By Narina Exelby and Mark Eveleigh
Rodger Hobyane is the Peter Pan of Northern Kruger. Regular visitors to Tsendze Rustic Camp near Mopani, where Rodger is the supervisor, claim that he never appears to get any older. He was 36 when he first started to work at the camp 15 years ago… and yet he still looks hardly a day over 40.
“There’s something about this place that keeps you young,” says Rodger as he casts his eyes across the campsites at Tsendze. “I feel that if I leave here and go to work somewhere else, I will get old fast.”
Anyone who’s spent even one night at Tsendze will know Rodger. The camp’s vivacious supervisor takes time to chat each day with campers, and his laugh can often be heard rumbling across the sites. Earlier this year when Rodger was promoted to the position of supervisor at nearby Mopani Rest Camp, the announcement was made on Mopani’s Facebook page… and complaints started to pour in. Tsendze Rustic Camp just wouldn’t be the same if Rodger was no longer there, people said. So plans were changed an,d as far as Rodger was concerned, the outcome was perfect: he was given the promotion anyway but is allowed to oversee Mopani from his base at his beloved Tsendze.
Even at first glance there’s something very special about Tsendze. The 34-site camp lacks electricity and cell signal but, as Rodger points out, there is an almost otherworldly ‘connectivity’ here: “It might be partly to do with the powerful leadwood trees,” he says, “or maybe something in the air. Who can say? Whatever it is, people who come here feeling ill or low often leave feeling years younger.”
It’s certainly not the silence, because the nights here can be raucous with the calls of jackals, hyena, elephant and hippos. You wake often through the night to the roar of lions, and dawn frequently brings the hollow booming of Southern ground hornbills. There can be few things that are better for the soul though than the call of the wild filtered through a bare millimeter of Cape Union Mart nylon.
Northern Kruger is less renowned for its predator density than the southern sector and yet in the few kilometres between Tsendze and the Tropic of Capricorn we saw three cheetah, two lions and a leopard. We also navigated the Isuzu through a herd of about 250 buffalo and, much more cautiously, through an anxious herd of about 40 elephants with tiny calves. Nevertheless, there’s such a powerful feeling of immersion in the bush at Tsendze that many people spend day after day without even feeling the need to leave camp. There are regular octogenarian visitors, for example, who camp here for several weeks and only rarely even exit the camp gates.
Despite the constant influx of visitors Rodger never seems to forget a face and, returning to Tsendze recently, we were typically greeted like old friends. We were keen to hear more about the little camp that seems to be garnering a reputation as Kruger’s outdoor health retreat. Get Rodger talking about the strangely invigorating ambiance that pervades Tsendze and he will recount many stories of people who arrived feeling rundown or ill (some even apparently almost on their deathbed), and yet who left feeling completely revived.
One man – a long-term friend of Rodger’s – had visited year after year for at least a month each visit. Despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer almost a decade ago his latest (and, sadly, last) visit extended to 52 days at the camp. “It was his wish to die here,” Rodger says, with obvious sadness in his voice. “It didn’t happen but he was grateful to have had such a long visit. His wife has returned twice since his death.”
“Tsendze is a Tsonga word meaning ‘to ramble around like someone lost in the bush’,” Rodger explains. “It’s a fitting name for this campsite, which offers visitors an isolated piece of bushveld freedom, surrounded by the park’s beautiful expanses of mopane.”
It’s sometimes said that the camp (and the river that run past it) were named for a sort of cul-de-sac or maze that is hard to find your way out of. This is fitting because it seems that many people who find their way into this very special corner of Kruger are reluctant to leave at all.
Rodger can be reached directly through his Facebook page – Rodgerh Tsendze.
Tsendze Rustic Camp is about 7km south of Mopani Rest Camp. Campsites cost from R300 per night, for two people. Click here for details.
Picture: Narina Exelby and Mark Eveleigh