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Unveiling the Art of Tracking and Sign: My Experience on Trail

My name is Maddy, I’m 23 years old and from England. Like most people reading this blog, I first fell in love with Africa, its landscapes and wildlife while watching documentaries on TV. And then I was lucky enough to experience it for myself on a safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara in 2009. After leaving school at 18, I spent a month volunteering at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, then a month at SANCCOB in Port Elizabeth and finally a month at Naankuse near Windhoek.

The time I spent experiencing these amazing parts of Africa solidified my desire to return to the bush in some capacity. I then went on to study Zoology at the University of Reading, which provided me with a great knowledge base for the field guiding course, and which I hope will support my future career in some aspects of conservation. 

I first heard about Bushwise about four years ago from a school friend doing the field guiding course, and thought it looked like an incredibly unique opportunity to spend quality time in the bush whilst learning from experienced trainers.

Exploring the fascinating world of track and sign

An old leopard track in dry clay, next to a folded multitool on the ground.

My week as (co) camp manager coincided with the start of our third semester here at the Southern African Wildlife College. I think everyone was a bit sleepy on Monday morning as we were thrown back into early starts after a restful off-week. But everyone was still happy to be back in the bush and excited to start our first week of track and sign (T&S) and trailing with Colin and Samantha Patrick. 

We were split into our three game drive groups, with two groups going out twice a day for T&S with Sam, and the third group trailing with Colin. My group was one of the two T&S groups, and I was especially keen to start this part of the course as T&S and trailing is one of my main interests. 

My and Emma’s first day as camp managers was particularly early as it was our duty to set up breakfast at our outdoor dining area due to kitchen changes. Although a bit half-asleep, it was lovely to rise with the sun and chat to the other students over coffee, recapping all our off-week activities. I imagine this was a good taster of what is to come in a lodge environment when we begin placement where we’ll be expected to wake guests and prepare breakfast before the morning game drive. 

Unravelling the secrets of Big Five tracking

A Bushwise student wearing a safari hat looks towards a long elephant in the distance, on a sunny day in South Africa.

We all set out on the vehicles at 7am to find some tracks (thank you, Colin, for the extra hour in bed), and we were not disappointed. Sam threw us in at the deep end by circling a dozen or so tracks along the road and asked us to write down our answers in silence. After this first test, she explained the characteristics of each track, pointing out what made each of them unique to that animal. Luckily, we were all eager to learn and Sam was very patient, so the tracking stick didn’t need to be brought down on anyone – metaphorically of course. 

On Tuesday, we walked to a dried pan which held a myriad of different tracks preserved in the mud, including white rhino, kudu and jackal. In the sandier soil around the remaining pool of water, we found the tracks of three of the Big Five – lion, rhino and buffalo. On Wednesday, we found leopard tracks, completing our Big Five list! 

Over these three days tracking, Sam also revealed to us the smaller, subtler tracks, such as those of mud wasps building their nests in the ground, lizards dragging their bodies in the morning sun, and a sand grouse having a dust bath. 

Unforgettable encounters: From rhino scent marking to lion sightings

The tracks of a white rhino, with someone’s foot in the photograph for size comparison!

On Thursday, my drive group had our turn trailing with Colin and his dog, Koda. We had the excitement of fresh black rhino signs, discovering how pungent rhino scent marking sites can be, and how easily they can disappear into the wooded areas. Saturday was possibly the best day as we took packed lunches out into the part of the concession where we normally don’t venture, but were granted access to on this occasion. 

On one road we found rhino, elephant, leopard and lion tracks, including a lion scent marking site. The trainers indicated a suitable rhino trail for us to follow, which allowed us to view a beautiful white rhino bull on foot, whilst he watched us from the shade of the surrounding trees. That was a truly special moment. Later that day, we also saw four lions resting in the Timbavati river bed, presumably after having their fill of whatever the vultures were then circling. 

Enhancing wildlife awareness through trailing experiences

This first week of the third semester has probably been my favourite so far, and everyone is so grateful to Sam and Colin (and Koda) for spending two weeks teaching us the skill of T&S and trailing. They have such a wealth of knowledge between them, and are truly fantastic teachers — and quite possibly the best tracking instructors in the world (if Sam is reading this). They really have set the bar high so far this semester! But let’s see how our tracking assessment goes…

To learn more about exciting opportunities in the field of conservation and immersive bush experiences like Maddy describes, join a Bushwise course.

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