EcoTracker Experience in Mashatu

Growing up, I would imagine going on safaris as a live-action version of The Lion King, with wild animals interacting and living their lives, paying no attention to me. The two trips I’ve taken in the bush as an adult weren’t actually that far off from that image: I saw a ridiculous number and variety of animals from the safety of a game vehicle. My most recent experience – an EcoTracker course in Mashatu – was somehow entirely different, and even more magical.

We spent the majority of our days on foot, learning how to identify and follow tracks. It’s easy to zone out when you’re sitting in a car, getting bounced around while you’re driven from one sighting to the next. It is much easier to stay focussed when you’re on foot trying to see tracks and being aware of the surrounding bushes to avoid walking into animals hiding behind them. Also watching the horizon where you might see elephants grazing in the distance tend to keep you in the present moment. I quickly realized that what I’d seen from the safe perch of the Land Rover was only a small portion of the activity that was all around us.

Photograph © Christoff Els

Identification and Interpretation of Tracks

Norman Chauke, our Tracking Instructor, taught us to identify how fast a leopard was walking by the spacing between its front and rear feet. Even without seeing the leopard, we could picture it walking quickly towards the water, slowing down as it approached to drink, and then rapidly returning to the trees once it was done.

Being able to know the roughage, the gender, and the pace of a lion or leopard from its tracks was definitely one of the more popular topics for our first week in the bush, but we learned so much more than that. I found it incredibly cool to be able to see tiny spider tracks on the dusty road or to know that the impala tracks near our camp were actually a day old because a civet (a nocturnal animal) had stepped on top of some of them.

One of my favorite moments was when Norman pointed out a small, rounded imprint in the ground and asked us what we thought it was. “A baby elephant digging with its trunk?” “A giant ant lion trap?” Not at all, it’s a dust-bathing hornbill, obviously.

Just another example of how much animal behavior we miss when we’re in the car and are only able to see the animals in the present moment.

Photograph © Christoff Els

Tracking Lions

On our final morning, we combined our new tracking and trailing skills, picking up tracks from a pride of lions on the road and trailing them into the more shrubby territory. Prior to this course, if you had told me to trail seven lions, I would have said that sounds easy – so many tracks to follow! But it turns out, on substrates like hard-packed dirt strewn with dead grass, those 28 pawprints you expect to see are barely visible, and you end up relying more on a sense of where you expect the animals to have gone than the actual evidence that they have gone that way.

Photograph © Tere Abumohor

This is often as hard as it sounds, but because lions are soft-footed, they usually take the path of least resistance just like humans would. And so, we slowly picked our way around the bushes, trying to move like the lions would until we looked up and saw the pride about 100 meters away, framed by the soft morning light and the dewy grass, staring right back at us. It would have been thrilling to have spotted those lions from a game vehicle, but it was all the more surreal to have spent the last forty minutes following their tracks and expected movement, and actually find them on equal footing. That’s something The Lion King can’t even begin to prepare you for.

EcoTraining Courses l EcoTracker Course

Can you feel that? The soft substrate shifting underneath your shoes as you follow up on the fresh tracks that shine in the morning sun. The walking stick in your hand as you show the way in the sand…

The Ecotracker 7 or 14-day course will offer you the ultimate wilderness immersion. Through the ancient art and science of animal tracking – you will connect with the iconic places and wildlife of Africa. You will spend your days walking and driving with our skilled trackers as they will teach you the ways of the animals.

1. Animal Tracking

Read all about Tracking here: https://www.ecotraining.co.za/programs-courses/ecotracker-animal-tracking/

2. Tracking is a Form of Art

There is nothing quite like the Art of tracking and trailing. Read all about the Art of Tracking here: https://www.ecotraining.co.za/tracking-is-a-form-of-art/

About The Author

Written by Laila Shehata