Chapter 12: Tracking
The ‘sign’ of a track is like an invisible ether, which with the appropriate filter glasses, can be seen suspended in the air like some faint hazy blue smoke.
With this in mind it is magical to watch a dog at work. Maybe the beautifully sinuous length of an English Pointers body stretches out in flowing bounds as it courses at an undulating lope across the fields, searching for the scent of a game bird. Then in sharp abruptness it will jerk to a halt, and transform into a tail-raised, foot cocked nose extended point with all the quivering directional tension of a drawn bow.
This fluidity is predicated by the minutest traces of scent buoyed upon the breeze, and if the nose of a pointer can be magical, then the skill of a master tracker is absolutely so, because magic is the only way to describe the mix of art and alchemy that goes into such an intricate skill.
Yes, surely some of the talent of the tracker must be inherited from nature, just as the nose of the pointer is the inheritance of evolution. But unlike the automatic detection of a scent in the nose of a dog, or smoke in the eye of an observer, it is in the mind of a tracker that the mental magic occurs. There is nothing consistently obvious in what constitutes the ‘sign’ of a track, its thread must be mentally pieced together from the faintest shards of a previous passage. The tracker needs to be exquisitely intimate with every detail of his surroundings.
The skill is the ability to synthesize a myriad of details, changing every second as the eye moves and reaps and gathers a plethora of information, and registers it against the memory of how the bush should be, as it simultaneously compares this with how it is.
It is all about noticing the smallest discrepancies, a depression here, a bent stem of grass further on, a broken twig, a plucked berry , the slightly darker color of a fallen leaf, faintly more moist than the others, indicating its shaded side has been up-turned by some recent passing disturbance. Maybe the distant alarm call of a bird.
But it is not only about noticing these discrepancies, it is also about noticing how the environment slowly ages their appearance.
The basics can be taught to anyone. However, there will be certain rare individuals who will have a natural ability to see the signs.
It will be those even rarer individuals who will take their God given gift and practice it, and hone it endlessly, until it is magical. As with Van Cliburn’s specialty with his piano, and Perlman his violin, so it is with trackers. Here the best are some of the lifetime poachers, or their fellow tribesmen, serving on the other side of the wildlife equation, as game scouts.
Moses had inherited those genes of talent. As a boy in the bush around the mission he honed his gift, making him such an asset when on the hunt for the ultimate quarry, other men. His quiet confident, almost uncanny way of knowing when we were close, and contact imminent gave us the edge.
I wasn’t a gifted tracker, but having walked behind him so many times and watched him point to this clue or that, I felt confident that my basic proficiency would allow me to follow the footprints of the mystery man.
After all since the tracks left my campsite, it appeared that this individual wanted to be followed, leaving behind a tauntingly easy track.
The open treeless expanse of the Shalamakanga dambo stretches back lazily from the river. Along its length the sponge of its soils slowly dribbles its rain water into the Kafue, as the river slides gradually South West to where its ancient flow was stolen eastwards by the younger Zambezi River, and its destiny changed forever. Change can be profound in Africa, for better or worse, even for its rivers, not only its people.
A bird in the sky would see how, after a few kilometers, the length of the dambo spreads and stretches out into four long sluices, curving towards the west like the open reach of an eagles talons. The clawed extremity of one of them hooks at the artery of the main road, causing it to flinch westwards. It is as though the talons are attempting to grab at anything scuttling past on the of the road.
So far so good!
The ease of the tracking allowed my mind, like my feet, to skip over the possibilities.
Reaching the shank of the dambo where it widens out into the pad spawning its tributaries, a small herd of Puku raise their heads sharply from the grazing in the open grassland. They looked on with some curiosity, before halfheartedly scampering away. It was heartening to see how the numbers of these animals had increased from their previous dearth, when they were subjected to the poacher’s ravages. It was also heartening to see how they were relatively tame and unconcerned, tolerating both vehicles, and even humans of foot.
Lowering my gaze from the antelope the boot-prints were clear. It took little effort to pick out their shallow indentations, especially if I walked on the verge of the twin tracts as they headed along the southern lip of the dambo. Looking back, I could clearly detect the thin shadow of the tracks as they were etched by the bright rays streaming in from the sun hanging, like a banzai flag low in the morning sky.
The mystery man was simply following the lodge’s secondary access road back to the mainn arterial.
I was aware of a niggle of apprehension at the back of my mind. Heading out a long way into the Bush alone was never a good idea. I was breaking rule number one, go with a buddy. Nasty stuff can happen very quickly out there. One does not want to be alone without a rescuer close by in these situations. Maybe the bite of a snake, or the charge of an elephant.
However, as reward is generally matched to risk, the indirect taunting of the mysterious man now posed a risk which needed to be addressed quickly, to prevent him doing as he pleased with impunity.
Thus, I decided to go out alone. I guessed that his taunting was designed to scare and test me, rather than goad me into following him. I doubted that he knew I had hunted men in my past. After all nobody at the Lodge knew much about me, apart from that I had grown up in the Bush. He may not have expected me to track him.
Obviously he had some knowledge of the Lodge and its rituals. It was certain that he knew that the scouts stationed at the lodge were out on patrols, making him audacious enough to taunt and attempt to intimidate me. he probably expectied me not to venture after him without the help of an armed scout.
So what was it to be? Finding some resolution to the conundrums and occurrence’s by chasing to the end of a fresh track, or a risk going bad, way out in the Bush, all alone.
I reached up and fingering the shells of the small leather strand around my neck.
I would be careful. This was an area of the world which had not changed significantly for thousands of years. In such a world, without technology, a person would be wise to remember that they are not the top of the food chain. I could not out bite a lion and I could not out run and elephant.
As I moved along the dirt tracks skirting the lower side of the dambo, jutting out of the bush-line was a small copse, at the center of which a dead tree thrust the fingers of its bare branches up above the foliage like the wizened hand of a witch. Sitting sunning themselves at the extremities of these spindly fingers was a small flock of secretive green pigeons. In unison they took flight as I passed by. I watched these beautiful birds head back towards the river, with the olive emerald of their wings flickering behind the brushed grey of their napes, and the bright highlights of their yellow leggings showing even in the shadow of their disappearing tails.
Ohh well, I mused, soon they would be cloistering themselves in the thick greenery of the fruit bearing trees, where they would spend the rest of the day sneaking around feeding on the berries and quietly issuing their ‘getting rich, getting rich’ murmurs.
They would be expressing the richness of this bushland for me, and why I felt it worthwhile chasing after what threatened it. Somehow I had a premonition that the tracks I was following held the hint of such a menace.
The boot-prints led unconcernedly, step-by-step along the bumpy center of one of the tracks of the twin -strip road.
Initially it appeared that the tracks lack of concealment was a deliberate flaunting. Now after following a good distance, and the disregard for concealment was still apparent, I was not so sure, or if the originator discounted my ability to follow. Or was there a rendezvous with a vehicle waiting out at the main road. Or, I smiled to myself, was it a hyena waiting to whisk him away before he could be reached.
Mentally I shrugged. I wished I could believe in flying hyenas, and could conjure one up, taxi style. Too bad Precious was not here, I could tease and ask her why, if this man was such a hot shot nganga, had he not dialed up his flying hyena by now? Why walk the many kilometers to the road?
The track was so obvious I could follow it at a fast walking pace. It was three hours since I’d heard the scratch of the chair on the Chitenge floor.
Great tracking is all about persistence, with minimal pauses for rest. Only the best can follow like a dog on the scent. I wasn’t one of them. I would generally progress at a slower average pace than my target. Here and there I would lose the track and need to scout around to relocate it. Thus, where possible I would have to walk a lot faster to catch up. It would be exhausting. There would be the mental strain of concentrating on finding and following the clue. This on top of the physical strain of the speed walking.
It would be even more difficult if mystery man knew he was being followed, and move faster, even run, while engaging in evasive counter tracking. Or did he want me on his track to lead me into a trap? Would I be able to out-think him? Was he likely to lead around the right, or left sides of a thicket? Every few hundred meters would his habit have him head to some longer grass to pluck a strand to chew. There was that anticipatory excitement of trying to get inside his head. I wanted to get an advantage.
The act of hunting a man resurrected an old elation which buoyed me along.
I walked fast, breaking into a jog here and there when the ground hardened and made running easier. By the time the lodge’s dirt-strip road and the prints I was following reached the main arterial, I estimated I had gained almost half an hour.
At the junction he had paused to mill around, as if looking back at his path. This gave me another few minutes gain. From there he resumed his steady progress north along the verge of the main road. He was walking at a regular pace, there was nothing hurried in his gait.
I could see this from the way that the heel of the imprints was not accentuated, as it would be if the pace was faster and the pressure of the impact slightly more pronounced by the jarring of a faster forward momentum. Correspondingly there was no deeper toe print, as would happen if there was a more pronounced rock across the ball of the foot for the spring in a rapid step.
This section of the road, between the Lubungu pontoon and Kasempa, was laid down over a decade ago by a South African firm. The surface of the road has fared better, even after all the years of use than the distance between Mumbwa and the pontoon. That length had been awarded to a Chinese company. The South Africans have had three hundred years of engineering experience in Africa. The Chinese are new comers, they are still learning how to build things that last for years in Africa. It would have been easier to track on the Chinese road surface.
I was lucky, with its center section comprised of hard compacted dirt, his tracks hadn’t moved out into the well traveled, rutted part of the road. It hugged the softer verge, spotted with tufts of grass and the creeping runners of vine like plants, which at the beginning of winter would be covered in diminutive purple flowers and thousands of white butterflies.
This made the track easier to follow suggesting its creator was loathe to be detected by passing vehicles. His tracks were out of sight at the edge of the road. If he heard an approaching vehicle he could quickly move into the Bush.
This was borne out when a short distance later I could see where his tracks deviated sharply to duck into the Bush. The man had crouched down in the longer grass surrounding one of the thicker tree trunks, where he had turned to look back at the road. It was likely he had moved of to the side to avoid detection from a passing vehicle.
I followed along using the occasional faint footprint in the patches of dust which hadn’t been disturbed by vehicle or bicycle traffic. Every now and again the maker of the tracks reaffirmed his carelessness, with the crushed or tugged foliage of the vine runners indicating his direction. Following in these footsteps was not difficult, but required concentration.
I tracked along the prints, until they reached a disused quarry which had provided the hardpan for the roads substrate.
Here he had stopped and waited. It was also where he had been joined by someone else. Moving in from the opposite side of the quarry, mixed in with his, were a different set of prints, with a more conventional shoe pattern than that of the ZIPRA boot.
There was something else surprising.
The arch of the female foot is almost always more pronounced. It has a greater bow to the arched outline that joins the heel to the pad forming the ball of the foot.
It was such a set, delicate and slender which trailed alongside those of the newcomer. These were the tracks of a woman, a small woman, maybe those of a teenager. She was barefoot!
As I contemplated this discovery, without undoing the shoe-lace, I tugged off one of my leather veldskoen shoes to shake out the fine grit that had somehow slipped into it, annoying the comfort of my pacing.
Then not quite straightening up I brushed my hand up behind my calves and both knees to check for the little black bush-ticks. These little sods seek their favorite soft skin behind the knees, to engorge on blood. There they are protected from the swish of grass as I walked. Sure enough I found a fat little bugger. Pinching it between the nails of my thumb and forefinger, it split open to squirt its meal over the palm of my hand, which I wiped onto my course khaki shorts.
It took a while to figure out a probable scenario of what transpired in the quarry.
The new tracks led in from the north to meet in a confused jumble, as if there had been some pacing during an examination or discussion. From there the sign led out towards the road, where a fresh set of vehicle tracks cut in and stopped at the entrance of the quarry.
I surmised that the vehicle picked up the newcomer and the woman, but not my mystery man.
Interestingly his track had stopped a few meters from the vehicle, then it had crossed the quarry to head off into the Bush towards the east.
I was unsure how long they spent here. A conservative guess would be a half an hour.
The girl’s tracks were relatively stationary. The other two sets milled around hers. Was she a submissive and non-intrusive wife, or relative, as is the case with many relationships out here. Was she hanging back while the men interacted, or were they examining her?
Whatever was the case, I assumed I was now only two hours behind my mystery man.
As the track led off into the trees towards the east, it was still easy to follow. Now the obvious indication was the way the longer grass was bent forward or crush to lay in the direction of the progress.
The trail through the bush led to where it opened into the beginning of a large dambo.
I recognized this one as the one that loops in a wide clockwise sweep across the top of the talons clawed complex of the Shalamakanga. Then it runs parallel as its breadth is squeezed by the bush-line into a ribbon which dribbles further upriver into the Kafue.
Out here, my tracking progress was slower. The dambo grasses were shorter and coarser, their springy toughness more resistant to the snapping and crushing, which had been easy to follow in the longer etiolated grass under the trees of the bush, even though it had been sparser.
Also, along the bush-line in this section seemed to be a favorite resting place for the Puku I could see dotted across the grassy spread further down the dambo.
Here, these medium sized antelope had lain on patches of grass and compressed them, so that the tracks hardly made any further disturbance. I needed to carefully search from one of these flattened Puku mitten to the next.
By now, the sun’s rays angled steeply above the horizon,were nudging the patches of air more emphatically into a breeze. These puffs stumbled across the dambos from the north east like a dormitory of kids rousing from slumber.
The increased difficulty of tracking the disjointed continuity of the track, meant that I was not paying much attention to my surroundings further away, thus I was surprised when a distant faint cracking snap of a branch caught my attention.
I stopped to listen ,before resuming scanning the grass and stubble for the tracks.
I moved cautiously, with a heightened awareness for the unusual sounds.
Then another distant snapping crack drifted in from deeper in the bush ahead.
By now I had followed the track of the mystery man to that point in the dambo’s sprawl where it angles to the southeast towards the river.
I knew that sort of sound, of large breaking branches, could only come from one source. . A herd of elephants was feeding up ahead.
The Elephant herds in this part of the Kafue are the biggest I’ve ever seen. They can comprise a single matriarch and up to 50 cows, calves and young bulls. Maybe they had learned that to survive the ambushes of the poachers they needed the experience of the oldest and wisest of the cows. And there were not many of these around after the decades of poaching. Hence the huge clusters.
I was acutely aware that I wasn’t the king of the castle out here alone in the bush. I didn’t want to get downwind from them.
The young bulls had learned that the best defense is offense. With their aggression they would not distinguish my scent from that of a poacher, we would be dealt with in the same manner.
The elephants were ahead, working their way along the tree line on the edge of the dambo. They had been to the river to drink and now were slowly heading back inland. They were coming directly towards me. I couldn’t cut to the left into the tree line. I would be heading up wind, and be scented.
The only option was to jog back far enough to safely cut across to the other side of the dambo, where downwind, I would wait for the herd to move past. Hopefully they would keep their overall direction along the path I’d been tracking.
This I did, keeping inside the tree line on the opposite side of the dambo, downward from the big herd, I moved carefully along to a point beyond the last stragglers.
I was about to cut back across the dambo, when looking down at a sandy patch where the shade from a dense clump of trees had starved the grass, I spotted a familiar print.
I was elated with my luck. The set-back of the detour around the herd had inadvertantly leap frogged me ahead.
Cutting through the Bush line I followed the track. It proceeded to cross over the shank of the dambo. From there, it headed back onto the strip road near to where it had started.
His prints again followed along the twin dirt tracks of the road. But this time they were not keeping to the direct path of the ruts. They were following something else. Where I had earlier deviated, such as where I had moved off the road to look at the green pigeons, the track of the mystery man followed my own.
With a start the obvious struck me. I was being tracked..
The hunter was being hunted!
There was a simplicity in the way the cross pattern of the prints pressed their faint uniqueness deeper into the sandy outline of my own.
Standing transfixed, I scanned the twin sets of imprints, as my mind scurried over the implications. With thoughts still scrambling through the shards of a fractured plan, I quickly realized that the big loop had been a setup, a way to get the better of me. It had succeeded.
So what now? I had been led into a potential trap. Was it an ambush poised to be sprung? My advantage was that with the elephant induced short cut, I was ahead of the game. My stalker would probably not yet know that I had discovered the deception. What was the stalkers intention if I was to walk on into his killing ground.
Crouching to inspect the tracks I noticed the inverted funnel scrape of an ant-lion in the sand. An ant had fallen into it. The ant-lion, still hiding under the grains at the bottom of its trap, had begun to flick sand over the ant. Soon the ant would suffocate under the grrainy flicks to satisfy the at-lions voraciousness.
My empathy prevailed as I broke off a stem of grass and helped the ant clamber up and over the walls of its imprisonment.
This commiseration stemmed from a sense that I was also at the bottom of a much larger blight. That it wouldn’t be long before I felt virtual flicks over my head. For me, there would be no savior to drop a rope from the skies, allowing escape in the middle of the broad grassy dambo.
If I was to get out, it would be with my own resourcefulness, surprise the surpriser. In adversity or conflict, I had learned the hard way that the most aggressive usually wins.
Something still didn’t add up. Was this aggression I was facing? Had the mystery man been leading me into an ambush, or was he messing with my mind.
If it was an intended ambush, why had it not been sprung at the quarry, when there were two of them? Or maybe even three. I wasn’t sure if the girl was there willingly or not.
Why had he done a complete loop? A loop which allowed me to come up on our tracks, to let me know that I was being followed.
Was this deliberate? If so, why? Was it a mind game?
It didn’t make sense.
My instinct was to enter the mind-set of an enders-game when following human footprints., a mental frame formed of necessity, decades ago, when the finale was usually a deadly ‘catch or be caught’ drama. But now both my stalker and I were no longer marionettes, dancing at the end of invisible strings being manipulated by political ideologies blowing across the landscape of Africa.
The only similarity to those long ago dramas was that, it was being performed, like then, on an insignificant little African stage, set in this grassy glade, with no audience. In this drama there had been ample opportunity for the mystery man to inflict physical harm.
Were his tactics thus only mental? Possibly all this was designed to impart mystery to events, giving an appearance of the magical, which played to the superstitions that lay under the surface of the bush beliefs.
However if I thought they could be physically insidious, I would need to act differently.
So what to do? Keep following the tracks to catch up from behind?
Or double back and confront him unaware. That would work best if I could get back quickly enough to run frontally into him before he found the merge of our tracks, and that I had discovered his ruse. Or simply back track slowly and wait in stationary ambush assuming he would keep following.
I looked closely, letting my eye drift over the prints as they progressed along the road. A thin stem of grass imperceptibly rose up from where it had been pressed into a footprint, with its torsion lifting it up from the moist stickiness of the soil. The print was less than half an hour old. Somehow I had gained an hour and a half, thus I would be more likely to surprise him if I kept following, rather than doubling back.
I quickened my steps so that I paced along the dusty ruts like a speed walker. With my mind floating, my eyes automatically picked up the sign of the footprints.
I was lucky, gaining an hour and a half on a moving target is not easy. He must have proceeded down to the river and then headed back to the road line through the thick Bush. He hadn’t counted on the elephants forcing me to cut across his big loop and thus tucking close behind his progress.
What was also possible was that although he had taunted me into following, he probably didn’t know that I could track. Most likely he counted on me being a Muzungu, with limited bush-craft skills. It seemed his assumption was that he could easily make me lose his track. That was why he had headed out of the quarry towards the east through the difficult lodged dambo grass.
Anyway, speed was of the essence.
I looked up as a Bateleur eagle rocked its way across the skies, with its wings set in its characteristically deep dihedral. Almost vulture like in its habits, in some ways it was an even more magnificent flyer than a vulture. It barely flapped its long pointed wings, and when it did, they were bursts of short fast stiff winged flicks. I wished I could cover the ground as rapidly as this wild creation, and be able to see ahead as far as it could. It certainly wasn’t sweating as much. Nor was it feeling the weight of a water bottle rubbing its weight uncomfortably into the small of my back, as its heaviness was bumped into the cadence of my strides.
I followed the track sign without conscious effort.
Glancing up I followed the eagle as it crossed the wide spread of the dambo with its pointed winged speed through the skies like an acrobat moving along a tight-rope.
‘Bateleur!’, I mouthed. It was another disappearing relic of the old romantic Africa. The new Ornithologists would call it a ‘Short Tailed Eagle’. What an unimaginative name! How Le Valliant, the flamboyant Frenchman who named the eagle in the 1770s, must be turning in his grave as political correctness favors the new name, now that southern Africa has politically rejoined the continent.
Despite the panting hurry of my progress, my eyes continued to unthinkingly follow the signs in the dust of the twin tracts.
This allowed the Bateleur to trigger a parallel reverie on Le Valliant. He epitomized the disrespectful travesty of the current political correctness. Despite being a white man, he should be lauded by modern African politics. His public mistress was a beautiful Hottentot mulatto, at a time when racism was rife.
It was because of this mental meander in the quicksand of PC history that it took a few seconds to register what my eyes had already seen.
There was a third track in the dust.
It had a boot print like no other I had seen, for a long time.
With my mind now fully engaged on the signs, I backtracked a few yards. I found where the third set of tracks joined from the Southwest.
This change the picture completely. I had a fighting chance if it was only myself and the mystery man who I would potentially confront. But two of them. No, this wasn’t someone willing to simply mess with my mind. It would be foolish to find out what would happen if I caught up and confronted a pair of them.
I assumed that there had been another individual in the car at the quarry. Possibly it was him who had joined the mystery man for some reason. Whatever it was it wasn’t worth my while finding out, on my own.
Turning on my heels I cut into the Bush to the south. At a half jog I moved as fast as I could back towards the lodge. I ddid not want to confront a duo on my own.
The heat and my thirst caught up. Despite the urgency, to avoid the risk of muscle cramps from dehydration, I stopped, and removed the water bottle from my backpack. Gulping the soothing liquid I searched my memory for the new boot print. It was familiar. But why? It escape me.
By draining the bottle, I would move more comfortably at speed. It wouldn’t dig into my back as I ducked and dived under low branches and around the outstretched clasping fingers of thorn trees.
As I hoisted the pack, from nearby came the snap of a branch.
Only two things break branches in daylight in the bush: Firstly humans, when they are careless or moving fast Secondly, elephants, and the herd of elephants I had run into earlier were heading in the other direction
Someone was following, and I assumed they were moving fast.
At a half jog, half run where I could, I thought of how I could make a stand if anyone caught up. I was past my prime. What if the new prints were from somebody in their late twenties? Someone as young and fit as I had been when I had chased men through the Bush. Now, at my age, I could not out run a fit young pursuer.
My mind was racing over what to do if I didn’t make it back to the safety of the Lodge, and the others.
Suddenly, it came to me. I remembered the print.
I stopped running. I turned around. I walked back along my tracks.
There was only one person with such boot prints.
Moses always worn boots with that unique print.