Adventure Travel: Rich man, spoor man
A veteran tracker teaches Marianne Schwankhart the fine art of reading footprints in the bush
Robert Hlatshwayo learnt to track to survive. As a child, he looked after his family's cattle in Huntington village near Hazyview. His parents were strict. If he lost a cow or goat, he wasn't allowed back home or given any food until he found the missing animal.
He learnt to read the details in spoors - the species, whether it was male or female, the size, how fresh the spoor was. He also learnt to set traps for mongooses and other animals during his dry patches while searching for stray cattle.
Now he is in his 40s, with years of experience behind him. We met at the Eco Training camp in Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana, where he was the instructor for a tracking course endorsed by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGSA).
On the day I arrived, there was high excitement among the 10 students when they found fresh lion spoor and followed it for 2km before Robert stopped, squatted down, and spotted the giant, lone female 30m ahead. She was a bit uneasy and they didn't stay long.
One of the younger students, Wian Burger, says: "You have to trust your gut in the bush - if you don't have that, you're gonna die."
People say rock climbing and skydiving are dangerous, but some of my most intense moments have been in the bush, where life is unpredictable. You have to stay alert at all times. A few days before my visit, an angry elephant had overturned a game vehicle with volunteers inside. Luckily, all escaped with only minor injuries.
Early each morning, we set out on foot to investigate the footprints of the previous night's activities. In just one week, the students - of mixed nationalities - could identify specific prints that I had trouble identifying as a footprint to start with.
One of the methods they were taught was to visualise the animal's movements according to the spacing of the prints. Most antelope have similar heart-shaped hoofs, but if you know how to look for the right clues, you can distinguish between them instantly, according to Robert.
When he looks at tracks, he can see if the animal was dragging its feet or running, if there's more weight on the front to back foot, the angle of toes, if the feet moved in a straight line. To him, identifying animals is second nature.
Back at camp on the Motloutse River, students don't have to track to find their supper. Three basic meals are served daily on an open deck that also doubles as a lecture room. Each student has a day to be on housekeeping duty and make sure all the coffee, tea and food are out on the serving table. The solar showers are warm enough to clean off the dust you collect during the day.
On some nights, before crawling into our bush tents with their comfortable mattresses and bedding, we went for a night drive. On one of these, after many previous bush trips, I finally saw a leopard, half a dozen genets, a giant owl and loads of spring hares. The unfenced camp is dynamic with night sounds that let your imagination run wild.
There was a mix of people on the course, from some fresh out of school to a former marketing executive who had decided on a change of lifestyle.
On the last two days, the atmosphere grew more tense as Robert and assistant camp manager Okwa Sarefo assessed the students on what they had learnt. Most aim to be qualified FGASA guides and need to pass, although some just do it for the love of bushveld.
One by one, they were called to identify 40 different tracks of various difficulties. To qualify as a level 4 guide in tracking, the highest level, you're not allowed any wrong answers. For level 1, the pass limit is 70%. Horst Kalcher from Austria says the trick is to not think about your answers for too long.
"Your first choice is always right," he says. "It's exciting to get one answer right and you realise you can get more."
Looking down at spoor all day is great for a while until you drive home with your eyes cast upwards at the massive nyala-berry, apple-leaf and shepherd trees after which Mashatu - "Land of the Giants" - is named.
- Schwankhart was a guest of Eco Training
Eco training offers 16 different courses in four different reserves. They run from five to 55 days and cover topics such as birding, survival, rifle handling, bio mimicry, photography and much more. Prices start at R3250 for the five-day wilderness training skills course; R9750 for the seven-day tracking course covered in this article; and continue to rise as the courses become longer and more advanced.
For bookings, call 0137522532, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ecotraining.co.za.
- Watch a slide show on Eco Training at timeslive.co.za.