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There's no experience quite as humbling as walking in the bush. Strong coffee percolates while you lace up your boots and wait for the sun to come up before your feet hit the trail. You smell wild aniseed, see an African monarch butterfly land on a nearby twig, and you realize that one of the most rewarding aspects of walking in the bush is being able to study nature up close. Modern lifestyles have disconnected us from our senses and in some ways we have forgotten to really smell, touch, see and hear what's around us, as nature intended. On foot, where dangerous game such as elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard, crocodile and hippo are found, these senses become heightened and can give you subtle clues to what may be lurking nearby. The hissing 'zzzzzitt' from a red-billed oxpecker could give away the presence of their host animals, such as rhino and buffalo, or the breaking of a branch could indicate the presence of an elephant. Conducting guided walks in dangerous game areas such as Ulusaba is no easy task and all of our field guides and trackers undergo intensive training to learn the essential skills required to conduct safe and enjoyable walks. As a new field guide intern at Ulusaba, I was tasked with obtaining my walking qualifications, which meant one thing lots of walking.
On one particularly memorable walk, myself and one of our other guides, Matt, walked from Ulusaba camp to the Sand River. On this walk we climbed up to the top of "Bruce's Koppie", a small hill formed by the intrusion of granite dykes approximately 3, 6 million years ago. From the top of this hill we were able to get a great vantage point to scope for any big game in the valleys below. After admiring a pair of klipspringers and a few giant plated lizards warming up on the rocks in the early morning sun, we descended and headed north. Shortly afterwards, we came across elephant tracks. The front foot track was at least 60 cm in length and the fine fingerprint like cracks of the sole of the elephant's foot were crisp and clear. One thing was for sure, these tracks were fresh. We followed the tracks, looking for any tell-tale signs of broken branches were the bull might have been feeding, when suddenly we heard him brushing past the leaves of a large fruited bushwillow. The wind was perfect, blowing from the elephant towards us so that he wouldn't pick up our scent. We quietly moved behind a massive termite mound where a large marula tree had been pushed over to provide us with cover and watched this bull go about his daily business as though we were not even there. One thing that continues to amaze me about elephants (no matter how many times I see them) is their sheer size and grandeur. Being on foot in wildest Africa and watching the largest land mammal on earth move silently through the bush is an extremely humbling experience and is a true privilege. These hidden dimensions of a world that is lost to many of us can only be explored in these areas for as long as we continue to conserve them through successful conservation initiatives. To get a true sense of this, one has to truly experience it for themselves.
So lace up your boots, your experience on foot at Ulusaba is waiting...
Shaun D’Araujo and the Ulusaba Ranger and Tracker team.
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