We set off to follow the African Ivory Route (AIR), the once prestigious migration pattern of meandering tuskers in Southern Africa, which was unfortunately made famous by the human lust for blood and ivory, in which the crook Cecil Barnard used to trade. Our first stop is Mtomeni Camp in Letaba Ranch, bordering Kruger National Park and point blank on the Letaba river. This is where head guide Richard Ramadisha resides.
The terrain into the camp is rough and we bounce our booties in the double cab Hilux towards Letaba Ranch’s entrance gate. Along the way we pass the nearby village, where violent December storms tore up the earth and aluminium shelters. Sand, gravel and hard bushveld surround the very modest entrance. As we proceed to our camp that has no fences to protect you from the big five, the temperatures hit 34 degrees celcius.
As with all the lodges or camps within the African Ivory Route, the initiative is of shared value between the bordering villages, where a mutual respect, land and business savvy is shared between the lodges and the people. Whether it be the soil for food, the Mopani trees for Mopani worms or ownership, running and staff contingent of the camp itself, the collaboration between them and Transfrontier Parks Destinations group is a marriage of modernity with humility – both sides of the coin have met in the middle and are better for it.
Richard is one such local. From the villages in the surrounding areas, he is charismatic, charming and emphatically obsessed with the bushveld. At every possible opportunity, Richard will stop to enlighten you about what you can and cannot see. He weights everything equally, sizes big and small, and becomes somewhat encyclopaedic in reference. On local plant medicine he can add his two cents. Spoor, in the bag. On the fallacy of elephants graveyards, he has his educated and highly experienced opinion. He is the definition of stalwart.
As we saunter through the wild, moving in single file Richard leads with humility as he listens when I pretend to know about the abundant birdlife, making farce attempts at identification. But when I throw the challenge his way, he is astutely correct at identifying each bird by call or flight pattern. He then points to the ground and waivers the challenge my way. “What’s happening here?” he gestures me for an answer. I look at rock hard sand speckled with stone, seeing nothing more than a dimple. Nothing is there? And then it becomes obvious… His trump card is tracking.
In a recent contest with highly qualified, university status guides, Richard scored 9 out of 10 when identifying spoor, the next closest got 3. He reads the bush like it has been written for him. Meandering corners, through plants, you know the world in his mind is so much more vivid than your 2 metres vista, he can see the Mtomeni matrix.
I found out a bit more Richard on our bush walk. He is an outdoorsman, and in his spare time, he moves through the bush solo, going kilometres down the Letaba river without a rifle in his hand , sitting for hours on the banks of the river taking in the life we left behind. At one with nature, his place is here. It's calm and real. The city is too much for him, you can't block out the chaos.
As we pack the vehicle and are about to head somewhere else in the Limpopo Province, Richard asks “You’re coming back soon, neh?”. I definitely think so. Richard is a cool guy, and I'm a little sad that we have to go.