Bongani Mountain Lodge, Mthetomusha Game Reserve, South Africa
Jabu is the first to spot the giraffes far in the distance. He points but it takes me a while to find them myself. They look tiny from here but I can clearly see their long necks stretching up to grab the leaves from the trees. Even from this far away, I’m amazed at their grace. Such beautiful animals roaming free in the wild.
I’m on safari in South Africa – my first time doing something like this. There are so many options to experience safari in this country and I’ve ended up at the Mthetomusha Game Reserve, an 8000 hectare park on the southern border of the famous Kruger National Park. The Bongani Mountain Lodge is the base for the expeditions out into the wild. In total, I will do four drives with Jabu Mosea – the spotter – and Skigh Coetzee – the ranger.
There are a few advantages that allow Jabu to find the animals first. Most obviously, he is sitting in a special chair at the front of our vehicle so he has the best viewpoint. Skigh is behind the wheel and doesn’t have the advantage of height.
It’s for this reason that Skigh describes Jabu as the eyes and himself as the mouth. It’s this combination that creates the dynamic for all our safari trips. There’s an important balance between finding the animals and then also explaining their role in the natural world.
“I get a lot of information from Jabu,” Skigh tells me.
“Like you guys in the city, you get a fresh newspaper each morning that you read with the daily news, this morning when we go out we get our fresh newspaper as we are going through. Jabu is the fortunate one. He’s sitting at the front and he conveys what he sees on the roads. From the night the animals move around so he tells me which way animals have gone so it gives us an idea of where to head.”
This skill is important – but there’s also an element of luck. And our first drive is a lucky one when we find two rhinos early on. It’s a mother with her child… not that there’s much difference in their size. Rhinos are large animals and they waddle slowly together down a path between the trees. I assume they are aware of our presence but they don’t seem to pay us too much attention. Our vehicle is about ten metres away from them but they are used to the regular safari drives in this area. Skigh talks about the rhino while Jabu keeps a lookout for anything else nearby.
The two could not be more different in terms of their background. Skigh and Jabu have both been at the lodge for roughly the same length of time – about 14 months. But they took very different paths to get here.
Skigh is only 22 years old and grew up as a city boy in Johannesburg. Both his parents work in the corporate world and at the age of 16 they gave him a choice – follow his dreams or prepare to get a job in an office. He chose his dreams and they gave him the money and opportunity to learn to be a ranger. He became the youngest qualified walking guide ever in Kruger National Park – at just the age of 17 – and started working here at the Bongani Mountain Lodge a few years later.
Initially, though, he took this direction in life because of his love of hunting.
“At that point in my life I had never been on a game drive vehicle,” he says.
“But what I had been doing is I had started hunting from a very young age. I shot my first animal at the age of 7. I wanted to be a professional hunter and in Africa you’re not allowed to be a professional hunter before you’re 21 so at the time I thought I’d go into guiding to get animal behaviour knowledge but I never got into hunting.”
Things obviously changed a lot for him.
“After seeing an animal for four of five years you can’t picture yourself going and shooting it. Especially when you see how clever the animals are, it makes no sense.”
Even though Jabu is Skigh’s junior professionally, he is older. He’s now 30. Jabu is from a local community and didn’t imagine when he was younger that he would end up here.
Previously he was working at a local health clinic as a patient advocate, looking after people who were getting treated for HIV.
“I would start teaching them about the treatment and the lifestyle,” Jabu explains.
“So how to change and live the positive living. And after the patient has started the treatment, I also did follow ups to check if that person is adhering to the treatment or if they fail to respond to the drug and then I do appointment with the doctor to change the regimen for the patient.”
It was a contract job, though, and eventually his time there finished and he was unemployed. His family didn’t have enough money to send him to school or university for further study and so he wasn’t able to get another job in the health industry. Instead he ended up getting hired here as a spotter.
As it turns out, Jabu has an advantage over many of the other workers. Because he is from the area he knows it well. He can recognise different areas instantly and knows which are more popular with particular animals. Skigh is also convinced Jabu has better eyesight because he didn’t grow up staring at televisions or computer screens.
It certainly seems that way to me as we drive around the Mthetomusha Game Reserve on our different trips. Jabu spots elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, as well as plenty of kudus and nyalas. But I’m particularly impressed when he calls out for us to stop because he’s seen a chameleon sitting on a bush. I mean, seriously, the animal is designed to be hidden!
So how does he do it? I ask him.
“We normally look for tracks,” he explains, “and especially when we look for elephants we look for fresh branches that they break so that’s another sign the animals are there. We look for how fresh are the breaks and we also look to the dung. If it is fresh we know the animals are maybe somewhere nearby.”
OK, but that still doesn’t explain the chameleon! Perhaps, as Skigh suspects, Jabu just has superhuman eyesight.
For both of them, this is a bit of a dream job. As Skigh puts it, he gets to see the sunrise and the sunset every day and each expedition is slightly different from the last. And, for the boy who dreamed of being a hunter, there is a slight element of danger. At one point he jumps out of the vehicle and tells Jabu to grab the wheel and take us around the corner. He disappears into the bush to try to get any lions in there to move closer to us.
Not that Skigh is scared.
“I’ve seen that nothing out there wants to get you, nothing out there wants to attack you,” he tells me.
“It’s too much energy to kill you. So a lot of times they would prefer to move off before they harm you. And if you don’t see those warning signs that each animal gives you, then obviously it is going to be fatal – but if an animal does give you warning signs and you read those signs accordingly and you react, it’s ok.”
As for Jabu, this moment behind the wheel is what he dreams of at the moment. He has decided he wants to be a ranger and he makes a couple of jokes about throwing Skigh out of the jeep and taking over himself. To get there, he’s going to have to study, pass some exams, and then be assessed on his ranger skills.
“I won’t miss this opportunity,” he says sincerely, “so every day I learn something new in the books before I sleep. I want to do this now.”
From the poor boy in the local community who just needed a job, to the rich boy from the city who once wanted to hunt, both Jabu and Skigh have ended up here and now wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. There’s something about a South African safari that does that to you.
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Time Travel Turtle was a guest of South African Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.