As a lover of the bush, certain things pique one’s interest that allows you the possibility of a true connection to nature. Recently, I was given this opportunity and it was one that I jumped at. True connection lies in the ability to fully immerse oneself in an environment that makes you feel a sense of belonging. To belong you need to adapt and to adapt you need to fit in. In an environment filled with wild animals, we needed to engage our primal roots and use all of our bushcraft to ensure our prowess as walking trails guides as we headed out on a three-night primitive trail.
What is a Primitive Trail?
A primitive trail is a full immersion in the bush where one walks during the early morning and late afternoon and carries all of the essential items needed to survive for the full duration of the trail. You camp in the bush but ensure that you leave only footprints and take only pictures.
With each new batch of trainee rangers starting their journey of becoming Trails Guides there is no better way to get to hone your bushcraft than to spend consecutive days exposed to the elements as well as the wildlife. Our objective was simple; spend as much uninterrupted time as possible with all things wild, to better understand the place we call home.
Trail like a Tracker
The Ancient Art of Tracking has long been at the forefront of the Londolozi guiding and tracker team. It is a skill passed down from generation to generation. I have been lucky enough to spend numerous hours walking with some of the best in the business and during these times I too have been taught many lessons to stay as unnoticed as possible and as dialled in as one needs to be to trail like a tracker.
Stay attuned to the language of the Wilderness
Walking in the bush is a totally different experience from being on a safari vehicle. The old adage of becoming a participant rather than an observer becomes overwhelmingly obvious when you see a herd of impala lock eyes on you to ensure they maintain a safe distance. As rangers, we are constantly thinking about where the best place to find an animal is based on the weather and species we’re looking for. On foot, you need to be attuned to the language of the wilderness and not only predict where you may find a specific species of animal but be attentive to being surprised by an animal you didn’t expect.
We started our first walk along a prominent game path that leads towards one of the waterholes quite close to camp. The temperature was soaring but so was our enthusiasm for having hit the road. Hot days mean animals will either be at a waterhole or resting in the shade close by. Our path took us through a dense Tamboti thicket, a perfect place for animals to find a shady sanctitude from the sun. Silently, we inched our way around a termite mound and suddenly we heard the flap of ears!
A small breeding herd of elephants were resting in the shadows only a few metres ahead of us. Quickly we retraced our steps to find a new path to let the sleeping giants slumber in the shade. We had seen and heard them before they did us!
Always be alert to your surroundings
One of the aspects of bush life that I feel engages one’s primal roots more than most is the flickering flames of a fire. The ability of a fire to draw in the attention of its onlookers is second to none and I am yet to meet a person that is not enthralled by it. Out in the bush, a fire is not only the catalyst for story-telling but it is also your nightly companion when on watch.
Each night we take turns to keep watch of any animals that may wander their way curiously into our vicinity. It’s a time for each person to sit in silence, listen to the sounds of the bush, look up at the stars, and allow their minds the possibility to disconnect from the real world. However, you need to remain awake and aware as we were soon to find out on our first night.
At the end of my shift (of keeping watch), I had told Shaun D’Araujo that I had heard some impala alarming not too far away from us. I scurried off to get into my sleeping bag to get some well-needed sleep yet after no more than half an hour I heard a calm, yet excited, remark from Shaun to us all, “Look guys, there’s a leopard”. The Three Rivers Female was walking through the clearing about 50 metres away from us with a hyena closely on her heels. She paid little to no attention to us but the thrill of seeing a predator walk past you at night is hard to beat.
Forced into early independence as her mother was killed by the Southern Avoca Males.
Expect the unexpected
The beautiful thing about walking in the wilderness is that there are areas that you find yourself in that you wonder if anyone else has ever been in that exact spot. It calls to your true spirit of adventure. You tend to find that there are certain areas that one favours over others. Each person is different but for me, there is something about riverbeds. African riverbeds may look dry but a thirsty elephant can tap into the water just below the surface, creating a small pool of water for other animals to use. Perennial access to water combined with the shade of the majestic big riparian trees creates a hotspot to find animals during all seasons of the year.
At the end of a morning walk, we were meandering our way through the Manyelethi riverbed and in the distance, we saw the quick movement of an animal dart behind a granite boulder. We looked through our binoculars and saw three sets of ears and eyes looking straight at us. There is nothing more humbling than having a lion staring right at you, let alone three.
We were more than a safe distance away but didn’t want to overstay our welcome. We walked in a big loop around them to find some shade of our own to rest for the day. We had arranged a water drop off and as we settled in the shade we heard on the radio that the water had arrived. Tracker Jerry Hambana had brought the water but also delivered some news that there was in fact another lion not too far away from where we had settled. A stark reminder to expect the unexpected. Just because there were lions in one area didn’t mean there weren’t some in another.
Don’t take unnecessary chances
On our second full day, we had walked all morning before finding a shady spot to rest during the hottest hours of the day. The cool sand in a dry riverbed beneath a few big Tamboti trees was pure bliss during a blisteringly hot day. That afternoon we still had a significant distance to cover to get to our planned spot to spend the night so we got going early in the afternoon. After about an hour of walking, we approached the banks of the Sand River.
Wild Date Palms grow in groves along the riverbank and the juicy roots are favoured by elephants so a cautious approach to the river itself was necessary. After an extensive scan of the surrounding area ensuring that the coast was clear, we found a wide, open, shallow section of the river to ensure that nothing could sneak up on us before plunging into the cool river water as a much-needed relief from the heat. It always amazes me how much joy one can achieve through the simple act of swimming on a hot day.
Feeling refreshed and rearing to go we set off for the last stretch of the day. Our plan was to walk through a relatively thick drainage line that would lead to an open crest where we were hoping to find some elephants. As we started to meander our way down a hill to get to the drainage line we heard some branches breaking. Elephants will break off branches of trees to feed on the leaves and this is often followed by a low grumbling noise used by the elephants to communicate with one another; a sure sign that there were more than just one elephant in the thick combretum thickets.
This was a perfect example of not being too dead set on a plan and being able to adapt your plan when need be. There was no point in us trying to risk walking through a very thick area knowing that there were elephants there but not knowing exactly how many there were and how spread out they were. We decided to not take an unnecessary chance and change our route entirely.
Be aware of yourself and those around you
I’ve often remarked to my guests that as much as we find solace in quietly observing other species go about their daily business we ourselves, as humans, are equally if not more interesting as a species. Any person that has travelled as a group or spent a few uninterrupted days with a group of people will attest to how well you get to know your peers. In order to all get along well, a common interest or passion goes a long way. For all of us Rangers, the escape of spending time in nature together is unrivalled in its ability to bring each other closer together.
One aspect of time on a trail, in this regard, stands out for me. It happens at the break of dawn. With no alarm clocks, our body’s natural circadian rhythm starts to get in sync as the sky slowly starts to lighten. As we unzip ourselves from our nightly dreams we’d start to gather around a gas burner with boiling water to get the day started. Each person naturally, without prompting takes on a task to help the group, be it the coffee, the preparation of oatmeal or the refilling of water. It is a genuine concern for ensuring each person will be well equipped for the day ahead. So often in the modern world we live in, we care only for the well-being of ourselves but when the strength of each person lies in the strength of the group it brings with it a sense of community and togetherness.
Take only what you need, leave only footprints, waste nothing
Each day we head out on a game drive or bush walk we can see all the tracks and signs of the animals that occupy our wilderness. One of the main objectives of a primitive trail is the opportunity to feel a belonging to the ecosystem and not simply just observers. As part of this objective, we too need to leave only footprints. Each morning we would clean up our campsite to ensure there were no remnants of a fire or any other sign that we had spent the night there. Taking only our essentials we needn’t waste any food or water and only consumed exactly what we needed with no excess and no desire for more.
My Final Trail Thought
On our final morning, I sat perched atop a rocky outcrop watching the sun come up and listening to the dawn chorus of birds waking up. I realized that the basicness of a primitive trail allows one to realise what makes us feel content; food, water, and the company of our peers. Looking down at the open savanna reminded me of the Biophilia Hypothesis and just how much healthier and happier we are when we spend time in nature. The uninterrupted time we were able to spend immersed in the bush with daily sightings of predators will undoubtedly show in our prowess as trails guides.