Your tracking lesson in the African bush starts when you climb off the safety of the Land Rover, your feet hitting the red soil. Your guide is ready to teach and help you, and if you pay attention, will keep you safe along the way.
Your guide points at the ground. All you see is dirt along with some random swirls and indentations. Then, your guide takes a stick and draws a circle about the size of a pie plate around a collection of indentations. He draws in the salient features: front toe, two ear-shaped side toes, and a big flat pad with a few wrinkles in the middle. Where there was dirt and swirls a moment before, now lies a rhino track.
Your guide encourages you to begin moving — you can’t track anything while you’re standing still. Even though you don’t know where to go or what you’re looking for, you begin.
Staring intently at the ground, you’re searching for another one of those tracks that seemed so obvious in the loose dirt, but are now so elusive as you move into the tall grass. Your guide gently taps you on the arm and says, “Throw your eyes forward.” You look up, and at first all you see are trees, thorny shrubs (African thorns are crazy big, some are as long as your fingers), and grass. Your guide then points and whispers for you to notice the tall grass. There’s no need to whisper, but it feels like tracking should be quiet work.
You look at the grass, and you think, “I’m not getting this at all.” Then, you notice something: the waist-high grass is bent! You nearly laugh out loud because what was so obscure a moment ago is now obvious. The grass is parted like the Red Sea where the rhino passed through. Your guide smiles along with you as you pick up the pace. You’re thinking, “I’m nailing this!”, as you easily pick out the path where your rhino shuffled through.
You’re blazing a trail through the grass, and then you reach an open area where the grass has been grazed to the ground. Oh. No more rhino highway. You look down to see if you can spot any tracks… nope. You got so carried away thinking that the bent grass was the ticket to your rhino, that you realize it’s been a while since you last saw actual tracks — the only way to confirm you’re moving in the right direction.
You slump your shoulders and look at your guide dejectedly. You ask, “What do we do now?” Your guide replies, “We go back and find the last track we saw for sure — the last hot track — and begin again from there.” You’re a little indignant as you say, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Your guide says, “It’s your rhino.”
You backtrack, thinking you’re a total loser. But sometimes moving backward is the only way forward. You’re smart enough to understand that, in theory at least. You find the last hot track. It seems more lukewarm at best — it’s just the tiniest bit of rhino toe visible in a bit of loose dirt. It’s the only sign you’ve got.
You wonder if you’ll ever find this beast. Your guide catches you standing still in your reverie and says, “Try something.” You wander about aimlessly. Moving a bit left, then right, eyes searching for a bit of footprint, bent grass, a snapped twig — any of the signs you know. Nada. You’re demoralized.
Your guide seems to read your thoughts, smiles and gives you a little encouraging chuck on the shoulder as if to say, “I know, I’ve been there.” Your guide encourages you to breathe, lift up your head, and soften your gaze as you look around again. There… something catches your attention. You walk toward a broken branch. As you get closer, your guide and you notice that there’s a bit of dried mud on the branch. You look at him quizzically like, “How the hell did mud get on this branch?” Your guide pantomimes a big rhino who’s just had a lovely wallow in the cool mud, then lumbered through the brush, snapping small branches and leaving chunks of mud along the way. It’s quite the pantomime. You smile.
Now! You’ve spotted the track! You’re off again through the brush, reading the hot tracks faster and faster: footprint, grass, branch, mud. You’re getting closer, the mud is wetter, the tracks fresher. There! A steaming pile of dung — the hottest track there is! You look up, as your guide points to a few small birds that are bobbing up and down in place about 50 yards away. Oxpeckers! You’d learned that these unfortunately named birds alight on the large animals and pick the ticks off of them. They are tick-picking your rhino!
Your guide gestures for you to be quiet as you both slowly close the distance. You don’t want to spook the rhino when you’re so close. You quietly approach the last few yards through the dense brush. A branch cracks. Your heart rate shoots up a few points.
You both hunker down behind a termite mound. You look intently through the thicket. You only see the greens and golds of the bush, and a big gray boulder. Then, the boulder moves. You gasp as the rhino turns his massive head toward you. He perceives something, but you’re not alarming enough for him to bolt. You look into his prehistoric face, and you realize you’re looking at a beautiful dinosaur. Paydirt.
The rhino slowly turns and lumbers away, as you turn to your guide with a huge smile.