Blarn#5 - On The Right Track
There are two critically endangered art forms in Africa – storytelling and tracking.
Across our planet, indigenous peoples have connected to Nature’s bounty through these two mediums for thousands of years. Their fading existence will have, and indeed is having, significant cultural and socio-economic implications for the people who have practiced these customs since time immemorial. Sadly it doesn’t stop there, because it has deleterious impacts for all of humanity. This bold claim is not my own, although I subscribe to it wholeheartedly. It is the burgeoning consensus among scientists from every imaginable discipline, on every continent, that Earth’s biodiversity is under greater threat today, solely from humans, than it was from a meteorite impact 65 million years ago. Yet our species, through such avenues as these ancient customs, can also be biodiversity’s redemption. The ancestral knowledge, encapsulated by these art forms, about our environment and all its workings is immeasurable. The contribution this deep, genetic, understanding can make towards global biodiversity conservation is without compare. Sadly, to this day, these people are marginalised and treated with a patronising disdain that too often silences, or perhaps drowns out, their wisdom. We need to start listening to them if we have any hope of mitigating The Sixth Extinction (look that up if this resonates with you). For my Smithsonian friends, you may recognise the soap box I have briefly climbed up on from the biodiversity conservation lecture you all slept through whilst on safari with me. Please don’t nod off again now. The Bloody Good Yarn I am about to share with you merely illustrates this message and emphasises the extent and importance of this inherited data bank.
Oral storytelling is deeply entrenched in the cultural spirit of Africa, and the gifted storyteller is a revered individual. Fables and parables that, in an uncanny quirk of cultural convergence, frequently reflect those our own grandmothers told us, are passed down through the ages around glowing embers, or inside smoky huts. These stories bear important societal and environmental messages, their characters almost always embodied in wildlife. Shapeshifting witches ride on the sloping backs of hyaena; colossal, hybrid fish-snakes protect life-sustaining waterways; wisdom dwells in fanciful elephant avatars; and venomous snakes await those who trick the honeyguide bird out of its due.
If storytelling falls under our western definition of ‘The Arts’, then tracking definitely falls under ‘The Sciences’. ‘Tracking’ is such an oversimplification of a skill that has every right to be its own branch of science that I propose the study of it be known as sequorology (from the Latin noun sequor, meaning trail). ‘Sequorology’ encompasses the disciplines of ethology (animal behaviour), meteorology, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, anthropology, ecology, and probably a whole lot more ‘ologies’ besides. As a crude definition, it is the ability to interpret the signs left behind in the environment from any physical occurrence. More simply, these signs are known as ‘spoor’.
I have been blessed to work with, and learn from, many of these luminary ‘scientists’ during my guiding career. At times I have been nothing less than their bumbling student and at others we have shared incredible moments of wildlife wonder together. This blarn is dedicated to these unrecognised intellects of the wilderness, whose patience and perseverance helped keep me on the right track.
Alpheus was a man whose stocky, brawny stature, and stern expression, belied his gentle nature. Muscles rippled up his forearms and across broad shoulders to a thick neck and square jaw. His deep chest gave way to a six pack that had, thanks to a long love affair with traditional millet beer, evolved into the roundest, most perfect pot belly I have ever seen. When he laughed, the gravity defying movement of his spherical midriff would be more than enough to crack me up as well. As a Shangaan tribesman, Alpheus and his ancestors had been in tune with the wild lands of southern Africa since the end of the Bantu expansion six hundred years ago. His knowledge of the wilderness had been passed down to him by his father and grandfather, as it had been passed down to them by theirs. During my stint as a Mala Mala ranger, alongside the world famous Kruger National Park, I would spend more time with Alpheus as my tracking colleague, than with any other human being. In hindsight it was an interesting dynamic; a twenty-something creamy white umlungu with two degrees in Zoology was the unaware student of a fifty-something midnight shade Shangaan whose school education didn’t get past the fifth year.
In time, despite our cultural and language differences, we would know each other with the same unspoken familiarity one develops with a life partner. Although Alpheus’ English was passable we spoke almost exclusively in the lingua franca of southern Africa known as Fanakalo. Only when Alpheus turned up for work in an odorous haze of fermented grain, and my Fanakalo vocabulary fell short of the required expletives, did I let it go with both barrels in English. He would nod in appeasement, grin, wrap himself up in his khaki greatcoat, clamber aboard the Land Rover and proceed to spot more wildlife through red-rimmed eyes than myself and eight guests combined! Alpheus’ eyesight was legendary – the guy could spot the most cryptic animals from ridiculous distances. An untold number of wildlife encounters we shared with our safari visitors would never have happened without his sharp vision.
And boy could he track!
I have often likened tracking to magic, because much like a magician seemingly conjures up a rabbit from thin air, so a tracker can mysteriously locate an animal following an ‘invisible’ trail. Alpheus arguably pulled off his best ‘David Blaine’ one day whilst we were searching for a leopard. Over the years Mala Mala had developed a reputation for being one of the top leopard viewing areas in Africa, so it was unusual to go more than a day or two without seeing one, let alone their distinctive pug marks. Pressure was building and every ranger on the reserve was under the gun to deliver up the elusive cat for the dreaded ‘Big 5 Certificate’ (see Blarn#1 S**t Happens for more on this dubious qualification). It was the eleventh hour for the group of guests on our vehicle. That morning was their last game drive and disappointed resignation was etched all over their faces. So it was with some fanfare that I discovered a female leopard’s paw prints crossing a game trail just off the track’s verge almost as soon as we left camp.
“Alpheus, ini wena kabunga, thina funa landa, what do you think, should we follow?” I asked him after he had laboriously dismounted from the lofty tracker’s seat to inspect the tracks. Alpheus did nothing fast. His mannerisms were slow and methodical and it took me the best part of a year to grow accustomed to them. I only ever saw him move at speed once. We had been tracking a pride of lions along the dry bed of the Sand River when their spoor disappeared into a dense stand of reeds. Parking at the top of the bank we strained eyes and binoculars into the Phragmites to try catch a glimpse of the cats we knew were there. Alpheus then did his characteristic slo-mo disembarkation and sauntered right up to the lip of the steep bank to peer over the edge. Suddenly his eyes grew wide and in one fluid leap he was back up on his ‘crow’s nest’, a split second before a lioness burst up from the river bed below and stood next to the vehicle wondering where the portly biped she had lined up had disappeared to. I looked back at him, in part to see if he was alright, but also to marvel at the Flash Gordon manoeuvre I had just witnessed, only to be greeted by a bouncing beach ball as he chortled away at his close escape.
“Lo unyawo ena madala becane, the footprints are a little old,” was his assessment of the tracks after closer examination.
It was all we had; indeed it was all anybody had, and after some deliberation Alpheus agreed we could give it a shot. I knew Alpheus was seriously engaged in the task ahead because he plucked a grass stem and stuck it in the corner of his mouth – his tell that he was in this till the end. If, as a guest, you are not interested in the subtle art of tracking, it can be a laborious and painfully boring affair. Many folk prefer to bumble along merrily and happen upon the wildlife they see, but tracking is slow and rough going with not much in the way of animals to help distract from the boredom. So it is a challenge to keep the guests focussed on the potential prize, particularly as it is impossible for even the semi trained eye to see what a tracker like Alpheus is following.
Tracking is not too dissimilar to a game of hopscotch. Find the animal’s trail, follow it, lose it, course ahead in widening arcs till you locate it again, follow, lose etc. Novice trackers are inclined to keep their eyes down to pick out the individual paw marks, but a seasoned tracker constantly scans ahead, which gives the appearance that the guy is just out on a casual stroll. The most important lesson Alpheus ever taught me was ‘at the end of the tracks is the animal’; and I nearly learnt this the hard way. Early on in our working relationship, I had spotted male leopard tracks in the road – easy enough to follow even for me. So I left the vehicle on a recce and followed the tracks without scanning ahead. Still perched in his seat, Alpheus’ sharp whistle drew my attention, so I looked back to see him and our charges frantically pointing ahead of me. I turned back to look up the track, and there lying just off the road, with what could be described as the leopard version of a bemused expression, was the owner of the tracks!
On this day, while Alpheus ‘strolled’ along I would follow as best I could in the vehicle, or detour around obstacles and thickets, then relocate Alpheus with our signature whistle. It was tedious, but we were making progress and the tracks were getting progressively fresher. Then Alpheus pulled out his magic wand.
It was clear the leopardess was hunting. Her trail zigged and zagged with no clear line of movement, raising the difficulty of the task by several factors. We had left the bush track early on in the pursuit and our bashing through thorn scrub, crashing over fallen logs, and negotiating steep erosion gullies had no doubt disoriented our guests, and perhaps raised their level of trepidation just a mite. Yet Alpheus still had the tracks and everyone, myself included, was suitably impressed. Then her trail came to the base of a rock outcropping. All over this part of Africa there are numerous igneous rock extrusions of giant boulders and smooth granite hills that often extend over many acres of bushveld. Our quarry had now decided to traverse one such feature. In my mind I threw up my hands, “Aggh Alpheus, manje lo madwala ena hlupa thina kakhulu, these rocks are now going to cause us big trouble,” I lamented.
The grass stem shifted over to the other corner of his mouth; “Ima becane, wait a moment. Meet me on the other side.” Then he started moving up the smooth rock incline purposefully and I drove around the outcrop losing sight of him for quite some time. Eventually I saw him coming over the crest, and there, where the rock once again gave way to course sand, he pointed, “uNyawo yena kona, there’s her footprint.” I was as dumbfounded as Alpheus was nonchalant. I asked him many times after that ‘How?’, but he couldn’t explain beyond sharing the fact that he couldn’t see her tracks but he could see her path. Not more than a hundred yards further on Alpheus stopped and peered ahead intently. He turned back to the vehicle and clambered up onto his perch.
“Ingwe yena kona, phezulu lo hlahla phambili, the leopard is up ahead in that tree,” Alpheus declared matter-of-factly as he tossed his grass stem away.
I can almost guarantee those guests, to this day, recall that morning’s game drive as a singular highlight of that, and any subsequent African safari they have done. Not because we sat with the ‘Tshelahanga female’ as she feasted on an impala kill for the better part of an hour, but because they had been witness to the magical science of tracking to find her.
Many years later, I discovered that my mentor, and I like to think my friend, had retired to look after his beloved cattle, and no doubt work on his impressive paunch by drinking copious amounts of chibuku. In a weird twist of irony, after avoiding all manner of wild animal calamities, one of his prized bulls stomped on his leg, breaking his femur. It was an injury he would strangely not recover from and Alpheus passed away shortly thereafter. Sad? Yes, but I want to believe he lived a full and fulfilling life, and now his sons and grandsons are passing on his fount of knowledge to their progeny. I am honoured to have known the man.
If the wilderness were a university, then Letota would be its Chancellor, and he would hold cum laude doctorates for both storytelling and tracking. That’s because he is San!
San is a collective term for a diverse group of people that have lived in harmony with Nature for millennia. For centuries colonial settlers called them ‘Bushmen’ – a term that today is considered pejorative. Remnant populations of these hunter-gatherer tribes are dotted across Africa. The Batwa of Uganda, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Nama of Namibia, the Griquas of South Africa, the Basarwa of the Kalahari, and the Bukhakwe of the Okavango, to name just a few. Letota is from the latter group; his ‘home village’ being the settlement of Gudigwa in the northern extreme of the Okavango Delta’s pinkie finger. Only in recent years have these people been ‘settled’, according to our blinkered western definition. Before independence and diamonds brought infrastructure development to the remotest parts of Botswana, the Bukhakwe’s village encompassed every stream, island, sand tongue, mopane forest, savanna, and floodplain of the northern Okavango Delta. They didn’t own or look after livestock – their cattle were the giant Eland antelope, and their goats were the diminutive Steenbok, both of which they cherished and conserved so that generation after generation could enjoy the benefits of a managed harvest. Letota is of the last generation of Bukhakwe to have enjoyed the traditional freedoms of his people. As a teenager he would join the men of his clan on their annual hunting forays up the Selinda Spillway – returning weeks later, their mekoro (dugout canoes) laden to the gunnels with dried meat to share amongst the whole community. Everything they needed Nature could provide, and the knowledge they required to find it was the collective repository of shared, ancestral experiences.
In appearance Letota is the antithesis of Alpheus. Tall, lean and wiry, with not an ounce of excess fat, and an infectious smile that frequently creases his caramel complexion. Traditional brews are taboo for Letota because he is a member of the world’s biggest teetotaller club, which also happens to be Africa’s largest religious movement – the Zionist Christian Church or ZCC. Furthermore, he is one of the few people I know who moves faster than I do. Not that I am any Hussein Bolt, but my Botswana nickname, Tudia-Tudia, is an onomatopoeic description of the galloping sound my feet make because I walk at a rather rapid clip. Interestingly, I am told that every lekgoa (white person) working in Botswana has a nickname – if you don’t know what it is then it’s unlikely to be flattering! Certainly, lion or no lion, Alpheus would have had a hard time keeping pace with Letota. One thing they did have in common, apart from their supernatural tracking abilities, was that Fanakalo was the only common language between us, but with a curious mix of Setswana thrown in.
In the late ‘90’s Sharon and I were running a popular walking safari operation on Botswana’s Selinda Reserve, and Letota joined us as our Tracker. His impressive résumé included being a tracker of the hardest animal to follow - humans. He had spent a number of years on the wrong side of Namibia’s independence war tracking SWAPO guerrillas through some of the most hostile country imaginable, dodging wildlife and bullets whilst carrying nothing more deadly than a spear [The South African led forces fighting SWAPO believed trackers to be unworthy of carrying a firearm]. This alluded to his inherent courage and composure that I was to be witness to on numerous occasions during our time together. However, it was his bottomless pit of knowledge, and deep understanding of the complex African ecosystem, with all its components, that never ceased to amaze me. Once again I found myself, the qualified zoologist, under the teaching spell of a man who signed his name with an X.
The lessons were endless. We followed honeyguide birds till we found the sweet goodness of a stingless mopane bee hive. Then he taught me how to harvest the reward, for us and the bird, but also to repair the hive so the bees could produce again for our future pleasure. He showed me how to quite literally sniff out subterranean fungi that taste like fresh strawberries. We tracked pythons that were hunting spring hares, Africa’s version of the kangaroo rat, because both are prized protein sources for the San. In fact I am hard pressed to think of an animal we didn’t track. Hibernating tortoises, nesting Kori Bustards, umpteen different snake species, monitor lizards, pangolins, aardvarks and aardwolves, along with most of Africa’s iconic species. For each animal, each situation, Letota had a story he would tell with a flamboyance that exceeded the limits of Fanakalo so would require grand enactments that made any translation for our international visitors completely redundant.
Arguably, Letota’s greatest skill is in interpreting animal behaviour from the scuffs and scrapes in the dust so that one could visualise exactly what had happened. With his realistic animal imitations to demonstrate any drama, the tracks would come to life.
“Grrunt! Tlang kwano, come here.” Letota beckoned. For some reason my monosyllabic name has more versions than Microsoft Office. My mother calls me Grant (gr/arnt), which, because my mother gave it to me, is the correct pronunciation; Americans call me Graant (gra/ant) though my name only has one ‘a’; in ‘hot potato’ English it comes out as Graaunt (gra/aunt), which I suppose is better than Gruncle; and Brits north of Watford call me Groont! My African colleagues have always called me something in between ‘ground’ and ‘grunt’.
“Ini ndaba, what’s up?” I asked, as I broke off from the monologue I was giving on the medicinal properties of some plant or other.
“Tau yena landa kolobe, a lion is hunting a warthog.” Letota declared from the side of a termite mound where he was standing.
‘Lions hunting’, for some peculiar reason, quickly extinguishes any interest in the Solanum fruit’s ability to treat eczema, and once again Letota had his rapt audience. He showed us where a lioness had crouched flat on the side of the anthill as she waited in ambush for the warthog to leave the nocturnal burrow it had occupied in the base of the large conical termite castle. There were the deep gouges where the warthog took off, suddenly realising his morning was off to a bad start. The lioness’s chase, carved with her pads and claws for purchase, was a clear shadow to the warthog’s desperate attempt to flee. We couldn’t have asked for a better canvas to have the tableau of the pursuit depicted. A soft talcum sand over hard-packed earth provided a vivid picture that was easily discernible for our spellbound group. Letota proceeded to take us on a pied-piper tour as he followed, and imitated, each jink and shimmy of the desperate dance that prey and predator had performed.
“Nyangu yena bulawa, this is where she killed!” he proclaimed with a delight in his voice that gave away his hunter’s bias. There in the sand, we could ‘see’ the lioness, one paw gripping down on the warthog’s snout, her jaws clenched around its throat, whilst the pig’s legs pedalled desperately, leaving a macabre ‘dust angel’ in the dirt. Immediately, Letota and I looked at each – the same question passing unspoken between us……
Where’s the lion?
We were in an open area in the late morning sun and it was pretty warm. Like drilled soldiers we both did an ‘eyes right’ to the only shady bush in the immediate vicinity and sure enough there she was, lying possessively on top of her prize not thirty yards away. She had been watching us the whole time as we traced every step of her pursuit, hoping to remain undetected. Now as our four guests, Letota and I trained our eyes on her, she realised the game was up and reacted instantaneously. A lion’s warning call is a challenge to describe adequately, but try to imagine an explosive cough-spit, the percussion of which you seem to feel in your gut, followed by a deep, rumbling growl of seismic proportions. When that warning erupted, six pairs of boots immediately left the ground, as each of us did an involuntary vertical flinch.
“Stand still!”…..“Run no!” were our combined instructions as I cocked the rifle, and Letota placed firm hands on the shoulders of the two women. Our standoff continued for several loooonnnggg seconds; her growl never ceasing, except to take in another lungful of air, and her tail flicking so hard it was kicking up puffs of dust. Ever so slowly we started to retreat, and with it, so did her growl. Once at a less stressful distance, we paused to watch her and take in the whole scene for a few moments, then slipped into the treeline and headed for camp in an excited babble of hushed conversation that precluded any return to lectures on traditional herbal concoctions.
Letota and I have a ‘blarn-full’ of predator encounters that will no doubt surface at some stage, but I want to finish by recounting a story that illustrates his almost paranormal powers of observation.
It was getting hot and camp’s welcome embrace was probably a quarter hour distant when Letota whistled for my attention. “Phiri yena landa kwalata, hyaena are hunting kwalata.”
“Kwalata e tsetse, e ntsho, Roan or Sable?” I asked to try differentiate which species of these closely related antelope he was referring to with the Setswana name.
“Manje thina gakitse, at the moment I don’t know,” he replied as he closely examined the deep impressions left in the soft Kalahari sand we were traipsing through. Our walkers were keen to follow despite their glowing complexions and beads of sweat, so Letota got busy with his signature commentary and imitations. We hunted alongside those imagined hyaena as they flanked the panicked antelope, cutting off its efforts to dodge and outpace Africa’s most successful carnivore. Each stride and lunge would be effortlessly pointed out by Letota and he had all of our attentions wrapped around his tracking finger. The pace was unusually brisk and we needed to stop occasionally to allow the less acclimated members of our group to drink water and take a break, something I sensed irked an otherwise patient Letota.
After a couple of 'kays' we had left Selinda Reserve and were now trespassing on the neighbouring private concession. Camp, with its cool towels and crisp beers, was now more than a half hour straight line distance away, but our quest was in full swing and Letota was dogged in completing it. Suddenly he stopped and backed up, almost colliding with me. Reaching into a bush at shoulder height, he pulled out three, I counted them, three, half inch long brown hairs.
“Kwalata e tsetse, Roan antelope,” he pronounced with authority.
By this stage of my career I didn’t think the magic of tracking could surprise me anymore, but I was floored. Letota was simultaneously following the tracks of an antelope, at least two hyaena, and scanning ahead for the animals as well as any possible danger, yet still subconsciously his eyes continued to seek out the minutest clues that could provide important information.
Concern for our clients’ waning stamina meant we never caught up with whatever fate befell that Roan antelope, but you can be certain we witnessed a dramatic chase courtesy of the story chronicled in the sand, and recounted by a master of his trade.
Not long after that safari, Letota returned back to work after a break to visit his family in Gudigwa. His beaming smile and animated gestures prompted me to ask him what was making him so ‘jabula’ - happy. It turned out that his first born son had just graduated. Not from school as one might imagine. That’s not particularly impressive in San culture, but rather as a tracker amongst trackers. The diminutive Steenbok is the San’s litmus test of capability. Small, furtive and able to hide in plain sight, this little antelope is extremely hard to follow, find and kill with a traditional club, as Letota had done under his own father’s tutelage and now too had Letota’s son under his.
Despite Letota being somewhat of a celebrity tracker these days in the trophy hunting world, he still occasionally pops into my home to say ‘Dumela’, and we reminisce a little about our adventures together. He is now a grandfather (a few times over) and his son, amidst the modern distractions of internet and cell phones, perseveres in the noble tradition of passing on their ancestors’ knowledge to his own children.