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  • Writer's pictureAnnie DuPre

Tracking lions: A print in the sand

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

A story about tracking lions with Bushwise students, by Annie DuPre. 

Read time: 4 min

The vehicle slowed to a stop as James leaned over the passenger door, staring intently at the ground next to our tyres. Vaughan turned the engine off as James contemplated the freshness of the tracks he’d seen. A knowing nod was exchanged between the two and they hopped out of the game viewer to get a closer look. 

A group of Bushwise students sitting in a game viewer driving to a track and sign training experience.

There I sat, sandwiched in the back row of the game viewer, breathing in the crisp morning air. When you arrive last to a game drive – just like with any family car trip – you get the back row, middle seat! But I didn’t mind. Sitting among eight Bushwise Professional Field Guide students, I was simply taking in the experience. 

These eight students all share a similar purpose – studying to become qualified field guides and follow their dreams of working in the guiding industry. But they are also eight incredibly unique individuals – in the back I sat between Emmanuel and Greyton; in the middle row were Bongani, Kutlwano and Naledi; and in the front were Max, Kathleen-May and Dominique. 

A diversity of backgrounds, ages, cultures and communities all blended together for six months in the South African bush. At first glance, you may not expect such a group to become lifelong friends – but here they were. As I watched them laugh together and test each other’s birding knowledge, I was moved by the incredible connection that had been made in a matter of weeks in the bush. 

Vaughan’s voice snapped me out of my daydream. “Let’s track some lions!”

If you want to get Bushwise students to move quickly, tell them it’s time to hit the trail. It’s certainly one of the most immersive and unique bush experiences you can have – getting into the mind of the animal, anticipating its next move, learning how to trail while remaining silent and vigilant, recognising tracks and signs and – just maybe – seeing the actual animal. 

I hopped out of the vehicle and joined the students, who by this time were circled around a set of beautiful lion tracks, perfectly preserved in the road’s red sand. Backpacks were strapped on, walking sticks in hand. Vaughan began by discussing the freshness of the tracks (very) and things to consider (walk single file, stay behind the rifle, don’t run and listen to instructions). 

The plan for the morning was this: students would take turns following the trail of the lions with James’s guidance. Vaughan would follow behind them, leading the rest of the students and explaining the process as we went. 

Bushwise students rest while on a tracking exercise, with their trainer Vaughan standing on the right.

Bongani quickly volunteered to trail the lions first. He set off, slowly and meticulously checking the ground for tracks, following the movement of the pride. The tracks could tell us so much about their activity – from the places where they had been playing, to where they had napped, to a scent marking made by a territorial male. 

For hours we followed in the footsteps of the lions – at times seeming to go backwards, circling around ourselves, visiting the same intersection again and again. Sometimes when you trail, it feels like the animal has played a game with you by making the path as complicated as possible. And then there are moments when something just *clicks*, and you find yourself moving with ease in the animal’s footsteps. 

After Bongani, Greyton took his turn, and then Max, Emmanuel and Dominique. Each student displayed skills in the process, learning from James and Vaughan and picking up new clues on what the lions had been up to. 

By 10am it was properly warm and sunny when Vaughan suggested we pause for coffee and rusks. I looked at my watch. In the three hours since we had started this adventure, we had only walked two kilometres. 

But as anyone who’s ever been on a trail in the African bush will tell you, it’s not about covering long distances or getting exercise. It’s about experiencing the natural world from an animal’s perspective; noticing the little things like how grass is bent after an elephant has walked past; identifying insects and birds along the way; and learning how to “read the bush newspaper” in the tracks and signs left behind by wild residents.

Our morning of tracking was coming to an end. We hadn’t found the lions – the verdict was that they were likely hiding in a thick section of bush where they had bedded down for the day – but we’d seen and learnt so much. As we made our way back to the vehicle, smiles and fist-bumps were silently exchanged between the students. A successful morning out, shared between friends and colleagues, growing in their field guiding career with each and every footstep.

Spending time out here in the bush is just as much about finding yourself as it is about finding wildlife. Ready to explore a career in nature? Apply for a Bushwise course today.

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