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Interviewing tracker Alex van den Heever in suburban Fourways feels as logical as studying a lion’s hunting patterns in a zoo.
“Renias, he can’t get over the amount of people going seemingly nowhere (in Joburg),” laughs Van den Heever about his friend and colleague’s views on the artificial city. But Van den Heever has also spent too long listening to the sounds of the bush – he can’t filter out the constant back beat of dogs and cars in Joburg.
Renias Mhlongo and Van den Heever met in the 1990s when they were partnered as game rangers at Londolozi Private Game Reserve. That changed both their lives.
Mhlongo, 49, taught Van den Heever, 36, to speak Shangaan and in turn learnt English. Early on in their relationship, Mhlongo took Van den Heever back to his village, Dixie.
“I always thought villages were dirty and full of crime,” says Van den Heever. “But (in Dixie) I experienced a level of generosity and a level of humanness I had never experienced before.”
Van den Heever reciprocated by taking Mhlongo to London. “He had never seen so many white people in one place before,” laughs Van den Heever.
They had to trust each other in foreign situations and their relationship strengthened. “It’s the effort that is important when building relationships, not the content… (when we went to London) he saw that I was serious about creating an equal relationship.”
Since then the pair have tracked in Yellowstone Park in the US, travelled to parts of Africa and visited Australia.
“(Mhlongo) had never been in a plane and now he has travelled more than an affluent person from Sandton,” says Van den Heever.
“We want to be a model. We want to be an example. For white and black in the bush, in the business world,” says Van den Heever.
Both men work part time as motivational speakers.
But it’s about more than fuzzy feelings and chit-chat. As a ranger and tracker, Van den Heever has learnt from Mhlongo, who is one of the last people to be raised in the Shangaan pastoralist and naturalist tradition.
There are about 2 000 trackers working in SA, but Van den Heever says many of these are poorly skilled and there are only 16 qualified senior trackers and three master trackers in the country.
Mhlongo and Van den Heever are senior trackers and two of five national senior tracker evaluators.
In 2010 they opened the Tracker Academy, which takes unemployed, uneducated people from rural areas and trains them in indigenous tracking knowledge. “We pick the individuals who show aptitude,” says Van den Heever.
The year-long course is split between Samara Game Reserve in the Karoo and Londolozi Game Reserve, giving the students experience of the semi-desert and the bush biomes.
The strength of the school is that it focuses on restoring indigenous knowledge. Participants learn to discriminate between scorpion and beetle tracks, which look the same to the untrained eye. The other aspect is trailing or following, in which trackers trail animals by interpreting their calls, smells, markings and the wind. “That takes a skill that we have lost in most of southern Africa,” says Van den Heever.
The skills gained are valuable in more than showing tourists our local wildlife. They can be used to tackle poaching and in assisting in research.
For now the school takes on only sponsored students, but Van den Heever plans to open it to a fee-paying public.