He’s a big man, six foot five inches tall, with such enormous boots that his nickname is Mabarule, after an old Shangaan chief best known for his large feet. Spend some time in his company and you’ll soon discover that his knowledge of the bush, his strong opinions and his sense of humour are equally outsized.
A four-and-a-half-year stint as ranger at Tshokwane followed (where his wife Jocelyn first introduced the melktert at Tshokwane picnic site, for which it’s still famous) before he settled in as Mooiplaas section ranger for 18 years, stationed at that well-known house on the hill just outside Mopani camp.
That’s where he came face to face with a leopard that had become trapped inside the camp. It was Johann’s job to get it out – for the benefit of both leopard and visitors. Stressed and hostile, the animal launched its attack from the bushes. Johann admits he didn’t even see it coming. He was lucky; as it jumped on him, sinking in teeth and claws, Johann stumbled into a hole and, falling backwards, threw it over his head. That probably saved his life, but he still has the scars on his arms and neck – one scarily close to the jugular vein – as a memento.
Tsendze Rustic Camp
Anyone who has stayed at the Tsendze rustic campsite just south of Mopani will be familiar with Johann’s handiwork, even if they don’t know it’s his. He’s the man who conceived and steered the idea of this camp, which opened in November 2006. ‘Mopani was one of few camps at Kruger without camping facilities. I knew about this lovely cluster of trees here and thought they’d make a perfect site for a rustic camp,’ he recalls. The whole idea of secluded enclaves surrounded by natural bush – which is what makes Tsendze so special – was his idea. ‘I wanted privacy for campers and to create a feeling of being alone in the bush.’
Tying in with the rustic ambience is natural slate tiling inside the ablutions and wooden pole cladding outside, helping the structures blend into the bush. ‘I drew those designs myself,’ he notes.
The outdoor showers were another of Johann’s inspirations. Of course, you can have a normal indoor shower, but for hot summer months there’s nothing like a shower that’s open to the skies so you can contemplate the stars as you wash off the heat and dust of the day.
Motivating, designing and overseeing Tsendze’s construction was probably one of Johann most satisfying achievements at Kruger. But there were others too. For instance, in 2005 he and his workers transplanted an eight-ton baobab from Letaba camp to the Giriyondo border gate into Mozambique. ‘It was just a youngster of about 35 years old and although it took us two weeks, we dug it up fairly easily out of soft alluvial soil. Planting it at Giriyondo was another story; we had to blast through underlying rock, but it worked and the tree has flourished. It bloomed and bore fruit for the first time this year,’ he grins.
He also motivated and drew the initial plans for the sleep-over hide along the Shipandani River near Mopani. Here you can book to stay ‘out’ all night in the basic comfort of bunk beds and a braai lapa. You should hear the honking of hippos through the darkness and might even be lucky enough to see a white-crowned night heron.
The loops off the tourist road between Mopani and Tsendze that allow you to drive closer to the river were also his idea, as was the confluence lookout south of Tsendze, where three rivers meet. Both are favourites with visitors.
A new chapter
Although Johann retired at the end of August 2011 his influence will be felt at Kruger for a long time. He knows settling outside the park will be difficult after three decades inside it. ‘We arrived at Kruger as relative youngsters and our daughter Jolene was born and grew up here. Now we’re of retirement age, we must say goodbye to paradise. Although we have a house at Hartebeespoort Dam, we’d be like two tadpoles in a shark tank there, so we’re settling in Phalaborwa where we can still be close to our beloved Kruger.’
In his case ‘retirement’ is a misleading word; it’s more a ‘change of direction’ since he’s joined Bhejane Adventures as a freelance safari guide taking 4x4 adventure tours to Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
With his knowledge of mammals, birds, trees, ecology and conservation, and his wealth of amusing and exciting stories, Johann will make an ideal guide. Sit around the camp fire with him in the evening and you’re bound to go to bed a lot wiser and with a smile on your face.
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