* This article first appeared here in the Sunday Times Lifestyle
Samuel had just introduced me to one of Kruger’s best-kept secrets – Lanner Gorge. In one of the northernmost parts of the park, the Luvuvhu River carves out a majestic gorge – reaching an astonishing 150 meters at its highest. After a sundowner on one of the gorge’s vantage points, it was time to head back to the lodge.
The land cruiser seemed set on returning home to the lodge, keeping close to the narrow dirt track until Samuel came to a stop. I scanned around for the reason for the halt and not seeing anything, asked Samuel why we’d stopped.
“The ants”, he told me “they are crossing the road and we must wait for them.”
Lo and behold, drawing a distinct black line in the sand, a cavalcade of the tiny creatures was crossing the road. Under no circumstances would Samuel cross the road and risk injuring even one of the ants. As moments turned into minutes, I became rather frustrated, wanting to return to the lodge for a shower and a drink.
After fifteen minutes I realised we wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, and accepting the situation, several things happened in that liminal space.
I noticed that despite the surrounding thicket, I could see rather far. The sparse winter foliage meant for greater visibility. On a nearby koppie, a confusion of crested guineafowl was jostling about. Above them, the European Rollers, having travelled here from distances of up to 9000km, added a splash of colour to the tops of the trees. The light also changed as the day retired to twilight.
Perhaps most significantly, our stop allowed for time for Samuel to tell me his story.
Samuel Japane is in his mid-fifties and is a son of the soil, having grown up in a village just short of two hours’ drive from the lodge. In 2006 he was working as a security guard in a school when something extraordinary happened. With no previous context, it came to him in a dream that he should study birds.
“I started collecting and reading newspapers where birds were photographed and studying what I could, bit by bit” – which he did fastidiously until a fortuitous encounter lead him to acquire his first bird book. In 2012 his formal training began and thanks to the Makuleke Property Association was able to do his field guide course.
Two years later came the dream opportunity as a guide at Kruger’s Outpost Lodge. For seven years Samuel has been guiding guests, and his vast bird knowledge has earned him the title The Unlikely Birdman.
As Samuel told me of his journey from security guard to wilderness guide, what he didn’t see, was the tears slowly navigating down my face. This encounter in the bush had moved from inconvenience to sacred.
Almost an hour later, noticing the last ants cross the road, Samuel turned on the engine and we returned to the lodge. Sometimes the most important stories are can only be learned when we have time to stop for ants.