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He's forging a stellar path as a pioneering safari chef

For young Simanga Shongwe, music was everything growing up in Nhlazatshe, a small rural town in Mpumalanga close to the South African border with Eswatini. He had dreams of becoming the next, great South African sound engineer, but the reality of needing a steady income introduced him to food, and a new career path…

“I knew about the pressure of finding work in the music business so when I left school with my Matric certificate I decided to be responsible and enrolled in a chef’s course at the culinary school in Thulamahashe, where my mom had moved when I was 16,” says the softly spoken Simanga.

“The possibility of becoming a chef never really crossed my mind, but I knew I had to have a vocation to fall back on and a way to earn a living, so cooking became a backup plan. But I completely fell in love with it,” he laughs.

“The more I learned, the more I loved it. Being around food was amazing and I became the first chef from Nhlazatshe. My mum is in the restaurant industry too so understood and supported me in what I was doing. So I gave it my best shot and graduated, applying for a placement in local lodges which included Bundox Safari Lodge.

I got a six-month placement at Royal Malewane in 2019. It was a lot of pressure because it’s a famous, exclusive international lodge, but I rose to the challenge. They employed me after the placement but then COVID-19 came and I was retrenched. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I used that time to improve my skills and teach myself new things, especially basic cooking. So I went back to culinary school,” says Simanga.

“When tourism opened up again and Bundox Safari Lodge re-opened, I was offered a position there and I leapt at the chance. I shadowed the Head Chef there for a while, learning the ropes, and then they asked me to come to Bundox Explorer CampBundox Explorer Camp as a chef.”

Simanga turns 24 in November 2022 so he’s understandably elated to have been given such a responsibility at such a young age. “It was a challenge to come to Bundox Explorer Camp on my own, being my own boss as a chef and use the skills I have learned. But I rose to the challenge and found myself growing and becoming more creative. I think coming here and being alone has been a good thing as it has stretched me and made me more independent and open to new things,” he says.

“I get my inspiration from things like Master Chef and from online foodie platforms and threads. It’s an art and I love putting creativity into everything I do. I want our guests to go “wow” when I place the plate in front of them,” he smiles, shyly.

Was it hard taking up a chef’s position in a camp surrounded by the African wilderness and packed with the Big Five? “Definitely,” he laughs. “But now I am really enjoying being here in the bush. I’m constantly challenged here, not just because it took me out of my comfort zone personally, but also professionally.

“It’s a small and simple bush camp, without the luxury of a lot of utilities and facilities, so I have to be inventive. And I love being here surrounded by nature. But when I go home I find it hard to adjust to all the noise and voices and music! It gets on my nerves! I’m used to the peace and quiet of the wilderness now!

“I am a very shy person, so at first it was hard to work in an open-plan interactive kitchen in front of guests. But the other staff are here when the guests are on game drives so I adjusted to it. Now I love it. I feel like I am in charge and in a cooking show, showing the guests how to prepare amazing food!”

Simanga has a younger brother and a sister who lives with his mum and his grandmother. “I cook for them when I go home and they enjoy my cooking. But often I have to simplify things and make their favourite foods for them as well as some of my own. My family also doesn’t understand why I love it so much out here in the bush. They think I am strange,” he laughs out loud.

So what now for Simanga? “I would love to do a pastry course now and expand my skills some more. My goals are to become a good all-around chef and to start my own thing like making biscuits and pastries to sell in my community.

“But for now I love what I do and where I do it. It’s a blessing. I like the challenge of having to work with guests’ dietary requirements and do vegetarian and vegan dishes for them. It stretches me and makes me learn new things. I do research and a lot of thinking to create something amazing for them.

“Challenges are good. They make you grow as a person and as a chef. I like to be pushed, especially in a small location like this which makes you creative and often you have to pull rabbits out of hats to do something amazing! I am a food magician really. Not just a chef!

“So life is good and I feel like I have found my passion and that the horizons open to me are endless. If I had followed sound recording I would never have had these experiences in my life, so I am very glad that I found cooking and got the chance to be here with Bundox.”