so much to offer,” she adds.
I interviewed Lucas Mathonsi and Andre Fourie, Scout and Senior Guide respectively. Few guests are even aware of the rank Mathonsi has attained. A Tiger Woods of his field. His unassuming calm on his chair at the front of the vehicle could be mistaken for being shy or humble but it’s more of a majesty and wisdom. He imparts his fifty years of experience to new trackers, for which he was awarded Master Tracker, the highest accolade in the work, claiming one of those 11 positions in a barely known Hall of Fame.
A tracker of this authority can tell the difference in gender of an animal by a single print, a marking, a fleck of colour on a wing, a posture, or a movement. Preserving the lore of the bush as great storytellers around the fire, I observe a warmth radiating from their trust, their humour, both surprising and infectious, and concealing the status of one of the superstars of guiding. This too was felt between Pinto and his long-time Master Tracker, Wilson Masia who passed away several years earlier.
Connection cannot be explained in words. This equally applies to trust. It is so often felt non-verbally, built upon experiences and supported by cues that can only be understood between those that speak that unique form of ‘sign language’. This is something that is felt in families, among teammates, and in the military, respect and loyalty inked into the electrified current that runs between two points. It is sublime to be in its presence. It’s what makes Royal Malewane not just the most qualified, but also the finest guiding team on the continent.