The spoor led unconcernedly, step-by-step along the uneven bumpy center of one of the tracks of the twin -strip dirt road.
Back at the camp when I first noticed its blatant obviousness, it seemed that the lack of its concealment was a deliberate flaunting. Now that I had followed them a good distance away, and the same disregard for concealment was still apparent, I was not so sure if it was that, or if the mystery man discounted my ability to track, to follow after him. Or was it that there was a rendezvous with a vehicle waiting out at the main road to whisk him away,… or, I smiled to myself, was it a hyena that was waiting! Mentally I shrugged my shoulders, I wished I could believe in flying hyena’s, and could conjure one, taxi style. Too bad Precious was not here, I could tease and ask her why, if this crocodile man was such a hot shot sangoma, had he not dialed up his flying hyena by now? Why walk all the long distance to the road.
Because the spoor was so obvious I could follow its progress at a fast walking pace. It was now three hours since I’d heard the scratch of the chair on the Chitenge floor. Mystery man was three hours ahead of me. The secret to good tracking is persistence, with minimal pauses for rest. Only the best trackers can follow along like a dog on the scent, without losing the track. I was not one of the best. I knew that I would find myself generally progressing at a slower pace than my target, because here and there I would lose the spoor and need to scout around to relocate it.
Where I could I would have to walk faster, a lot faster than my target to catch up. It would be exhausting. There would be the mental strain of concentrating on finding and following the clues of the spoor, which was on top of the physical strain of the speed walking, where and when it was appropriate.
It is this combination of mental concentration, linked with the need for relentless persistent pursuit, an where circumstances permit, the physically fast pace of walking which makes tracking a human target so difficult, especially if the target knows they are being followed, and they can themselves move as fast as possible, or even sometimes run, while engaging in evasive counter tracking actions.
The blatant this of this spoor allowed a sense of slight elation to boy me along. A lot of tracking is also getting inside the head of a target, the way a Buffalo will behave is different to the way it will behave when it is wounded, and aware that it is being followed. Was it more likely that a man’s track would lead around the right, or left side of a thicket, or was it likely, every few hundred meters that he would head towards a patch of longer grass, so that a strand could be plucked and chewed upon. Getting inside a targets head, with its individual idiosyncrasy’s, often affords the tracker a slight anticipatory advantage.
It seemed that mystery man did not expect to be followed, and thus I felt that I had the advantage of surprise, at least in these early stages.
Thus, half an hour later, when the lodge’s dirt-strip road and the spoor I was following reached the main arterial, I estimated I had gained 15 minutes on him.
I could see how the individual had paused and milled around, as if he had looked back at the way he had come. This gave me another few minutes gain. From there he had resumed his steady progress, this time it was northwards along the verge of the 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 inertia. Correspondingly there was no deeper toe print, as would be anticipated if there was a more pronounced rock across the ball of the foot for the spring in a rapid step.
This part 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 was in a better condition, even after all the years of use than the section between Mumbwa and the pontoon. That particular length had been awarded to a Chinese company. The South Africans have had 300 years of engineering experience in Africa. The Chinese are new comers… they are still learning how to make things that last for a time in Africa. It would have been easier to track on the Chinese road surface.
But I was lucky, with its center section still comprised mostly of hard compacted dirt, his spoor had not moved out into the well travelled and slightly rutted part of the road. It hugged the softer verge, which was spotted with tufts of grass and the creeping runners of the vine like plants, which at the beginning of winter would be covered in diminutive purple flowers and thousands of white butterflies.
This made the spoor easier to follow and it suggested that its creator was loathe to be detected by passing vehicles. His tracks were out of sight at the edge of the road, and it meant that if he heard an approaching vehicle there would be sufficient time to move into the Bush to hide.
This was borne out when a short distance later I could see how the spoor deviated sharply to duck into the Bush. It indicated that the mystery 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. The likelihood was that a vehicle had passed by, and the individual had moved into the trees to avoid detection.
I followed along the verge of the road, using the occasional faint outline in the patches of dust which had not been disturbed by random vehicle or bicycle traffic. Every now and again the maker of the spoor 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 a bit more of my concentration.
I tracked along the spoor, until it reached a small disused quarry where the road crew had dug up the hard-pan to lay down for the roads substrate.
Here the mystery man had stopped and waited.
And it was here that he had been joined by somebody else. Moving in from the opposite side of the quarry and now mixed in was a different set of prints, with a more conventional shoe pattern than that of our crocodile man’s ZIPRA boot.
But there was something else which really surprised me.
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 just such a set of footprints, 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 stood and contemplated this discovery I bent down and without undoing the shoe-lace, tugged off one of my leather veldskoen and shook out the fine grit that had somehow slipped into it to annoy the comfort of my pacing.
Then not quite straightening up I brushed my hand up my calves and behind both knees to check for the little black bush-ticks that find the soft skin there a favorite place, sheltered from the brushing of the legs through the longer grass, to surreptitiously sink in there proboscises and engorge on blood.
Sure enough I found a fat little bugger. I pinched it between the nails of my thumb and forefinger until it split open and its meal of my blood squirted over the tips of my fingers.
It took a while for me to figure out a probable scenario of what transpired in the quarry.
The new tracks led in from the opposite, north side of the quarry.
There was a confused jumble where they met, as if there had been some pacing around, or examination done, and they had spoken for a while.
Then the pair of newcomer tracks led out towards the road, where I could see a fresh set of vehicle tracks cutting in and stopping at the entrance of the quarry. I surmised that the vehicle had picked up the newcomer and the woman, but not my mystery man.
Interestingly I noted how his spoor had stopped a few meters away from the vehicle tracks. And how they turned back across the quarry to lead me off into the Bush towards the east.
How much time had they spent here? I was not sure. A conservative guess was that it would have been at least half an hour.
The girl’s tracks had been relatively stationary. The other two sets had milled around hers. Was this because she was a submissive and non-intrusive wife, or relative, as is the case with many relationships out here. Was she just hanging back while the men interacted, or werethey examining her?
But, whatever was the case, I assumed that I was now only two hours behind my target.
As the spoor led off into the trees towards the east, it was still relatively easy to follow. This time the most obvious indication of its track was the way the longer grass had been bent forward and then crush down to lay in the direction of the Walkers progress.
The trail through the bush did not last long. It emerged out into the openn beginning of a large dambo.
I recognized this 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 magnanimous breadth is squeezed by the bushline into a ribbon which dribbles further upriver into the Kafue.
Out here my tracking progress was slower. The dambo grasses were shorter and coarser, and their springy toughness was more resistant to the snapping and crushing, which had been easy to follow in the longer more etiolated grass under the trees of the bush, even though it had been sparser.
Also, along the bushline in this section seemed to be a favorite resting place for the Puku that 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 of the mystery man hardly made any further disturbance. I had to carefully search from one flattened Puku mitten to the next.
By now the sun had begun to angle more steeply above the horizon. Its rays were heating and herding the patches of air more emphatically as it formed and nudged them into a breeze. These puffs stumbled across the dambos from the north east like a dormitory of school kids rousing from their beds in the morning. At this time of the year these zephyrs were laden with the monsoon moisture from the Indian Ocean, which as the day heated further, would riear up into the afternoons thunderclouds.
The increased difficulty of tracking the disjointed continuity of the spoor, meant that I was not paying as much attention to my surroundings further away than the close proximity.
But suddenly a distant and faint cracking snap of a branch in the background registered in my consciousness.
I stopped and listened for a minute or two before slowly resuming my scanning the grass and stubble for the spoor.
But now I moved more cautiously, with a heightened awareness for the sounds of the bushveld, not just for the visual cues to clue me to where I should follow.
Then a short while later another distant snapping crack, once again drifted in on the wind from deeper in the bush in front and slightly to my side.
By now I had followed the spoor of the mystery man to that point in the dambo’s sprawl where it angles to the southeast towards the river.
And 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 sometimes some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. They comprise a single matriarch and up to 50 cows, calves and young bulls.
The groups here formed huge clusters. 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, especially the poaching of the lawless days of the transit camps of the ZIPRA insurgents, heading south to fight across the Zambezi.
I was very aware that I was not the king of the castle out here alone in the bush. I did not want to get myself downwind from them.
Somehow the young bulls in the Kafue area had learned that the best defense is offense. They are aggressive.
I knew that they would not distinguish my scent from that of a poacher. We would all be dealt with in the same manner.
The elephants were ahead of me, working their way along the tree line on the edge of the dambo. They obviously had been down to the river to drink and now were slowly working their way back inland. They were heading directly towards me.
To avoid them, I could not cut to my left into the tree line because that meant I would be heading up wind, and would be scented.
My only option was to jog back fast and then cut across to the other side of the dambo and then wait for them to head past, presumably and hopefully keeping to the current overall direction, which was back along the spoor which I’ve been tracking.
This I did.
Then keeping just inside the tree line on the opposite side of the dambo, and downward from the big herd, I slowly moved along to a ppoint which I estimated was beyond the last stragglers.
I was about to cut back across the dambo to see if I could pick up the spoor of my target, when looking downat a smallsandy patch where the shade of some trees had starved the grass, was the bootprint of my mystery man.
I was astounded by my luck. What seem to have turned out to be a big set back time-wise, if not tracking wise, with the herd of elephants potentially obscuring the mystery man spoor, had turned into a good jump along the timeline of his progress.
I cut through the Bush line following his tracks. It then proceeded to cross directly over the shank of the Shalamakanga dambo.
The mystery man’s spoor turned back onto the tracks of the strip road near to where my tracking had started.
I could see his prints moving once again along the twin dirt tracks of the access road.
But this time they were not just moving out towards the arterial.
I could see that each time I deviated, such as where I had stopped and moved off the road to look at the green pigeons, the spoor of the mystery man followed my tracks.
The sudden realization sent a shiver of shock through my whole being..
I was being tracked..
It was now the hunter who was being hunted.