Original stories of important people, legendary conservationists and inspirational elephants.
Senior large-tusked males are essential in the elephant world. Revered by others around them, these silent statesmen function as mentors for the younger bulls, and maintain the vital spacial dynamics of the herds in the area. In many ways they could be considered as social hubs within a highly complex and intellectual society.
Sir Kilimanjaro is one such icon.
One of the largest and most impressive bulls in our region, his effect on the movements and behaviour of other elephant is highly noticeable. It's truly remarkable to experience this calming influence … and dare i say it ... on people too. Very few folk, when meeting this mountain of an elephant, are not irrevocably touched by some deep and stirring sense of wonder.
For when this happens perhaps a meaningful, relevant and progressive understanding of elephant awareness and conservation emerges.
Kilimanjaro demonstrates the value of this sentinel effect, thereby challenging the flawed notion of sustainable sport hunting of elephant. That those who are considered "past their prime" can merely be hunted as trophies.
I first met Steve in a hot and dusty pre-fab office on the banks of the Chobe River in 1991. We were under the employ of a mobile safari company, running camping safaris in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and little did i know it was the start of a long standing friendship of some 30 years.
The early 90’s in Zimbabwe was an incredibly vibrant safari chapter, and amongst many esteemed colleagues, Steve was one of the most knowledgeable, passionate and committed conservation-guides I knew. Walking safaris were something relatively new on the shelf then, and this was Steve’s thing … venturing past the point where the dirt road ended.
Fast forward all of this dedication to the present day, and you can find Steve running a remarkable safari operation in Mana Pools National Park on the Lower Zambezi, called CAMP MANA. He is still guiding, and perhaps the only thing that has changed over the years (apart from one or two wrinkles that is) is that his passion to share meaningful wildlife encounters is greater than ever. This, in a nutshell, is Camp Mana: authentic, connected, unpretentious, wild and relevant. I could not recommend the camp and Steve’s company highly enough.
The safari year of 2021 got the better of us, but my safari drawing board is afoot with plans again … to run walking/wildlife safaris at Camp Mana and Chitake Springs together with Steve.
The sensational Zambezi landscapes and game viewing with iconic wild dog and elephant are one thing, but so too are meaningful campfire discussions of conservation and all things wild. This, with one of the finest guides and nicest people I know.
Some stories are in need of hearing. And then others are in need of listening … the story of friend and guiding colleague Sicelo Mbatha is one of these.
Born in rural Zululand, Sicelo is one of the leading wilderness leadership guides in the world and has dedicated his life to share the transformational values of the wilderness experience.
His remarkable book “Black Lion: Alive in the Wilderness,” Sicelo takes us on an inspiring journey deep into the heart of trail guiding, and the relevance of re-discovering ourselves in nature.
For me, Sicelo’s story and book is a beautiful litany: one that powerfully yet gently uncovers why nature is important to us, and how it can offer a redemptive space for us all. The fundamentals of conservation and regeneration.
Set largely in the uMfolozi Game Reserve, the story throbs with the pulse of legendary ancestral Zulu culture. Sicelo’s life story provides valuable insights into the meaning of traditional wilderness trails, and the skills and qualities required to facilitate them.
For any aspiring or qualified guides ‘Black Lion’ is an essential read … its not a story of scientific knowledge or contemporary safari guiding, but one far more significant than this. It articulates why we are drawn to the wilderness experience. Where our flame for sharing it comes from. And why it cannot ever be extinguished.
Thank you Black Lion for your humility and wisdom, a timeous reminder to always remain grounded in nature. For it is now more important than ever before.
Discover more about “Black Lion” by Sicelo Mbatha with Bridget Pitt, and his work @ www.umkhiwanesacredpathways.com
With a crooked grin and scarred face, friend and colleague Sam Matabele looks more like an old pirate than a wilderness guide and tracker.
Born on a remote island in the Okavango, he has a lifetime of watching and listening, of studying animals, birds, fish and floods. Sam co-leads our wilderness trails in Okavango with me.
He is for me, peerless as a tracker. At times, when the trail has gone cold, his intuitive sense of the animals and environment takes over, as he follows seemingly invisible marks on the ground. Often he will stop without warning, and peer into the bush to find a leopard or antelope lying up. He has a mystifying knack of locating game, all done of course, with minimal fuss or self-gratification.
But, as far as I’m concerned, it is not Sam’s knowledge or experience which is most impressive. It’s more about what he does not need to say than what he does, for Sam is rather a man of actions than words.
People are drawn to his subtle leadership, and do not hesitate to follow. Here is a man people barely know, yet after only a few moments in his company are willing to tag along, deep into the unknown.
Sam bears the wounds from a buffalo attack some time ago, which shattered his face and damaged his left eye.
The legacy of the encounter is one of constant discomfort. Despite this, the great man remains fearless, ever humble and armed with a deep sense of knowing.
"Even the trees seem to know him," was once how he was described.
In 1971, Tony Fitzjohn arrived in Kenya to work for the late and legendary conservationist George Adamson.
They operated a lion rehabilitation project in the then Kora Game Reserve (later to be proclaimed a National Park because of their profile) in Kenya. The project, although groundbreaking at the time, was not without its critics. It was definitely not a ‘petting zoo’ or in anyway similar some deeply flawed rehab programs common of today.
Kora was wild, daunting, pioneering, expansive, and with few people.
Within our contemporary viewpoint it is imperative to see the project in context of the era in which it occurred. After all, do courageous ground-breakers not provide us with effective hindsights?
Although George Adamson is a deeply inspirational role model for me, this article pays tribute to one of the great wildlife conservationists and ambassadors of our time: Tony Fitzjohn OBE.
It would be an honour to meet him.
Adamson’s work and Fitzjohn’s mentorship … one that suggested that lions have every right to live dignified lives as humans have … was ridiculed as eccentric by many scientists at the time.
“It has no merit, is unscientific, and it is pointless assigning characters and personalities to individual lions,” one said. What was the value in uncovering intimate details and nuances about lion behaviour, intelligence, character and emotion? And how could wildlife conservation benefit from these perceived anthropomorphic overtures that threaten scientific reasoning?
A great deal I would suggest.
A groundswell of public awareness and investment in conservation emerged. Their work opened the world’s eyes toward a greater understanding and appreciation of not only lion behaviour, but also of a broader worldview of conservation. One of humanity, devotion, tolerance, heart and heightened connections. One of pushing boundaries. It’s probably true that the impact of a meaningful conservation culture depends on these levels of resolve, commitment and care, and those of personal investment and compassion. These are all attributes that flow from emotional attachments.
It is largely accepted that the subsequent profile of the rehabilitation project at Kora (following on from the ‘Born Free’ legend) played a substantial role in the collapse of the European fur trade. This was a major milestone in the annals of global wildlife conservation.
Tony Fitzjohn, along with the support of The George Adamson Wildlife Protection Trust, would go on to spearhead the establishment of Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. A restoration project of monster proportions, and one that is now surely one of the leading conservation success stories in the world. He left Mkomazi in 2020 and has subsequently returned to revitalise his old stomping ground at Kora.
A quite remarkable story.
For me, Tony Fitzjohn broke down barriers between the ‘hard’ side of wildlife conservation, and the ‘soft.’ He is living proof that an emotional and empathetic investment into the care of wild subjects leads to a complete passionate investment into all things conservation. A dedication required to navigate through an incredible array of challenges and hardships that come standard in this field.
Eccentric? Perhaps. Devoted innovative world leader in conservation? Without a doubt.
In June 2019, the legendary Namibian desert elephant Voortrekker, pioneer of the Damaraland desert elephant population was shot. He was killed as a hunting trophy, under the guise of being a problem animal.
Voortrekker was a true elephant patriarch, challenging our understandings of the value of older males in elephant society. He was personally responsible for leading family groups to the Ugab River in southern Damaraland making the Ugab/Huab systems perhaps the most viable desert elephant population in the world.
This remarkably gentle elephant was even revered by community members, this within a tough landscape of escalating human/elephant conflict.
Like an elephant-diplomat his presence was a major role-player in establishing and maintaining a viable and potentially long term eco-tourism revenue stream within the conservancies of the region.
He was actually showing us the way if we had just taken a moment to realise it.
For me, all of this addresses one of the most crucial fallacies of elephant conservation, trophy hunting, and the notion of sustainable consumption: that older bulls have no value to elephant society and conservation, and can be hunted under the banner of ecological/commercial benefit. As the senator bull, his death was not only a tragedy for desert elephant conservation, but also within a landscape of viability and possibility.
Another casualty of that day, possibly most significantly, was man’s inability to associate Voortrekker with sustainable tourism value, community benefit or ecological integrity, or a sense of wonder.
Instead he was killed under the banner of short term greed, stupidity and consumptive madness.
RIP Sir Voortrekker … i apologise for what my kind has done
Baseki Mahowe works in the Okavango as a wildlife guide. Born in the delta, he grew up hunting small game with a bow and arrow, and taught himself how to speak English from bird and mammal reference books. His story (short version) is something like this:
Some time ago while on a dugout canoe safari convoy, he watched helplessly from behind as a large crocodile leapt from the water and seized an Australian client by the arm, in the process capsizing his dugout. As the crocodile began to drag the hapless man into deeper water, without a moment’s hesitation or consideration for his own safety, Baseki dived in and stabbed the crocodile with a Leatherman, undoubtedly saving his client's life.
For me, this story touches on some important aspects of the safari guiding qualifications system. A system that tends to exclude men like Baseki from being seen as ‘professional' or ‘qualified', simply by a lack of access to it. For Baseki has no formal education, let alone any guiding certificates hanging on his wall, yet he is a highly qualified and brilliant naturalist, a father and breadwinner, and an inspiring decent human being.
Many long hours on trail with Baseki have been spent in deep admiration of his special humility and bushcraft.
I met Bruce over 25 years ago now while guiding together at Khoka Moya in the Manyeleti Game Reserve with Johnny Meeser. Those were the heady days of the industry in SA and there was no shortage of fun and freedom, with countless fond memories of lion and elephant stalking, birdwatching and almost relentless humour. It was obvious from the onset that birds, adventure and guiding excellence was a package.
As a dedicated guide and passionate guide trainer, Bruce has no peer in raising a bar based on good old-fashioned principle. I too benefitted from his wisdom and knowledge. And as a committed conservationist, Bruce is known around the world for his endurance-based fund raising escapades. He did more burpees in one week than I have attempted in a lifetime.
So, i’m fortunate to call Bruce the burpee bird man not only an inspiring colleague and valued mentor, but more importantly a dear (and now old) friend. A cold beer, warm campfire and sizzling banter will always be around the next turn. Look forward to it!
Pic taken at Lanner Gorge, Makuleke, a short time ago while working for Ecotraining.