First, a bit of background on me. I’ve spent most of my life in cities: from New York to Seattle to Southern California and the last 10 years in London. I love big cities as melting pots of creativity, culture and ideas, but I also need to balance the hectic city pace with time in nature. I’ve been on three safari trips, and each time left wanting to stay longer and learn more. I’m here at NJ More on a 60-day course for an adventure and a hands-on learning experience – a chance to see behind the scenes of one of my favourite things. I’m older than the average student here, but I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for learning. If anything, it’s stronger after a long break from classrooms.
Anyone who wants to throw themselves into a new topic here has plenty of options – trees, birding, a specific animal (we see many elephants for example), photography, ants, frogs, snakes, 4×4 driving…we have the resources and experts on hand to help us explore any of these further. It’s like being at a fancy buffet – you want more of everything, but only have so much room in your stomach. I only have so much time and brain capacity, and I’ve had to choose how to spend it.
My choice has been animal tracks. My observation skills need a lot of honing (I am a city dweller after all), but I think tracks and signs are fascinating. I’m always excited to discover a new track. It’s like being a detective at a crime scene looking for clues. What animal was here, how long ago, where was it going, what was it eating, what was it doing? Even after a basic introduction to tracking we can answer most of these questions when we see tracks.
Three of my favourite drives so far involved tracking:
- Lions near camp: early into one of our typical afternoon drives, our trainer stopped the vehicle and looked over the door at the ground – we had male lion tracks just outside of camp. Later that day, we came back through the same area and spotted lions deep in the bush. The next morning, we came to the bottom of the hill outside the camp and were greeted by a beautiful pride of 6 lions relaxing in the morning sun. We may have ended up seeing them anyway, but we wouldn’t have known to look for them if we hadn’t seen the tracks the day before. And it was so satisfying to see the progression from track to animal.
- Tracking a leopard: sometimes you don’t even need to see the animal you’re tracking to have a rewarding experience. We once spent an entire morning following a female leopard’s tracks. We saw the tracks going down the road, occasionally diverting into the bush. We saw where her tracks joined a male leopard’s tracks and where they walked together. We saw where the male left territorial scent marks, and we saw where they mated. I felt like I knew more about that leopard’s morning than I would have if we had actually seen it. It showed me that as a guide you don’t always need a great sighting to create a memorable experience.
- Tracker seat after the rain: one day we left on a drive just after a heavy rainfall and I got to sit on the tracker seat. It was like a blank canvas – the rain had wiped out all the old tracks and anything we saw was fresh. I saw a jumble of impala tracks heading our direction and sure enough, we came across the herd a minute later. I called out rhino tracks, and shortly after we caught up to five rhinos darting in and out of the bush. The same with a buffalo herd. The recent rain made it easy to identify fresh tracks, and what a great feeling to start to put the theory into practice!
I’m miles ahead of where I was a little over a month ago, but we’re just scratching the surface of what will be taught. I’m happy for (and jealous of) my fellow students on the 6-month course that will have very in-depth focused training on tracks, signs and trailing later on.
So where do I take this newfound interest in tracking from here? I’m heading back to London soon, but I want to keep it going. I’ll look for organisations or schools in the UK, but worst case I’ll just go for hikes and see what I can find. What I would really love though is to find a way to come back here every few years and take more courses. If I get a chance to come back, I’ll definitely sign up for a tracks and signs course, but there’s so much more to explore. I’m hoping to be back many times!
Words by Seelye Arms