The Walkers Of The Waterberg
go! - South Africa|August/September 2021
Author and artist Clive Walker has been a well-known name in South African conservation circles since he founded the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 1973. He and his wife Conita live near Vaalwater in the Waterberg, where their son Anton and his wife René run the Waterberg Living Museum.
Toast Coetzer

You probably have a small guidebook called Signs of the Wild on your bookshelf, right? First published in 1981, this legendary book by Clive Walker has been reprinted 17 times and has opened many a South African’s eyes to the wonderful wildlife within our borders.

Clive (85), his son Anton (52), and Anton’s wife René (52) are sitting in the restaurant area of the Waterberg Living Museum, 25km east of Vaalwater, Limpopo. The museum consists of six different exhibits housed in separate buildings. To get to each building, you have to walk through the veld. Our conversation is interrupted by some horses that come to look at us, and later I’ll be introduced to the small herd of roan antelope on the property.

This is still the Waterberg, and it’s full of life. The idea behind the museum is exactly that: Everything around you forms part of the exhibit, just open your eyes and look.

Clive has been fascinated by museums and zoos since he was a child. “My life, I think, started when I was 14 years old and I went to the old library in Johannesburg, which is also where the Geology and Transport Museum used to be. I spent hours in that building looking at the old Zeederberg stagecoaches that used the transport route from Johannesburg through the Waterberg to the Limpopo River. I just had this passion about things that were old and should be preserved. Anton always had a great fascination, too.”

Clive founded the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 1973 and later operated a very successful wilderness trails business, which took tourists into the Okavango Delta, the Tuli Block and Klaserie Game Reserve. In 1981, he and businessman Dale Parker founded the Lapalala Wilderness Reserve between Vaalwater and Lephalale. By 1985, the Lapalala Wilderness School was formally established, which Clive and his wife Conita ran until they retired in 2003. Wildlife education, specifically for children, has been the focus of most of his life – and it hasn’t stopped.

“We have 25000 people who live in the township at Vaalwater, of which maybe 6000 are kids. Most of those kids have never been to a game farm, let alone seen a giraffe. Seeing a wild animal can make quite an impact on a child’s thinking. I have a son who shares my passion: Anton took the Waterberg Living Museum way beyond my collection of old ossewas and guns and goodness knows what – he brought a scientific side to it. We want to provide a space where visitors can come and appreciate the Waterberg. Unfortunately, just before we could really spread our wings, we got clamped down by Covid.”

“During those first six weeks of hard lockdown, the Waterberg went silent,” Anton says. “We had just opened our doors in January 2020. Thank goodness people have started venturing out again.”

Anton has been working at his parents’ side since he was in high school. (His mother, Conita, is wheelchair-bound and couldn’t join us for this interview.) The Walkers lived in Joburg back then, so that Anton and his older brother Renning could attend school. During school holidays, Anton would come to the Waterberg to help out at Lapalala Wilderness School as a trails officer. This was also the period when his wife René was introduced to the Waterberg.

“Anton and I matriculated together at Edenvale High,” she says. “We used to hang out in quite a big group of friends, and with Anton’s mom and dad working in the Waterberg, we would all come up on the odd occasion.”

After matric, René completed a diploma in nature conservation and spent her practical year working at Lapalala.

“I grew up in the city, but my heart was always in nature,” she says. “I used to volunteer at the SPCA. I even worked at a snake park for a few months. I loved being a trails officer at Lapalala: the early mornings, the long walks. I was very privileged to learn from Clive and Conita. I was quietly in awe of Clive, I still am – you can just sit and listen to him talk! Also, Conita did phenomenal things, raising a black rhino, a white rhino, a hippo…”

“Covid has made me realise that there’s a desperate longing and a need for contact with nature.”

She and Anton married in 1994. They have two children of their own, a son Ayden and a daughter Tristyn.

“Anton is my hero,” René says. “He works so hard. He’s up at 4am every day. He does everything at 150%. It’s a huge privilege for children to grow up here – they see things that other kids don’t see. Ayden is studying in Pretoria and Tristyn is at boarding school. Both can’t wait to come home.”

René sees the Waterberg Living Museum as part of a continuum. “It’s a culmination of Clive’s life, and Ant’s life,” she says. “All the research that they’ve put into the place. It will build an educational legacy for the future.”

Following in Clive and Conita’s footsteps came naturally to Anton. He joined his father on walking safaris in the bush, and when the focus shifted to environmental education in the Waterberg, he was ready to get involved…

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