Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Spoor – Not to be Confused with S’more, A Tasty Campfire Treat.



 
Greetings from Teresa J. OKane, Field Guide. Well, more like Tris, Spoor Aficionado. 

During a trip to Africa fourteen years ago, Scott and I took John Locke’s Bush Trails and Training Course in Klaserie South Africa. We took it not because we wanted to become game guides but because it was for us the best way to learn about the bush while living in it. We slept in an unfenced big five game area in canvas tents, pooed and peed in a long drop, showered with a bucket and a cup or with a sun shower, took turns cooking for the group of 4 students plus John, walked twice a day in the bush, had class under the shade of the one tall tree in camp, heard the calls and examined the spoor of hyena and elephant and leopard that passed in the night, and loved every minute of it. We never forgot our experience so when we decided to return to Africa, Scott researched courses that would cater to our mutual love and appreciation of the bush.
 
A lot has changed in the Field Guide Training world in 14 years. There is more emphasis on the hospitality end of things and courses are longer. Fourteen years ago, FGASA (Field Guide Association of South Africa) was young and there were only two other students on our course. They were Afrikaners and English was their second language. These days, field guide courses include students from around the world. Some students go on to be guides, (a challenge if you are not South African, but possible if you are really, really good at your job) and all are interested in learning about the flora and fauna and skies of Africa, but most go back to Europe or The Americas or Australia having learned a lot about the bush and had a hell of a great time away from home.

What made the Ulovane training special was the quality of the instructors and the wealth of knowledge of our mentors Schalk and Candice Pretorius, Andrew Kearney, Brett Horley, and Cobus Spies. These names might not mean anything to you outside of Southern or Eastern Africa but anyone lucky enough to have even one of these people instructing them on the bush can consider themselves fortunate. That coupled with the uncommon number of reserves that served as our classroom, world-renowned places like Amakhala, Shamwari, and Klaserie, made it an unforgettable experience. Oh, and while at Ulovane a wonderful woman named Thabisa and another named Joyce cooked our meals, made our beds(!) and did our laundry. Yes, a lot has changed in 14 years.
 
We, along with 4 other students, completed the seven-week course in temperatures that ranged from heat stroke inducing to frigid and wet. We had many days that were perfect – still mornings and afternoon skies filled with bright white clusters of cotton ball clouds that drifted by in a soft breeze.  In all weather, we learned to track wild animals and identify their spoor. We learned how to aim and shoot a rifle big enough to stop a lion (or me as it turns out. More on that later). We beat about the bush at Ulovane (the school), and at Amakhala, Shamwari, and Klaserie Game Reserves. With our armed mentors we walked in big five - lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino - areas with all except for leopards, which we saw from a vehicle more times than seems fair. Sometimes the game we encountered on walks was almost too much. Eight buffalo would be thrilling enough for me but eight hundred can be daunting.

One day we walked for nine hours through Klaserie game Reserve. The first eight hours were too quiet. We strained to hear sounds of ox peckers alarm calling or guinea fowl kicking up the dust and we concentrated more on signs and tracks of what had been there before. Tracking is my favorite thing. It’s like beachcombing for treasure. We tracked lions for over two hours but lost the trail in thick tall grass. I spent several minutes touching, breaking apart, and sniffing a small pile of dung to determine if it was a baby white rhino or a baby elephant and it felt good when I showed our guide all the twigs and leaves in the poo because while the initial consensus was that it was rhino, I had thought all along it was ellie.

Then in the last hour, two hours after I had returned to camp with Christina who had brought us lunch at a waterhole, our group, tired and looking forward to returning to camp, came upon a breeding herd of elephants. Breeding herds can be cranky because they consist of moms, aunts, juveniles, and babies and everyone knows that the most dangerous animal in nature is a mama bear protecting her cubs. And they were. Not bears. Cranky. Several charged. Escape was into a ravine, then another ravine. By the time the elephants had chased the group a sufficient distance away, everyone was out of breath. Inhaling deeply was not such a good idea because a few feet away lay a fresh, half eaten carcass of an enormous male kudu. Brett Horley, our mentor, rifle still at the ready, looked at the carcass then in a split second, arched his back and aimed the rifle up into the tree directly above his head and that of the kudu’s mangled remains. Scott said, “By the look on Brett’s face he expected to see a leopard, sprawled out on a limb, tummy half full and ready to protect his kill.  Just as we all began to relax, a spotted hyena trotted by not 15 feet away. Tris, you should have stayed! You would have loved it!”

Another day in Klaserie, just before sunset, we approached two female lion on foot. From far away they saw us or smelled us or heard us. But unlike the few other encounters with lion where the lions noticed us, watched us then carried on resting or sleeping, these lionesses immediately stood up, growled, and charged. Rifles were cocked and retreat was made quickly back to the vehicle. I think it was the most adrenaline that has ever pumped through my body. As we retreated I knew I should keep my eyes on the lions but I couldn’t make myself look. I walked quickly expecting a lion paw to trip me up at any moment. Brett, and Jason a neighboring lodge owner and another mentor extraordinaire, were puzzled at the aggressive response these lions gave us because we were so far away when they charged. It was decided that we should investigate the lions from the safety of the game vehicle.

Entering a grassy opening through dense thicket we discovered the reason for the angry charge. There, lying in the grass panting, were a group of three female and two male lions. One female was pregnant and one or both of the others was in oestrus and the two males were vying for their attention.  On foot, we had walked into their bedroom and spoiled the mood. No wonder the two females were angry! For reasons beyond my understanding, the lions paid little or no attention to us as long as we were in the vehicle so we were fortunate to view some amazing animal behavior - scent marking, submissive behavior, invitations to mate, and a tussle between the two males. Watch the action here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz0pFGKD0-k

Not every day was filled with as many thrills but every day was exciting and new. Scott and I haven’t studied that much since college. We learned about gestation periods and weaning ages, weight of dangerous animals and their charging speeds (really, you don’t have a chance. If something wants to take you down, it will). We learned what they eat, how much they sleep, and what their footprints look like in soft sand, mud, and almost too hard to see prints at all substrate.  We learned all about digestive tracts, mating practices, how tall they stand at the shoulder, and how many teeth they have. I can define a carnassial shear and piloerection. It’s not what you think. I missed it on the practice exam. But I didn’t leave the space empty. Instead I wrote, “I have no idea but it sounds intriguing!”

We also had a few weeks of rifle handling. First we had to earn a certificate of competency from the South African Government. For three days we sat in classroom an hour away from Ulovane in Port Elizabeth and learned all about South African gun law, cleaning and maintenance of firearms, and emergency action drills undertaken when, as South Africans say, “The poo-poo hits the fan.” (see post “Whoopsie! and Other South African Expressions” for more.) We memorized tables with calibers and grains, and formulae for ballistics (internal, external and terminal) and trajectory, and where the brain is located on the big five. We learned to always treat a weapon as if it were loaded and to never ever point a weapon at anyone even if unloaded. We experienced the unbearable pain of pepper spray when our instructor fired a short stream into the air in the small indoor shooting range, “…so that you think twice before you use it. Use it if you need it but know what you are doing to someone.” A little goes a long way. When it hits you, you cannot breathe. Then we took our knowledge out to the shooting ranges. We used a scope on a .308 and had to hit the bull’s eye far down range. That was fun.
We had a lesson in muscle memory. Using dummy cartridges, we loaded the magazine of a .375 rifle, chambered a round, aimed, unloaded and made the rifle “safe” all in fifteen seconds while blindfolded. 
Other timed drills included shooting a poster of a charging buffalo in the brain (a very small red circle between the eyes), handling a misfire, and my favorite, reacting to a charging lion (a poster of a lion running at full speed – or as fast as my fellow student Lewis Buckner and future Game Ranger in the Masai Mara could run the line attached to the lion contraption) while on a simulated walk with guests. In this drill, the lion runs at you with the intent to tear you to shreds. You have to shout at the lion, cock your rifle, tell your guests to stay calm and not run, shout at the lion again, shoot the lion at 5 meters, fire an insurance shot, move to the lion and poke him in the eye to make sure he isn’t just pretending to be dead, reload, and ask your guests if they are all ok. I got the Lion-poster in his right eye with my first shot (In real life, you only have one chance to stop a charging lion). Lion down, no drama, no profanity - except for Scott who might have said “Holy poo-poo Tris! Good shot!”

This was all on Day One of our weeklong Advanced Rifle Handling practical assessment. By Day Three, I was in tears, so sore and bruised up and down my arm and on my breast that I bailed. I remembered that I don’t like guns and would not want to have to shoot an animal anyway, so I was okay with it. Some of the gents tried to encourage me to stick with it. When I said, “If firing a rifle caused pain, bruising and swelling on your nuts, would you keep at it?” and they winced in sympathy. Scott did spectacularly well up until day five, the day of the actual assessment when he impulsively chose a different rifle than the one he had been shooting spectacularly all week. Two weeks later he was re-assessed by James Steyn back in Klaserie and passed with flying colors.

“What does this all mean!” I hear you saying. Not much! Only that if we get the chance, we will do more courses like this in the future.

Scott and Tris
Raptor’s View
Hoedspruit South Africa


Next: “Whoopsie!” And Other South African Expressions

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