Wild Tracks of Life

on Nov 29, 2022

Tracking is an enriching experience. It’s enlightening and heart-opening. You are being tugged into a wild world, one step at a time, and in the wise words of a world-renowned master tracker, Renius Mhlongo, “You must put the animal in heart” - in essence - walk in their footprints, think like the animal.

Tracking helps you explore the principles of curiosity. To be a great tracker, you need to be curious. This in turn helps us tackle our own unique processes of life.

This ancient art of tracking was once used as a form of survival. Sadly, in the modern world, it is not often used and very few tribes still depend heavily on this craft. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to spend time with three very special individuals who are bringing this craft back to life and empowering people and young generations alike with this life skill.

As a guide, tracking, has always been “a part of the job” but has it been a part of our lives? This was the hard-hitting truth that my heart was open to this last cycle. Was it a part of my life, and surely my answer would have been yes, but upon exploring the deeper meaning of tracking, I realised how closed off I had been to this aspect of work?

The first morning out with the team started with some time “meditating”. A period of stillness, bums to the floor, hands in the sand, some opting to lie down, a beautiful scene of surrender to nature. The stillness of the bush sets the tone for the day ahead. The morning was crisp and awoke every fibre of our beings as we inhaled the cool air. With eyes closed from viewing our surroundings, our sense of hearing was immediately heightened.

I love mornings like this and am a firm believer in the good it does for our physical and mental well-being. Contemplating the goodness of this ritual, raspy, saw-like calls echoed from the drainage not too far away. Leopard!

I look around, grins stretch from ear to ear on all guests’ faces but remain committed to allowing our sense of hearing take the lead; their eyes stay shut.

Her calls echo in our ears, it seems louder than usual. A few minutes pass, the birds have made known their presence. The blue wildebeest assert their nasal-like chuff, they don’t like the idea of us lying on their land.

For a moment my mind drifted, wondering what they would be saying to us. Concerned for our safety? My silly thoughts are very quickly reined in by yet another “saw” from the female leopard.

We open our eyes. The light from the rising sun coupled with the overwhelming sound brought tears to some. It was an overload of senses, yet deeply rewarding to soak in the sights around us. It was as though the picture fell into place, one guest mentioned how she had visions of the leopard walking along the drainage. We took a few deep belly breaths to complete our time connecting with Mother Nature. Deciding then, as the fourth call resonated, to hit the road and track the leopard responsible for evoking such emotions.

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Tracking presents differently. It is the involvement of all our senses not just one. Following a track on the ground is the common misconception of this ancient craft; listening, watching, smelling is all part of the image that is created at the end of a hard day’s work. Alex van den Heever once said, and which really made me think, “Trackers have a high level of ecological literacy, they are experts in linking unrelated pieces of information into a single picture.”

How powerful is that? Ecological literacy. The ability to understand the natural system that makes life on earth possible.

It’s one track that needs to stand out above the rest. Not just any old track, but one that's “crispness” rises from the surface and draws you closer. That’s all it takes to dive in and fully immerse yourself.

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He tells me to head straight East, and I could have sworn the call was coming further North.

Eric says she is on the move. “Each call is a little softer than the first, she is moving.” He explains to the guests; it makes sense, as I had noted, her calls became ever so faint each time. Not that the image in my head was East, but I confidently put my trust in Eric, and changed direction.

Driving through the carved channels where the summer waters dance, we came to a stop at the rise of an embankment, Eric held his hand up, we held our breaths as though sitting still was not enough for him to listen.

She is close. Wildebeest ahead.

I pause for a moment to try decipher the mumbled “fanagalour” he was whispering to himself, and then I hear it, a Blue Wildebeest snorting much like they did moments ago when we were sitting in the open plain.

Just as we start the vehicle again in pursuit of the snorts, the radio comes to life with a rather proud announcement, “mfazi yingwe static Ravine.”

We continue making our way to join Albert with the leopard we were looking for. A beautiful female crouched in the open at the junction of two roads: watching wildebeest.

We may have not had the ability to actively track this female the way in which we hoped, but an aspect of tracking still took place. The stillness of our very beings leads us to where she would be. Alleviating the business of our minds and connecting with Mother Nature, we were afforded the opportunity to hear her; it too enabled us to paint a picture in our minds of this leopard, slinking through her territory. This is the aspect we forget; this is still tracking.

She charges off in the direction of the wildebeest, aimlessly chasing them around the open clearing. Bushwillows give way to their clumsy gallop, she finds cover behind a fallen log. As soon as the dust settles, she charges back out with determination; to achieve nothing. A game of cat and mouse. Silly antics from this young female leopard.

Having recently reached independence, she has been expanding her space of exploration. She is a wildly successful young leopard, whose “games” and antics keep us entertained. How special to watch this leopardess grow!? Not many people I know have this privilege. I look back at my guests, squealing in delight at her playful nature.

On the move again, she walks with purpose, carefully selecting territorial beacons that will demarcate her newly found space.

We lose sight of her as she catches a glimpse of a grey duiker feeding. She conceals herself in thick vegetation. I audibly hear the disappointment behind me. For a few minutes we sit in silence, the high-pitched whistle of the cicadas grows louder as we wait; then suddenly a squirrel gives way and breaks the ringing in our ears. The pace of its call is “alarming” to say the least. Persistent in its disapproval of the female leopard allows us to get an idea for what we cannot see. I invite my guests to join in the art of tracking.

The alarm from the squirrel battles against that of the Fork-tailed Drongo, each trying to bring across their discontent. The speed at which they call gives us insight into what they are experiencing; they can see her. And she is moving. Their calls follow her through the drainage, my guests suggest we wait at the other end.

Marvellous!! I think to myself, they really are invested in the process; the reward will be sweet.

Eric and I delight in their enjoyment of the process. Again, we are reminded that tracking is a multi-faceted experience, that it involves multiple senses.

Patience pays off. She slinks out the far end of the drainage, tail curled high, head hanging. She has been exposed, the duiker has long since moved on and the squirrel still rages at her presence.

Taking the path of least resistance, we follow her along the open road, leading us towards a beautiful conglomeration of boulders. Effortlessly she leaps up and settles in the cool shade that the Jackalberry tree offers. We sit along side the giant rock and watch as the young female settles herself to groom.

It’s been a morning of adventure, internalisation, and success. Surrendering our senses to nature has given us a small bit of insight into this leopard’s world, with one last jovial display she ascends into a nearby Marula tree and settles as the heat starts to cloud our thought process. It’s time to rest.

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“Men that are masters of their craft, bringing life to the art of tracking.”

  • Blog by Ally Ross (Bush Lodge Ranger)