Those who have had roads named after them at Londolozi have all been highly influential people. One name however, appears several times on the road maps of Londolozi. Winnis’s wallows, Winnis’s clearing and Winnis’s donga are all named after the legendary Winnis Mathebula, one of the greatest naturalists and trackers of his day.
Winnis joined the Varty family during one of their first visits to Londolozi in 1926, when they met a ranger from the Kruger National Park who suggested that they employ Winnis to help them to track lions. Although it hasn’t been the case for over half a century, lion hunting was a part of daily life at Londolozi during the early pioneering days. For John and Dave Varty, some of their earliest memories of their farm Sparta revolve around hunting lions with their father Boyd and Winnis Mathebula.
Winnis was a great friend and mentor to the Varty family and remained at Londolozi for over 50 years. Winnis grew up as a hunter-gather, during a time in which tracking and understanding the wildlife of the area was paramount to survival. As a result, he possessed a unique set of skills that very few people had – he knew how to track and find animals on foot. This knowledge was passed down to all who tracked with him, particularly Charles Varty and Frank Unger. Winnis taught them how to listen to the sounds of the bushveld, to anticipate the reactions of lions, how to look for tracks and how to understand the intricacies of the wilderness. Winnis would track animals with what Dave Varty refers to as “second sight”. Using his vast knowledge and experience, Winnis was able to abandon tracks that he was following and anticipate where the animal had gone to next by using subtle clues that most people would overlook or disregard.
Winnis’s house at Londolozi consisted of no more than a simple stick frame hut covered with reeds. The hut couldn’t have been very well sheltered as Winnis would often lie on his sleeping mat and look at the stars through holes in his roof, but he was a simple and wild man. One night, after a few beers Winnis noticed a very bright light moving through the sky. One of the first satellites ever had been launched and was now orbiting the earth. Having never seen or heard of a satellite, Winnis ran over to Boyd Varty’s house and asked to borrow his rifle so that he could shoot down the moving object in the sky that made him so uneasy!
Winnis had more brushes with death than anyone else at Londolozi. “The man was just impossible to kill”, says Boyd Varty (junior). One evening, whilst a few of the trackers and staff were enjoying a few beers around the fire, a huge 3 m long black mamba slithered into the middle of the boma. Black mambas are typically very nervous snakes and when cornered can become very aggressive. When the trackers and staff panicked and ran in different directions, this is exactly what happened. The snake reared up and bit a man named Simian, and then turned and bit Winnis in the small of his back. Dave Varty arrived onto the scene in shock, knowing that the neurotoxic venom would soon shut down the autonomic systems of both men, who were now most likely a few hours away from death.
After a long and anxious wait, Winnis told everyone that he was fine and walked off to his hut. It was the venom dripping onto Simian’s trousers that revealed how lucky the two men had in fact been. The mamba had bitten Simian on his leather belt and injected all of its venom at once. As a result, when the mamba bit Winnis, it delivered a dry bite. Winnis had another close shave in July 1969. Dave Varty recalls visiting his farm Sparta to find Winnis in a rather bad way. Winnis was bandaged up after he had been fishing with his wife down at the sand river and was gored by a buffalo. While underneath the buffalo, Winnis had shouted to his wife to throw something at it. His wife grabbed the nearest granite boulder that she could lift and dropped it onto the buffalo’s head, causing the buffalo to run off, saving Winnis’s life.
In the 1960s ecotourism replaced hunting and rifles were traded for cameras. For everyone else at Londolozi, being on the forefront of conservation issues was the way forward and lions and leopard were now photographed as opposed to hunted. Winnis needed more convincing. He grew up in a time where hunting was simply a way of life and he struggled to adapt to the new way of doing things. In particular, he could not understand why one would go through all the effort to track a lion or a leopard just to take photos of it. It was just not something that he could ever get used to, and he would often be heard muttering to himself in a way that clearly showed his disapproval of simple picture-taking.
Winnis lived until the age of 85 before he passed, but his legacy lives on.
Written by Shaun D’Araujo, Londolozi Ranger