In Makuleke, at the northern tip of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, professional field guides train aspiring bush detectives. Their work helps to preserve this paradise.
The mighty creature gives a little leap. It bucks and prances on the dry ground, sending up a cloud of dust in my direction. Standing behind him in orderly rows, their noses raised, the rest of his herd fixes me with a shortsighted gaze. With their curved horns, these bison look for all the world like generals sporting bicorns. Plains bison have poor eyesight but are very inquisitive creatures. And because the wind is blowing in our direction, they cannot sniff out our identity: trackers in the making and their two South African instructors.
The herd has gradually crept up on us across the open grasslands, but our guide Bruce Lawson, a man of athletic build with an imposing beard and wearing a beige uniform, feels they have now come a little too close for comfort. “Take cover and don’t turn your back on them,” he says softly, taking up position in front of us, a double-barreled shotgun at his belt and brandishing a walking stick in his right hand. He flexes his muscles. We won’t run away and we won’t attack: That’s the message we are sending – telepathically – to the bison parade. “The animals can sense our energy field and whether we are scared or want to harm them,” Bruce whispers. We stare harmlessly back at them. Then after about ten minutes, the bison have had enough. First, a few lie down, then others begin to graze – and we can continue on our way.
Here in the Makuleke Concession, in the far north of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the EcoTraining organization trains bush guides. Aspiring guides learn how to identify plants, interpret giraffe body language and track down anteaters, and also how to guide tourists safely through the bush. That’s vital because only be passing by water holes and herds of elephants is it possible to grasp just how precious this natural world is.
One of EcoTraining’s camps is situated in the Pafuri region between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers. In the months of the rainy season that ends in March, gigantic water holes form in the lowlands, transforming the otherwise reddish-brown bush into dense jungle. Our accommodations – pile dwellings with straw roofs and tarpaulin walls – stand at the heart of the greenery and have no perimeter fence. From here, Norman Chauke, 27, takes us out into the wilderness every morning at half past five. The best tracker in South Africa, he aims to teach us how to read tracks and other signs of wild animals in just seven days. Paw prints and droppings, hairs and snapped blades of grass all tell him who has mated, hunted, fed or slept here. Walking in single file, we follow Norman, while Bruce and trainee Aagje Van der Plaetse flank our little column. They are carrying large-caliber rifles – our life insurance in the unforeseeable event that an animal should attack.
Norman ambles, ever attentive, over mud, sand and meadows, his eyes always fixed on the ground or the undergrowth. If he spots something interesting, we know straight away thanks to his little cries of joy.
“Hahaa, come over here, what do you see?” He’s used a stick to draw a circle around a track on the ground, and now he’s grinning at us expectantly: “The prints measure roughly eight centimeters across – a muffin-shaped pad surrounded by four toes, and there are no claw prints – it’s a leopard’s paw. Unlike hyenas and jackals, cats only extend their claws when they need to, explains Norman. “This one must have injured his right front paw because the middle toe is longer than the others,” he says. The animal was heading toward our camp – on the way back to camp, we are more watchful than usual. We don’t see a leopard, but we do see a thousand other things we hadn’t noticed before. Humans only notice things they can name, and it’s the same with us when it comes to the minute holes termites have made in the ground and the microscopically small paw prints of a dung beetle.
THE BAOBAB TREE
In the afternoons, we usually climb into the Land Rover and drive out past meadows of yellow blossom and fever tree forests. Today, we park beneath a huge baobab tree to tramp from there down to the Luvuvhu River. The tree’s trunk is gnarled thanks to the tusks of all the elephants that have fed on it. “When the branches of a baobab grow downward, like in this case, it is around 800 years old,” Bruce tells us. Baobabs are succulents. Because they can easily regenerate their bark, they can cope with providing the odd meal for a passing animal. Even when the elephants carve large chunks out of the wood, the trees simply keep on growing – that’s why many of them end up with hollow trunks. “The people who used to live here used these hollows as lavatories, baths and even prisons,” says Bruce. Norman’s grandparents and aunts were among those for whom the Pafuri region was still home. Villages of round huts with straw roofs were scattered between the two rivers. The Makuleke lived off the fish they caught, hunted game in the bush and grew corn in the fertile earth until the apartheid government forced them to move out so that it could add the area to the Kruger National Park. It wasn’t until 1998 that the community succeeded in asserting its right to the land. The Makuleke have jointly administered the area with the National Park, leased their rights of use and been able to profit from the reserve’s tourism ever since.
Who was it?
No claws – so a big cat. The heel pad and toes of a leopard’s paw are spaced well apart.
The pad has an angled rear edge with just two indentations, the claws are clearly visible and the toes lie close together.
The hoof is roughly five centimeters long and consists of two sections that splay outward at the bottom to form a heart shape.
Baboon prints are similar to human footprints, and at a length of up to 15 centimeters, their feet are significantly larger than their hands.
The youngest generation of Makuleke had to learn to live off their land in a different way from their parents. The flora and fauna are protected, and poaching is punishable. At primary school, the children are already taught that the environment in which they are growing up is unique and worth protecting – and that tourists pay to experience it in as intact a state as possible. When Norman was nine years old, his grandfather showed him how to catch pigeons and springboks. “If we wanted to eat meat for a change, we had to go out hunting,” he says. On his way to school, he and his friends would turn off into the bush, stuff their school uniforms into their backpack and arm themselves with catapults and slings. And while Norman played truant from school or had to tend his family’s cattle, he was also learning to read animal spoors.
A scholarship ultimately enabled Norman to train at the Tracker Academy. He passed the tracker exam to qualify with full marks – one hundred percent; only three people had achieved a similar result. But not everyone in Makuleke finds it so easy to get used to the new situation. “What do you want to go working with the whites for?” Norman’s father asked him when he began his training in 2012. Today, though, the older man admires the path his son has chosen. Norman has been working as a tracker and instructor at EcoTraining since 2016 and with the money he earns, he has been able to build a house for himself as well as helping his family out financially. “I am the best possible product the Makuleke could come up with,” says Norman. He says this entirely without arrogance. White or black has no meaning for him. He simply wants to share in the success of the national park – and help develop it. At the latest when he proudly showed off his very first car to his former primary school teacher in the schoolyard, he had fans among the very youngest Makuleke.
“Norman is a brilliant tracker,” says Bruce Lawson, who headed up the camp in Makuleke for 11 years and was Norman’s mentor, took him under his wing. Before becoming a guide himself, Bruce was a soldier in the South African Army and for a time, he was even a smoke jumper – that’s a fire fighter who parachutes into the bush to fight forest fires. On leaving the military, Bruce’s life became hardly less exciting as he was constantly traveling, from Cape Town to Cairo, raising funds for a charity. Today, the 50-year-old patrols protected areas at night in search of poachers, and since 2017 he has been working as a freelance guide, taking his guests with him into the bush – without a car, without electronics, and with a tent on his back.
With Norman and Bruce at our side, we feel safe in the bush. It seems almost like a well-tended city park with exotic plants – except that here, it’s not human intervention that regulates matters. It’s the animals that keep the grass short and the bushes small; termites clear fallen branches out of the way in a matter of weeks; rivers and rain create waterholes. In my search for tracks, I gaze down at red dust, rock-hard clay, dried mud, swamp and black sand. I spot thousands of impala hoof prints that look like tiny hearts on the ground. Drag marks and tiny white hairs tell me a zebra took a sand bath here. On a gravel path, I find an elephant print filled with water. It looks like a mongoose, a catlike predator, must have pressed its small front paws into the mud beside it as it took a sip from the puddle. The spoors give us an inkling of the teeming life to be found here when people are not tramping noisily through the bush, filling the air with their human scent.
On the fourth day, we attempt something new: We are tasked with trailing an animal, following its tracks till we catch up with their creator, all the while keeping as near as possible out of sight. Right behind the camp, Norman discovers elephant prints. Where the animal touched the grass, the silver-shimmering sides of the stalks have been upturned. No one utters a word as with great discipline and excitement we reconstruct the elephant bull’s path. A leafless branch here, a pile of droppings there: At Norman’s instigation, I poke a finger into the damp dung. It’s still lukewarm – we must be very close to the animal. We follow the trail into an area of dense growth, where in the distance, we can see the top of a mopane bush trembling. Norman halts suddenly, Bruce puts a finger to his lips and indicates a change of course with his other hand. We leave the trail and head for a hill. This way, if we catch up with the elephant, we won’t be facing him down – also, the wind is now blowing in the right direction for us. We have only just climbed the hill when we spot him, a young bull coming around the rise, cautiously stepping into our line of vision from the right, not 20 meters away. “He senses our excitement,” says Bruce. The elephant turns away sharply without even glancing in our direction. Our encounter remains a peaceful, respectful, distanced one. Reverently, we watch the muscles beneath the gray skin ripple as the massive creature ambles away.
THE GREAT DANE AND THE CHIHUAHUA
On our last day, we explore the area around Lanners Gorge, a deep canyon traversed by the meandering Luvuvhu. From its rocky top, we can see as far as Zimbabwe. In the evening, we settle on the ground to watch the sun as it colors the sky pink.
“I wonder whether this landscape will still exist in 100 years’ time,” says Bruce. When the sun has disappeared behind the mountains, we set out on our final nighttime expedition. The Land Rover sways as it rumbles over rocks and dips, and the air smells sweetly of wild sage and honey. Sitting up front on the tracker’s seat, Norman flashes his searchlight over bushes and treetops. Its powerful beam meets nightjars, elephants and bush babies, lighting up their eyes. Bruce stops the car on a meadow and the engine falls silent. “Everyone out,” he says and we grope our way after him. Bruce’s green laser pointer cuts through the darkness, illuminating the swirling dust ahead so that it resembles a wonder weapon from a sci-fi movie. “That,” says Bruce, pointing to the carpet of stars above us, “is our Milky Way. From here, we can also make out two other galaxies with the naked eye, the Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds.” The fine green beam circles two milky specks in the sky. To the west, Orion kneels, holding his shield in one hand and his club in the other. Bruce also points out the large and small constellations known as Canis Major and Canis Minor, or Orion’s dogs, “a great dane and a chichuaha.” He explains how to determine the points of the compass using the Southern Cross constellation. Never have I seen such a sky teeming with so many brilliant stars. All around us, fireflies are dancing like falling stars. In this vast, nighttime universe, we are keenly aware of how tiny we really are.
Ready for the trail
Well armed against heat and stinging insects: the right kit for tracking
A hat is a must – it provides protection from sunshine and dust. Here a cowboy version in buffalo hide from Stetson.
Singi trekking shirt in patented G-1000 fabric from Fjällräven. G-1000 is so tightly woven that a mosquito’s sting cannot penetrate it.
Beats glass and plastic hands down: The titanium bottle from Vargo is ultralight and unbreakable.
This sun blocker from Shiseido’s Sun Care Sports line is ideal for sports and perspiration-resistant.
Ready for anything: This bandana from Patagonia keeps out the cold, the sun, dust and wind.
Tested and approved: These Skyhawk binoculars offer crystal-clear vision and tenfold magnification.
Keeping things clean: The Jack Wolfskin RE WASTY is a reusable trash bag for on the move.