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Cattle Herder to Safari Owner

This is the first episode of a three-part series.

It’s a story of a dream. A fantasy perhaps…that came true.

I entered the world in 1975, far from where Renias Mhlongo’s journey began under a jackalberry tree in the greater Kruger National Park. Our origins diverged: his in the Shangaan hunter-gatherer traditions, and mine amongst the Cape’s cattle farms.

Yet, our childhoods whispered of future paths. Mine through games of hide-and-seek in the dunes of Plettenberg Bay. And Renias’s through “Xitumbelelani,” a Shangaan version, teaching the art of observation – and a prelude to his future as a world-renowned animal tracker.

The tumultuous backdrop of apartheid South Africa was a reality for Renias, especially when his father was falsely accused of poaching. An event that turned their lives upside down and had them removed from their land.

Renias remembers that fateful night the family fled to a settlement called Dixie. They waded through a river, as a little boy, Renias clutching onto the tail of a cow to pull himself through the water – as they trekked northwards into the unknown.

Our paths crossed at Londolozi Game Reserve 20 years later. The only common threads binding us were the echoes of hide-and-seek and perhaps an affinity for cows!

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.

Me and Renias at Londolozi, circa 1995.

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

The name Mhlongo was already synonymous with legendary tracking, and under Renias’s wing, we soon became an ace leopard tracking team.

Renias, alongside his two brothers, was pivotal in pioneering wild leopard viewing at Londolozi. Until then, spotting one was pure luck. Their efforts made it far more likely to get sightings of calm leopards. They transformed the ancient craft of tracking into a legacy that drew countless visitors to the region.

But the heart wants what it wants, and ours wanted a different trail. Leaving behind secure posts at Londolozi, we left with a vision to establish a school for trackers – to restore ancient African animal tracking for the benefit of wildlife conservation.

Together with Gaynor Rupert, Tracker Academy was founded to empower young rural people. Over a decade later, the Academy has seen 266 graduates finding gainful employment in the conservation industry.

Renias is the inspiration for Tracker Academy, which has trained 266 rural, unemployed people in 14 years. And Gaynor Rupert made it all happen.

Our dream matured.

We wanted to create a sanctuary where these skills could flourish. A venue for our graduates to demonstrate their exceptional tracking skills to discerning travelers.

For fifteen years, we chased the elusive dream of our own game reserve – submitting tenders, negotiating with banks, and courting investors. We could track leopards, yet navigating the complex terrain of high finance eluded us!

Despite many rejections, Renias remained steadfast, believing it was his ancestors’ wish.

What started as an uneasy alliance at Londolozi had now grown into a deep kinship  – forged through years of shared experiences. Over time the concept of ‘stronger together’ became obvious to us. In fact, it drove us.

In an ecotourism industry where true transformation is so scarce, we adopted the tenacity of a couple of honey badgers to prove it could be done. “Buti, we will dig even if the bees sting us,” was Ren’s best. We wanted to showcase the remarkable potential of South Africans unified by a clear purpose – in our industry.

Eventually, perseverance bore fruit with the establishment of Tshokwane River Camp in July 2023. One of the best days of our lives.

Now, the boy who once herded cattle on the dusty savanna a few kilometers away is a shareholder in a legitimate safari business (KrugerUntamed) that stands for more than profit—it stands for hope and unity.

KrugerUntamed’s Tshokwane River Camp – is open from 1 May to 30 September, annually.

The safari camp is not just a business; it’s a tangible representation of our shared vision and commitment to South Africa’s future.

The day we signed the shareholders’ agreement, Ren sent me this short WhatsApp, “Hi swi kumile. 🐆” (We found it).

For more information click here.

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