We have very little in common. Elmon is an elderly, wise, shangaan man who was born and bred on the land. As a young boy he was taught to track by his father while herding cattle amongst lions. I am half his age and have spent a lot of my life in cities. Yet, as different as we are, we choose to spend at least 8 hours of every day in each others company. The common denominator you may wonder? A profound love of the bush.
Despite not having being schooled in the traditional sense, Elmon is an educated man. ‘The bush is my classroom and the animals, my teachers.’ he said with his stern, yet friendly expression. Throughout his lifetime he has undergone a ‘schooling’ which very few humans have ever been fortunate enough to have, and even fewer will in time to come. On watching a lioness pawing at a male to wake him from his slumber to mate yet again, Elmon turns to me, chuckles and says “It’s the 1st time I’ve seen that. In the bush, I will learn until I die!”
Animals are an example to us, he explains. Despite not talking our language they’ll warn us if we come too close or intrude. How come humans don’t always warn us? “What’s the most frightening experience you’ve had in the bush?” a guest enquires from the back row. “Wild animals aren’t dangerous”, he goes on to elaborate. “Humans are the most dangerous creatures. The world is turned upside down. Living in the city makes you weak; Computers are bad for your eyes and you don’t get the exercise you should. You need to eat natural things like Marula nuts, fresh fruit and meat from the bush, not Macdonalds with hormones in it.”
He is a true naturalist.
My best time in the bush have been walking alongside him, hot on the trail of a leopard and seeing the merriment in his eyes as we finally catch a glimpse of the beautiful cat. After 40 years as a tracker and hundreds if not thousands of leopard encounters, his excitement is as obvious as it must have been those 30 years ago when he and John Varty found the 1st leopard to be seen at Londolozi – The Mother Leopard.
This special man has seen and done it all. He’s chased lions away from a kill as a child to ‘share’ some of their quarry; cutting off a piece of meat so man and beast could share the spoils. He’s raised a lion cub, Shingalane, starred in a movie called Running Wild alongside big names like Brooke Shields and Martin Sheen. He’s had a documentary, The Tracker, made about his life. And yet he still takes the time to teach a stranger he has nothing in common with and is also as excited about every game drive as the last.
Those that have sat in the game drive seats behind him know that he cuts a dignified, regal image on the front of the vehicle. There’s never any doubt as to who is in control of our game drives. Although he doesn’t say too much, his presence is tangible.
It’s been such a privilege to work with Elmon for the last 2 years and have him pass on his knowledge to me. A debt I’ll never settle and struggle to thank him enough for.
Initially I called him Nduna, the big chief. Once we got to know each other a little better and I realised what an impact he was having on me and I started calling him Mjonzize, teacher. Our bond has strengthened yet again and I’m proud to now be able to call this incredible man, Mfo. My friend.
Written by: James Hobson
Photographed by: Rich Laburn & Chris Goodman