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To rest and become quiet.” Seven of us are standing in a solemn half-circle around him, bathed in the shade of an impressive wild fig. We are listening intently, almost like he is delivering a sermon, except Louis Hemmer is clad in ranger khaki.
For the next four days, the only protection between us and the world-renowned wilderness is SAN Parks (South African National Parks) Honorary Ranger Louis and his second guide Francois van der Mere. The earth is already laid bare by the ongoing drought, but we are still brushed by bright-green Moran leaves as we go.
It must be a busy road, littered as it is with hyena and giraffe spoor, and zebra droppings that line the path. At first, it’s a hint of gray in the distance and then, too close for comfort, the loud trumpet of an elephant.
He holds his hand in a fist for us to see, meaning we must freeze, before indicating that we follow him away from the elephants. I shoot a relieved glance at our guides from behind the safety of a disappointingly puny Moran tree.
“I considered becoming a vet, but then settled on studying theology.” Some call him the Green Minister, his wife Erika, SAN Parks’ Honorary Ranger and chairperson of the rustic bush camps, later tells me. For now, the minister is talking from the comfort of his camping chair, sipping coffee under the canopy of a stand of large apple leaf trees.
“After my calling as minister, this is where my heart lies,” says Louis, who always spent a lot of time in Kruger, but wanted to do more. Membership is open to all people with a passion for conservation and a willingness to support the SAN Parks cause, and volunteers contribute what they can, according to individual means, circumstance, contacts in the corporate world, education and training.
One of the first volunteer projects he worked on in about 2005 was to source computers for the primary school in Skua. He completed his Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGAS) qualifications early on, although he says he has also received much training through the Honorary Rangers.
Passionate about the bush, Louis is fascinated by everything from herds of elephants to small nests, webs, droppings and spoor. Beyond the horizon that lies just out of sight of our car window, there is a hint of potato bush in the air.
Gutsy moths take aim for the sweetness of my cool drink and, if I don’t take care, I get close to tasting one. We are up when it rises; we rest under the shade of an apple leaf when it peaks, and sleep when it sets.
This is the pace at camp Near, which means ‘buffalo’, but Louis quickly points out that this is a bit of a misnomer. What is quite beautiful about a stay at Near is that there is nothing to disturb nature’s soundtrack, even if the song is mostly silence.
At night, around the communal fire, trophies and work are thrown on the grid while stories of other adventures in faraway places are exchanged. This time, some route is along riverine vegetation, and we leave the Moran veld now to walk under large jackal berries and combretums.
“It’s a Marla seed!” It’s a standard joke among walking guides, and Jo burgers, apparently, are easy targets. We can see there’s a hesitance in the group, and it spreads through them like a wave, gathering speed until they all turn and thunder away, hooves crashing against the earth.
Each day’s morning hike includes a bush picnic in a shady spot along the route. A great place for hikes is along the dry river bed near Near Bush Camp.
In unison, their trunks lift to sniff the air for clues to what is present, before disappearing, soundless, like gray ghosts into the foliage. That night, Louis points out constellations among the millions of stars scattered from one horizon to the other.
And I suddenly remember what he told me that morning, under the shade of the apple leaf trees. ‘Green Minister’ Louis Hemmer (right) and guide Francois van der Mere.
Visit the SAN Parks Honorary Rangers’ website for more information on what they do, how you can join the organization and what other activities you can support. Their renowned birding weekends take place throughout the year in a number of national parks.