African trackers – the last of a vanishing breed

By Kyle Ball

M.D. Robin Hurt. Coenrard Vermaack. Gary Kelly. Gordon Mace. Paul Ferreira. Carl Stormanns – professional hunters all, and well-known operators in their respective countries. In any gathering of safari hunters, many men will have either hunted with one or more of these men, or know someone who has.

 

Nicholas. Dhouglass. Kunze. Joseph.  These names may mean little as they are read off the page, but many hunters – and  their employers for certain – know that they are the most indispensable and critical members of a safari team. For these men are the trackers.

Raised from an early age in what is rapidly becoming a bygone era, these men, with their uncanny and almost mystical – some would say magical – abilities, have a following among safari hunters that borders on the cult-like.

On safaris in which the client shoots well and kills quickly, the tracker’s job appears minimal to the uninformed, but when the quarry is not hit well and escapes into the surrounding bush, then the tracker’s skill is put to the utmost challenge. For the overwhelming majority of today’s top trackers, their livelihood is guaranteed by their employer on a year around basis, not just during the five to six month safari season each year. These men are full-time employees of the safari company, often times living on their professional’s farm or homestead on a full-time basis, thus ensuring full-time employment and thus full-time access to their professional hunter. This is a win-win situation for all concerned and, ultimately, is a supreme form of recognition of their position as their professional’s “Number One.”

Evaluating the scene of the shot, the tracker takes stock of the clues that have been left – any traces of blood, hair or bone.  But, more importantly than those signs, are the tracks of the departing animal.

The ability to track an animal over any terrain is what makes these “magicians of the bushveld” such a pleasure and privilege to watch. To be able to examine a track and deduce whether the animal is running or walking; favoring one side over the other; gaining elevation (indicating strength), or heading for lower ground (indicating weakness). If blood is present, what type of blood (arterial or venous)? All this ultimately points to the actual location of the bullet strike.

Tracking is not only about obvious signs such as tracks on the ground, sun angle, shadows, moisture, and a blood spoor. It is more about becoming totally attuned to the surroundings, especially when tracking dangerous game, and more especially when these animals are wounded. “Reading the bush” when tracking is as vital as obvious signs, and with dangerous game can mean the difference between living and dying. Walking straight into an animal’s personal zone is extremely dangerous, especially with elephant and buffalo, and the ability to read all of the signs to prevent this event from occurring is what sorts out the true trackers as against the mere “spoor followers”. Patience is a vital requirement in these circumstances and is an attribute that these men possess in abundance.

As with tracking, the understanding between the professional hunter and his tracker takes years to develop.  In extreme situations such as tracking a wounded dangerous game animal in thick bush, the understanding has to be complete and wordless. Each man has his own function to perform, and each is totally dependent on the other for their very lives. The tracker is completely focused on reading the signs; the professional hunter takes a broader overview of the bush, assessing second by second from every sight, sound, and smell, the proximity of the animal being pursued. The trust between the two is implicit; the tracker is not normally armed; his life depends totally on the skills and courage of his professional hunter. In those follow-up situations, being accompanied by the client (unless he is highly skilled and experienced} often complicates proceedings, as invariably he or she is traumatized and nervous and armed; all-in-all a potentially lethal trifecta. The fewer people in this situation, the better – ideally no more than two.

These are a few of the assessments that a tracker makes as he follows a wounded animal. For these men, it is second nature, a nature that has been with them all of their lives. It is only after a long and arduous tracking job, when the trophy has been secured that their full measure can be fully appreciated.

For Dhouglass Kondile (pronounced Kondelee) – Gordon Mace’s number-one tracker – life began on a farm outside Alicedale in South Africa’s Eastern Cape on 8 August, 1958. He was a member of the Xhosa nation (one of the nine tribes of South Africa). His parents separated and divorced when he was still a baby, and his grandfather Zicina “Jim” Kondile then became responsible for his upbringing. According to African tribal custom, Dhouglass’s grandfather thus became his father.

Jim Kondile was born in the same region in 1889 and died there in 1976 at the age of 87. For his entire working life, Jim lived there and worked for cattle ranchers and sheep farmers. In those days, specialist game ranches were virtually unknown as there was very little value attached to game. Problem game, however, abounded in the area. Bushpigs, caracal, jackals and leopard were the primary offenders and these animals wreaked untold havoc on the farmers in terms of bushpigs damaging fences and the predators destroying calves and lambs. All the farmers employed men to control these animals, and the most successful among them was Jim Kondile.

While Dhouglass was still a boy, he would accompany his grandfather into the bush on the Problem Animal Control (PAC) expeditions which could last for weeks at a time. They were paid a bonus for each problem animal killed. Life in those days was tough, unforgiving and relentless, and thus the earning of these bonuses was vital for the family’s upkeep. Dhouglass was fortunate to have come under the tutelage and watchful eye of Jim Kondile whose entire livelihood was dependent on his skills as a tracker, and for the next ten years the vanishing art of tracking was deeply implanted into the very core of Dhouglass’s soul and psyche.

The upbringing and training of the majority of today’s top trackers parallels that of Dhouglass Kondile. The skills that these men possess are lifelong skills, instilled and reinforced from an early age, and that is why today’s top professional hunters know that tracking cannot be taught in the short term. It is a skill that can only be acquired over the long term, and requires years in the bush to develop into full potential.

Describing the characteristics of their valued trackers, professionals that I have hunted with use words such as “quiet…reserved…respectful… pleasant… possessing a keen sense of humor”.   All consider their trackers consummate professionals themselves, and use these attributes to judge all other professionals, both professional hunters and trackers, by the standards they set. Few, if any, attain their lofty status. They are the ultimate “walk the walk” men as against the more normal “talk the talk” men.

And so, to have the opportunity to hunt with these men and witness first hand their incredible abilities is a rare and highly valued privilege.

Two stories come immediately to mind regarding the prowess of these African trackers, Douglass and Joseph: The first one involves Carl Stormann’s tracker – Joseph Manome – a descendant of the famed Zulu tribe.

Early one morning, while hunting kudu in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, an American client wounded a large bull kudu in the front leg – a superficial wound but one that drew blood. As the hunting party began the long and arduous follow up, the client began whining about the “wasted hunting time” that would be expended on this search and the likelihood of it being an unsuccessful event. The professional quickly reminded the client that they had both a professional and a moral imperative to locate and dispatch this wounded trophy animal,. regardless of what was required to accomplish that goal.

The client nonetheless continued whining about “lost” hunting time and finally directly challenged the tracker’s ability to find this slightly wounded animal.

“I’ll bet you $1000 U.S. that you cannot find that kudu,” was his boastful challenge. The professional hunter immediately translated the challenge to Joseph, who upon hearing this, proceeded to make the client comfortable near the safari vehicle, providing food and water from the chop box.

Then Joseph and Carl set off on the spoor. Initially, there were occasional droplets of blood to be found, but the blood soon petered out. The tracking took them over ridges and down valleys; over sand, rocks, and through thickets. This quest continued even through the hottest hours of the midday sun, and still they went on relentlessly. Finally, after seven and a half hours of this dedicated pursuit, Joseph slowly crept over the top of a small ridge and there – partially obscured in the valley brush below – stood the bull kudu. Taking deliberate aim, Carl sent a .300 H&H Magnum softpoint through both shoulders, effectively ending the saga that had consumed the entire hunting day.

Joe, after assessing the bull, immediately oriented himself and then took off with a confident air, walking as directly as the terrain would allow – straight back to where he had left the client nearly eight hours before. As he approached, the client stood up and immediately could see the blood on Joe’s hands, and he knew. He knew that Joseph had taken the scenario from hopeless to joyful as he had accepted the challenge, and through his abilities had successfully achieved a victory from the jaws of defeat. But much more importantly for Joe, he had made the client “put his money where his mouth was” and had vindicated his abilities to track in even the most difficult of scenarios.

The second story revolves around Dhouglass and a buffalo hunt in the jesse bush of Zimbabwe’s famed Zambezi Valley. The hunting team had found fresh buffalo tracks as they had left a waterhole early one July morning. The lone Dagga Boy was returning to thick bush after drinking at a nearby waterhole. As the hunting team entered the thickets, the wind was constant and in their faces.

After approximately two hours of following the spoor, Dhouglass pointed to the ground and glanced at Gordon. They both realized that they had just crossed their own walking track. This meant that the buffalo had circled in an attempt to get downwind of them and determine their exact location.

They continued very slowly on the track. After another ten minutes, they again crossed their own tracks. Silently, the team moved to the safety of a nearby tree to review the situation that they now found themselves in.

By circling, the Dagga Boy knew it was being followed and was preparing an ambush somewhere ahead. If that attack was allowed to be initiated, it would occur suddenly, without warning, and from extremely close quarters. The hunting party had now crossed over the line of safety and had ceded the advantage to the buffalo. To continue further courted disaster. Knowing when to “back off” in a dangerous game situation is what separates the men from the boys.

Do not lose the opportunity to see for yourself, because with each passing year, more and more of these professional trackers are retiring from active safari work, and fewer and fewer younger men are being raised to replace them. Unfortunately, with urbanisation and the lure of a modern lifestyle and job opportunities, there are fewer small villages that in the past have produced the young men who wanted to develop the skills that their fathers and grandfathers possessed. This is the pressing problem for professional hunters.

Meanwhile, these exceptional trackers continue their daily work – quietly; patiently; and professionally as they assist their professional hunters to ensure the safety and success of their clients’ safari adventures.

Despite the evolution of today’s “modern” safaris, they will always remain THE one indispensable part of every safari… for they are the trackers.

 

Dr. Kyle Ball is a practicing OB-GYN physician in Jackson, Mississippi, who has hunted extensively throughout the US/Canada/Mexico as well as five continents. He is an avid writer, recording his adventures with more than 50 published articles.  He is a Life member of SCI; NRA; Alaskan Professional Hunters Association, with Memberships in PHASA; IPHA and DSC.

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