For me being on safari, whether it be here at Thornybush Game Lodge or anywhere in Africa, is about more than just being in the bush and the exceptional experiences it offers – it is about the people, the local communities that are positively impacted and the conservation programmes that rely on these experiences.

Here are are few of the special people we met and interacted with at Thornybush Game Lodge

John Ndlovu (aka John-The-Best):

John tells us that he was born in Mozambique and that it was while herding cows and exploring the wild around his village that his first understanding of tracking began, and where his love of being in nature first developed.

His family chose to move to South Africa when war broke out and this offered him the opportunity to follow his heart and began working in the safari industry. The journey to where he is now started with him working as a security guard, a store manager and then as part of the maintenance team at Simbambili Game Lodge – it was here that he was given the opportunity to start tracking. And has since been part of the Thornybush Game Lodge team for the past 10 years. He is much loved by all the guests – hence the nickname John-the-Best! And always aims to deliver, going back to tracks until he finds what he is looking for.

I ask him what his passion is, and he tells me it is to learn more and more about the bush and that he wants to become a guide – he applied to FGASA to do his guide training, but Covid-19 put paid to that, but plans on resuming his studies as soon as possible. He also loves walking in the bush, which he does with his traditional weapon, a knobkerrie. I ask about his best animal, ‘lion cubs’ he says, and best bird? The ground hornbill.

Sandile Mkhonto:

Juggling single parenting, working at Thornybush and volunteering as a local soccer coach, this young man with an infectious smile and a zest for life will certainly be going places.

Sandile grew up in a small village in Mpumalanga and this, he tells me, is where he learnt to love nature and subsequently photography. He was hoping to study hospitality at university, but his marks weren’t good enough, not being one to give up he did a computer course instead and then in 2019 an opportunity to study hospitality, with an internship, with Toerboer in Graaff-Reinett in the Eastern Cape.

Then Covid-19 happened… Fortunately the Thornybush Foundation was looking for someone to assist with the placement of interns, his natural affinity to develop people and mentor them, obviously shone through and he got the position. A role that entails developing the new interns and students that are placed in various positions in the lodge. Not being happy with doing just one thing he tells me that he helps wherever he can, whether it be helping in the kitchen, behind the bar or wherever needed. ‘I just want to help’, he tells me.

He tells me that two years ago he started grooming young U17 soccer boys, making sure that they learn English, learn life skills as well as learn soccer skills. He tries to organise soccer camps where the kids get help with their schoolwork, learn good manners, time management as well as play soccer – all done voluntarily for the good of his community!  His big dream is one day to be a professional soccer coach, a vision that started while he was in Graaff-Reinett, where he volunteered to teach local kids’ soccer, even to the point of using some of his money to buy soccer cones and balls. For now, he will be happy for one of the boys that he coaches get to play for one of the big clubs, or even Bafana Bafana, he tells me with a smile!

Anything else in the future? He wants to learn nature conservation and do his FGASA guiding certification. Sandile is certainly a man with lots of dreams, ‘I’m only 22’ he tells me, and ‘I want to achieve these things by the time I am 30.’ Oh, and he wants to become a professional photographer… and he loved the opportunity to pose with my hubbies camera 🙂

His advice to other young people is to stay positive, learn from your mistakes and have a dream – ‘dreams always work when you work too.’

Solly Mangena:

This is the man behind the delicious food while on safari at Thornybush Game Lodge, where he has worked since 2004. He loves to use fresh local ingredients, especially herbs, many of which are sourced from the local community gardens (read more about these initiatives HERE). Other fresh produce is sourced from artisanal producers where feasible, and as close to home as possible.  

Coming from a small village in Limpopo, it was when visiting his uncle at a country lodge in Magoebaskloof, he discovered he had a passion for food and told himself that he wanted to be just like his uncle. What started as a holiday job there, helping wherever required, resulted in him earning a placement in the scullery, chopping vegetables in the spare time… and then an opportunity arose for him to cook his first meal, mini-steak and chips, he tells me. ‘And the guest complimented me!’  This resulted in him being promoted and ultimately alongside the chefs.

After several years of working and training in the culinary environment, including refining his skills at the Prue Leith Academy and his membership of the Chaine de rotisserie, an opening at Singita in the Kruger National Park allowed Solly to achieve his dream of working in the bush, and from there it was a natural progression for him to join the team at Thornybush, having honed both his cookery and his people skills. He tells me that he loves to chat to the guests and to create things that meet all their expectations, even those guests with dietary requirements.

Solly at Thornybush Game Lodge

As Head Chef at Thornybush Game Lodge (which includes overseeing Saseka Tented Camp), I ask him what he would tell young interns straight out of hotel school, he tells me it’s not about how to hold a knife or the other technical stuff, its about making sure they check the quality and quantity of the produce arriving in the kitchen, and to keep learning, every day. ‘Watch cooking channels, learn from others, and be inspired’ he says.