Peter Flack | Hunter, Writer, Conservationist, Retired Game Rancher

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Published by Game Trails

Trackers - The Unsung Heroes by Peter Flack

We had been on the tracks for over two hours. Only Martin and I. The rest of the hunting team remained at the salt lick. It hadn't rained for three days and the forest was dry and noisy. Two was company and six was a demonstration! Worse still, we had spooked the bongo earlier and it had run out of the forest into the savannah which, in April, was a morass of head high, intertwined, dry, blond and brittle elephant grass which completely obscured the ground. Martin was air tracking - following the signs left by the passing bongo on the vegetation above the ground. Try as I might, I simply could not see what he could and had stopped concentrating, convinced by our efforts over the previous ten days that to follow further was a waste of time. The bongo would now watch his back tracks, as he had done previously, and keep us at a safe distance for the rest of the day.

I stumbled over some grass and almost fell. Martin turned to me and, with a finger to his lips, told me to walk more carefully. The bongo was close by he said. My pulse rate doubled in an instant and I immediately lifted my .416 Rigby from the broad webbing sling across my right shoulder and carried it diagonally across my chest in both hands. Martin had long since made a believer of me and, to cut a long story short, I shot the bongo through a tree trunk, killing it instantly as it came to a halt after running across our front some 300 metres after my stumble. But for this remarkable tracker, I would have had more chance of falling pregnant than taking this magnificent animal on my own.

The modern trophy hunting team in many of Africa's major hunting concessions often consists of six members - the professional hunter, the client, a driver, a baggage man who can also doubles as a tracker (when the spoor is lost or difficult to follow) and two trackers.

Every member of the hunting team has primary and secondary functions of which the client has by far the easiest ones. His primary role is to kill the animal designated by the PH quickly and cleanly. His secondary ones include assisting in the spotting of game, assisting in picking up a lost track if he can do so without obliterating essential clues and, more importantly, handling his firearm safely, walking quietly, concentrating and being ready at all times to play his part. Broadly speaking, the PH is the leader of the hunting team and co-ordinates the hunt. He assists the trackers with spotting, tracking and finding the way, judges the trophy, guides the client to the animal in the final stages of the hunt and keeps the client safe.

The only time I have seen a PH do all the tracking himself was in Tanzania which, for some reason, seems woefully short of good trackers and my PH, Nicky Blunt, proved far more capable than anyone else in our hunting team.

The first time I caught a glimpse of what real tracking was all about was on my first buffalo hunt in Botswana. The three, young, enigmatic Bushmen trackers on the back of the vehicle were not exactly unfriendly but self-contained, possibly shy. I did not speak their language at all and they appeared not to understand mine all that well.

They seemed to be in their twenties and were well dressed in the safari company's olive green overalls (all the same size - too big), with neutria brown defence force hats and boots. Early morning on day five of the safari there was an urgent banging on the roof of the vehicle and, as I pulled myself out of the Cruiser onto the sandy dirt road, the Bushmen were already bent over at the waist studying some tracks. Lion tracks!

Off came the boots, hats and overalls and on went animation and enthusiasm. These were suddenly different men - hunters! Within minutes we were off on the tracks. After about an hour, during which time I had not been able to discern a single sign on the hard, sun-baked ground which, to compound matters, was covered with thick stands of brittle, blonde grass, the Bushmen gathered around the side of an antheap looking at a smooth flattened patch of grey white soil. They explained to our guide that we were about an hour behind the lions. I was skeptical and asked how they knew. Our guide explained that the Bushmen said that the lions had created the flattened patch when they rested in the shade of the antheap and would only have moved once this was exposed to the sun. Up until an hour ago, the smooth sandy patch would have been in the shade. Simple.

Oh yes. We did catch up to the pair - a young lioness and probably her brother. To this day, I have the clearest image in my mind's eye of the teddy bear ears of the maneless male between two no-name scraggly tree trunks as he lay watching us with his chin on the ground and a mournful expression on his face. We followed half heartedly for a few metres as they ran away but everyone knew they were too young and so it was a long three hour hoof back to the bakkie.

As his title implies, the tracker's primary function is to follow the tracks of an animal so that the hunter can close with it and make the decision whether to shoot it or not. Part of a top tracker's skill, however, is also knowing what tracks not to follow as this can obviously save the hunter a lot of unnecessary time and effort.

Over the years I have watched in awe and been privileged to hunt with many of these gifted men including, for example, Amadou, a member of the Mbororo tribe in Cameroon, who followed an eland over thickly grass bedecked plains for three days; Van Damme, a Baka pygmy from Cameroon who tracked a rain forest elephant through the rain, also for three days; and Martin, a Zande from the eastern side of C.A.R. , who spoored a bongo intermittently in and out of dense rain forests for ten. They are the ones who have a deep, almost instinctive, understanding of the animals they follow. Where they are likely to go to feed, to rest, to drink, to escape.

One of the best of these was Martin Voungouessy Tito, to give him his full name. I met Martin in the Central African Republic and also hunted giant eland with him. As he showed me, the eland walk in a series of wide sweeps. They also walk far faster than the average man which meant that, unless you caught up with them during their midday rest, you had to be lucky, smart or fit and fast to catch them. Martin was all of these and would move off the tracks and cut the corners - much like a wild dog in pursuit of prey - and so make up time. Of course if you zigged instead of zagged you had probably wasted the better part of a day. Needless to say, Martin seldom, if ever, made the wrong choice. He seemed to know instinctively in which direction the eland were going to wend their way.

What further made Martin a cut above the rest was that, in the final stages of the hunt, he really came into his own. When the animal was in sight and the PH was concentrating on judging the trophy and you, the client, were totally focused on the animal and the shot you would shortly need to make, Martin would work out which was the best route to the prey, keep track of the wind and, if the animal was accompanied by others, note where they were. This was where Martin, a highly experienced ex elephant poacher, was in his element and often at his most useful.

Of course, a tracker's role is not just confined to following spoor. He has the toughest job in the hunting team. If the PH is the officer in charge of the unit, he is the sergeant major and the success or failure of the hunt is largely in his hands. He must be able to see well, for example, and the eyesight of some trackers is legendary, particularly when compared to city eyes ruined by years of focusing on the computer screen to the front. I remember a tracker in Zambia, nicknamed Zeiss, unerringly spotting the grey hides of Crawshay's waterbuck in amongst the skeletal, grey tree trunks fringing the dambos of the Lunga Lushwishi concession from distances that, with my 10x25 Leicas, I could not make out for love nor money. I remember Magara, the famous Zimbabwean elephant tracker, spotting the blonde ear of a lioness barely protruding from a sea of dry, desiccated, breeze blown grass on the flood plains of Cabora Bassa in Mocambique which took my PH, Joe Wright and I, minutes to find in our binoculars. It was an important spot and allowed me to shoot a Rowland Ward class lion on the last night of my hunt. I could go on and on.

A tracker must be fit and strong particularly when hunting with the older brigade who may have picked up one rugby injury too many which prevents them helping with the loading or carrying of game. More importantly, he must have stamina. There are often tyres to be changed, stuck vehicles to be dug out, cat baits to be hung, blinds to be built, paths to be hacked open. The days are long and, even though most good safari camps have specialist skinners, there is often a need to cape a trophy in the field. Then, back in camp at the end of a long day on the tracks, he needs to clean and check the vehicle - fuel, water, oil and tyres - before he can go and have his shower.

So, why two and possibly three trackers? Well, tracking is a tiring trade requiring high levels of concentration and it is important to spell the lead tracker from time to time if he is not to make an inadvertent mistake due to fatigue. Secondly, there are different kinds of trackers. There are those that can follow the spoor of a herd when it is reasonably fresh and clear and then, as in many professions, there are the rare gifted ones who can follow one animal through a herd. The former can be used to give the lead tracker a break from time to time but it is the latter who will stick to that one special track like dung to a blanket. They are the ones a professional hunter hangs on to for dear life.

Most important of all, however, a tracker must love to hunt and have a cheerful disposition. When it comes to the difficult hunts; when the team cannot find the game it is searching for; when team members make mistakes or, for one reason or another, things will just not go the way the team wants it to, then the trackers, particularly the lead tracker, must be able to help lift the spirits of the team. Of course the client can also help here - small gifts for the team (T-shirts, beanies, pocket knives, sweets, cigarettes), a rest day, even a few words of encouragement - can make a big difference.

I can remember hunting elephants with pygmies in the Cameroonian rain forests - probably the last big hunting adventure left in Africa today. It was one of the key experiences of my hunting life. Our superb lead tracker was an engaging, happy, little man called Van Damme. He was the glue that held our large nine man hunting team together and I still remember his deep melodic base voice as the pygmies sang on the way back to camp in the evenings. After a number of adventures with mock charging gorillas and elephants that blundered into our hunting party in the incredibly dense rain forests (where a 30 metre view was a vista), we shot a superb rain forest bull, a genuine kamba. But that was it. As my guide explained, Van Damme was like a match - you could only use him once and so, after that, we had to put another hunting team together. That took days to achieve and we were not nearly as effective in the interim. In fact, we made a bad mistake and elevated Van Damme's number two into the leadership role where he proved to be an incompetent bully. We went from rooster to feather duster in an instant, hunted poorly and shot nothing in the days that it took us to cobble together a third and entirely new team.

Then there are a miscellaneous hodge podge of additional characteristics that the best trackers have - honesty (I have only ever had one item stolen in a safari camp); sobriety (at least on the tracks); a knowledge of firearms (although I have always cleaned my own), a knowledge of local customs and dialects; an ability to communicate with you (if your PH can translate, although not ideal, that will do at a pinch); a good sense of direction (although with the advent of the GPS this is less important); bravery; determination; pride in his position; a good and long established relationship with your PH; and probably one or two other traits that I have failed to mention.

On two occasions I have had the second tracker-come-gun-bearer run away with my firearm and once the lead tracker - only the latter event was really dangerous when we bumped a small herd of Nile buffalo at very close quarters in a thicket and, for a few moments, there were buffalo running every which way, including the tracker with my .375. Having said this, it is disconcerting when it happens and I only ever gave one of them, a pygmy called Mombato, a second chance and I was so glad I did because he never let me down after that. On the other hand, my good friend and top PH, John Oosthuizen, would not be with us today but for his tracker, the late Kontella, who shot the buffalo off him and saved his life. And what about Edward, George Angelides's tracker who, from behind, bodily picked up the leopard that was savaging George and pulled it off him while armed only with a knife! The leopard then turned in his grip, launched itself over his shoulder and fled and it was left to Nicky Blunt to kill the leopard the following day but not before it had wreaked havoc on the client and another PH called in to help. And these are far from an isolated occurrences.

Having said this, while I am aware that some PHs take their lead tracker with them to various parts of Africa when they hunt, there is no doubt in my mind that local knowledge plays a very important part in a tracker's success. To state the obvious, the conditions in a rain forest are vastly different to the Kalahari, for example, and so are the animals that you find there.

My favourite memory of hunting in the Kalahari, one of my favourite places in our country, was the one and only time I accepted an invitation to go on a corporate hunt offered by one of our clients. The occasion was very well organized but, as I did not want to shoot from the vehicle, my host sent me off with an ancient, wizened Bushman whose name I regret to say I have long since forgotten. Hunting with him and watching him sort out the spoor - I wanted to try for a good springbok ram - which to me were indistinguishable pock marks in the soft, sandy soil, was an education. We shot two excellent rams that day and, when we returned to camp after dark, he detoured via the abattoir. As we looked through what the others had shot, he turned to me and said in Afrikaans, "Ours are much better than theirs. " He was right and I am sure he was not talking about the sizes either.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many recreational hunters in South Africa no longer experience the thrill of anticipation as the trackers quietly point out signs that show the tracks are growing fresher. On many game ranches dogs have replaced trackers. The plus side is they are always sober. The downside? That they will inevitably break your heart as many do not die of ripe old age.

While most cautious hunters will ask for current references from past clients before booking with an outfitter or PH for the first time, it may be worthwhile to include trackers on your checklist, especially if you are not going to let Toyota do all the tracking for you. They are, without doubt, the unsung heroes of many successful hunts.

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