Tracking is probably the very first science in history. Ever since mankind’s ancestors have roamed this Earth, the need to interpret one’s surroundings, be it for communication, safety or the procurement of food, has been at the forefront of our primitive success. There is no other discipline that has shaped us as a species more than the ability to read stories in the sand. During this time, there were no textbooks to record these findings and this invaluable information has been passed down through countless generations, a secret code to survival. However, since our advances in communication, technology, and above all, the plague of urbanization, this purest of sciences has been diluted to just a shadow of its former self. But there are a select few that have dedicated their life to resurrecting this ancient tradition.
For a budding young field guide, the ability to interpret the bush to their guests is paramount. Understanding what has happened and anticipating what might happen next, adds a new dimension to a guest’s safari. So much of what nature has to offer is not seen by our primitive eyes but a track does not lie. To understand the impressions left behind in the substrate allows a level of connectivity between man and nature that would otherwise be impossible. There are a select few people that have dedicated their life to comprehending these coded messages and Bushwise students were honoured to host Colin Patrick for the last week. His mission: to educate them in this unique brand of cryptography.
Students have spent the last 6 days staring intently at the floor trying to hone their eyes to read the ever changing messages etched within it. Wide eyes and looks of incredulity met Colin during the first few days as his seemingly effortless elucidations were shared with the group. As their initial disbelief began to wane, the students slowly began to open their mind to this long neglected science and after a couple of days of intense exposure, are now seeing the forgotten world beneath their feet like never before. In excess of 50 unique tracks and signs, including lion, leopard, aardvark, owl, stork, beetle, lizard, gecko and frog have been identified, explained and (hopefully) committed to memory.
The beauty of this art is that each and every track is different. There are so many variables that can affect the track, each inferring minute differences that can drastically alter the impression left behind. Attention to detail is paramount and students (and instructors alike) have spent hours this week on their hands and knees investigating these subtle nuances. Weather conditions, age and substrate are just of a few examples of the multitude of factors that need to be taken into account when reading spoor, but with Colin’s help and educated eyes, the students are now seeing things in a new light.
But it is one thing to identify the perpetrator of the track, the true skill lies in interpreting the accompanying behaviour. How fast was the animal moving? Why was it moving so? In what direction was it looking? These are just some of the inferences that can be drawn from something so simple as a scuff in the sand. Guides often refer to tracking as reading the bush newspaper but the print used by the editors of this ever-changing publication is not understood by most. To be able translate these coded messages gives a guide the ability of both hindsight and foresight, and without exception, guests are blown away by this ancient skill. Perhaps it is the repressed tracker in us all: we all come from the same ancestors and thus this knowledge is surely embedded deep within our genetic make up.
Having awoken this new skill, the students now face a rigorous evaluation under Colin’s omniscient gaze as they try to achieve an official tracking qualification to add to their growing repetoire. Regardless of their performance this week, each and every one of them will leave this course in 4 month’s time equipped with the ability to interpret their surroundings with depth of understanding most believed impossible at the start of the week.
Ben Coley & the Bushwise Team