'Tracking' is a body of work about learning to track animals, and more broadly learning to become a Trails guide - someone who takes people on guided walks in the African bush. The texts that appear here are extracts from a longer piece and are randomised, meaning they appear in random order. You are invited to click through to the next text, but the panels do not construct a linear narrative, and will not appear in the same order twice.
We are enlivened by the idea of creatures devouring each other. We want to witness their erasure. This is the basic instinct governing people’s (mainly citified tourists, it has to be said) fascination with the bush. They want to see kills, destruction, carnage. This is spectacle to them, the frisson of the real. We are other protected by this by being apex predators at the top of the foodchain. We only prey upon ourselves.
I shy away from death. I have seen plenty of it and its aftermath in the bush. The skeleton of the kudu buck we saw our first morning walk at Mabwati. He had been killed by a coalition of male lions on the outer fire break, a few weeks before our arrival. ‘He went down without a sound,’ Max said. ‘He never knew what happened to him.’
Apex predators fascinate and repel, in part because of the simplicity of their tastes. You can see it in their amber eyes. They say: meat. Fear. Dawn and dusk.
Leopard kill in a manner similar to tigers – from behind. Whether their quarry is animal or human it is the same. They scalp their prey first by clamping their claws over the cranium, then, once the animal is on its back, disembowel them. Cheetah and lions kill more efficiently, most of the time. A bite to the spinal cord at the back of the neck, a severing of the windpipe. But not so fast that you do not see the blare of panic in the antelope’s eyes.
Imagine you are a lion. This is your world view: hunks of meat, sometimes larger than yourself, suspended on graceful stilts called legs. Yours is a tawny world of violence and the spoils of cunning. Life as a predator is hard. They don’t get much sympathy, but you only have to see a starving lion to feel a stab of remorse. To fail to kill is not the same as to fail to be killed. For the delicate cheetah nine attempts at hunting out of ten fail. It is hard to make a living on the savannah.
In Kenya, where I did my first qualification, we walked only forty or fifty metres from a pride of lions. One day I ran around the camp in the full knowledge that three subadult males lolled on the branch of a fallen fever tree only 300 metres away. We kept an eye on each other, and I tucked my hair into my baseball cap so that I would not do quite such a convincing impression of a female impala with her bushy tail.
Lions can also attack from the rear. They would be on me before I knew it. I would only feel myself being knocked to the ground. Then a pool of ink blood darkness. But I keep running. It’s not going to happen. Somehow I know this, and so do the young lions who yawn and entwine themselves with the white-gold fever tree, fat tawny snakes wrapping themselves around its dead arm.