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The Art of Tracking, elephants on foot & ARH

It feels pretty odd writing this blog as I do not often get the opportunity to write about something I love this much.

The Field Guide course introduced me to the art of tracking and during this course, I was able to complete a tracking assessment. Following this, I immediately knew that I wanted to attempt the Apprentice Trails Guide course and I am more than thankful that I did. Each day I am learning new and important lessons within the field, from how to have the correct safety procedures with your guests to gaining a greater understanding of animal behavior and how they operate in their everyday lives. For example, on Friday we had the privilege of spending our day with a breeding herd of elephants, we got to experience their feeding habits and how they operate as a family, such as having “bodyguards” who are located in the front of the herd to protect the family members. We also got to experience how the dominant male acts when younger bulls are in close proximity to the herd.

A couple of days prior to the elephant encounter we had the chance to trail an animal. Our instructor noticed some tracks of a white rhino cow and her calf. For roughly 2:30 hours we found ourselves trailing the cow and her calf, which for me was a good experience as we learned how to go about trailing, what signs we need to look for, as well as what you do when you lose sight of the tracks (a process known as closing the gates), which is an essential aspect of being a trails guide. While taking a rest break during the trailing, we hear our second rifle snap his fingers (a method used to get the first rifle’s attention), followed by him saying that we have the rhino cow and her calf, approximately 120m away.

A few moments later, everyone is kitted up and prepared to make our approach when we hear that they have now moved towards us and are within 50m of where we were situated. It was actually a crucial learning experience as we got to experience how quickly an animal can travel and how close it could get to you without you realizing it, a good reminder to never lose situational awareness.

I also want to speak a little bit about the advanced rifle handling, this was the first time in my life handling a legitimate rifle and let me just say that the recoil hit me more than I was expecting. My body was sore for a good few days after the assessment but besides that, it was one of the greatest experiences I have had in my life, learning the fundaments aspects of how to shoot properly while being safe with it is vital for me to move forward with my career. I do however need more practice but that is where the beauty about it comes in, no matter how good you are you can always better yourself with the rifle and ensure you are fully equipped to proceed in a safe manner.

Everything I have experienced thus far has been more than I had ever expected, as far as I am aware this is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in my life, and I am really looking forward to the next few weeks of the course to just add onto all the memorable moments I have already had. – David Crawshaw (South Africa)

Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.

John Donne

As another cracking two weeks draw to a close you look back on events that took place. Starting with a typical Monday morning class where David (almost Attenborough) is trying to catch any creature that even dares to live. What was to follow was a week of practical advanced rifle handling (ARH) where the unmistakable smell of burning gunpowder greeted us every morning. A trying time indeed as we all fought to shoot straight. A few highlights of these ARH exercises were; the double shoot in which your ability to shoot accurately and in a controlled fashion while there is another rifle shooting in the same direction as you from about 2 paces away, it is indeed a thrill and the only thing that is potentially more exciting is the simulated lion charge which brings a whole new level of fun and adrenaline in to play while testing your ability to handle a deadly animal charge.

We rewarded our hard weeks’ work with a trip to Grahamstown where the locals introduced everyone to the local restaurant of choice, commonly referred to as ‘The Rat’

Our third week started with a lecture and some videos of some practical examples of how you should and should not go about conducting a walk and more importantly during dangerous animal encounters.

We then started practically walking, which has been a truly incredible learning experience for all. With three walks all in excess of 6 hours over the past week, every walk has been unique, including the privilege of trailing some white Rhino until the point where we were able to encounter them. Shortly after this experience, the heat took over and we had to be rescued from potential heat stroke and dehydration by Karien and Theo, the trusty Land Rover.

We enjoyed a sleep-out on Wednesday where the lions reminded us that we were now in their space, fortunately, the lion was roaring from a good distance from us and so posed no immediate threat to us. On Thursday morning a sleep-deprived camp, due to keeping night watch, arose to some intense winds, suspending our walk for the day, as unfortunate as it was it made for some really satisfying showers after being out in the bush for 24hrs and some change.

Friday’s walk was definitely a course highlight so far. Having an encounter with the entire Elephant herd firstly watching them walk down the riverbed below us, then watching them eat their fill and grab a shady spot to have a nap from the midday sun. This was our cue to move on, we checked out and started making our way back before the sun caught us a second time as it was predicted to get ridiculously hot. It was an utterly amazing encounter and a great way to bookmark the middle of our course, which is unbelievable in itself, but as the saying goes time flies when you are having fun. – James Gush (South Africa)

“People must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure.”

David Attenborough