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Themba the Ranger

[Reading time: 3 minutes]


“What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider.” ― The Lord of the Rings


Frodo Baggins, Hobbit of the Shire came upon a ring that could make him vanish into thin air. Others who saw him disappear puzzled over what happened and how he managed to do it. After putting the book down, I knew I wanted a ring like that – to disappear and to befuddle everyone. I never thought disappearing was a power that real, earthly men could possess. Perhaps my imagination needed a little stimulation.

I only noticed Themba about five days into our hunt. He claims he was with us the entire time. I searched my memory. I have no recollection of him. That is when I began paying attention.

‘Strider’ of the eastern cape, Themba sports a thin coat and a beanie. He blends in just about anywhere.

Houdini made a spectacle of his disappearing acts. Themba, on the other hand, draws no attention to himself at all; a spectacular feat, considering his range of talents. He’s what they call a tracker; a star gazing, footprint-analysing animal-behaviors expert, weather‐conditions forecaster and off‐road GPS locator, all‐in‐one. He gets a bad feeling sometimes; and then, with startling urgency, moves us out of harm's way. He gets a good feeling and steers us towards a nature lover's treat: a calf being born, a fresh trail of a hunt in progress, or perhaps a tiny wonderful flower: a jewel in the rough.

Back of the car: Themba conforms to his place in the farm hierarchy. He avoids eye contact with his superiors and only speaks when spoken to.

There’s plenty of danger here with all the trigger‐friendly rifles pointing everywhere, loose crossbow arrows flying freely in the air, and vengeful wild animals circling around us for dinner. A lot can go wrong. Themba is the only insurance we really need. He is extremely hands-on. He'll use his hands, taste the soil, or sit in complete silence, taking in information about his surroundings. A subtle print in the ground and he tells us that a seventeen-month old female nyala in heat was here. We stare at him blankly. How could he possibly know all that from a print? "We need to move," he says with urgency. "Strong wind tonight."

Who needs the weather channel when you have this guy?

For the most part he keeps to himself, uttering nothing. But his calm omnipresence assures us all. He's a silent alarm system; around‐the clock eyes and ears who is always alert for threats. And then he disappears.

If Themba was an artist, he’d be a great proponent of the negative-space school of thought. I promise I did not put him there.

One minute he stands by your side, the next he’s gone. He could be three hundred meters down the road, camouflaged behind a tree, or he might be standing on an inconspicuous boulder in plain view. When he disappeared he would do it without ever emitting a sound: not a shuffled pebble nor a snapped twig in his stride.

Themba isn’t just a peaceful guy; he has a good sense of humor too. See if you can spot him in the image above. (ɹǝuɹoɔ ʇɟǝl ɹǝddn ǝɥʇ uᴉ ƃuᴉpᴉɥ)

The reverence he had for his land was unmistakable. It was clear that Themba loved his job and appreciated all life-forms big and small. As a black man in rural South Africa, often treated by his peers as a second-rate citizen, his disappearances might be about staying out of the bosses' way than anything else. Or perhaps in the course of being out in nature for so long, he too had conformed his ways to the ways of the wild, preferring instead a little mystery and a little space. Like most adept creatures at hiding, it was hard keeping track of Themba unless he moved. But all a master had to do to summon him was to call his name and he’d reappear like he'd slipped a ring off his finger.



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