The Tracker/Ranger Team
The tracker/ranger team is at the heart of the Safari experience. When I grow up, the job that I want is definitely that of tracker, but I understand that I am not strong enough, patient enough, hard working enough, nor smart enough to handle it very well - if at all. In fact, now that I think about it, the very thought is ludicrous. I couldn't do the Ranger's job either, particularly when you add in the requirement to be nice to an endless string of bush ignorant tourists.
Over the nine days that we were in country we had three superb tracker/ranger teams that introduced us to their magical world in the bush. The ranger drove the vehicle and the tracker positioned himself prominently and precariously on the front bumper seat. They met us every morning at about five o'clock and said good night about nine o'clock. We didn't see either of them during the mid-day break between game drives. Every day, we drove wildly over hill and dale through copious amounts of dust, brush and mud and usually managed to litter the floor of the vehicle with at least some tourist trash. Every morning, we climbed into a bright, shiny, sparkling clean vehicle with each of our clean blankets carefully folded on the rail in front of our seat and everything (except us) in it's proper place. Somebody took care of the transformation while we slept and my strong suspicion is that the tracker had a hand in it. (My thanks too to whomever it is that regularly looks after the maintenance of the moving parts in these hard working vehicles.)
When we stopped every day for our morning coffee and our evening cocktail, the ranger and the tracker expeditiously took care of the set up and cheerfully acted as barista and bartender. Most of the palaver with the tourists seems to devolve to the ranger both in the vehicle and during the rest stops, but the tracker is usually willing to pose for the inevitable snap shot and modestly answer any questions specifically directed at him. (One frequently overheard was "Is it safe to go behind that tree over there to pee?") One morning, we met up with another vehicle and had a full breakfast deep in the bush. That day, the trackers transitioned into smiling chefs while one of the rangers taught his guests how to open bottles of champagne with a machete. We, of course, had the requisite glassware, china and silverware and sat in comfortable chairs - all of which miraculously appeared out of nowhere. All around us birds and butterflies amused photographers while the rest of the group rather unimaginatively chatted about the same things that they would in a backyard bar-b-cue back home.
Obviously, the most important part of the tracker/ranger team's job occurs on the game drive. During the drive, these two men are in constant communication - some of it verbal and some non-verbal. It is delightful to watch this process even though I didn't understand much of it. Each team was different, of course, but each engaged in constant communication. One team that we traveled with had been together for more than a decade and another had just met one another the week before we joined them. Understandably the two men who had worked together the longest did not say much during any particular drive. It sounds melodramatic, but these two men appeared to be telepathic. A look sufficed most of the time and, when it didn't, about all that was required for a change of direction was a nod of the head. The newly formed team understandably required more verbal communication, but non-verbal directions were still critical. When creeping up on a rhinoceros, for instance, the tracker would wiggle his forefinger to signify both direction and speed. When the ranger questioned the tracker it was usually with his eyes and hands, rarely with words.
On occasion, the ranger would stop the vehicle and the tracker would get off to study sign on the ground. During these stops the rest of us would, of course, clamor to learn who was walking where. (In the process I became something of an expert and can now reliably tell the difference between the tracks of an elephant and a leopard, but I am still working on the differences between a kudu and a wildebeest.) When necessary, the tracker might leave the vehicle entirely and walk off into the bush to follow a particularly interesting set of tracks. Sometimes we would wait for him to return and sometimes we would drive off to a mutually agreed landmark and wait for him to reappear. On rare occasion both the tracker and the ranger would go off chasing a leopard of a lion and those of us left in the vehicle would wish that we had paid closer attention to the twists and turns that we had taken since leaving camp. In each case that this occurred the team eventually reappeared and we were briefed on their findings. Sometimes they were successful and sometimes not.