Amone Mzimba is a humble man, with his fine frame, soft-spoken manner and gracious nature; you would be forgiven for mistaking him for part of a lodge's hospitality team rather than their guiding department.
But the moment he starts speaking about his life in the Kruger National Park (KNP), his passion, enthusiasm and love of the bush is clear for all to see.
Even before the interview officially started, Amone was already explaining the reason he had come out of retirement to be a Tinga Lodge tracker. "The bush is my life, every day I wake up and am thankful. I love doing my job. It's my passion".
When he is speaking about his life in Kruger, Amone's eyes brighten up and it's hard not to be truly mesmerised by his stories. The memories he has stored up over a lifetime working within the Park, spilled forth with ease during our interview.
Forty years of stories, for most it would be hard to know where to start, but this didn't faze Amone. "When I first became a "Mapoisa" a field ranger, I did many routine patrols. I loved doing them, as you get to know the bush. You are learning from your corporal and the old Mapoisas about the world around you, until it becomes second nature. The bush will always surprise you though; you can never take it for granted.
On this particular patrol there was just me and one other Mapoisa, we had been walking for some time when we came across a lone buffalo in the bush. I think we must have surprised him because as we tried to go around him, he got a fright and somehow got in between us. Now I am looking at the buffalo, but he is looking at the other Mapoisa.
We stood still, my friend, the buffalo and I, for what seemed like hours. My eyes did not move from the buffalo, the buffalo's eyes didn't move from my friend, and my friend, well he was looking at the buffalo and then at me and then back at the buffalo. It was then the buffalo made a move forward and my friend began to run. I tried to make a noise to draw the buffalo's attention, it slowed him but he stayed focused on my friend.
By slowing the buffalo, it gave my friend enough time to get in between the roots of a very old tree. He squashed himself in as tightly as he could, but his hand and leg was still partly sticking out and the buffalo was determined to get him. With the first charge the buffalo caught my friend's hand sandwiched between the tree root and the hard section on the buffalo's skull between the horns called the boss.
I heard him scream in pain, but the buffalo kept going trying to gore him with its horns through the roots. I was shouting at the buffalo, but it didn't make any difference. So I used my gun and fired a couple of warning shots. This stopped the buffalo in its tracks and it turned to look at who was shooting at him. At that moment I wondered whether the buffalo would now come for me and I would have to shoot him.
This I didn't want to do. For a few moments he just stood there and then he just turned and ran. The moment the buffalo started running, so did my friend. I think it was the adrenaline. He just got out from under the tree and just started running in the opposite direction from the buffalo. So I gave chase, the buffalo had wounded him badly both on his hand and his leg but this didn't seem to affect him, he just ran. Eventually I caught him and he stopped so I could take him to a tree, where he could sit and I could treat his wounds.
He had large lacerations on his hands and feet and so I used a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Once it had stopped enough that he could walk we began to head back to camp, about 2km away. Only when we got back did I realise how lucky we were, but that is one of the aspects of the job. When you work with wild animals, you have to realise you are going into their world. You need to respect that. These things, they happen, you need to be prepared. If you respect them, respect their world and keep alert, then it is less likely; but, accidents do happen and that's what happened that day."
From the first moment I met him, it was clear Amone is fanatical about being in Kruger. When he talks, he becomes so animated reliving his past. But, what brought him to the Park in the first place? "I actually started in Kruger at the abattoir, working as a skinner and learning a new trade. That was 1969 and I worked for Louis Olivier. It was Louis who inspired me to be more.
I followed him when he left the abattoir and spent a year doing game capture in 1973, before heading to Shangoni with Louis in 1974, where Louis became the section ranger, and I was one of his Mapoisa. I worked for him until 1984 and I learnt most of what I know now from him. He definitely is the reason I love the bush so much. Whatever he wanted we would do it, he is a very good man, a very good leader." In 1984, Amone moved to Pretoriuskop and then on to Malelane in 1987. It was there that Amone had numerous encounters with poachers.
"Anti-poaching patrols were part of our day-to-day job. You would be on foot, looking out for spoor or snares or any signs of poaching; whilst trying to keep out of the way of the rest of Kruger's wildlife. On one trip we found a snare with an impala already dead in it and spoor prints leading back to the boundary fence. To catch the poacher in action we decided to camp out by the snare, in the hope that they would come back to collect their prize. We waited and waited, for three days nothing happened.
We would be dropped off at 3am, under the cover of darkness, with a canister of water and then wait until 10pm when we would be collected, only to be sent back out again at 3am the next morning. It was on the third morning that we heard something coming along the pathway. Silently we all got into our hiding places and waited. It was the poacher and he had no idea we were there. We waited while he carefully removed the snare, placing it back into position and then pulled the dead impala onto his back.
It was then that we sprang into action, jumping up out of our hiding places and screaming 'halt'. We fired a couple of rounds at his feet, this worked brilliantly. The guy dropped to the ground, chucking his weapon away into the bush. After that it was easy, we brought the poacher back to Malelane with us, where he was then sent to jail". With every story he tells, Amone's long, delicate hands cut through the air, pointing, rolling, waving, directing the story in much the same way a conductor directs his orchestra.
In 1995 Amone retired, after 26 years of service during which he had seen, learnt and experienced so much. He left the park as a corporal, a position he was proud to earn. Now the guests at Tinga have the privilege to safari with Amone as their tracker, utilising his wealth of knowledge to make their time at Tinga an incredible experience.
When I asked him what his favourite memory of the Park was, he simply answered, "When the elephant stole my radio," slowly giving a wry smile. "I was on patrol, with two other Mapoisa, when we saw an elephant in the bushes just ahead of us. We all climbed on to a termite mound, it was a big mound and we thought it might make us look bigger as there were no trees to climb.
The elephant had seen us. At first it took about three steps away from us, then it turned and charged. For some reason it was only then that we noticed the elephant wasn't alone. In fact, it was part of a breeding herd. At this point we realised the termite mound was just too small, our size might put a lone elephant off, but not a whole herd. So we ran. Now it was the whole herd that was after us.
We had only run a few paces, when I tripped. I felt my feet go from underneath me and the next thing I know I was on the ground. I fell so hard that my rifle barrel was forced deep into the ground. It was so full of dirt, that it was completely useless to me. I could hear the first elephant right behind me and the others coming. There was nothing I could do so I froze, curled into the foetal position and prayed. I prayed the elephants wouldn't see me, I prayed I would survive to see another day, I prayed harder than I had ever done. I heard the first elephant stop, and something touching my back.
My radio was attached to my belt and I could feel it being roughly tugged away from me. I just laid there. As still as I possibly could, holding my breath and continuing to pray. Then I heard the other elephants thundering past me, the sound was incredible, the earth vibrated and the dust rose in thick choking clouds. The elephant who took my radio must have left with the herd, as when the clouds of dust had settled and I slowly looked around and I was alone. No radio, a broken rifle and my fellow Mapoisa's were nowhere to be seen.
It took me a while to find my colleagues, as they had run in different directions. When the elephants had passed them, they started following their tracks back to me. They weren't sure what they would find, whether I would be alive. We celebrated the fact we were all still alive, but now we needed to find the radio. We searched high and low around the site where the elephant had taken it, but it was nowhere.
So we tracked the elephants, hoping it would have been discarded somewhere along their path, but still nothing. So we had to go home without it, much to the dissatisfaction of my section ranger who sent us out the very next day to retrieve the radio. Much to the amazement of everyone my sergeant found it. The radio was completely trodden into the ground, only the aerial sticking out giving its position away.
What was more incredible was that the radio still worked! Despite being trodden into the ground and trampled on by elephants, we could still use it to tell the rest of the search party that we had found it. Never again have I lost my radio, or come that close to elephants!"
Amone has spent the last forty years in the park. During that time, he has learnt from the best, had some incredible experiences and some near fatal ones, but one thing has remained constant, his love of the bush.
By Dr. Katy Johnson