Renias and I stepped off the aircraft in Punta Arenas, the capital city of the area near the tip of Chile’s southernmost Patagonia region, into a bracing 1ºC. As I got to the top of the stairs to disembark the aeroplane, a baggage handler offered, ‘Welcome to a warm day in Punta Arenas!’ and Renias stared at him disbelievingly, already shivering in his flimsy fleece. Punta Arenas is situated on the Strait of Magellan connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is often used as a base for excursions to Antarctica.

The next day we drove onto a concession that neighbors the famous Torres del Paine National Park. As we drove, we noticed a few vulture-like large birds called Andean condors sitting on the ground ahead in the distance. Their presence, together with that of birds called caracara of the falcon family, was a possible indication of a fresh carcass nearby. Primarily a scavenger like our African vultures, the Andean condor is considered the largest flying land bird in the world, when combining its weight and wingspan, and it has incredible longevity, reaching up to 70 years of age in some cases.

We stopped the vehicle and went to investigate what the condors were feeding on and this took us down a relatively steep slope in the direction of the national park. Our guide, Cristobal Sanchez, looked through his binoculars and said there was a dead sheep and that it was probably killed by a puma. I scanned the landscape with my binoculars and was struck by the similarity of the vegetation to the Karoo, the only exception being that Patagonia has more snow-capped mountains and lakes. We walked up to the sheep’s carcass and saw bits of wool scattered around the kill on the stubby black shrubs that are common to the area.

Renias and I immediately began searching for tracks, hoping to find one of a puma (mountain lion) but the ground was still frozen solid, as was the spilled sheep’s blood, even though it was already 10 am. I had been excited at the prospect of finding and following a puma’s trail, but once we were on the ground it became blatantly clear that it was going to be a very challenging tracking proposition.

The bite marks on the sheep’s neck and evidence of a predator feeding from between the hind legs were clear. The evidence clearly indicated that a large carnivore had killed, or had certainly fed on, that sheep. Even though the puma had likely spent quite some time feeding at the site, we could not make out a single track. Cristobal wanted to keep walking because he felt he had a sense of where the puma might have gone. I asked him to give us some time to explore the area but I sensed his disenchantment of what I’m sure he saw as complete inexperience on our part. The previous evening some of the guides had questioned Renias and I as to how we planned to track in such stony and difficult conditions and my answer was just that we were ‘going to try’. Not a very encouraging response!

‘Here’s a track, Buti,’ Renias said to me, after having scouted the immediate area around the sheep’s carcass for a good few minutes. It was probably the faintest track I’d ever seen and I really had to use my imagination to try to see what Renias was seeing. I could make out two reasonably clear toe impressions, but the rest of the track was exceedingly obscure. Cristobal also looked at the track and I waited for him to challenge us but he simply said, ‘Good,’ which made we wonder if he could even see the track.

That morning, Cristobal was supposed to be orientating us and showing us some of the areas where the Awasi guides believed the pumas were frequenting, but I asked him whether we could follow the track we had found instead. He was under instruction from his boss and I got the sense he didn’t want to disobey him or veer too far off the plans for the day. Following the tracks meant we would be disrupting the plans for the day, but I knew we needed to take full advantage of the opportunity, and being agile in our thought processes and developing optionality in our approach made us good trackers. And that day, in those tracking conditions, represented the chance we needed to take.

With a slight show of indignation, Cristobal agreed to follow us as we tracked the puma. The tracks were not heading in the direction he’d predicted but I agreed with Renias, not only because of where the track was pointing, but I also surmised that as the pumas had been persecuted in that area, they would in all likelihood want to return to the safety of the national park during the day, after having killed a sheep in a place it must have known was dangerous.

We continued on our track and walked along a natural path in a westerly direction, down a slope towards a large river called Las Chinas, which forms the boundary with the national park. ‘There will be a natural crossing point across the river that the pumas will use,’ said Renias to Cristobal. Cristobal agreed and pointed directly ahead. Renias then looked back at me and smiled knowingly. ‘I will find it, mfo,’ he said. Further along the trail, I noticed a tiny piece of bloodied wool on the ground that I showed to Renias. He gave me a satisfied grin and agreed we were definitely in the right area as the wool must have dropped from the muzzle of the puma after having fed on the sheep, or perhaps it stopped to preen and clean itself and the residual piece of wool had dropped on the ground. We couldn’t be certain but the wool was clear evidence that we were still on the puma’s trail.

An icy wind started to blow, which launched an assault on my nose, ears, and feet, and I had to stop every few metres and do a few star jumps to try to warm up. ‘My nose is throbbing,’ I stammered to Renias in Shangaan and he replied, ‘Because it’s too big, mfo. Mine is small that’s why I’m fine,’ demonstrating his sense of humour even under the toughest of conditions. We had never experienced temperatures that cold and it was beginning to take its toll on our energy levels. I had lost all feeling in my feet and hands, and I rued the fact that I hadn’t purchased proper gear when we were in Punta Arenas, something Cristobal had strongly suggested we do.

I looked up at the three towers of Torres del Paine and immediately had renewed respect for mountaineers and for people who’ve taught themselves to endure the extreme cold. Cristobal must’ve seen me looking at the mountain and told me it was minus 15ºC at its peak! He could see we were taking strain and kindly offered us each a chocolate bar that we devoured and then immediately asked for another. I don’t think he was convinced about tracking the puma. In his mind we were wasting his time following imaginary puma tracks!

We proceeded for another fifteen minutes and Renias then spotted another equally faint track on the ground. I started to feel excited that we were close to finding the puma. Renias always displays a subtle change in his body language, which I don’t think he’s even aware of, when he thinks we are close to finding an animal we’re tracking. He starts to move a little quicker, he speaks faster, he looks up more often and there’s generally positive energy about him. Whether it was my own intuition or I was unconsciously reading Renias’s energy, I felt we were close.

I looked back to where we had found the sheep’s carcass and it was clear the puma was heading back towards its place of refuge in the Torres del Paine National Park. The only question was how far we were behind it. In Africa, we can tell the age of a carcass by the state and colour of the flesh and the flies and associated smell, but because the sheep’s flesh and blood were already frozen, we couldn’t judge how old the kill was. But the puma had eaten less than 20 percent of the carcass, so we could deduce it had been killed very early that morning.

Eventually, we got to a high point above the Las Chinas River and had a good view of the water channel below. Cristobal then told us that the crossing point he knew of was slightly further upstream, as Renias predicted, and that we should go and check it. As we were about to turn and find a route down to the water’s edge, we noticed something moving along the opposite bank of the river. ‘Puma!’ exclaimed Cristobal. Renias and I scrambled for our binoculars but my hands had lost some fine motor control from the cold so it took me a good minute or so to line up my binoculars with the animal. And indeed it was a puma – a young male striding along the opposite riverbank totally unaware of our presence and doing exactly as it would have had we not been there. I never believed that we would even track a puma in Chile let alone be successful in finding and seeing one and Renias turned to me, gave me a high-five, and said, ‘I told you, mfo!’

Read more stories like this one in our latest book called Changing a Leopard’s Spots available in most leading South African bookstores. Alex and Renias also deliver keynote presentations on the power of diversity and wildlife tracking.

 

 

 

Alex with his book at Exclusive Books

The book may be ordered on Takealot

An extract from chapter called “Path of a tracker

“Eventually the day came for my second attempt at the trailing component of the evaluation and, by extension, the full Senior Tracker qualification. Louis Liebenberg decided to conduct my evaluation at Londolozi, which did a lot to reduce my nervousness. We drove west from the Londolozi camp and stopped next to a small waterhole known as Guarri Pan, where I noticed evidence of a sin- gle lioness. I could see the tracks were reasonably fresh but I was concerned that committing to a lone lioness would present a particularly difficult trail for me to follow. I had no option, though; I could hardly ask the evaluators to look for a friendlier lion trail! Renias’s brother, Elmon, who had recently qualified as Senior Tracker, accompanied Louis and me in the capacity of observer and local expert and co-evaluator.

‘Good luck, mfo,’ said Elmon as I hauled my tracking stick off the Land Rover and climbed off. I could feel my nerves and I sensed I needed some good fortune so I was pleased to get his encouragement. I first scouted the area for a few minutes to establish the lioness’s direction. I desperately needed her to be going east or north as I knew that landscape intimately and it was also where the sandy soils were more conducive to seeing tracks. A southerly direction would also have been doable but not as good as east or north. West would be the worst outcome as the terrain there changed to the clayey black cotton soil, hard and dark, similar to the habitat where Renias grew up.

The lioness’s tracks crossed the road in front of me directly north of Guarri Pan and I started to trail her. Within five minutes of following her, she had changed her bearing and was heading directly west. This was the worst possible start and my uncle Philip’s often-mentioned words of advice, ‘It’s not about what happens to you but what you do about it,’ which had become something of a mantra for me at this time of my life, came into my head. I had no option but to keep trying. The lioness’s tracks then crossed a road, Elmon’s Kraal, named after an old man who used to live in the area, and I stopped there to have a good look at the condition of the tracks at that point. Another Land Rover had driven over her tracks, partially obscuring them and depositing a lot of dust onto them.

I carried on walking up the road for a few metres and discovered the tracks of another lioness. Two lionesses was a small gift, I thought to myself. The lionesses were walking about 10 metres away from each other, in parallel, and heading in the same direction. I was pretty sure I’d tracked the two lionesses in the same general area on one of my lone training sessions, and that gave me a sense of confidence. I was buoyed by this and I started to trail with good momentum and, for the time being, I felt good.

The trail then entered a woodland of long and drying grass where it was clear a host of other animals had spent the night. I’d just started to develop some sort of flow when the track totally disappeared. I looked up ahead but couldn’t find anything so I decided to play it safe and return to my last confirmed piece of evidence; a track superimposed on a buffalo dropping. I considered whether the lions were following the buffalo but I knew these lionesses and they were not known for hunting buffalo. I progressed painstakingly slowly for a few metres and was able to recognise another faint track, still heading west. Earlier that morning, while drinking my coffee, I’d heard lions calling a long way to the west and I wondered whether these lionesses were on their way to meet up with the rest of their pride.

I pressed on, cognisant that I shouldn’t get myself too caught up in the detail if the evidence wasn’t reliably there and so I made a mini prediction of where the trail was headed. This was my first attempt at anticipating the lionesses’ movements and is a part of the evaluation the evaluators are very critical of in a Senior Tracker test. I walked on a bearing I thought was the right one, and when I came upon a clear game path with open soil, I saw no tracks. My prediction of their direction of movement was wrong and I started to doubt myself. I began to question whether the tracks were even that fresh. Had the vehicle that had driven over the tracks perhaps travelled the previous afternoon? A feeling of dread filled my body and I found myself fundamentally re-examining and querying my original hypothesis and it caused me to hesitate.

What would Renias have done in this scenario? I ran over the events so far and remembered the feeling I’d had upon finding that lioness’s track, that familiar excitement whenever I saw a nice fresh lion track. I must be right, I thought. Speculating on a feeling was perhaps an imperfect approach and I was possibly grasping at straws. Maybe I’d never been very good at accurately ageing tracks, I said to myself. So many thoughts were running through my head, which was causing confusion and distracting me from the task at hand.

In an attempt to re-centre myself, I reminded myself that the last confirmed lion track I had seen had been heading up the slope towards the crest so I tentatively proceeded that way. I started thinking about how much fun I’d had practising my tracking skills over the last few months, and how this evaluation embodied the complete opposite. The test’s anxiety construct was in full gallop and it was causing me to question my every decision. If I was going to succeed I had to find a way to calm myself and focus. Thoughts such as ‘I need to pass this’ and ‘What will I say to people if I fail?’ were racing through my mind and were thwarting my ability to perform.

When I had been practising alone in the bush, I never had any of those thoughts and had never doubted myself, and consequently I was able to express myself freely in my ability to follow the tracks. I found some calmness within myself by consciously substituting all the limiting self-judgements I was making with one clear thought, ‘I will find.’ It was an old mantra of Renias’s that brought feelings of familiarity and freedom, feelings that had been eluding me up to this point.

If Renias had been there, he would’ve backed his ability to recognise a track up ahead in the knowledge that he’d made the correct decision and was headed in the right direction. I consciously made the decision to do the same. I surmised that there was nothing to suggest that the lions would suddenly change their direction.”

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