The importance of a tracker on safari
The Art of Tracking
The symbiotic partnership between a guide and tracker contribute significantly to the success of a safari experience. They dovetail off one another, and together form the connection that brings the bush to life for guests.
The tracker is very often right at the forefront, sitting in front of the vehicle ahead of the guide and guests. Not only is he the first to identify a myriad of signs and creatures that the bush reveals, but he is the one to decipher a deeper meaning. The guide is the animated storyteller, while the tracker is the direct link to nature itself. The bond that is forged between the two over time runs deep.
Trackers have an incredible sixth sense. The trackers at Arathusa are Shangaan, or Tsonga speaking, people. Historically, the Tsongas split off from a Zulu tribe and settled in the north eastern part of South Africa. They had a really strong spiritual, physical and mental connection with the earth, animals and trees. Every kind of plant and type of grass and animal species in Tsonga has a name, a meaning and a use, whether its medicinal or practical. Most of the trackers at Arathusa are over the age of 40, and are in tune with the earth on a different level.
Trackers are not schooled in the contemporary sense – they are born. The Tsonga speaking boys would have to control and take care of their parents’ cattle when growing up. Part of this meant that they had to learn how to track the animals interested in following the cattle – be they predators or other species benefiting from them (such as birds eating insects off their hides). They recognised different animal tracks, and would question their elders. Our trackers come from long bloodlines of instinctive natural trackers, and followed the vocation into a career because it is part of who they are. They have the confidence to walk into situations with dangerous animals, and their ability to read behaviour and adapt to it safely without a firearm is incredible!
As knowledge was passed down through ancient tales, trackers are also adept at storytelling. This is how they actually track and find animals. They will communicate about how a black rhino walks through the bush and how he munches (they are very loud chewers), and how he huffs and puffs. How he walks in a zigzag pattern. In so doing the life of this rhino becomes animated. Information is conveyed in an emotive manner, instead of being just another lecture on an animal.
Trackers are very important mentors to guides – both novice and experienced. Navigation is one of their critical functions. Environmental consideration is really important when out on safari. We are often off-road, so in order for us to get safely to an animal without bothering it and without doing too much damage to the bush, trackers are vital when it comes to helping guides to move through the precious terrain (especially when a guide is new to an area). Trackers know which trees are protected, and the best way of getting around through difficult areas like drainage lines and riverbeds.
Most of Arathusa’s trackers are senior trackers considering the number of years they’ve had to hone their skill. Younger trackers without the life experience need to go through formal training. Trackers are ultimately qualified on two things – track & sign, and trailing. After training they are assessed and qualified on a level between 1 and 4.
Track & sign is identifying different spoor, tracks and signs left by the animals. For example, what’s dug up? What is this scraping sign? It’s a hoof. What animal with a hoof digs? A steenbok, covering up its dung. And then different tracks – back foot, left foot etc. How is the stride? What is the distance between strides? Was the animal running? What animal is it? Is it a cat? How do you know?
Trailing is the following of an animal and its movements via footprints, feeding pattern, or other traces.
When I was growing up, my father – who did a lot of work in the bush – taught me that the Shangaan and Tsonga people were so in tune with everything in the bush that they were almost part of the animal kingdom themselves. They had a hidden speech with the bush. They could almost communicate with each other with just looks and movements. They would glide through the bush when they were tracking, as if imitating the animal they pursued. They would walk through the bush differently, depending on what they were looking for. I was absolutely fascinated, and learned how to speak Tsonga. The most important thing for me when I first started guiding was to learn as much from the trackers as I could, so that I could connect with the bush the way they have.
The role of the tracker is not just to find animals for guides and guests. He is ultimately the link between the vast and mysterious natural kingdom and its many treasures. He is both mentor and storyteller. He is the key ingredient that breathes life into the safari.
Watch this space as we give voice to Arathusa’s trackers in this blog series called, The Art of Tracking. Enjoy the series of images captured directly from ‘the front seat’ on safari.