Wild editor Romi Boom asks a trails ranger with 30 years’ experience about his favourite walking safaris, William Hlatshwayo, personal ranger to former South African president Nelson Mandela.

“I like Wolhuter because the vegetation is different. There are long grasses and open areas, hills to climb and look down. Plus it is easy to walk,” says William Hlatshwayo, freelance trails ranger from Hazyview, who grew up just outside Kruger National Park.

His passion for nature and understanding of his clients’ requirements led him to become South Africa’s first qualified black guide (ranger). He was later honoured by becoming the personal ranger to former South African president Nelson Mandela. In addition to his extensive knowledge of the bush, William has also managed numerous up-market lodges.

“Sweni is more open, with short grass. It has many areas where you can just sit and look with your binoculars. Walking in long grass is tiring,” he adds. A walking safari expert, he should know!

After completing his primary school education, William’s mother couldn’t afford to keep paying for his education and William went to work at coal mines far away from home. After two years he came home and his mother would not allow him to return to the mines as he believed they were too dangerous. In 1980 William secured a position at Sabi Sand Game Reserve as a gardener. He excelled and was soon promoted to waiter, although he could not speak English.

William was then promoted to tracker, a job he loved. Ranger Wayne Elliott, who was studying conservation management, recognised the young William’s potential and refused to speak any language accept English to the young man. Wayne started buying books for William and teaching him to read and write. On the game drives, Wayne would swap seats with William. Wayne on the tracker seat, William in the driver seat, thus forcing William to conduct the game drive, speaking to and interacting with guests.

On a hiking trail, it is always better to see an animal from a distance, so that it doesn’t know that you are there. Surprise isn’t always good.

– William Hlatshwayo

William would sometimes struggle, but Wayne would help with explanations, and convey what William could not express. In 1986 when Wayne realised that William was ready to take guests out on safari on his own, he convinced Sabi Sand management that they had their first black ranger. His English was improving day by day and management eventually decided it was time to put William through his paces. He was already a firm favourite amongst the Sabi Sand directors’ children whenever they came to visit.

One evening, on a sundowner drive, Wayne broke the news that William would have to help out the next day as there were not enough rangers to go round. He was finally allocated his own guests! “Don’t worry,” said Wayne, “and remember, you know a lot more about the bush than your guests. Simply talk about what you know best and when you get back to camp head straight for the pub and join your guests for dinner.”

“On a hiking trail, it is always better to see an animal from a distance,” William advises. “So that it doesn’t know that you are there. Surprise isn’t always good.”

William explains that his knowledge of the African bush is part instinct, part knowledge handed down from generation to generation, and part experience gleaned while a herd boy in his village.

“I am also very fond of Metsi-Metsi,” he says, admitting that it is hard to single out just one trail. “It’s a great trail. There are lots of cats, the area is beautiful and the grass is not long.”

Shortly after having taken his first guests, William was promoted to game ranger and allocated a permanent vehicle, rifle and a tracker. This was a dream come true, a goal he had secretly chased for so many years. He spent almost a decade at Sabi Sands, becoming the first black head ranger in South African to hold such a position.

Another surprise came when an American investor offered William a trip to the United States, a three month internship at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. William was tasked with guiding guests to look-outs during the raptors’ annual migration. He was involved in observing and identifying birds of prey, as well as bird counts, trapping, ringing and nurturing injured birds back to health, lecturing crowds and delivering talks to schools. During his time abroad he was able to tour parts of the United States and Canada.

William is the founder of Crowned Eagle Tours and Safaris.