You can read through the text below, or listen to the recording.
The late morning sun had a sting to it. A break is what I needed. I turned off the game path to a splash of shade around the trunk of a camel thorn. I had been following the path for about two hours. It was well-trodden, but there were very few tracks, or any fresh sign of life on it. Game paths are a good source of bush information, but I was beginning to lose faith in this one. More accurately, I was beginning to lose faith that there was game in the area in general, apart from small animals. Perhaps I should go more East, into the slight breeze? I wasn’t hopeful, but I had to do a bit more exploring before I could be certain of what was going on.
Most of the African wilderness is covered in a lacework of pathways. Some are tiny, less than a finger’s breath, made by ants or lizards; some are a little wider, by mice or rats or ground squirrels or mongoose; others are still wider, some ten centimetres, by jackal or perhaps porcupine or small antelope or pigs or hares, and then bigger, now easy to walk along, by larger antelope, and finally, big lanes, often more than a metre wide, by elephant and rhino and hippo. But irrespective of size each tells a story.
Creatures of the African wilderness have long learned that they can move around easier and safer if they follow pathways where they are able. Moving over virgin terrain in Africa at any scale consumes extra energy, takes longer, is typically noisy, and causes groups to spread out, increasing the danger from predators to individuals.
Most of the pathways go unnoticed or ignored by visitors from the civilised world. To me, they are a rich source of information about what is going on around me. They can fascinate me for hours on end.
Some pathways are short, on our scale – a few hundred millimetres, or a few metres. Some stretch for a few kilometres, and the ancient migration paths can stretch over huge distances – a hundred of kilometres or more.
Some pathways actually arrive somewhere – a waterhole or a mineral lick, or a favourite sunning spot, or just the last bit to the lair, or a place where it is open and safer to overnight… Others seem to lead nowhere. They start faint, grow into well-trodden lanes, then disappear, like where obstacles channel movement, or when a favourite grazing area is reached, or the ancient migration routes. They are trodden out to furrows that wind through the bush for hundreds of kilometres, but they fan out across seasonal grazing areas and fade away.
When I wander through the bush, I pay close attention to these pathways. Although I am not as confident a spotter and interpreter of game sign as someone who had spent each day of a lifetime in the bush, I can read a lot from them. Game paths that are well trodden out but show only the odd track, weeks or months old, like this one, says that the game does frequent the area, but for some reason have left, and roughly how long ago. On the other hand, from the larger paths that show reasonably fresh sign, I could gradually build a rough picture of the types of wild life that move around in the area and whether they are many, or just the odd straggler.
As I move through the veldt and encounter more paths, the picture gradually gains nuance and colour. The well-used paths are free of grass and debris and their surface is ground to fine aggregate in which sign can be read relatively easily. They capture evidence of not only the animals that had moved along them, but also those that had crossed them, or foraged along them, or used them for a short distance, like a resident leopard might do.
The signs on them provide many hints about the animals that had been there – subtle, but meaningful to the experienced eye. I could tell roughly long ago the animal had been there, often, what sex it is, whether it is young or mature, was in a hurry or just strolling along, or had taken fright and bolted off; sometimes even whether it was pregnant, or not feeling well – sick or exhausted from thirst. If taken against the background of the surrounding terrain and its features, it is sometimes possible to make quite a reasonably accurate guess on the animal’s purpose too.
I often follow the larger paths, to see if they converge – hopefully towards waterholes or salt licks. If they lead me to one of these, I would hit a treasure trove of bush information, nicely concentrated in a relatively small area. I find it fascinating to spend time around the edges of waterholes to piece together who visited, and when. It is usually possible to quickly form a reasonably reliable idea of the game population in the area – and sometimes, to get a whiff of the dramas that had played out there.
But this is about the paths and signs of larger animals. Equally fascinating are those made by small creatures; very small. They are as interesting, and usually much more abundant than those of the larger ones. But they are hard to notice; so fine that it requires careful attention on knees or haunches to even make them out. Sadly, much of what they tell remains, to me, undecipherable and unexplained. Their makers live in a world that is rich and vibrant, but mostly invisible and unknown to all but those whose religion it is to study them – and even amongst them, very few could recognise or interpret the signs they leave in the wild. That makes these small creatures, and the interaction they might have with the larger ones, like their predators, even more fascinating.
As I rose to go, I looked down at the ants carrying little bundles of earth out of their nest, and piling them neatly in a perfect ring around the entrance hole, just a few centimetres from my feet.
The African wilderness, a limitless source of fascination.