Blarn#2 - A 'Mmmmm' is Worth a Thousand Words
Ask any parent of a teenager and they’ll tell you ‘Google’ is redundant in their household, because their child knows everything. Their surplus of knowledge becomes heightened as you increase the generational gap. Grandparents are so old, that their data retention capability is apparently like comparing a MacBook Pro with a slide rule. In fact I would like to suggest to Apple that they perhaps consider ‘MacTeen’ and ‘iKnow’ as names for their new run of laptops and smart phones. Of course being so clever, the teenager goes to university and is given a degree (or two) that ‘proves’ they know everything. Eventually the young adult gets a job where their apparently infinite knowledge qualifies them for the task at hand. Then in the blink of one working day in the real world, some yet-to-be-defined phenomenon occurs and, just like that, the savant is clueless!
You may well laugh, but we’ve all been there, except of course if you are a teenager and by some quirk of the cyber ether you have landed on this blarn page. My career as a wildlife guide started no different, and it took me the best part of a decade to start appreciating how influential particular individuals have been (and continue to be) in teaching me the ways of the wild. Ways that no academic, with multiple acronyms behind their name, could imagine. Despite the language and cultural differences that often existed between us, these teachers I have known are just as much a part of every story I’ve ever told as the wild animals in them, and the wild places where they have occurred. In a gesture of homage to them all (and many will appear in future Blarns) allow me to introduce you to a couple of them through that parental adage of the ‘learning moments’ we shared.
“Hey Snot, get a vehicle ready, you are going out to learn roads.”
Nils never used a trainee’s first, or even last, name when ‘Snot’ would suffice. In fact Nils didn’t even use words when a grunt or humph could quite adequately convey the desired message. His skill in communication was inflection, and it was up to the trainee to learn every nuance of his ‘aahhs’, ‘huhs’ or ‘mmmms’ to understand the details of the lesson. Even ‘snot’ was expressed in a way that was so utterly indifferent that all the gross connotations of the label were lost on the recipient. To go along with this was a repertoire of facial expressions that would make a Botox practitioner jealous. Contrary to my earlier comment, there should have been no language barrier between us. Nils is a white, English speaking South African. And by white, I mean snowy! Shunning the classic image of the bronzed outdoorsman, Nils had declared war on ultraviolet radiation. Hardly a square inch of his melanin challenged skin ever saw the light of day. Long sleeves, trousers, broad brim hat, wrap around shades and copious layers of sunscreen, were his bush accessories of choice. All neatly rounded off by the .357 Magnum holstered on his hip.
Learning roads at Mala Mala is a challenge not dissimilar to acquiring ‘The Knowledge’ of a London cabbie. The name of every road, track, river crossing, and prominent landmark had to be committed to memory along with fine tuning your internal compass so you didn’t get disorientated in the dark. It was complete taboo to be lost while out with guests and many a trainee on their ‘solo flight’ had spent the night aimlessly driving around the reserve trying to find their way home – and no rescue party would be forthcoming. I don’t know if anyone has ever counted up all the names of every geographical point, and its relation to every other geographical point, that had to be memorised, but I am certain it is a high four figure number. Under normal circumstances it is quite a daunting test to pass, but add the inscrutable demeanour of Nils to the mixture and it could be nerve wracking.
I had already been demoted from ‘know-it-all’ to ‘clueless’ for about two weeks. Snots spend the best part of a month doing grunt work - behind the bar, in the grease pit at the workshop, labelling souvenirs in the curio shop, and any other dull task that took management’s fancy. So the chance to get out into the bush, even if it meant being subjected to Nils’ unique, intimidating brand of tutelage, was most welcome – even exciting.
“Go south on River Road,” my mummified teacher instructed.
We were starting easy – checking off each intersecting junction of the reserve’s longest road as we got to it. This entailed stopping, Nils silently pointing a questioning finger at the track and me replying with its name. If I was wrong, a drawn out “mmmmm” expressed Nils’ wholly expected ineptitude of the Snot he was wasting his time trying to train. If I was right, the finger pointed forward to continue. This pantomime - with the emphasis on mime - continued past numerous junctions and I was quietly gaining confidence, when suddenly there was an unexpected sound.
It took me a second or two to realise it was Nils’ voice before I hit the brakes. Honestly, behind the impenetrable shades I thought he had been dozing between junction stops – bored with his teaching task and the Snot he was lumbered with. Without a word, he stepped out of the vehicle and walked to the front of the Land Rover and started staring at the ground. So I got out and started doing the same, mimicking my tutor without a single idea of what I was staring at. There were some scuff marks in the dirt but they meant absolutely nothing to me.
Is that what he is staring at?
Should I ask?
Should I just shut up and hide my ignorance?
“Mmmmm……ahhh,” was the forthcoming explanation before Nils stepped off the track and started walking purposefully into some of the densest riverine vegetation you can imagine.
Was he going for a pee?
Am I supposed to follow?
Somehow the inflections and body language registered the answer in my brain and I blindly followed Nils into the near impenetrable bush whilst battling every instinct that told me this was nuts. Determined not to lose sight of the guy with the Big Gun I was making more noise than an angry lumberjack as I bashed through the undergrowth. My guess is that we were maybe fifty yards off the track when Nils abruptly stopped and there, miraculously, at his feet were the disembowelled remains of a bushbuck.
How did he find that?
What happened to the bushbuck?
“Leopard’s kill?” was the complete stab-in-the-dark question I actually voiced.
“Mmmmmm” was the answer, which probably translated to, “Of course stupid. What else could it be?”
I still wasn’t sure of what had transpired until we got back, thankfully unscathed, to the vehicle. Nils lifted the radio mike from its cradle, “Stations,” he said, “leopard kill located [Wow I was right!] east of River Road just north of West Street Crossing [Oh, is that where we are?]. I will drop a branch on the road, but you can’t miss the drag marks [You can’t? Where? Those funny wiggly scuff things?]”. And with that Nils settled back into his seat, his Oakley gaze and forefinger pointed forward. My first tracking lesson over.
But the story isn’t!
Fast forward a couple of months and by now I was sufficiently adept at leaving, but most importantly, safely returning to the lodge. At last I could be trusted with the high paying, but blissfully ignorant, guests of the reserve. The morning’s game drive had turned up a well-known, even famous, female leopard who had killed an impala not far from the reserve’s private airstrip. Champing at the bit to see her with my newly arrived charges, I was first out the blocks for the afternoon game drive and headed straight to her last known location.
At this point, allow me to introduce another teacher I have known. He represents a group of men who have shaped my career with their knowledge, skill and fearlessness. I am, of course, talking about the African tracker. Around the world, not just in Africa, indigenous peoples have a connection with nature that cannot be taught in a classroom, lecture hall, or even on a field trip. It is ingrained; part of the DNA and, more often than not, a necessary survival tool. But allow me to let you in on a little secret.
We all have it.
Sure, it is often buried deeply beneath layers of so-called civilized existence, but if you are prepared to trust that thing we call instinct, and allow dulled senses to awaken, you too can find that connection. I am indebted to a string of men who have tried to shape and mould my own connection. What they have given me is more than knowledge; it is a Sharing, an Understanding. Yet, even after thirty years, I feel there is still so much more to share and understand.
Now that’s enough deep philosophising for one Blarn – back to the story…….
This particular day, as luck would have it, I had been assigned one of Mala Mala’s best trackers. John Sibuye was a tall, rangy Shangaan man whose presence left you in no doubt that his lineage could be traced all the way back to one of Shaka Zulu’s generals. I don’t know the what, how or when of his tracker résumé, but he exuded an aura of confidence that was infectious – I just felt like the complete ranger with him on the vehicle. I strongly suspect that the feeling wasn’t reciprocated – I was, after all, still very much a clueless Snot.
Laying down a cloud of dust, we were the first vehicle to get into the area where the Sparta Female had been seen in the morning, only to be crushed by the realisation that she was nowhere to be seen.
But hey, what are those squiggly scuff marks in the road?
Haven’t I seen those somewhere before?
John and I converged on the spoor and I meekly asked if they are drag marks. “Eh!” he replied, which I believe is Shangaan for ‘mmmm!’ Nonchalantly grabbing the rifle off the rack I informed our passengers that WE have spoor and that John AND I are going to see if we can find the leopard. We set off and within a few paces, would you believe, we entered a thicket that resurrected some serious déjà vu feelings, only this time I’m the guy with the Big Gun. John, quite wisely, is shadowing me just off my shoulder as daylight started to bleed away under a closing canopy. Visibility was reduced to a couple of yards, and if it wasn’t for the trail of bent and blood spattered undergrowth, we would have had no clue which way the leopard had gone. Well that’s not wholly right – there’s no ‘we’ here. John didn’t need such in-your-face sign to follow an animal’s trail, but I thought I was doing a terrific job so far. Then……
There is something quite primal about a leopard’s low gravelly, drawn out warning growl. It freezes the blood and liquefies the innards. Like Nils and John, a lot is communicated in a simple sound. The rumbling caution was close, very close - too close! Yet she remained invisible. I felt a vice clamp down on my shoulder and John’s equally gravelly growl said two very clear and unmistakable words, “Don’t run!”
We backed up slowly, John’s hand never leaving my shoulder, and my eyes never leaving the growling thicket, until we were back in the open. We returned to the vehicle and John calmly clambered up on the tracker seat like nothing had happened. So, taking his cue, I secured the rifle and casually told everyone we had found the leopard. “We’ll just drive into the thicket and see if we can get a visual for you,” was my confident proclamation.
The problem with post adrenaline rush, is that the body rebels against the simplest tasks and limbs and organs seems to want to do their own thing – or, in my case, not want to do anything at all. I started the vehicle, engaged gear and everything fell apart. Did you know that it is impossible to operate a clutch when the muscles in your legs are reduced to a quivering mass of jelly? Three stalls and a flushed red face later, I managed to get the Land Rover moving, and somehow manoeuvred into a position where the excited Italians had a partial view of the reserve’s matriarch leopard feeding on her impala.
“Uhhh Stations,” I called into the radio, switching to a pseudo-code that is the trademark of sighting announcements across Africa, “Uhhh I’ve located the uhhh Sparta ingwe uhhh stationary feeding on her uhhh bamba in thick hlatini south of her uhhh previous location.”
It appeared that my vocal chords were now also in revolt and stringing a sentence together was all together another challenge. After a long, pregnant pause on the airwaves – most unusual after a leopard sighting has been called – the clipped tones of Nils’ voice crackled in my earpiece, “64 Grant, you walked into that leopard didn’t you?”
“Affirmative,” I quavered in reply.
To this day, in my mind’s eye, I can see Nils sitting in his vehicle full of punters, his eyes masked behind those shades, and, with the tiniest of smiles picking up the corner of his lip, he utters a quiet, satisfied “Mmmmm.”