Tracking

'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. 

Trees

Lala palm, Transvaal saffron, Baobab, Weeping boer-bean, Sandpaper raisin, Large fever berry, Flame Thorn, Sjambok Pod, Black bitterberry, False marula. Heartbreak names. The Leadwood which takes a thousand years to die, skeletal against the dawn and its cargo of white-backed vultures who perch there like Christmas baubles. Wild teak. The way Adam said it: wild teak. An automatic note in his voice, a teacher’s tone. Magic guarri, Common bride’s bush, White seringa.

 

The Rhinoceros

The war on the rhinoceros has changed our world. The bush has become militarised. The park rangers we meet wear flak jackets. We can’t call in rhino sightings on the concession VHF radio channel, even if we are lucky enough to see them. We are not even sure if the rhino are still here. They cannot be kept safe, with the Mozambican and Zimbabwe border so close; the reserve straddles both.

The rhino know they are under attack, that they might as well have a bulls-eye painted on their battleship flanks. I believe they deliberately evade us and that they sense the death of their companions even if they do not witness it. They sense we are involved. They know we have failed them.

Muscle Memory

We are walking in single file as we do in the bush. I am near the back of the line. Four or five people in front of me ascend the ridge.

           I am beginning to plod its slopes when we come to a sudden halt. I hear a crack, but not loud enough to be a bullet. Max’s ‘Gandalf stick’ – his walking stick, repository of his twenty years of sage bush knowledge – lies on the ground. He has thrown it a buffalo, shouldered his rifle and yelled Fuck! in the same instant.

           It is a textbook example of an encounter that could go badly wrong. The animal does not know we are there, we do not know he is there. Surprise ensues. A surprised buffalo is just as likely to run for you as to run away. Your only option may well be to shoot.

           But this buffalo ran away. Ahead of us, Max lowered his rifle.

          When you are fully trained, you find that you have shouldered, chambered and fired before you know what is happening. You won’t even remember having done it later, Max tells us.

          After lunch in the shade cast by the dining platform I do dry practice, loading the rifle with doppies and practicing just this sequence of moves – swing round on the back foot, put your weight on the front, rifle swung up to the shoulder from the left arm to the right shoulder simultaneously working the bolt to chamber a round, finger away from the trigger until I am ready to fire, rifle in the shoulder held tight not too high not too low, the stock tight against my cheek. Finger on the trigger and squeeze. Once this is all committed to muscle memory I will make no further mistakes.

 

Lost

We tracked the rhinoceros through Hutwini gorge, then lost him. We scrabbled around in the undergrowth, in the mopane maze, looking for the tracks. We could see them even when the animal moved onto the crushed leaves and twigs that litter the forest floor in autumn. But then they disappeared. We’ve lost them, we said. We all split up and started walking in revolutions, staring at the forest floor like Archimedes, as if it could deliver an essential truth.

          Later, after we had given up, I picked out the game trail over the ridge even though I was disoriented by the landscape and was not sure what direction to go in. The paths lead down to the pan. Animals know where the water is, Adam said. Their stalkers know where to find them. Their thirst and blind habitual nature and their bulk conspire to betray them. The rhino we were tracking had less than two days to live. Forty-eight hours later they were killed.

 

Bull Elephant

We came around a tree and nearly ran into his backside. The elephant was facing away from us. His ears billowed back and forth slowly as he grazed, using his trunk to tug up clods of grass and sod. These he inserted delicately, almost surgically, in his tent-shaped mouth.

            We sat down, unnoticed still, on the grass. We stayed there a long time. So long I had to adjust my posture twice to save my knees from seizing up – not easy to do when you have a rifle in one hand and you are not allowed to let the butt rest on the grass.

            The elephant came closer and closer until he had consumed everything in our field of vision. I wonder what will happen, I thought, as the elephant’s trunk edged toward us. He hadn’t seen us; it was twilight and their vision is particularly poor in these interstitial times of day.

            As the elephant’s forefoot came within five metres of us, my heat pounded out a single alarmed beat. I felt my hand tighten around the stock of my rifle.

            We will have to do something now, I thought. It’s only seconds before the elephant is upon us. I looked at Adam. His face would tell me what to do. He was framed in twilight. His eyes had deepened from blue to khaki green. His profile was etched, then, dark, certain and uncertain.

            He took off his hat and scratched it in the grass. The elephant stopped, one forefoot off the ground. He turned his head, to angle his vision better. He paused, his ears a slow breeze around his head. Adam continued scratching in the grass with his hat.

            The elephant turned elegantly, swinging on his hindquarters, and slowly walked away. He stopped on the other side of the umbrella thorn that had partly obscured us, and toyed with one of the branches.

            Pretending to feed, Adam whispered to us, his eyebrow raised. It was the first we had spoken in ten minutes.

            The bull carried on, swinging wide around us, and began to feed – this time for real – on a tree nearby.

            We moved in formation across the opening the bull had just vacated, and drew up to our vehicle. Wonder and delight moved through us. We had been so close and so easy with this giant creature, who towered even more convincingly over us as we crouched on the ground. We had held our nerve.

            ‘I let him know there was something there,’ Adam explained. ‘He thought it was a small animal, a warthog maybe. Enough to give him a sense that another animal was feeding, but not enough to frighten him.’

            The elephant growing and growing in front of us, like an exercise in visual perspective, the night shrinking behind him as darkness gathered and his bulk seemed to absorb the night, becoming full and dark and more dense. Adam’s profile, etched against this same night. The look in his eye so strange, an alloy of pleading and command. How I had thought his eyes were blue but saw now they were green, or vice versa. Suddenly he was more than I had taken him to be – braver, crazier, denser with knowledge. He has the mind of an animal or knows enough about the mind of an animal to be one himself, when needed. Through him I might be able to get somewhere. He could be the conduit. 

Impala

On game drives we look through them as if they were grass, keen to spot one of the more dramatic and violent animals. Impala are sprinter-lissome, a gaggle of fifteen year-old girls putting on makeup in front of the mirror in a highschool locker room. They are all legs, flinty abdomen, eyes, sleek and demure. They never live long enough to become crusted and bitted by age.

           They protect themselves by dissolving into a blur when threatened by a predator. Everything wants to eat them. At times I think they have been input into our simulation only to satisfy the appetites of their pursuers. The impala are the most successful antelope, numerically, in Africa. They have a mysterious metatarsal gland on the bottom of their fetlocks, a black spot which functions either to secrete hormones or as a visual ‘follow me’ signal when they explode in deliberate confusion to avoid a predator.

            One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in the bush: looking out my tent at four in the morning, hearing the roar of a large pride of lions. I couldn’t see the lions but I did see their quarry, a huge harem herd, hundreds of green eyes (this is how impala appear in the beam of a torch) vaulting logs and brush, floating in an organised detonation through the night. 

The Land

Dark begins to solidify at five. This is the hour I stop running, the hour the lions are resurrected from floppy outsize dozing cats to nightmare hunters, the hour that fixed depthless look floods back into their amber eyes. Across from my verandah, beyond the outer firebreak, is a single baobab. It is like most of these trees, leafless, its truck bloated with cellulose. At five the colours of the day sink into the baobab, turning it steel, then mauve, then a dead-fish grey-silver, then a silhouette of itself. There is no swerve to the night at this latitude, at this time of year. The winter tilt of the planet forges a bone cold that can only be dispelled by fire. The nights we have no fire or braai are forlorn. We eat in silence and then go to bed  immediately – the sleeping bag is the only other refuge. To have no fire in Africa is a dark impoverishment. 

Ballistics

The ballistics lecture is a bit of a joke in camp. Our lectures are held after breakfast/brunch, which follows a 4-5 hour walk in the bush in the early morning. Everyone always falls asleep in ballistics.  

         We surprise our instructors by staying awake. We learn the minimum muzzle velocity required to bring down the animals we must defend ourselves against – elephant and rhino in particular – is 4000 feet per second. Only a few rifles can muster this: the .375 Holland & Holland, the .458 Winchester Magnum – the most common weapons carried in the bush. The .375 has good penetration but lacks the stopping power of the .458, which rips through the animal more slowly, in part due to its blunt-nosed cartridge, but it is the only rifle – apart from the .416 Ruger – that will bring down an elephant with one shot. Magnum means the cartridge is over-loaded; the amount of gunpowder contained within it supercharges its trajectory.

        Ballistics means the science and technical factors of moving objects propelled through air. It has come to mean the science of bullets only, but this is a misnomer, as is the word bullet – this refers only to the brass and copper alloy nose of a cartridge, which is like the rocket that propels a space capsule.

        A bullet’s trajectory to its target is governed by several factors: exit velocity – the speed at which it exits the muzzle of the rifle, the aerodynamics of the cartridge, and weather. ‘Terminal ballistics’ refers to what happens when the bullet reaches its target – how fast it penetrates the hide, the speed and efficacy with which it tears through soft tissue and bone. The amount of resistance it meets. 

Solvitur Ambulando

We walk for seven or eight hours a day carrying backpacks and rifles. Walking - there is a blank automaton quality to this everyday habit. But somehow it gives us a pattern, in its simple two-step, to solve a self-alienation. 

           The Latin proverb means, it is solved by walking. What is it we seek to fathom? The ancient treaty between the self and the land. An antidote to longing, the exact terms of the covenant between desire and grief that seems to structure much of our lives. To feel whole, the separate elves we have lobbed off reconciled. To leave behind cold constraints of the self and to replace those with the constraints of the natural world.

           In walking we might reconnect with our principles. Also our errors, the greater unities beyond the people we love or the things we have experienced. A search for synthesis. We are together here moving through this land and we have no memory of this place and its gauzy horizons. We are rearranging furniture inside ourselves, this is how it feels. Who will we be when we leave here? We may struggle to remember ourselves – who we loved, what we wanted – before we came here.

            There must be a force behind geography, we think. These abrupt rains, heavy humid sky of a winter warm front. This place where we are least and most at home.

 

The Lives of Animals 2

The life of animals consists of a series of traumatic shocks. Tracking is pursuit of their trauma. We are spies on the trail of the creature who does not know it is hurtling toward a brotherhood of the devoured.

           Tracking allows us to organise the confusions within ourselves. Without this we will never understand what happens in the world; coherence begins within. We must establish a sequence, a timeline along with the truth will unfurl.

           Game trails lead to water. Animals know what they are looking for, but they are also prone to confusion. You can see it in their eyes. They are protected though from knowledge of the black elision waiting for us all. I am making choices which feel half –intuition, half fate. I am not in control.

          Our fear is of experience, which we continually evade just as the animals occult themselves in cobalt shadows. They sense our presence on their tail, even though we are in their future.

          I am too reliant on emotional experience to be a success in this strict world of wilderness. I am just another female trails guide who is not up to the job. After our third try on the rifle range Max gave up on us, we were not going to cut it. But I am frustrated with myself less because my shooting is not yet up to it, but because I can discover or understand nothing other than emotionally. There has to be love. Without it life feels insubstantial, facts refuse to accrue meaning. This over-reliance on an emotional life is a deficiency in me, I can’t help feeling. I have lost the capacity to act. I am no longer an animal.

Light and Shadows

The sun is a mitre dropped from the sky. It is early winter and it swings in a shallow ellipsis, pushing into the horizon early and fanning out into russet hours.

         Days are blue-gold. The sky untraced by cloud. These are the scorching days and cold nights of the lowveld. When a warm front wings in, bringing marled grey clouds from the coast of Mozambique, the temperature rises ten degrees in an hour. It comes at night and in our sleep we fling off duvets and sleeping bags damp with sweat.

         The evening is not grey or purple. I don’t know what colour it is. A series of oranges, maybe – tangerine, or watermelon. The solitary baobab which I now treat as a companion or oracle is bathed in silver then lead then mauve light, until it is dissolved in darkness. Of the night, there is no opacity. It is a bitumen night, thin and cold. It has the cold obsidian eyes of the mamba, a gleam around its edges.

         Here there are gullies and culverts to the land, ridges and hillocks and fissures and flat dust-sand vleis  - marshes - where nothing, not even pan dropseed grass, grows. 

The Lives of Animals

‘Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.’ John Berger writes, in an essay titled ‘Animals as Metaphors’. He argues that we share much with them - ‘Animals are born, are sentient, and are mortal. In these things they resemble man.’ The rampart between us is built of language. ‘The animal scrutinises [man] from across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension,’ Berger writes. There is no language. There is a lack of even the possibility of language. Only Orpheus, who could talk to animals in their own language, knew of their lives, their hopes, their fears. Animals are an intercession between man and our origin, they are our charges, our reprieve from the garrison of the human. 

The Lives of Predators

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. 

Nights

Are full of discord and slaughter. The baboons live in a nightly cauldron of domestic violence. We hear the rigid shouts, more vocal claps than cries, of the males, the screech of the young baboons as their mothers are clawed into submission.

           The wife-battering of the baboons is joined by the thrashing and chewing of the impala, who are browsers and who strip the leaves of the trees around the tent with an outsize shear. When the elephant’s trumpeting comes the air is electric, anticipatory. They are feeding near the camp. The sound of the branches breaking under the assault from their trunks has the richochet crack of gunshot.

            At first we sleep badly, woken by any and all of these sounds. But by the end of the second week we sleep through them. Some of us hear sounds that others miss and vice versa. The two Shangaan women who work in the kitchen cannot bear the sound of the lion. Lion he keep me awake all night, Elisa tells me, grimacing. 

            Most creatures that are killed by other animals die in the night. The nights are long, twelve hours, and that is a long time to stay alive, I think, especially when the lion and leopard are also crepuscular hunters. So in total there are around 14 hours a day, perhaps 15, when prey animals cannot relax. When we cross paths in the early morning light I say to Steve, our camp's resident impala ram, glad you made it through another night.

Fever Tree

Mint. Branches furling into a vein-like canopy. We walk in green-gold afternoons through slow explosions of butterflies called brown-veined whites and rest in pools of shade. Fever trees are not strong. They careen over in thunderstorms or under the pressure of a single wind. They grown quickly and die quickly. They are acacias, but lack the thorn-studded bushy aspect of most acacia trees. Their flimsy plasticity is part of their appeal. Unlike other trees, the fever tree has chlorophyll in its bark as well as its leaves. Fever of the body, fever of the mind. A clammy sweat coats my life. He says, ‘I am an African, I have lived here all my life, but I still feel a thrill when I hear the word ‘Africa’.’ The harsh thorn trees, the red earth. I feel it too, I have the sense I am only really alive here, and so I keep coming back, a continuous attempt at resurrection. 

Encounters

This is what we call our meetings with dangerous game: encounters. We tot up our encounters in our Dangerous Game Logbooks – elephant 10, buffalo 8. A more evasive term than meet, with its slippery noncommital quality. Encounter means two creatures who recognise each other’s power but shy away from testing it out. It is often employed next to the word sexual, and in this sense it is the right term. There is a savage intimacy in it, a recognition that we share the same moment, are stranded even, have been driven by the same hungry current to a reckoning.

        An encounter is more than the meeting of ourselves in a radically unrecogniseable but mirrored form in which we finally understand our serene dislocation from each other. It has in its sound a refusal, even a reprisal. We are not willing to understand each other. We are not willing to do the hard work, to continue. We fear each other. We are animals, agents of our separate nights. 

Light and Shadows 2

Hills sunken purple coated with russets, yellow, pallid gold of late autumn. A sinking is happening in the land, but where. We intuit the presence of the deep gorge, the sluggish river serpentining through it, the impassability to the north, south, to the east, that cordons us off from the known world. We are in the wilderness and he is our guide. We trust him with the abandon generated by necessity. He is on his own with us, we are his charges. He is leading us toward knowledge, self-discovery, toward the green garrison of mopane that ensnares us.

          This land is enigmatic. It does not have a single version of itself to offer us, to project. It is not the desert or the savannah, a monochrome immensity which instantly commands our attention. It is furtive, sly, forgotten. Several life zones collide here an the vegetation and animals and birds are all in a confusion.

          We are tantalised by the rare sighting of a Palm-nut vulture. We tear off in search of him, binoculars balanced on the dash board. The Palm-nut vulture belongs in tropical coastal forests and we are 70 kilometres away from that. He is off-course in the off-season. He is lost. 

Signs

For hours under a blistering sun we puzzle over smudges, heads bent like penitents. Balloon toes of large cats, the narrow rodent prints of the dassie, cleft palette of the giraffe. We do this because we want the competence and knowledge that goes with tracking, to look at the substrate and read it like a text. We want to be free from regret. From the feeling of ghostliness. We are exhausted by our own insubstantiality, by the endless pattern of how experience gives birth to memory, and memory keeps us company, this lasting diffuse simulacra of the real. But our memories are growing in strength. Like unborn children, they need to come out, or they will rupture us.

            We want to get control over our history. We don’t know why we thought it would help us to learn to read the bush like a text, to read the story of spoor and know what animals had passed by,  what they were doing, whether they were walking or running under these stately skies. Why they wanted to come, why they wanted to leave. But we need to read the bush like a text of – what? Signs. Rumours. The dreams of animals. 

Tracking

Tracking is pursuit. We are stalkers, although disinterested. We are not hunting the animal. We seek only a glimpse of it, in all its lonely integrity, pinioned between thorn trees and the jaws of the eventual predator that will consume it. Even the apex predators have no gentle exit from this life; lions consume lions, wild dog will rip an injured pack member to shreds. We follow these animals to know only this: that they exist, and we, their shadows, also do, by association. For once the animal is more extant than us; we pursue it in order to confirm our unreality.

Apparitions

Adam drills us on our tracks. He is strict, almost severe. There is a brisk pedantic note in his voice as we stop to consider endless smudges on the ground. These marks effortlessly assume the shape of playing cards - hearts, the Ace of Spaces (most antelope), or club-like balloons (buffalo, eland). The thug-toed, canine (hyena), the three-padded Australia-shaped palms of the cats, ringed by satellite claw-less toes – the only cat that cannot retract its claws entirely is the cheetah. Also the two-pronged inscrutable stabs of bushpig, warthog and the Vs of vervet monkey feet, the tell-tale tail drag of their prehensile tail, like a hairy snake. The porcupine with its complex Lego foot, seven or ten pads in all, and the wire-brush scuff of its quill marks on the sand.

          My brain struggles with shapes, with visual information of any kind. At first the tracks we see imprinted on the sand, in month-old mud, on grassy dustlands, are no more than rivers of inscrutable symbols. Animals moving this way, pursued by their future attackers, animals moving that way, to or from water. The dinner plate spoor of elephant who carve their own avenues in dense bush, landscaped by the stepping stones of their dinner plate feet.

         We circle in the mopane scrub, trying to pick up the trail, a group of amateurs pursuing a professional. With a lion or an elephant the great prize at the end is a glimpse of the animal, live, in the act of walking through the world. But also a ribboning satisfaction: we’d caught up with you.  These sightings take on a transport. They are visitations, hallucinations. They are moments. Once unleashed on the world we live in their wake vortices.

Some Days

Some days embed themselves in your flesh. Acacia days, thorns of hours.

      Our days in the bush are decorated with event. But also the so much the same that time has lost its spatial dimension and no longer feels like time but a river.

        The red and yellow barbet, its military parade jacket colours. The sand grass, hollows of rough-leaved shepherds trees. We roll through these hours, they envelop us. We are not insistent anymore that time be meaningful, that it dispense anything to us. We dissolve into minutes where nothing happens, until it does. 

         A hyena loping through the long grass, we see only its head, surfacing like a buoy on a grass sea. Walking through its paths and corridors, the lion occulted in the long grass, the African fish eagle who watches us, measuring our consumability, as we pass beneath it. The bush bristles with alarm. The gutteral blare of baboons, nervous chatter of vervet monkeys. The threat assailing them can be parsed from their position in the trees – if it is a Verreaux’s eagle they fear they perch close to the trunk; if a snake, they go to the end of the branch, ready to swing to safety.

       Knowledge is a conscious effort, but also it is simply time spent. Every day we are learning, our minds are saturated with understanding. That is why we sleep so soundly at night.