With the lodge having been relatively quiet over the last 10 days, our ranging and tracking team have had the opportunity to involve ourselves in activities which don’t come around as often. Myself and fellow ranger Shaun D’Araujo joined the Tracker Academy for a morning out in the bush.
At the moment the students of the tracker academy are still in the initial phase of the Londolozi component of their training. The Academy’s Head Trainer and expert tracker, Innocent Ngwenya explained to me and Shaun that this particular morning may be a bit slower; “They’re just finding their feet”, he explained. The conditions were harsh. On top of the bush being extremely dense, the soil and grass were wet. This meant that the morning would be a good challenge for the young trackers.
We met with the academy out in the bush at the starting point for the morning. As we arrived Innocent introduced us to his ten men, and at their feet their challenge for the day was circled; a male lion track. How it worked; each student would follow the tracks up ahead for 1 hour at a time until the lion was found. Behind him in single file, Innocent, Shaun, myself and the rest of the students would follow. Before the first tracker began, he briefed us on the usual do’s and don’ts. “We will walk in single file, an arm’s length between each other and in silence”.
We set off.
Innocent mentioned to us that the tracks will appear much easier for now; they were on the road for the meantime, “Just wait and see what happens when we turn off the road”, Innocent grinned.
It was amazing. Every couple or so meters Innocent would stop and explain to Shaun and I what the Lion had been doing at the track below our eyes: where he was sleeping, how he was limping, where he was scent marking. All of these keys were signs to eventually accomplishing the goal. “Finding the Ngala” (Ngala meaning Lion in the local Shangaan language)
For me, the highlight of the morning was when Innocent mentioned, “Now it’s going to get tough”. The tracks cut off the well-worn road into a thick block of vegetation. Grass as high as our waists and a forest of Red Bushwillows were all that I could see. The student leading us showed absolute class. Yes, a little slower than on the road we had just turned off, but we remained on the predator’s course. There were now different signs showing us his way. No longer were there paw tracks to follow but rather fallen over grass, grains of sand dropped from his paws and the odd strand of hair left behind from his mane.
After three hours of following the signs this lion had left behind, unfortunately Shaun and I had to return back to camp. However, Innocent and his team remained on seeking the tracks. Later that evening in conversation with Innocent he described with pride how they had accomplished their goal two hours after we had left.
The sheer work and determination that Innocent and these young trackers put themselves through each day is truly amazing. By the end of their course they will have accrued around 1000 hours on foot in the bush.
No wonder when one day they are sitting on the front of the game drive vehicle they will be in a league of their own..