26 – TRACKING LORE
I always imagine the scent of a tracks ‘spoor’ to be like an invisible ether, which if I wore the appropriate filter glasses, I could see it suspended in the air like some faint hazy blue smoke.
With this in mind as a falconer, it was almost magical to watch Eva at work.
The full beautifully sinuous length of her English Pointer body would stretch out in flowing bounds as she course back and forth at an undulating lope across the fields, searching for the scent of a game bird. Then in sharp and sudden abruptness she would jerk to a halt, and transform into a tail-raised, foot cocked nose extended point with all the quivering directional tension of a tightly drawn bow. She would be poised to be released by my flushing shout, which in turn cascaded into the flash of the Falcon as it plunged into its stoop.
Of course all of this flurry would be predicated by the minutest trace of scent buoyed upon the breeze.
And if the nose of a pointer can be almost magic, 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 a masterfull skill.
Yes surely some of the skill of the tracker must be inherited from nature, just as the nose of the pointer is the inherited resultant of eons 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 cognitive mental magic occurs. The nose of the pointer can follow the drift of the sent just as the eyes of a man can follow the smoke of a fire. But there is nothing consistently smokey and obvious in what constitutes a track, its thread must be pieced together in the mind from the faintest shards of a previous passage.
Often I think that those who were the best piano tuners before the advent of modern digital wave harmonizers would have the personalities and compulsive attention-to-detail that is the halllmart of a good tracker.
Like with the old breed of piano tuners who required a lifetime of familiarity with the intricacies and characteristic harmonics of their particular instruments, so too does the tracker need to be exquisitely intimate with every detail of his surroundings.
After all, tracking is all about the ability to synthesize and assemble thousands of details, which change every second as the eye moves and reaps and gathers an intricate plethora of information, and registers it against the memory in the mind of how the bush world should be, while at the same time comparing this with how it actually is.
Tracking is all about noticing the smallest discrepancies from the usual, a depression here, a bent stem of grass further on, a twig broken here, a plucked berry there, the slightly darkker color of a fallen leaf, faintly more moist than the others, indicating its shaded side has been up-turned by some recent passing disturbance.
But it is not only about noticing these discrepancies, it is also about noticing how the environment slowly ages the appearance of the disturbances.
As soon as a hoof, or paw, or foot print presses into the soil, and hence presses down into the moistness of layers not expose to sunlight, or the dry wafting eddies of the air, the process of aging begins.
Any vertical edges or sides of prints in the sand immediately begin to dry. Within a few hours, with the loss of moisture and its adhesive characteristic, the soil begins to crumble. This in turn allows an indication, to those who know how long it takes for the particular soil to lose its cohesiveness, to give approximate time since the imprint was made.
Like with so many things in life it is a mixture of nature and nurture which is to be found in the best of any profession. There will be certain rare individuals who will have a natural year for perfect pitch and hence even without practice or training will become great tuners or makers of music. Tracking is no exception. But it will be those even rarer individuals who will take their God given gift and practice it, and hone it daily, and endlessly, until it is like magic.
However, like Rubenstein’ specialty with the piano, and Perlman’s violin, so also it is with trackers.
The bushman trackers who were with us up on the flat Sandy expanses of Northern Ovamboland and Angola, would not be as good at their craft here in the Kafue Basin. Here the best would probably be some of the lifetime poachers of the local Kaunde tribe, or maybe their fellow tribesmen, serving on the other side of the wildlife equation, in the National Parks department.
To be the best one needs to grow up in an area, to begin to pick up its signs and nuances, even before one begins to walk, to absorb the local color of shaded grass, moist leaves, bird alarm calls, the geography. Only these specialists will truly be able to accumulate the knowledge to detect and interpret the local out-of-place, which in turn will lead the mental sniffing of their minds.
Of course I was not such a magician when it came to tracking, but I had followed in the footsteps of such a one.
Moses had inherited those genes of proficiency, and because of the lonely outsider status of his upbringing he spent a lot of his time in the Bush away from the mission when growing up. This I know from what father Xavier told me. As a child Moses had communed with nature more than with people, and it was in this communing that he honed his gift. It was one of the many things that made him such an asset when on the hunt in the Bush for the ultimate quarry, other men. It was his quiet confident almost uncanny way of knowing when we were close, and contact was imminent.
When tracking at the eleven men section level, we would invariably adopt the scorpion formation. Two scouts walked out ahead a hundred meters or so, depending on the density of the bush, so that visual contact could be made with the section leader. They would be out at 45 degrees to the line of progress of the main formation. Behind and in between them came the designated tracker, and closely behind him the section leader. This ‘V’ formed the head and outstretched pincer arms of the scorpion. Then back behind the section leader came its body, with the troops spaced at slight left right staggering so that an ambushing machine gun could never get more than one or two of us in a single opening burst. The sting in the tail was the section 2 IC, the Lance-Corporal who directed the soldier with the light machine gun, together with the extra ammo carrier who always accompanied the gunner. Being at the back, the LMG group would usually be outside an ambushes killing ground, and thus be able to strike back with the deadly chatter of its venom.
I did not have a gift as a tracker, but having walked behind Moses 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 spoor of the mystery man.
After all it appeared that this individual wanted me to follow and was leaving behind a tauntingly easy track.