INTO THE WILD
Thousands of tourists flock to southern Africa in search of their outdoor fix, but the more discerning amongst them crave more than your stock-standard game drive and sundowner formula. Tracking is one way for them to gain a deeper understanding of South Africa’s natural heritage, says Jacques Marais.
It is early morning in the arid scrubland unfolding along the Molopo River, but the acacia dunes are already a-shimmer with mirages. They hover amid contorted camel thorns spiking up from the brittle grass, ghosting into thin air whenever you glance their way. Ahead of us, orange dunes flex their curves suggestively where they nestle against an impossibly blue Kalahari sky.
I see, or rather sense, all of this while I follow in the footsteps of Oom Lito as he lopes across the arid landscape. He fires off a few snatches of staccato clicking, stops and pokes a finger at the sand. By now it's hot, about 40°C, but I crouch obediently. Around us, the desert sounds kick in as if on cue, with a thousand cicadas launching into their insistent zing.
Oom Lito, a rheumy-eyed Bushman of indeterminable age, is a San tracker. He doesn’t hunt anymore because the Khomani territory here borders on the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and it is against the law. He does, however, take outdoor enthusiasts like me on tracking excursions and, by identifying the spoor, fauna and flora of the area, he offers a glimpse into a long-forgotten world.
These days, of course, tracking excursions are not about finding food, but rather allows you to “read” the underlying story of the land. Tracks, droppings, the elements and the terrain all conspire to impart a real-time tale of the drama unfolding when we’re not watching.
To an expert tracker, these signs are as lucid as road markings to a city dweller, yet beneath our civilised veneer, the inborn ability to follow a trail still glimmers deep within our subconscious. And all you have to do to jar your phyletic memory is to venture out on one of the tracking experiences we’ve listed below.
Walking with Bushmen (Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape)
The excursions: Trips are generally run as spoor identification outings, and you could expect to be in the veld for anything from an hour to half a day. Visitors to !Xaus Lodge in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park may join San trackers to learn about the fauna and flora of this desert park.
Why go: San people have honed their hunter-gatherer expertise since time immemorial and few teachers can compete with the !Xu, !Kung, Nama and Khomani clans when it comes to a tracking master class. That said, the outings are aimed at outdoor enthusiasts, and will impart only basic practical tracking information.
Where: !Xaus Lodge is located within the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape Province.
Contact:www.xauslodge.co.za or Tel. +27 21 701 8760
Give it Horns (Big Game Parks, Swaziland)
The excursions: Rhino tracking in Swaziland offer ample opportunity to square up to these big and beautiful beasts. Hlane Royal National Park offers a guided hike with tracking as a focus, allowing tourists to trail white rhinos through thorny woodlands. Mkhaya Game Reserve, an hour’s drive away, is home to the black rhino, a more temperamental beast preferably viewed from the safety of a game-viewing vehicle.
Why go: Guides point out how to differentiate between the spoor of the two rhino species (as well as elephant) and you do a hands-on dung inspection while discussing the eating habits of grazers and browsers. You also get to check out scratching posts and wallows where they rid themselves of parasites and itches. Plus, if you're trailing the docile white rhino during calving season, you might be lucky enough to get up close and personal with a newborn calf.
Where: Both these big game parks are situated in the Kingdom of Swaziland.
Contact: www.biggameparks.org or Tel. +268 2528 3943/4
Walk the Dog (Venetia Nature Reserve, Limpopo Province)
The excursion: Tracking wild dogs in Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve offers interested visitors a completely different experience in that the animals are not tracked by following their footprints, but rather through the use of a radio-tracking device. Trips are generally conducted in the early morning or late afternoon and, although sightings cannot be guaranteed, the success rate is at least 80%.
Why go: Overnight visitors to Venetia Nature Reserve may join the researchers on this project and accompany them while they do field work. Because of their vast home ranges, this is by far your best chance of seeing wild dogs in their natural environment.
Where: Venetia Game Reserve borders on the Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo province. Contact: www.lycaonlogistics.co.za or Tel. +27 83 657 1551
Nurturing Nature (Wilderness Leadership School, KwaZulu-Natal)
The excursion: The Wilderness Training Course stretches beyond just tracking and trailing, rather aiming to emphasise man’s interdependence with the natural world. Courses include two five-day wilderness trails and certified wilderness trail guides will teach animal identification, tracking skills, bush lore and minimal-impact camping skills as part of a wider understanding of co-existing with nature.
Why go: This is more a journey of discovery than a lesson in tracking or trailing, and students are sure to experience physical, mental and spiritual growth. You will get an opportunity to re-examine life’s priorities, while gaining an intimate knowledge of the fauna, flora and landscape shaping some of South Africa’s prime wilderness destinations. Where: Courses are presented in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, iSimangaliso Wetland and Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg parks in KwaZulu-Natal, but also in some reserves in Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga. Contact: www.wildernesstrails.org.za or Tel. +27 31 462 8642
On Track (Kruger National Park, Limpopo Province)
The excursion: If you’re keen to get in touch with your inner Bushman, this seven-day tracking course offered by EcoTraining will have you following spoor in no time. Presented by an expert tracker, the bush will become your lecture room as you learn about tracking, trailing and sign interpretation in the African bush.
Why go: Adriaan Louw rates as one of South Africa's most highly qualified trackers, and this sets the EcoTraining course apart from other courses offered. You will learn both theory and practice, starting with the basics by trailing each other through the bush, and progressing to tracking wild animals as you learn more about the bush and wildlife.
Where: Courses are offered in various national parks and reserves, including the Kruger National Park.
Contact: www.ecotraining.co.za or Tel. +27 13 752 2532
View to a kill (Kalahari Trails Nature Reserve, Northern Cape)
The excursion: Walking on the trails of tiny nocturnal killers may not be particularly life-threatening, but this does not make spider and scorpion tracking any less exhilarating. The eminently fascinating Professor Anne Rasa accompanies small groups of tourists on night hikes along the Kalahari dunes and, in her own words, “they sometimes encounter whole stories of the night-time life and death of these small creatures by reading the tracks left in the sand”.
Why go: Here you will experience and encounter everything you won't see on a game drive. According to Rasa, on reading her “dune newspaper”: “Once we found the track of a bush-veld rain frog, followed it up the dune, saw where a striped polecat had seen it, veered towards it while the frog tried to jump away but was too slow. You could clearly see the two jumping tracks of the polecat heading towards the frog, ending in two deep paw marks on each side of the frog track and the end of the frog track. It was quite spectacular”. Night hikes are not offered between May and October, as spiders and scorpions hibernate during winter.
Where: Kalahari Trails Nature Reserve is situated 35km from the Twee Rivieren entrance to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape.
Contact: www.kalaharitrails.co.za or Tel. +27 054 511 0900
In Your Gear Box
Footwear: There is no need for specialist equipment, except for your clothing and footwear. What you wear is determined by the climate and terrain of your destination andsuitable shoes are of key importance. Approach shoes or rugged trainers will do the job in most situations, but snow or wet terrain may necessitate waterproof boots.
Clothes: Breathable, long-sleeved shirts and tear-resistant trousers will protect you against the sun, mosquitoes, ticks and thorns (a zip-off option allows you to convert to shorts when weather and vegetation allow). It is a good idea to pack a windproof shell, as you never know when the weather might change.
Backpack: Outback encounters may necessitate hours (and occasionally days) of tramping through bush, so a comfortable pack is a must. Make like a camel and carry a hydration bladder when you head into the wilderness, and pack enough food and water to last you for the duration of the hike.
Survival stuff: Other requirements may include a map and compass or GPS in case you get lost, as well as basic survival equipment such as a knife, matches, space blanket, torch and whistle. Don’t forget binoculars and a camera, as it would be a sin not to record your adventure.
Close encounters with dangerous animals necessitate rigid guidelines, and it is in the best interest of both adventurer and operator to ensure these are adhered to. Interaction with habituated animals poses an even greater risk, as they will have lost their natural fear of humans and may react unpredictably. Remember that encounters are safer if animals do not feel threatened. Be alert and pay attention to your guide, and if you spot dangerous animals, slowly retreat and move down-wind while keeping them in sight.
Expert Tracking Tips:
How to follow a trail and recognise spoor in the bush, according to the author and expert tracker Adriaan Louw, who works with the respected EcoTraining Academy: “Always walk directly on the trail, as this ‘puts you in the position of the animal’,” he says, “And keep your head up to scan in advance for signs as this will help you maintain speed. Always follow the most obvious route (animals will walk around a bush and not through it) and do not allow yourself to be distracted. The more you know about the animal, the easier it will be for you to ‘think’ like it, and, finally, remember to use all your senses.”