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Tracks and Tribulations

Tracks and Tribulations

Oct 2014

By Erik Brits

Me and my big mouth, I thought to myself as I glanced in the mirror at the torrent of dust that my big tyres were kicking up.  The scorched earth was bone dry, and a mere footstep would elicit a puff of dust like a tiny volcano… Them northerners will tell you that August is a temperate month – the mornings no longer biting with the icy tenacity of winter, and the afternoons not yet raining down cosmic rays with the full fury of summer – but this knowledge was of little consolation to my pasty Capetonian skin, which evaporated my life-giving fluids faster than I could get water out of the tap. I thought nervously about my two bottles of sunscreen, and wondered if they’d be sufficient. The ventilation holes in my hat, a great idea while standing in an air-conditioned shop, now loomed like portals of doom.

These are not, I thought to myself, the ideal conditions for learning. This casual remark hit home because that is precisely what I had signed myself up for. You see, the last time I visited Bushwise Field Guides in the bosveld near Hoedspruit, they treated me to a sleepout in a dry riverbed on a Big 5 reserve. As you can imagine, when you take a crowd of prospective field guides who are currently receiving top class hospitality and guiding training, and you point to an awkward looking guy with a scruffy beard and a sunburn, and you say “Erik is here as a journalist and is our guest – look after him”… well, Erik is going to have a heck of a nice time!

Then my big mouth went and blurted out, “that was a really nice experience but I don’t think I truly connected with the students’ plight, having to learn under the baking African sun and whatnot…” and thus I was enrolled in their week-long track and sign module. And there I was, driving slower and slower so as not to have to leave the air-conditioned interior of the bakkie, wondering how I would possibly keep up with a student group who had been learning about the bushveld for weeks already.

I need not have feared, it turned out – and had I been a little less preoccupied I would not have completely missed the leopard sitting next to the fence a few minutes before I reached the Bushwise gate. Not that I’m bitter or anything. During the week, I learnt more than I’ve learnt in the past year, and specifically more than I’d ever known about the inhabitants of the South African bushveld. Despite baking to medium-rare, despite not knowing whether impala are territorial, or that wildebeest have a gland on their face that they use for scent marking (final exam questions), and despite all my trepidation, I even got a certificate at the end. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Our instructor for the week was Colin Patrick, who has decades of experience and a neat list of qualifications to do the job. I found it refreshing that several of the anecdotes in his introductory talk were about mistakes he’s made while tracking animals, and how you always have to be willing to take in better information and change what you’d believed up until that point – it seemed that we were in for a week of guidance rather than bootcamp-style instruction. He sat there, calm and confident, like the Gandalf of the bush, and talked us through the curious, humble mentality that was needed to become a truly good tracker. There will always be something new, some animal behaving strangely, to surprise and challenge you… and this is precisely what makes tracking such an interesting and rewarding art.

Seeing as one could never know everything there is to know about tracking, the best approach is simply to get lots and lots of practice. The second our feet hit the dirt in the reserve, Colin ignited like a Landie with new oil. Gone was the calm, composed nature of before, and almost like Golem he darted from track to track, bubbling with enthusiasm. He carried with him an old knopkierie, half worn away, with which he furiously circled shadows and dents on the soil, which then miraculously transformed into the intricate markings of some or other animal. 

Eventually he stopped, and we gingerly stepped between the circles (Rule 1: “Nobody steps inside my circles.” Enforced by said knopkierie). With plenty of material for illustration, Colin guided us through the four principles that a good tracker applies to any track or sign he encounters. The first thing you have to do is optimise your light conditions. Take note of where the sun is so it’s not blinding you, and your own shadow isn’t obscuring all the detail on the ground. In bad light, you may prefer a different angle to good light. Become aware of the problem, and your own preferences.

There are murmurs of agreement, and a lot of dainty shuffling between the circles. Next, he tells us, see if you can tell back from front, or find some other clue as to which direction the track is going in. Some tracks are quite faint, or muddled, and it will be doubly hard to interpret these if you’re doing it upside down! More murmurs arise from the students, but I’m still pretty happy just to see any track at all, so I nod and smile blankly. 

Now comes the fun part – look at all the little details. Get right up close to the track, look for hairs, smell it if you have to, and take a note of every scratch, dimple and fold. Try to form a picture of what made that mark in your mind. This, I can do – even if the picture, at this stage, is meaningless to me. 

The final element is to step back and look at the scene in its entirety. Are there more tracks leading to the one you are trying to interpret? Are there droppings, feeding sign, or perhaps tracks from another species that could confuse the mix? Remember, nobody told the rest of the bushveld not to step inside the circle!

Armed now with a mental toolkit with which to approach each ‘question’, we distribute ourselves among the circles for a mock exam, so that we can understand what will be expected of us on assessment day at the end of the week. I float from circle to circle, listening to the other students volunteering their opinions, and slink off quietly as they present their answers, one by one, to Colin, to be met with approving nods. Fumbling with my camera, pretending to be a journalist or something, I realise how much I have to learn this week – other than ‘Antelope’, I was stumped!

From this point on, the week passed in a manic flurry. Unlike secondary or even tertiary education institutions where a fair number of students arrive more due to social or family expectations than genuine desire, the Bushwise students are all here because they chose to be – and often had to work really hard to get here – so they are motivated and far more industrious than normal humans should be in this heat. We start at 6 every morning, because why wouldn’t you want to be out there as soon as there’s enough light to see tracks? For the first half of the week, I would have said that sarcastically, but by the end when I finally ‘got’ it, I meant that far more genuinely. From 6 to 11 we tracked, and then we hit the dirt again at 2, after lunch / time for the books / time for  a nap. Sundown was just after 6, and most of the time up till then was spent with our faces hovering over the sand.

This all adds up to a lot of hours of practice, to the point where even from a zero background, by the end of the week nobody could claim to be unfamiliar with tracks and animal signs. Colin did point out to us that true mastery of the field requires a good few years of dedicated study, and being open to learning at every possible opportunity, so the growing knowledge within each of us was largely a sense of how much we still had to learn… but by the end of the week we had all so honed our ‘mental toolkit’ that we could attempt to unravel any situation, even if our final answer might miss the mark.

So why so much practice? Let’s take, for example, a kudu track compared to a bushbuck track, which are fairly similar in shape, except that a kudu track is widest at the back, whereas a bushbuck track is widest in the middle. Now, on very hard soil you won’t find a complete track, but usually only partial imprints. To then distinguish between a kudu and a bushbuck, your best bet is to apply all four principles together – i.e. follow the track until the animal steps in something soft and you get the full picture! However, with experience, you become more familiar with the quirks and you may not need to ‘hope for a better track’. In soft sand, again, the shape of the track changes as the animal submerges a small portion of the foot into the substrate, and it takes a bit of familiarity to interpret the ‘new’ shape. For example, a waterbuck’s hoof may dig into riversand in such a way that the front appears blunted, as the sharp portion kicks deep into the sand, and thus appears to be a blue wildebeest track (yup, another exam question – guess what my answer was!)

And suddenly it was Saturday morning, and it was evaluation day. We had to identify roughly fifty tracks over the course of the day, with a set schematic defining how many tracks of which difficulty had to be found. Having started the week playing catch-up, I reassured myself that I was simply there for the article and I wouldn’t feel too bad if I didn’t score well, but at the back of my mind I knew that the quality of instruction that I had received over the week meant that I really should do better. The last words from Colin that really registered before I went into Neanderthal hunter focus mode were, “relax! You guys have been preparing for this all week. Now, just trust your gut.”

About halfway through the exam, I was presented with a pile of droppings concentrated in a circle the size of a car tyre, and I didn’t have the faintest clue what I was looking at – nor did I have the inclination to get particularly close to the poo and hazard a guess. It took about a minute for my conscious mind to register what I had done instead… and what I had done was scout a 2 metre perimeter around the poo colony, and pick out any animal tracks that I could identify. Given the probability that a hornbill could excrete seven times it’s own body mass, this left me with a strong impression that the domestic mishap belonged to an (or several) impala. A cursory glance at the droppings confirmed that they were the right shape and size to belong to an antelope, and looking further afield I could see another excre-mound which had impala tracks in the centre. Summing this all up, even without any knowledge of impala behaviour, I could conclude with fair certainty that this was an impala territorial marking… and having instinctively performed this exercise to answer a question where I initially thought I was clueless, I finally realised how much I had learnt during the week. I had gained far more than just a set of mental images of what the tracks of this-or-that creature looked like, but rather I’d honed a subconscious approach to problem solving and using both gut feel and knowledge in equal parts.

From this point forward, the exam went rather smoothly for me, up until the sun beat my last braincell into submission. Fortunately the exam ended four questions later, at which stage I was still giggling (heatstroke?) at an incident involving lion pee and a boerseun. We’d been tasked with determining the species and action that had taken place in a circle that looked suspiciously like a Land Rover had driven over lion tracks and leaked some oil while the guide was inspecting the tracks to see whether they were fresh (any guesses as to what my answer was?) The more determined students performed a smell test on the fluid, and when Colin returned with his knopkierie he was quite perturbed to find a perfect nose print in the dried up urine. Under the scrutiny of Colin’s evil eye, we heard a polite cough and one of the broad-shouldered South African boys volunteered, ‘sorry, uhm, I’m a bit top-heavy’!

Without any doubt, this week had transformed my bushveld experience. Instead of glancing at the landscape in front of me, and hoping that I might see something interesting, I now glance at it and marvel at the sheer abundance of life that has left its mark in the preceding hours. I can visualise some of the stories being told, and without moving from one spot I’ve already had a richer experience than the average game drive. This visualisation of the unfolding of events in the tracks and signs that you are interpreting is something that Colin spoke of several times, and although I need far more practice, I feel that it is the most exciting bush skill I’ve picked up yet… and I can only image how much richer the world must seem for the Bushwise students after a full course. 

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