We’re on an open game viewing vehicle on our last day at Amakhosi Safari Lodge listening to game ranger Sipho Ntombela tell yet another wonderful story. “My grandfather was Magqubu Ntombela” he says… this alone speaks volumes, especially if you’re familiar with KwaZulu-Natal conservation history. Not only was Magqubu Ntombela ‘beloved friend, mentor and wilderness guide’ to world renowned conservationist Dr. Ian Player, he was a proud Zulu who served wildlife conservation for almost 80 years – but the thing he would no doubt be most proud of is the conservation legacy he left to his family.

“My grandfather taught me everything about conservation”, Sipho continues. Telling us about the way he used to walk with his grandfather through the wilderness areas of the iMfolosi Game Reserve, where he learnt about the birds, the trees and the animals, their habits and idiosyncrasies… ‘like a rhino’ he tells us, that ‘lies down from about nine o’clock, until three o’clock when he starts waking up, then he eats all night and in the morning drinks water’ – just to repeat it all over again.

My mind drifts to the rhino we saw that morning. He had been grazing on remnants of veld grass that had survived the prolonged drought. I glance at my watch, ‘yep, nap time coming up’. This predictability unfortunately often playing into the hands of rhino poachers.

Sipho tells us that his grandfather was a good ranger, was good at training the students and loved working on the Wilderness Trail… and with a smile tells how he always carried a small pot – a little three-legged pot. In a tribute to Magqubu, Ian Player tells this story: “Wherever he went he carried his little three-legged cooking pot that he had bought in 1925 for five shillings. To smart hotels or into the wilderness, the pot went with him. Once we were attacked by lions and he put his pot down as we were retreating. When he decided he was going back to fetch it we had a furious argument. I said his life was more valuable to me than the pot. He ignored me, braved a wounded lion and returned, smiling, with his pot.”

I’m beginning to like this man, so much so that in writing this story I needed to find out more about Magqubu Ntombela, the man. I discovered that his work with the Wilderness Foundation took him to America to attend and speak at the Fourth World Wilderness Congress. Here he told that his grandfather had served Shaka Zulu, and that his father fought in Cetshwayo’s Zulu army at the battle of Isandlwana in 1897. It was not surprising that this man who came from a long line of Zulu warriors would be afraid of nothing – not even a wounded lion!

And he no doubt keep his audience enthralled with his stories of Zululand…

“I will begin my talk with the month of October, uzibandlela. It is the time that the footpaths of Zululand become covered with new grass. It is also the month when the red flower of the msinsi (Erythrina caffra) falls, and the green leaves of that tree appear… There are other trees which also come to life, such as the sycamore fig which grows along the banks of our rivers. Animals love the fruit of this tree. The baboons climb up to the very top and in their haste to feed themselves they spill many figs on the ground.

Other animals like the bushbuck, rhinoceros, warthog, grey duiker and inyala will then feed on the fallen fruit. When the baboons have had their fill they play and start trouble amongst themselves. Youngsters tease the older animals who then chase them about the tree, asking, “What do you think you’re doing?” and the youngsters will reply, “Sorry, father! Sorry!”. “What do you think you are doing?” the older baboon will repeat, and the youngster will say, “Please, father, please.” But the older baboon will then hurl the youngster out of the tree by his tail. This will annoy the mother of the young baboon and she will say, “Hey! Hey you! You want to kill my child? What do you think you’re doing?” The troop leader, reclining right at the top of the tree, having watched this inter-play, makes screeching loud noises.”

“And “Nhlangula is the month of May, the month when winter starts, when the leaves fall and we feel the first pinch of cold. The days grow shorter and a great stillness falls upon the land. It is the time when my people begin burning grass on the hills and pastures and it is this month when the insingizi, the ground hornbill, begins calling while walking across the burnt grass in search of grasshoppers. As they go one says, “What tree? What tree? What tree is that?” And the other bird will turn round and say, “That tree, that tree, that tree is an msinsi.” Then after having eaten well one will say, “Have you had your fill? Have you had your fill? Have you had your fill?” And the other will reply, “Yes, I’ve had my fill, I’ve had my fill, I’ve had my fill.” (excerpt from his speech, interpreted from Zulu by Maurice Mackenzie)

I can almost hear Sipho telling us these stories too, as he had the story of the Marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea), which is referred to by the Zulus as the ‘marriage tree’.  He told us that this tree is also believed to be a symbol of fertility, where a powdered mixture of the bark of a female tree will produce a baby girl, and that of the male tree a baby boy – the Marula tree is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees.

He told us about the buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata), and explained it’s significance to the Zulu’s – it is used by family members to retrieve the spirit of the deceased from where he died. The chosen person goes to the place where their family member died carrying a branch of the spirit tree (as it is called by the Zulus), it gives the spirit something to hold on to where it is then taken back to the homestead where it is given a resting place near the family.

A few of the other fascinating tree stories were that the fruit of the sausage tree are hung at the top of a home to stop lightening; that the Tamboti (Spirostachys Africana) and wild camphor tree (Tarchonanthus camphoratus) are rubbed together to create a powder that is used as a perfume; and how the fruit of the snake apple (also known as poison apple, a nightshade species, Solanum panduriforme) can be used for snake bite.

We had spent many hours in the bush with Sipho and Jeremy, our tracker – both delighting us with their exuberance, animal antics and wonderful knowledge. Nothing like discussing South African politics over a mug of steaming coffee whilst surveying the expanse of the reserve, or having them head off into the bush to track a cheetah, only to creep back and give us a fright – Jeremy the ‘cheetah’ and Sipho the prey, sporting a set of horns!

A visit to a game reserve is not just about seeing the Big 5, it’s about the birds, the trees and all the other creatures and critters… and the experiences, of which Amakhosi has many. We saw epic African sunsets; watched a herd of buffalo cool off in the Mkuze River – the same river that one early morning was a slow trickle and a few hours later a raging torrent, thanks to rain upstream, and hung on as Sipho negotiated an old unused road up a hillside to give us a glimpse of a lioness with her young cubs. He also explained that the dominant lion we were later watching was quietly keeping an eye on the ‘rival’ across the boundary line, and that once he rose would soon be scent marking his territory just in case there was any doubt as to who was in charge of this area.

Then there were the elephants. We watched numerous dust baths and watched a procession along and through the river, with much drinking, bathing and sloshing in the mud – the littliest in the herd providing much entertainment as it battled to keep its balance and couldn’t seem to work out what its trunk was for!

And as always, and visit to Amakhosi Safari Lodge is accompanied by fabulous food, delightful surprises, gorgeous suites, and always wonderful people.

Which brings me back to Sipho, grandson of Magqubu… telling us his story in that game viewing vehicle with the Mkuze River flowing strongly beside us. He continued to tell how he brings his son to Amakhosi, how he takes him into the bush and teaches him things and tells him stories. He tells us proudly that his son’s teacher said to him ‘your books… the bird book, tree book and the animal book… he’s teaching the other kids’ – a budding conservationist. “All my family are working in conservation” Sipho tells us. “My Dad works at Mpila at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, and my brother is in the rhino anti-poaching unit there”.

Magqubu Ntombela, ‘beloved friend, mentor and wilderness guide’ to world renowned conservationist Dr Ian Player, would be so incredibly proud.





Disclaimer: Responsible Traveller was hosted by Amakhosi Safari Lodge… special thanks to the Alwyn and Sonja for hosting us, and the Amakhosi team for spoiling us with their wonderful hospitality!!