• June 4, 2024
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From the shadows of neglect, a narrative of restoration unfolds.

I, Alex van den Heever, was born in the year 1975, a world away from where Renias Mhlongo first opened his eyes beneath the shade of a jackalberry tree in the wilds of greater Kruger National Park. While his roots are deeply embedded in the traditions of the Shangaan hunter-gatherers, mine are spread out across the cattle farms of the south Cape coast, grounded in a different sort of heritage.

My childhood was filled with hide-and-seek with my sister, a game that seems so trivial now, but perhaps it was the universe’s playful nudge towards my destiny. Renias, too, grew up chasing more than just the wind. His play “Xitumbelelani,” a vibrant rendition of hide-and-seek, was a prelude to mastery, each game sharpening the skills of the world-renowned animal tracker he was to become.

Under the watchful eye of his father, Judas Mhlongo—a man of sturdy stature and resolute demeanour—Renias learned to interpret animal sign. His father’s words were etched into his mind as a young man: “To lose a cow is to lose your accommodation.”

Renias was no longer just a boy; he was the guardian of his family’s lifeline, the defender of their legacy – from lions and hyenas.

Our country was in turmoil back then, the year Mandela was sentenced, and justice seemed a distant dream for Renias. That same year, injustice knocked on the Mhlongo’s door too, branding his father a poacher and turning their homestead to rubble.

Renias remembers that fateful night; wading through a river, clutching onto the tail of a cow to pull himself through the water – as his family trekked to a black settlement area – called Dixie – where he lives to this day.

Our paths crossed at Londolozi game reserve 25 years later. The only common threads binding us were the echoes of hide-and-seek and perhaps an affinity for cows. Apart from these, our stories diverged along the lines of poverty and privilege.

At Londolozi we found a place where diverse cultures were poured together. Immersed in its incredible conservation ethos, we witnessed the power of unity driven by a clear, shared purpose.

Walking the ancient animal paths of Londolozi, Renias and I were acutely aware of our differences, our fears, and doubts of been thrown together in an unlikely partnership.

Compelled by circumstance, and without discussing it, we set aside our disparate pasts to present a united front, intent on crafting a world-class safari for our guests.

The name Mhlongo became synonymous with legendary tracking, and under Renias’s wing, I found my own voice in the bushveld as the country’s youngest Senior Tracker. We became a unit, an ace leopard tracking team that had found its collective purpose.

Renias and his brothers Phineas and Elmon were South Africa’s renowned trackers. Their acclaim comparable to All Black rugby’s three Barrett siblings. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Mhlongo trio’s expertise was instrumental in the creation of wild leopard viewing, celebrated as the famous leopards of Londolozi – attracting scores of tourists to Kruger’s western private game reserves.

But the heart wants what it wants, and ours wanted to preserve the ancient wisdom of tracking. Together with Gaynor Rupert, Tracker Academy was our brainchild, a place to empower young rural people with not just a skill but an ancient African legacy. In 14 years over 250 graduates have found gainful employment from their training at the Academy.

The dream grew, its whispers becoming reverberant lion roars that could not be ignored. Our goal was to establish a sanctuary for inviting others to experience tracking with us.

For fifteen years, we pursued our own game lodge, writing tender applications, negotiating leases, and courting investors. Yet, each time we failed – opportunities proved too costly, sellers changed their minds, and funding institutes deemed us unworthy.

Renias remained steadfast, believing it was his ancestors’ wish. I remember his constant utterance of “Hi ta kuma” (we will find) – which kept me motivated.

With each setback our vision gained deeper significance. Our driving force evolved to showcase the remarkable potential of ordinary South Africans united by a clear purpose. We wanted to demonstrate the power of unity, to prove that diverse strengths woven together can indeed make us ‘stronger together’.

Our dream materialised with the opening of Tshokwane River Camp in July 2022.

The boy who once herded cattle on the dusty savanna a few kilometres away is now a shareholder in a legitimate safari business that stands for more than profit—it stands for hope and unity.

This journey I’ve taken, alongside Renias, isn’t just about two men from different worlds. It’s about bridging divides with a common vision, about crafting a future where dreams don’t know the colour of one’s skin.

This is not just our story. It’s a testament to restoration and the possibilities of a shared dream made real in South Africa.

Images – World Trackers / Alex and Ren and Kruger Untamed (Photographer – Kyle Lewin)