Khimbini Hlongwane from Inyati Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand was captivated by animals from an early age.
“Growing up in a village in the eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) got me exposed to wildlife from a young age and I was fascinated by the behaviours of various animals,” he says. “I loved being out there with brothers herding cattle and goats while interacting with wildlife. It was really fun, yet challenging, because every day we had to try to find food with without becoming food!”
Hlongwane says he battled when he grew older and had to divide his days between going to school and spending time having fun outdoors.
When his community was separated from wildlife, he knew he had to find a way back to live closer to and learn more about animals. However, guiding wasn’t his first choice. “I was terrified of being responsible for entertaining people of different cultures, coming from all corners of the globe,” he says. “You have to understand why that was a challenge for me – I was raised by people who couldn’t read and write, never left the Transvaal and hardly had any exposure to the outside world.”
Initially, Hlongwane had his sights set on becoming a wildlife veterinarian but says after graduating from high school, it was clear this wasn’t going to happen. He moved on to plan B and started as a tracker at Inyati Game Lodge in 1994.
“The training went smoothly because the man training me happened to the same man who taught me the ins and outs of surviving in the bush as a herd boy, Simon George Hlongwane, an older brother, a friend, a mentor, a custodian and a role model to many of us in the community.”
“One of the first things Simon told me was: ‘Remember, we used to see lion tracks and we would herd the livestock in the opposite direction to protect them? Now when we see lion tracks, we follow until we find the lions, so be more vigilant!’”
Hlongwane spent five years as a tracker before becoming a ranger. “I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment I got when seeing the astonishment and excitement on my guests’ faces after successfully tracking a leopard where it seemed impossible.”
He didn’t think he would like guiding as much as he did tracking but Hlongwane says, 15 years later he’s still loving it and has found a new passion in the form of wildlife photography.
While he has had a few close calls with wild animals, the incident that stands out involves guests. “One of the biggest fears as guide is losing a guest,” he says.
One afternoon, after tracking for about half an hour, Hlongwane found a pride of four lionesses and 10 cubs. Because the lions were still resting, he continued the drive and returned to the pride at dusk.
“As we arrived, the lions started yawning, indicating that they would soon start moving. We followed the lions and, as we negotiated our way through the bushes, it became difficult to keep up. I was focused on keeping an eye on the movement of the lions while warning guests to mind the branches coming their way.
“All of a sudden there were loud screams behind me in the vehicle. I turned around to find that, of the party of six Germans, only four were left in the vehicle. Two were standing on the seats, two were on the bars we used to embark the vehicle and the other two had jumped out of the vehicle.”
Hlongwane stopped the engine, picked up his rifle and hopped out the vehicle.
“Trying to figure out what was going on was difficult. Even though we had all been speaking English earlier, suddenly the guests were only speaking German. In the midst of the shouting I heard the word ‘schlange’ which sounded like the Afrikaans word ‘slang’, meaning snake.
“With the tracker watching the lions I decided to open the tailgate of the vehicle. Sure enough there was a harmless variegated bush snake underneath the seats.”
Hlongwane reckons he could fill a book with the strange questions some guests ask. One of his favourites was at a leopard sighting.
“We followed drag marks and found a leopard in jackalberry tree. Beside the leopard was a half-eaten impala carcass. It was the guests’ first leopard sighting so I waited for the excitement to die down a bit before talking more about leopards.”
“The guest sitting at the back asked: ‘What was the impala doing up there in the first place?’ I turned to look at my tracker and before I could answer she hit me with another: ‘Is the impala dead?’.”
Hlongwane politely explained that impala don’t climb trees and it had been dragged up the tree by the leopard.
The most valuable lesson Hlongwane has learnt is to never allow yourself to think you know everything, because that will be the day you stop learning. “Especially in wildlife there is so much to learn. Animals continue to prove to us that they don’t live by the theories we write about them.”