Many of you who have been on safari with John know of his passion for tracking animals, particularly rhino; sometimes, even, to your great discomfort as you route march through the bush following the tracks of what appears to be a very elusive animal! But many of you will also understand the intense satisfaction, having followed an animal for an hour or so, when that animal finally comes into view.
So, for John, tracking and teaching his guests to track is an important safari activity for those interested.
Recently, John and old safari friends, Sue and Robert Clark, were on a camel safari in the Lewa Conservancy in northern Kenya. On this particular day, they were tracking a white rhinoceros with Masai guides. Within the space of an hour or so, two amazing incidents took place. Sue Clark takes up the story
The grass was unbelievably long after so much rain and the terrain not easy with many hidden rocks. It was with relief when we reached a track. However, our Masai guide, Kitonga, soon stopped us to examine some rhino spoor. A large male white rhino going our way we were told. Excitement grew as we moved forward. We had hardly walked 75 metres when Kitonga stopped again - more spoor. A large black rhino had crossed the track going into the grass. I looked with foreboding at the long grass we had recently left. Of course the three men wanted to track the black rhino; after all, there are not many left in the wild and they are every elusive. Adrenalin was running high as we entered the long grass, Kitongo in the lead, rifle at the ready. We crept forward in silence, each blade of grass examined. A muffled cry of excitement - Khitongo had found some fresh dung! How fresh is it? I asked. Five minutes was the response! Feel it, and see how warm it is! to which I politely declined, looking at the heat rising off the offending pile! Hearts beating loudly we inched forward through the long grass until suddenly, there he was, not 75 metres from us. He was standing in the shade of some bushes, alerted by our noise but unable to really see us. A magnificent specimen of male black rhino proudly displaying his huge horn - amazing! It had been worth all the effort and we watched him, feeling very privileged, until he ran off.
We headed back through the long grass towards the track not realising how far we had come in 40 minutes! Suddenly, without warning, our hearts missed a beat. Directly in front of us stood a huge male white rhino with a large horn. This is the white rhino we had originally been tracking! We managed to take several photos as he stood in all his glory, only 30 metres from us! What a day it was turning out to be.
However the drama of the day was not over! We reached the track and rounded a corner. There, way below us, rounding the hills, was our camel train of nineteen camels and the twelve Masai back-up team.
Kitongo suddenly said, There is going to be trouble. We looked again and a herd of elephant, with calves, had crossed the track from right to left. They moved through the trees with the easy grace of all elephants. However, the other half of this large herd, with more calves, was on the right of the track and to our horror the camels were moving steadily down the track towards them! The rule of the bush is that you never go between elephants and their calves. As we watched, within minutes, the matriarch had come onto the road. The lead Masai men stoned her to urge her back. She went back but first did a quick turn and came out again in front of the middle camel. Within seconds all hell broke loose, as the elephant flapped her ears, roared in annoyance and charged. Camels and Masai ran in all directions - up trees, behind trees, etc! One hapless camel tried to get up the bank but the weight of the pack on its back rendered it impossible. It slid back onto all four knees, which actually saved its life. The elephant, to our horrified eyes, gored her with her tusks, but as it turned out, the tusks broke the wooden pannier only and the camel, feeling freedom from the constraints, promptly scrambled to her feet and bolted. This left the elephant bewildered and angry so she charged after the rear camels who were being bravely led by a lightening fast Masai warrior - who actually managed to out run her. Eventually the elephant went back into the bush to join the rest of the herd who were very distressed.
We raced down the track as quickly as the danger and loose shale would allow. We didn't know what awful sights might be waiting for us. Dead or wounded men and camels? The amazing thing was that none of the men or camels was injured. Only one camel had a slight graze from her tumble.
That night in camp we bought the Masai a goat to celebrate their safety. This they slaughtered and barbequed for a party. As the full moon rose and with stomachs full, the Masai started to sing and dance with high spirits and obvious enjoyment. It was the finale to a spectacular day of adrenaline in the bush.
So, you see, you never quite know what is in store when you start out on a morning's tracking! John tells his guests that waking up and looking at a piece of bare earth or a dry sandy riverbed is just like reading the morning paper! The signs on the ground tell us what has been around and what has taken place during the night; this immediately fills one with a sense of expectation and adds a sense of urgency to heading off to explore!
Perhaps the tiny footprints of an African wild cat are observed; an animal seldom seen during daylight, but now here is a chance to learn something about it as we follow its trail. We notice where it has stopped to investigate an odour, or where it has left the path now and then in search of a rodent - and we discuss what makes up its diet to produce the fur-bound faeces (dung to some, scat to others) found along the trail.
Whilst tracking, you become totally immersed in the wild environment. You stop looking for animals only and begin to really notice and understand the signs left behind. John likes to use a stick which, like a conductor's baton, helps to maintain a tracking rhythm as he points at every visible sign left behind by the animal - fresh dung or old dung that may have been disturbed, a twig or loose pebbles that have been moved, a leaf chewed and discarded, or higher off ground level, a blade of broken grass, indicating the direction in which the animal is moving, a branch that has been stripped of leaves and so on.
Sometimes, when tracking rhino as the sun is rising high in the morning sky, you notice it has begun to meander - a good sign, usually one that means it is looking for a place to rest a while - and hopefully a sign that we've caught up on it by an hour or so! Sometimes, lion tracks are observed on top of buffalo spoor and it's exciting to work out if the tracks are fresh or several hours old, whether they are just casually following their prey, or have spread out and are actively engaged in a hunt, whether they are walking, running or stalking. There's so much you can read in animal tracks.
At all times, be careful to walk with the blowing wind into your face and, like a pilot who is always on the lookout for a good landing spot, a guide looks for a good tree to scale or a log to hide behind in case of an emergency !
This is an exciting business, often quite hard work but usually very rewarding, and brings the bush alive in ways you would not believe possible. We look forward to sharing this and many other unique experiences with you.
John, Nicci and Sarah
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