The Leopard Mans Journey To Safety
By Arlene Cameron
It takes a very special person to dedicate his or her life as a custodian of Africa’s wilderness. One such person is Johannes Mkhari. Johannes, a refugee from Mozambique who is now a South African citizen, is a field guide at Motswari Private Game Reserve and known to many guests as “Your Highness.”
His uncanny ability to find that most rare, elusive feline, the leopard, has left many visitors to Motswari, which is situated in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, in awe. Getting a good sighting requires a level of skill and intuitive knowledge that is almost supernatural. “I’m known as “The Leopard Man.” I got the name because my spirit is one with the leopard, and that is why I am alive today,” says Johannes.
He was born in Mozambique, in a village close to the border of the Kruger National Park (KNP). Johannes and his family became the victims of the protracted and often bloody civil war in Mozambique. “The soldiers planted land mines everywhere. People were killed and hurt every day, but there was no doctor or medicine.
Many die like that. The Frelimo came, they say we Renamo, we try to hide but still they kill many people, and steal our cattle. We starving, and we don’t know why they just fighting like this. They take my mother away. Then I decide I must see how I can get to safety in South Africa. I know the bush.
My father teach me. We have cattle, goats and plenty wild animals before soldiers kill them all. Everywhere they plant land mines so you can't walk even to find food." One day Johannes set off with five litres of water, a small bag of mealie meal and a box of matches. It was 1981, and he knew all too well how many had died on this trip. He laughs ruefully. "You can choose - a lion can eat you, the wardens can shoot you, or you can drown in the river or you lost and die from hunger."
Learning To Survive
“I look all the times at the big Drakensberg Mountain in the south. I keep it in front of me, so I don’t get lost, because I have no map. We believe it’s a sacred spirit to protect us. Four days I walk, and I am lucky. You must sleep in the river bed at night. You make a small fire to chase the lion and hyena.
You make a little hole in the sand to keep warm, and the guards can’t see. But if the guards don’t come, and the lion he’s not eat you, eish! The big rain comes and before you even wake up you can drown!” Johannes says he survived because he respects wild animals. He smiles enigmatically, and says that they know this and honour his regard for them.
He has a strong leopard archetype. It is his dream animal, his spirit guide. Johannes vividly recalls how he patiently waited as trackers passed close by and lay as still as a log as wardens from the park scanned the bush for tell-tale traces of illegal aliens. Finally he made it and slipped unseen through Orpen Gate.
He exulted in the knowledge that he succeeded where thousands of others had failed. “If they catch you they feel sorry. They give you some food, maybe even clothes, because they see you a big man to try. You must have plenty courage, and many die. One woman she famous because she have a baby in a tree! But mostly they must take you back to Mozambique, because it’s not enough work here.
But, I'm lucky, because I get a job as a labourer. Then I find a nice place to stay. After I must cross again through the Park to get my family. My father is already shot dead when I get back. I can't find my mother. I take my sister, because she is pregnant, and some more people they say please I must help them. After that I go back three more times. "It's everything better here.
We struggle with life, but we are happy because we can find something to eat, to wear, to build." One day Johannes heard that a woman fitting his mother's description had been asking for him. He succeeded in finding her, and to her joy they were re-united at last.
Courage, Perseverance And Success
On being granted citizenship he came to work in the Timbavati area in 1995. Once he joined the Motswari family he never looked back. Johannes was recently assessed and was granted Level III tracker, one of very few guides in the country to achieve this. Adriaan Louw, the assessor, has recommended that Johannes go for the the next level of master tracker, a distinction few in South Africa hold.
“The enthusiasm, motivation and knowledge that helped him survive the gruelling journey across a hostile divide have created a determination to succeed, and a deep-seated appreciation of good opportunities that come through overcoming extreme adversity with triumph.
Yet, Johannes remains unassuming, and has a sparkling sense of humour that is an integral part of his resilience and undeniable charm,” says Evelyn Millard, managing director of Motswari. “They help me to learn English, they send me to courses so I can learn more skills. I study, and now I have enough money. I meet a nice woman for make wife to me. We have six children today.
I give them good school, food, a better life. It is hard for children today. Too many people! But now we have work, and we are very happy. Motswari they do lot of things for many people. They help me make a good life. We altogether like the big family. We love these people and this place very much.”