The early winter evening is gathering when Bruce, our instructor, stops in his tracks. I am walking back-up and am directly behind him. Everyone piles into us, domino-like.
In the dusk we struggle to see what has caught his attention – an impression in the downy sand, three-toed and wide, striated by little veins.
‘Give me the radio.’ He twirls the VHF to the concession’s private channel. We are not allowed to announce what we have just seen on the public channel, because it is certainly being monitored by poachers.
‘One,’ Bruce radios back to camp. ‘And two sets of tracks, one boot, one barefoot.’
He slips the radio into my backpack. His khaki eyes have clouded over. ‘A hundred metres from the Zimbabwe border. Not a good place for him to be.’
The screensaver on my mobile phone shows two clocks: one with the time in London/Dublin, and the other my present location. The right hand side says ‘Far North’. We are not in the Arctic, as it turns out, but the northernmost tip of South Africa, in Kruger National Park.
The Makuleke concession is remote enough to be outside cellphone reception, and the GPS has no name for it other than its cardinal direction. We are metres from the Zimbabwean border. In fact one day we unwittingly go to Zimbabwe by crossing what used to be the Limpopo river, which now, thanks to irrigation and pressure of human population, is only an avenue of sand. Daily Zimbabweans trickle across the once ‘great, grey-green, greasy’ (Kipling’s words) Limpopo to walk to prosperity in South Africa, risking their lives not only by passing through lion country, but by ignoring our little carmine flags and DANGER – LIVE AMMUNITION signs and walking straight behind the rifle range where we practice shooting.
We’ve been in Makuleke for a month and it has become the only world. Our world has names like Hulukulu, Mwambi pan, Reedbuck Vlei, Lala Palm Windmill, Nhlangaluwe, Tshikuyu spring. Our world is the White-browed scrub-robin who starts calling so insistently before sunrise, the baboons who brawl all night, the lion who keeps us awake with his oddly hesitant umf umf umf as he pads through camp. It is winter and sunrises are cold tangerine, the mornings so chilly that our hand turns purple from gripping the rifle’s metal. But by 11am it is 30 degrees.
When we are not sweating it out at the shooting range for our Advanced Rifle Handling certificate we spend our days learning to track animals. We are doing a professional Field Guides of Southern Africa Association Trails Guide qualification, which requires us to be able to approach dangerous game – typically elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard – on foot, and get in and get out without having ourselves or our eventual clients injured.
But there’s also another aim: to leave the animal alone. Being a trails guide turns out to be a contest of stealth and wit. The idea is that the animal does not know we are there at all and so is undisturbed. We learn to pay attention to wind direction (rhinoceros can smell humans almost a kilometre away) to judge the terrain, the angle of the sun and shade and the mood of the animals we pursue like shadows, sneaking up on them behind Umbrella thorns or blurring ourselves in pools of shade.
What is the reverse of a hunter? A guardian, perhaps. In the late 19th and early 20th century the land we cover on foot was the epicentre of the ivory trail, a trading route up and down the coast of Africa, fuelled by a lucrative market for elephant tusk. Now we find ourselves in the middle of an all-out war. Not the envisaged war where Zimbabwe implodes and the trickle of economic refugees down by our shooting range becomes an unending procession, but a war on an animal.
Anyone would think the rhinoceros peculiar. So that’s what the Stegosaurus looked like! is your first thought. There’s nothing alive today that looks quite like it, built as it is like a mini-battleship, with a head like one of those bouldering rocks at climbing centres, crowned by two intestine-ripping horns. That these appendages which are the rhino’s only defence now spell their destruction is a kind of dark fairy tale which must be unravelled.
In camp, I take a vox populi sample from the students on this topic:
‘Why do you think so many rhino are being killed?’
‘To increase the power and status of the newly affluent Asian middle-class,’ comes one startlingly coherent response, and which is the right answer. ‘It’s all about sex, isn’t it?’ says another. Also the right answer.
Rhino horn is desirable in Asia in part because of folk beliefs around its value as an aphrodisiac. This has no basis in fact, nor do rhino horn’s supposed medicinal properties. It’s fact made of keratin – the same substance as human nails. Basically, it’s an enormous fingernail.
However delusional, beliefs about its properties in Asia are no joke for the rhinoceros. A kilo of powdered horn is worth US $65,000 in China; ivory from elephant tusks, meanwhile, is worth $900 per kilo. The money paid to poachers, smugglers and shippers is so vast that in late 2012 then-US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton commented that the trade in illegal wildlife had become second only to trade in illegal arms and drugs.
The story of the rhino slaughter can be told in cold numbers: only 3,000 black rhino remain in the wild in Africa; in 2012, 618 rhino were killed in South Africa alone – a 50% increase from 2011, and an astonishing 5000% increase from 2007, when only a handful of rhino across Africa were killed. Rising affluence and a proportionate increase in traditional medicine use in the Far East is to blame for this spike.
The killing is now at a level where it is likely to lead to population decline. As with human death, numbers become an abstraction. You have to spend time with these giants to value their idiosyncrasy. Both rhino species and elephant are temperamental and dangerous to humans if provoked or disturbed, it’s true. But they are also intelligent, charismatic animals. Rhino may look antediluvean but they are agile, funny and gentle; they speak in a surprisingly varied series of squeaks and grunts and breathy exclamations that sound like an elder statesman saying, ‘but that’s preposterous!’ One of the best days I have ever had in the bush was spent sitting on a downed fever tree forty metres from five white rhino serenely lawnmowing their way through the savannah.
That the rhino is on its way out, evolutionarily speaking, is entirely down to the human lust for symbols. Our investiture in substances like rhino horn is ultimately about our perceived powerlessness in the hands of fate. We still need potions and amulets to protect and empower us. In this sense, not much has changed since our ancestors crawled out of caves clutching fire not far away from where I stand now in Makuleke.
But so much anthropology isn’t going to help. When a wild animal’s body part becomes worth more than gold, you know they’re in trouble. The lucrative trade has attracted the interest of international crime syndicates; ‘increased firepower and ruthless tactics,’ are being used, according to the US State Department. Poachers have adopted military capability, employing helicopters, high-calibre automatic weapons and tritium night sights so they can kill in the dark.
Although officially this is the job of the Kruger National Park rangers, at Makuleke we end up tracking rhinoceros and their pursuers. Almost every rhino track we find is accompanied by a sinister chaperone of bootprints. We quickly learn to recognise the prints and sizes of the boots that signal interlopers. No-one other than ourselves, the Outpost Lodge, and the Kruger National Park staff have the right to be in this northernmost quadrant of the park.
The evening when we find rhino tracks close to the Limpopo we see satellite barefoot prints, half an hour behind the rhino. Barefoot means poor, which means desperate. A distant crime syndicate staffed by young men in thin leather jackets in Hanoi or Beijing has put a .458 Winchester Magnum in the hands of such a man, which makes life dangerous for rangers, or even us. After radioing the park warden we leave the area before the armed anti-poaching unit arrives. Across sub-Saharan Africa, 100 people, the majority of them park rangers, are killed every year defending wild animals. We don’t want to get caught in the cross-fire.
Less than half-way through our course another instructor appears. We see a fine, expressive face hidden within a Grizzly Adams beard. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Alan McSmith turns out to be something of a living legend. He is the only white man to have traversed the Okavango Delta on foot and by poling its waterways in its entirety six times.
Our first walks with Alan concentrate on tracking. He gathers us around a smudge on the ground.
‘What is it?’
‘Nyala,’ we chorus.
Alan looks sceptical. ‘Are you sure?’
We stare again at the track, with its tell-tale spine of sand down the cloven centre of the hoof. What else could it be? Maybe it’s a small kudu, or a giant impala.
‘No, it’s a nyala,’ Alan smiles. ‘Go with your first instinct.’
Tracking is hard. Often the prints are incomplete, or are superimposed by a symphony of other animals. One thing we are learning on this course is that the African bush is a text you need to be taught to read; then it divulges many stories.
But first we need to learn the mathematics. We learn about those animals which direct register, meaning their back feet fall exactly where their front feet have stepped, so the visual record looks as if they have only two feet instead of four. In the sand Alan sketches a stick diagram: animals with a square shaped confirmation tend to direct register, he tells us. Animals who are rectangles – long-backed, sway-backed, or whose legs are overly long like the sprinter-lissome impala, do not. ‘What do you see in impala tracks? Alan asks. ‘Chaos.’
If impala are chaos, kudu are order. Their tracks are two viola-shaped cloven hooves which overlay each other to create an unruffled ace of spades. We learn to differentiate an eland from a buffalo using little more than symmetry – the buffalo are marginally rounder, while eland swirl up inside their hooves in two neat serifs. But when these are not visible, they can look the same. Then other signs and clues come into play – dung, grazing land (eland can graze on drier and sparser areas than buffalo.) It’s a detective game that Alan clearly relishes.
Alan teaches us to distinguish between a male leopard and a female lion. They can look very similar. First of all we have to learn to tell the difference between the male and female of the species. The male leopard, with his greater weight than the female (who despite their phenomenal power weigh a demure 30-40kg), splays the track slightly outward, so that it appears more perfectly circular. Often tracking is a subtle game of reading the animals’ intent. The lion track has an authority that the leopard’s somehow lacks. The leopard is usually nocturnal and shy; it needs canniness to protect its kills and so stealth is in-built in its stride. The lion owns the night and strides its corridors roaring his arrival.
We enjoy tracking the less incompetent we get at it. Suddenly the prints in the ground jump out of their two dimensional lives – the two prongs of the bushpig versus warthog, the heart-shaped waterbuck, the padded dinner plates of elephant. In Africa tracking is proclaimed as a science and an art, and has its origin in hunter-gatherer societies when an ability to track well meant the difference between starvation and abundance – you learn to read the ground fast if you are hungry.
Alan points out a kudu track that is slightly askew. The kudu’s rear right leg is injured and dragging; he can tell this from a sequence of no more than three prints. We all practice dragging our right leg and see how it feels. Then we pause at a hyena track. ‘Look at the angle,’ Alan instructs. ‘What is that hyena doing?’ He uses the present tense, as if the animal is still with us. We are only a couple of hours behind it, in the wake of its unstable energy of predator and opportunist. We can tell from the way the print has overlaid the dew on the substrate, so we know it was made after dewfall – dawn.
The hyena’s foot pad is typically pitched at slightly less than a 45 degree angle. They walk splay-footed, penguin style. It looks like a normal hyena footprint to us, this left front paw. ‘Look closer’, Alan urges. Eventually we see it – the print is at a slightly more acute angle than usual, with the middle digit pointing northeast. It’s a tiny variation, like the wobble of a compass, but it’s there.
The hyena had stopped here and was looking off to its right. That’s all we learn – that several hours ago the animal was here where we stand now, material, breathing, the hair on its flanks standing erect against the cold of the dawn, and it looked off to the side. At what, we don’t know. ‘It could be prey, it could be a member of its pack,’ Alan shrugs.
We are following these recent phantoms to feel the cold stasis of the night as the kudu stops to register danger. Or the saunter of the lion who fears nothing – what would it feel like, to have no fear? You can read the energy in the imprint left behind. We all leave tracks in our wake as we slew through the energy field called life. Eddies or minor vortices, children we have or books we write, bills accumulating on the doormat. Signs that we were ever here at all.
The white-gold fever trees, the bloated skeletons of leafless baobabs on the hill astride Nhlangaluwe, rubbery date palm thickets that can hide an elephant. We walk and walk through these, along game trails, through boggy dwarf sage, surprising crocodiles who whip to the cover of water like giant armoured snakes.
In the heat of the day our eventless hours walking in this landscape take up a space inside us usually reserved for dreams. We walk for hours and hours every day for a month. Sometimes nothing happens. We float through heat and flies and slow explosions of butterflies called brown-veined whites. The blank hours without dangerous game encounters or interesting sightings inscribe themselves on us in details: the white-fronted bee-eaters and their waxy, uncertain song, the forest floor’s cargo of destruction – skulls of impala felled by anthrax, gnawed tibia with the tendons still attached, the wild cucumber that ensnares our ankles.
On these walks we have so much time to think. What am I doing with my life? Why don’t I just stay here in the bush? What’s the point of intellectual ambition? I am not one of those people who are in love with the wilderness and everything in it. Even if I am a qualified safari guide, I am constantly evaluating why I am here under winter skies, hungry and disoriented at times, my forearm sore from carrying a .375 for six or seven hours a day.
The African wilderness is stocked with danger in the guise of carnivores and gargantuan temperamental creatures, and this gives it a compelling mystique. Yet to live here is also to accept a physical confinement that for me at least is hard to bear; we can’t go for a walk on our own and my afternoon runs around camp are calculated against the risk of attack by lion or by a startled elephant.
After a month in Makuleke where I meet no-one I do not know, spend no money, receive no phone calls or emails, where a normal, even soothing nighttime regime is the head-butting impala who shakes my tent at night, the growls of my grumpy acacia rat tent-mate, or waking from an afternoon nap to find a particularly chilled bull elephant installed on my verandah peering at me with his red whiskered eye, the mere thought of the body crush and regimentation and impersonality of the city beckons like a Hieronymus Bosch torturescape.
In immersing ourselves in the bush, we journey beyond the human and in that hinterland discover a calmness and self-reliance unavailable in any city. We feel connected, also alive, quickened with proximity to danger, by the stories of the tourist who forgot to zip her tent closed and was killed by hyena, the woman who was devoured alive by a lion while taking a shower in the Okavango, by the lion’s roar only metres from your tent, by waking after a night spent sleeping out without a tent to see Orion erased from the sky by a cold dawn.
For me, the wilderness is a place independent of human consciousness. A society of creatures going about their usual business of eating, defecating, mating, survival, predation, without interference from man. We might return from this humanity-drained space with a useful knowledge: about the limits of human power but also a physical sense of the burden of our existence and of our capacity for error as well as judgement. The rhinoceros may well become extinct in our lifetime, for example. This is our fault.
And during the course I make a couple stupid mistakes that might, in the right circumstances, have had consequences. In Makuleke a few elephant have had to be shot over the years; in each scenario it was a case of kill or be killed, and nobody felt good about it. After such events, it is not unusual for trails guides to hang up their hat and return their rifle to the firearms safe for good.
A few days later the harmony of our small world is ruptured. We are walking through Hutwini gorge near the south of the concession. On this walk I am the lead guide, charged with carrying a rifle and finding a path.
Threading through a gorge I come upon two sets of white rhino tracks. Rhino spoor are unmistakeable; unlike the near-identical endless little antelope we struggle to differentiate – steenbok or Sharpe’s grysbok? – there is nothing that looks anything like them, with their splayed feet rimmed by three balloon toenails. We follow them along the game trail through the fissure in the land and enter mopane scrub on their heels. For awhile the tracks are clear, even in powdery soil and on a carpet of autumn-shed leaves. Then they vanish.
We double back on ourselves in circles and spirals, trying to recover the trail. We stop to find ourselves in a mopane scrub labyrinth; all the trees look identical. We look up from the ground, dizzy.
The rhino are here, probably within half an hour of us, maybe less, according to signs Alan shows us to do with the state and heat of their dung. We decide to leave them. They have become shy and hesitant. It is a good sign that they have hidden themselves in the mopane maze.
A few days later we are driving on Pafuri Main Road when we are stopped at a roadblock. The section ranger and her colleagues call Bruce over. We can’t hear what they are saying, but they have a long conversation, faces drawn. A ranger clad in a bullet-proof vest tries to distract us with jolly anecdotes, but we know something is wrong.
Back at camp Bruce tells us the two rhino we tracked only days before had been shot. It happened the day after we found their trail. The rangers discovered our tracks overlain with a set of different tracks, two boot marks. These men were let in the main gate and after killing the rhino with AK-47s were driven to the Mozambique border only 30 kilometres away, where they dissolved.
We eat lunch in silence; we feel queasy and empty for the rest of the day.
At times at Makuleke I felt that the land was unhappy. It was a bodily knowledge, a sort of unease that I can never quantify or prove and which might have dissipated if I had spent more time there. It could have been its history of elephant hunting by white adventurers and big game hunters; or it might be to do with how the Makuleke people were evicted by gunpoint by the Apartheid government, never to return, in 1969.
But I think it is also about the rhinoceros. I am not allowed to say how many white rhino have been killed in the Makuleke concession this year, or how many remain, in case the information falls into the wrong hands. But I can say that we felt haunted. The live animals we followed out of a desire to learn became actual phantoms, on our watch.
Two days later we returned to walk the area where the rhino were killed. The day was overcast and hushed. Unusually for the area we saw no dangerous game, and very few animals at all – even the usual waterbuck and klipspringer had fled, perhaps to escape the funereal pall that had fallen on the land. We returned hoping to find some vestige, a survivor, a sign that the rhino had ever been there at all. But the tracks that had been so perfectly stencilled into the world only a few days before were gone.
The story of the elephant hunters and the history of Makuleke is told in T.V. Bulpin’s rip-roaring tale The Ivory Trail. Ecotraining run FGASA Trails Guide and other courses at Makuleke (www.ecotraining.co.za); Alan McSmith Safaris can be contacted at www.alanmcsmith.com.