Observations from South Africa

Most of my written work is usually “how to”, but this one is a little different. I had an overwhelming urge to share with you my experience in South Africa on a recent CPD training course I had arranged for myself and Kevan Palmer, senior instructor here at Woodland Ways.

So this blog is probably more emotive than practical, more “you could” rather than “how to”

But I believe it has relevance to your own practices when learning any of the branches that come under the umbrella of outdoor living skills, or bushcraft, or wilderness living skills, or survival… however you wish to coin the phrase.

In this case, our CPD training was focused on Animal Tracks and Sign, species of the South African Bush, and followed by continued familiarisation with the terrain and species within this area.


CPD is undoubtedly important. It has huge implications for a small business in terms of physical cost and time, however the benefits that it can bring to our teaching is immense. It takes years and years to recover the cost, however it does add so much to both your own personal skills and those skills that you are teaching. Myself, like a lot of other instructors in the industry, have invested tens of thousands of pounds in both time and resources over the years to get to the stage where we are in our careers. But in early 2014 I recognised that I had been focusing so much on the training of my team of instructors, and the operation of the business… that I had neglected to take into account my own continual training, and that of my senior instructor Kev. There was lesson number one for myself.

We had completed lots of internal instructor training. We had paid for Joseph to head out to the Sahara desert and undertake training, Danny’s rota was re worked so he could head to Norway with Patrick of Backwoods Survival to learn, we had inundated Adam with hide after hide and provided the time and finance in order for him to further develop his hide tanning and craft skills. Martyn had been financed to Kenya… the list goes on.

But we are all students, and just because I had been teaching for years does not make me any different. I had taken a back step from teaching in 2014 due to the birth of my daughter, so this reduction in teaching (and therefore learning) in the woods on a daily basis would obviously mean my skills sets were not honed as much as I would like. It’s true that in 2014 I had run trips to Kenya with the Maasai, Canoeing in Sweden, and Tracking in Croatia… but these overseas trips, although skill enriching, are not the same as teaching in the woodlands day in day out.

So from the summer onwards I decided to throw myself into a number of training courses, from intensive canoe instruction, field craft & stalking, willow working, to spending training days with the British Deer Society- I have thrown myself back into my own learning. The latter was a great example of continual learning. I’ve always had a passion for deer, hence our logo… and have tracked them and observed them for many years now, but I still know little in the vast subject of deer! So I spent the day with a chef, a deer manager, a game dealer a wildlife crime officer and BDS Staff.


Our recent visit to South Africa was the next part of this journey as myself and Kevan embarked on a Track and Sign course, and then assessment, on our knowledge.

The course was delivered by the legendary tracker and highly qualified game ranger Colin Patrick. We had contacted Colin back in early 2012 with the hope of running a tracking/game ranger course in South Africa in partnership. Unfortunately the dates would just not come together with all of the teams varying commitments and so I “parked” the idea until we could get out to meet him in person and spend some time in the bush. 2014 was the next available opportunity.

I was overjoyed to be training again for my own cpd. Working in a team we learn through proxy a lot of the time, however it is incredibly valuable to remove yourself from your immediate surroundings and learn from an outside influence. This course would also push us, why? Because we would be learning the tracks of animals we knew comparatively little about.

It was a highly unusual experience to learn to identify track and sign from fauna of which I was unfamiliar! I was learning the imprint left behind, but did not know actually what the animal looked like, or what its characteristic behaviours were. But from the sign that was left I was able to build up a picture of what the animal was like, how it looked, how it walked… and I felt this incredibly insightful into both the physical nature, and also the mind, of the animal.


Was this a disadvantage? Well yes most definitely from an assessment point of view, but it was also a wonderful opportunity to learn to learn from a different perspective, and I hope you can take something from this learning experience away for yourself in your own learning cycle. It struck me completely that to study a subject from a different angle than what was the “norm” was a huge challenge, but a very strong way to learn. It was like learning in reverse.

We arrived at the private game reserve the day before and pulling up at the heavily armoured gate we were already expected. Being in my line of work does open a few doors and opportunities… no sooner had we arrived we had a knock on our accommodation door and an invite to go out with one of the rangers with 3 of his trainees as they had spotted some interesting tracks. Within 5 minutes we were in the back of a flat bed truck bouncing down a load of sandy tracks quite literally whizzing past vervet monkeys (my first introduction to the species), baboons, rhino, giraffe and impala (of which I was a little more familiar with from our expeditions in Kenya). Yes- I had a grin on my face.

We spent an hour or so with the Ranger picking up a few hints and tips on sign, his knowledge was hugely impressive and inspiring, and then we retired for the evening ready for the course the following day.

The group began to form in the morning and I greeted it with the same enthusiastic warm buzz I get back here when running my own course. Lots of people all coming together under a common subject with a thirst for knowledge and to learn, in my view it does not get much better than that. There were some incredibly interesting and inspiring people on the course. Josh, an English guy along with Iska his German partner who had just completed 6 months ranger training in the bush through Bushwise. There was Matt who had done the same course the previous year, returned to the UK to undertake an NCFE instructors course with John Ryder and was now back out in the bush to continue learning. There were South Africans, Dutch and more, a very eclectic mix… and then leading us all was Colin Patrick.

Lion cub

I had heard great things about this man’s ability to track, and at no point during the course was I disappointed! His attention to the detail of each track was incredible, picking up on the slightest movement to be in a position to tell you something about the animal. Truly inspirational.

Colin said right at the start of the course one of the reasons he likes tracking was that it enabled us to learn correctly. By that he meant that you learn through making mistakes, not just being marked right or wrong. This was exampled for me perfectly when he immediately took us outside to look at three tracks. As it turns out it was an old giraffe print (not a human foot as I thought), a Blue Wilderbeast (OK I got as far as cloven hoof but that was all), and a tortoise (didn’t see that one coming at all). It was strange though as although I could not identify the animal, my previous tracking experience kicked in for investigating what the sign could tell me. I spotted transference immediately, able to tell the direction of travel. I also spotted that one was a recent track as we had the night before had rain and some of the sand had stuck to a blade of grass… of which it could not have done to a dry/scorched blade of grass… but it was very strange to pick up all that information, and not have a clue what the animal was, after all, this is what we would be assessed on 5 days later!

I wanted to push myself (and Kev), I was convinced that I would not pass (a pass mark is 70% and upwards based on 50 questions). A challenge in itself, not withstanding not being familiar with either the substrate or indeed the animals we were to track. In order to achieve a Grade One pass you had to score 70-79%, Grade 2 80-89%, Grade 3 90-99% and Grade 4 100%- again all based on 50 questions). When Colin asked why I was doing it, my response was I wanted to learn to read again. I was familiar with and so could read European tracks and sign, but I had never been to South Africa before, and so it was just like learning a new language!
The course started to take form, we would go out to identifying track and sign during the early part of the day, and into the afternoon and evening. We would also spend time learning about the animals themselves, observing male Rhino stimulated to defecate after the female had done so, spreading scent by either forwards or backward scraping of the foot. Watching the placement of the hands of the vervet monkeys, and observing impala as they did not direct register… all of this information, and so much more, was logged into my notebook and then taken away for further revision each evening.


It was pushed on to us that we could not cover every track and sign in the training period alone, and so upon assessment day we may be asked about sign that we had not come across during the training period, and so each evening was spent not just revising what you had covered, but also researching what you had not!

Halfway through the course we were very privileged to be invited in to an animal rehabilitation centre where we were able to get very close and personal with some of the animals, their feet, and to observe their fresh prints. I can honestly say that is the first time that I have been inside a cage with a cheetah… and stroked her! Poor Kev nearly had a heart attack after we had been studying one very impressive male lion who then took it upon himself to do a false lunge at him, both the lion and Kev can move quick when they want to!

The course continued with further mammal tracks, onto bird sign, snakes, and insect… even tracking an engorged Tick, that particular track is now imprinted in my memory. Inevitably the assessment day came around. Under very strict conditions Colin now became assessor. There was a drive out to an area, he would circle a track and then circle a larger area around the track and ask questions… What is it, which direction is it heading, male or female, left foot or right foot, front or rear… We were marked, the answers were reviewed, and we moved on. The pressure was really on now and you could tell this in the group. There was complete silence as everyone wanted to concentrate, interspersed with a great amount of humour when the pressure eased momentarily.
Following all the questions Colin then had to leave in order to tot up all the scores and so we agreed to reconvene in a couple of hours, an apprehensive wait! With one exception, one HUGE South African guy who had been tracking for over 10 years had joined us on the assessment as the previous week he had come really close to 100%, he was invited back… and yes you guessed it, he got it. It was incredibly humbling to see how much it meant to this giant of a man as he broke down in tears and thanked Colin and everyone for their support. He later went on to explain that he had financed all of this himself and it could lead now to an income for his family… my result felt inconsequential at that moment.

We waited a few hours and then were called up one by one, thankfully I had achieve a hugely respectable 89% and was awarded my level 2 badge and certificate, Kevan again with a massively impressive 86% was awarded his achievement too. Not bad considering we had to learn the animals from the track upwards!

So this brings me back to my original point of the article. No matter how much you feel you don’t know about a subject, it is not necessarily required to study it in the usual manner. We didn’t know much about the animals we were studying, and so learnt them from their tracks. You may not know much about trees, but by studying the firebow it will inevitably teach you your sycamores from your beech. You may not necessarily know your stars, but by learning just the Eastern sky in the winter you can build a map to the other constellations you may not usually consider… I think (or hope) you get my point. Bushcraft is a wonderful subject to study, it is truly never ending… and if one line of study approach does not work for you, do not fear trying another approach to the same subject!


Please note due to a huge increase in poaching in South Africa not all animals have been shown and those that have been shown are pictured from a number of reserves that were visited during our time in South Africa.

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