Alex explains why tracking is so important in our personal and professional lives.

Leading a team on Zoom all day is challenging. Why not shake things up with a virtual adventure of a different kind?

Come tracking lions with us.

Following a fresh lion trail on foot is a thrilling experience. You are facing the world’s most charismatic animal. The uncertainty of what may happen focuses your mind – in a way that is primal.

Screengrab from Tracking Success virtual adventure

All your senses are alive.

Is that a paw print? Where are they going? Are they hunting? These are some of the questions that you ponder as you interpret their trail.

To close the gap on the lion, you must form a mental image of their activity – assembled from all your observations and previous experiences.

Invariably you lose track, which causes distress, but it’s part of the process.

And when you finally encounter them, they will glare at you with yellow eyes, growl, and occasionally charge up to you – causing adrenaline and cortisol to flood your body.

Charging lion. Photo by our friend, Rex Miller

Your success, your safety; is your ability to read the signs.

Tracking animals is not just an ancient African craft. It is also a powerful metaphor that allows us to find our way in a chaotic modern world.

To learn the principles of tracking and how to apply them in your life, join Tracking Success.

Screengrab from Tracking Success virtual adventure

FIND OUT HOW YOUR TEAM CAN BENEFIT. BOOK DEMO HERE

 

Reading time: 2.20 mins

Early in our careers as guides, Renias and I received a radio call that a female leopard was seen feeding on a bushbuck kill.

The announcement was specific about the location.

As we neared, Renias gestured for me to turn left.

‘That’s not the place,’ I said. ‘It’s to the right’.

‘Ok, but I think there’s a leopard over there,’ replied Renias indifferently, pointing to a large jackalberry tree.

‘Jika ximatsi’, he said.

By now our guests were raining questions on me. They were VIP’s and I felt compelled to show them a good sighting. And we had a reliable report which I intended to use.

There was no time to waste following Renias’s hunch.

‘Jika ximatsi..ximatsi means left’ repeated Renias, now irate with my apparent contrariness.. and the guests had noticed his displeasure with me.

Not wanting to make a scene I grudgingly swung the Land Rover eastwards – following his suggestion to go left.

About halfway along Renias said, ‘hatlisa (faster), the leopard is moving now’.

Moments later a magnificent female leopard emerged from the woodland. The guests were awestruck. ‘Renias is a genius!’ pronounced one of them. “He speaks squirrel!” exclaimed another.

Incredibly, he used a tree squirrel’s faint danger call to determine the leopard’s presence and to interpret its behaviour.

I came to learn that it’s nearly impossible to successfully track a leopard without considering the alarm calls made by other animals.

The truth is that I had no chance of finding it myself. If it weren’t for Renias, our VIPs would likely not have seen a leopard.

I was oblivious to an entire dimension of nature’s language. And I wasn’t even aware that I was unaware. I also lacked the technical ability to recognise the omnipresent chirps of intelligence all around me.

And the pressure to deliver for my guests caused me to become hyper-focused – further impairing my awareness.

Our everyday lives are filled with signals – many of which go totally unnoticed.

My friend Grant Ashfield says, ‘An alarm call is a message from the future – it represents danger, the need to slow down, be vigilant and pay attention’.

And they come in many forms…

Niggling feelings of restlessness, apprehension, or recurring mistakes, maybe the first signs that you’re losing track.

For leaders, dull meetings, poor trust, people operating in silos, and lacking accountability – are clues that the team is in peril.

For organisations, the departure of good people, the entry of a competitor, and diminishing engagement – are signals.

The difficulty is that most signals are as faint as a squirrel’s call among the cacophony of others. And they’re often inconvenient too – the timing doesn’t necessarily suit.

The irony is that warning signs lead to opportunity – either from wisdom gained by avoiding danger, or the realisation of a goal – like finding a leopard.

The biggest threat of all is choosing to ignore the signs. Or being reluctant to act.

Noticing an alarm call is the first step in the journey of change – towards greater prospects.

Expert wildlife trackers rely on nature’s signs to find the animals they pursue. And for their safety.

Spend 5 minutes thinking about alarm calls you may have noticed in the last 24 hours. Can you interpret them, and more importantly, are you prepared to act on them?

Sign up for Tracking Success. We dedicate one of our campfire conversations to discussing alarm calls in our professional lives.

Renias Mhlongo - Master Tracker

Renias Mhlongo - Master Tracker

The title of master is bestowed often with scant regard for what it really means – mostly because those bestowing the title do not truly understand what they are witnessing. It is the sort of designation often given by inexperienced practitioners of whatever craft is being revealed. For example, people who cannot play the guitar and watch me play often remark that I am a master of the instrument. I’m not bad but I’m not a master. Because I have been playing for the last 25 years, I know a master when I see one – someone with that rare skill (be it speed, musicality, sublime knowledge etc.) in whose presence you feel both utterly dejected and supremely inspired.

This is not a story about guitars or music however. It is a story about a master of another craft.

I have worked in the lowveld of South Africa on and off for the last decade or so, much of this time tracking animals (or trying to) – I cannot pretend to be a ‘tracker’ in the true sense of the word but I know what a tracker does and what he looks for. I have spent countless hours searching for the minutest signs – obscure footprints, broken vegetation, urine-smelling bushes, birds tweeting in alarm etc. – so I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to be a tracker and I know that I’m far short of calling myself one.

A few weeks ago, I followed a pride of lions with a man who is a master of his craft – the very ancient craft of tracking. We didn’t find the lions because they crossed out of the reserve but for a few hours I marvelled as Renias Mathanjana Mhlongo, a 56-year-old Shangaan (Tsonga speaking), followed three lionesses through the late summer bush.

Renias Mhlongo motivational Speaker

We found the tracks at about 07h00, just a scuff on a road. At least four game drives had driven over and past the pug marks during the course of the morning – that is to say four ‘trackers’ had failed to notice the feint scuff marks in the sand where one of the lionesses had rested briefly during the night. We left the car and headed east through a thicket of stunted guarri bushes and stony ground. I couldn’t make out any further signs of the cats but Renias set off as though following a six lane highway.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘see they were hunting here.’ My bemused expression, made him smile patiently. ‘Here,’ he pointed at a piece of ground like all the other pieces of ground around it, ‘see there is only one here. Over there and over there, ‘he indicated another two patches of dew-hardened sand, they split up here to hunt something in the thickets over there.’

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the distinctive tracks of running impala showed where the wits had been spooked out of a herd. Renias followed the lions, track by track, showing me how their gate had changed as they ran and then where they had slowed again. So it went for the next hour or so – Renias following the pride and interpreting their behaviour. Much of the time I couldn’t see what on earth he was looking at – he’d patiently point out where a paw had tread and I’d stare at the empty ground and then pretend I could see what he could.

Why did I pretend? One, because I didn’t want Renias to become frustrated with my ineptitude and the second – well, I was just enjoying the performance. Far more than actually finding the lions or learning how Renias was doing what he was, I just loved watching him work – in the same way that I might enjoy watching a master musician at a concert. The way you might marvel at the skill of an orchestra or a ballerina. Sure you might wonder about how they do what they do but at the end of the day, you derive pleasure from watching a performance of masterful artistry.

Alex and Renias Injured Lioness Tracking 1

As we walked, I thought about this ancient art. Is it actually just an art in the same way that guitar playing or painting are arts? Is that its intrinsic value? Renias travels the world doing exactly what he did for me. He takes groups to find bears in the US and kangaroos in Australia. People marvel at his skills and no doubt go home to talk with great respect about ‘the great African tracker’ in the same way that they would after watching David Gilmour play master his Stratocaster at the Albert Hall.

But is there a use for this art outside of a performance spectacle? It’s undoubtedly a dying art – fewer and fewer people can claim to be true trackers. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps we should see nostalgic emotions for ancient tracking in the same way that we see Morse code or fax machines – great but now obsolete examples of human achievement.

Watching Renias that day, I became increasingly convinced that while I was enjoying the art for the sake of the art, tracking remains a skill with a value beyond delighting an audience. No machine can yet come close to being able to achieve what he can in the field. His interpretation of wilderness is of immense value to nature tourism, anti-poaching and conservation research.

Renias and his partner Alex van den Heever know this, and through their work at Tracker Academy, they are ensuring that Renias’s skills along with those of other tracking masters are not lost with the passing of this generation but will survive, moulded to modern conservation needs, honed for the preservation of humanity’s last wilderness areas. That’s the importance of the skill.

And what of the art? Well that’s possibly even more important. The art and the performance thereof are a way for expert trackers to connect people to the wilderness – to something beautiful and worth conserving because it’s a part of us. In many ways this is what Bruce Springsteen is doing when he performs his art. Music is a part of our humanity. In many ways, people watch The Boss to reconnect with this element of us, an element that, like the wild makes us whole and is very difficult to find in the modern world.

Note: Renias Mhlongo is a certified CATHSSETA NQF4 Lead Tracker

James Hendry

Guide, musician, author and presenter with 20 years of experience