The Master Trackers of Royal Malewane
There is no bond stronger than the indelible and intuitive connection between a ranger and a tracker. In the case of Juan Pinto and Wilson Masiya, that bond endured for over 20 years.
During this extraordinary time, as we navigate the global outbreak of Covid-19, we learn to appreciate humanity and the value of co-operation. Great stories of human endeavour give hope and inspiration for the future.
The legend of Master Tracker Wilson Masiya is one such story.
On most private safaris in Southern Africa, guests are guided on specialised vehicles by a ranger who drives the vehicle and by a tracker who sits on an especially precarious seat at the front of the bonnet. The tracker’s job is to find elusive wildlife while the ranger engages with the guests and ensures safe passage.
Juan Pinto was the first employee of The Royal Portfolio and is now a director of Royal Malewane. He is the most qualified guide in the business and has been awarded the honorary title of Scout. He has a keen sense for what his guests do and do not know, and what they might want to know. He never goes in for the kind of formulaic facts that some guides rattle off in an attempt to impress guests or kill time – he is always thinking, observing, listening to guests and gauging their interests and curiosities.
But Juan’s most endearing characteristic is not a formal qualification, it’s his humility and openness to keep learning. One man who taught Juan a great deal was Master Tracker Wilson Masiya.
Wilson was one of only eight master trackers in the world. He passed away in 2015 after a long battle with cancer.
Wilson was a cherished member of The Royal Portfolio family since we opened our doors in 1999 and worked alongside Juan for over 20 years. Together they were the most experienced and knowledgeable guiding team in Africa. Wilson touched many lives. From celebrity guests, to colleagues and junior trackers under his mentorship at the Tracker Institute – all were left richer and wiser for the encounter.
Born in Mozambique, Wilson lived on the boundary of the Kruger National Park where he honed his skills by living off the land. When the Mozambican civil war broke out in 1977, Wilson and his community had no choice but to flee their homes. Forced to choose between a mine strewn battle field and the ferocious perils of the Kruger National Park, Wilson decided to take his chances with the Big 5. Against all odds he led his family and community through the Kruger to safety in South Africa. Not just once. Multiple times. Risking his life for others on each occasion.
Wilson was a true master of his trade. A wise and insightful man who would notice and interpret nature’s subtle clues imperceptible to the untrained senses. He saw life in high definition.
As Head Ranger and Head Tracker respectively, Juan and Wilson created an ethos that permeates throughout Royal Malewane to this day.
At the time, although Juan Pinto was even then the most qualified guide in Africa, he wasn’t a Master Tracker – he was a Senior Tracker. Juan was left devastated by the passing of Wilson with whom he had spent nearly every working hour for 20 years.
Juan was not the only one devastated by Wilson’s passing. So too was Wilson’s best friend Jonas Mhula – at the time himself a Senior Tracker at Royal Malewane. Juan and Jonas spent many months despairing at the loss of Wilson.
With this passing of time however, despair turned to pride and a realisation of the legacy that Wilson had left at Royal Malewane. This pride spurred both Juan and Jonas on to achieve their own Master Tracker qualifications and to ensure that Wilson’s legacy continues into the next generation of guides and trackers, not just at Royal Malewane, but across the safari industry.
The magnificent Masiya Bar at Royal Malewane, pictured below, has been named after Wilson Masiya and is a tribute to the Master Trackers of Royal Malewane of which there are now three.
At this difficult time for the world, it is comforting to remember men like Wilson Masiya – he was selfless, passionate and courageous in times of adversity. It is also an important time to reflect on the importance of nature and to appreciate Africa’s vast plains and savannas. Through this difficult time for humanity, our wildlife also suffers – it is men like Juan and Jonas, inspired by the legacy of Wilson Masiya, that remain on the front line to protect our precious wildlife.
Lucas Mathonsi is the latest Master Tracker to join the Royal Malewane guiding team. His story as a tracker began as a five-year-old boy. He would accompany his father who was a ranger in the Timbavati reserve.
Over the next 47 years, Lucas honed his tracking skills, before coming under the tutelage and mentorship of Juan Pinto and Wilson Masiya.
Lucas received his Master Tracker qualification while working at Lion Sands before returning to work with fellow Master Trackers Juan Pinto and Jonas Mhula at Royal Malewane in 2019.
The Master Tracker qualification is an honorary recognition of unparalleled knowledge of animal tracking and behavior. In 1994, Louis Liebenberg, tracker and author of several scientific papers on tracking, founded CyberTracker in the Greater Kruger National Park. By formalising various levels of tracking standards, the organisation has played a critical role in developing and maintaining only the highest standards of tracking worldwide.
These CyberTracker Certifications ensure that trackers play significant roles in education, ecotourism, search and rescue, anti-poaching, scientific research, and the monitoring of rare and endangered species. CyberTracker Certificates fall into five categories: Learning Certificates, Primary Certificates, Secondary Certificates, Tertiary Certificates, and finally, a Master Tracker status.
Over the last 20 years CyberTracker has issued over 5000 certificates around the world. Despite this, there are only seven Master Trackers living today.
Three of the seven are at Royal Malewane.
The role of a Master Tracker goes beyond excellence in tracking. To obtain Master Tracker status the tracker must play a major role in the mentorship of Senior Trackers, develop the tracking community, and show a large degree of originality, creative insight and humility.
We are extremely privileged to have such incredible trackers and rangers at Royal Malewane. A team dedicated to self improvement and to our guests’ experience. Their passion for wildlife and conservation and their commitment to education and safety ensure that our guests enjoy an unrivaled wildlife experience. Nowhere is this more evident than on a bush walk at Royal Malewane, something that we encourage our guests to do. A bush walk is both fascinating and exhilarating offering insights into the details of nature while tracking members of the Big 5 safe in the knowledge that you are with the most qualified guiding team in Africa.
For many years Royal Malewane has been running a successful Ranger Apprentice Programme, earning Royal Malewane the nickname of the ‘Harvard of the Bush’.
Juan Pinto and Wilson Masiya were instrumental in creating one of the most sought after guiding apprenticeships in South Africa. Royal Malewane takes one apprentice ranger with aptitude and potential on a rolling two year cycle before sending them out into the industry in order to raise the quality of guiding teams in Southern Africa.
This grueling apprenticeship includes spending two years in a small canvas tent in the wild, gaining first hand experience while at the same time completing essential Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) qualifications.
Until recently, no such apprenticeship programmed existed for trackers…
In 2019 we received an application from a young man from the local village outside the reserve applying for a Tracker Apprenticeship. We had to explain that unfortunately we do not run an Apprenticeship programme for Trackers and that even if we did he had no experience.
A few days later this young man, Kevin, arrived unannounced at Royal Malewane and knocked on the door of the Ranger’s Office. Our Head Ranger, Ryan Jack, went to meet with him and explained once again that unfortunately we do not offer an apprenticeship for tracking. But Kevin had other ideas…
He explained in fluent English how, for a while, he had been watching the Royal Malewane staff bus come and go through his village with the impressive Royal Malewane logo emblazoned on the side of the bus. From that moment he was determined to work for the prestigious Royal Portfolio.
Kevin had ventured into the nearest town and managed to get online to research The Royal Portfolio, learning eagerly about the great legacy of the Master Trackers – of Wilson Masiya and Juan Pinto and of Jonas Mhula and Lucas Matonsi. These men were legends. And he would become the next Master Tracker.
There was something about this young man – he was bright, smart, internet savvy, spoke English and could drive. He also had an understanding of hospitality from his Uncle who worked at nearby Singita. So Ryan went away and spoke to Juan Pinto…
Kevin is now our first Apprentice Tracker. He is excelling under the mentorship of the Jonas, Lucas and the rest of the incredible guiding team. He achieved 95% in his first major assessment, he refuses to go on leave and is the first tracker to be able to help out by driving guests and staff around the lodge.
It takes a very, very long time to become a Master Tracker, but one day, just maybe, Kevin will have has portrait on the wall of the Masiya Bar alongside his heroes.
To find out more about the Guiding Team at Royal Malewane visit our Expert Rangers and Trackers page here.
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