Lessons in the Sand


Tracking has been described as the oldest science known to man. It is a science because it relies on memory and it insists on rigorous procedure. There is a logical and rational process to be followed in a pursuit of patterns and probability. Things can be measured, and if we are not sure of the answer, we can embark on a systematic sequence of signs to decipher what walked here. Or ran. Or slithered. Or hopped. Or jumped. Or maybe disappeared completely as even animals which fly leave tracks sometimes too.

People that have never walked in the African bush before have identified the spoor of zebra because they have ridden horses. Warthogs, because they have farmed with pigs, and buffalo because of walking in fields of cattle. The structure of a cat’s paw does not surprise many, but out here, it is the size of that paw which takes one’s breath away.

But tracking is also an art. And art encourages imagination.  It is as much about challenging the question as it is about hunting the answer. As much as tracking requires science and memory, it requires intuition and creativity.  It requires the integrated use of the brains in our head, our heart and our gut.

It has been said that the !Kung people from the Kalahari desert were some of the very best trackers on the planet. Tracks and signs in their sandy schoolrooms would be remembered long into their adult life, and their powers of observation would be play acted through a theatrical pursuit of their prey. Upright postures with extended necks would be adopted for taller animals, whilst their gait would change for those with noses close to the ground. The tracker who understood the animal most may well have specialised in the following of that animal. It seemed it was much easier to find them if one was already in their skin.

It’s as though they practiced empathic tracking.

Seeing with the eyes of the other.

Hearing with the ears of the other.

Feeling with the heart of the other.

We often speak of the crucial ingredient of connection in leadership. In tracking, connection is essential for life.

Every time I go tracking, I learn something new – primarily about myself.  This time it was a stark and humbling lesson. Since my very first tracking experience I have loved this challenge of the meeting of the left and right hemispheres of logic and imagination – this blend between science and art which is tracking. The small tracks hold as much allure as the big ones.

One day, I was taking a tracking group for a walk and we encountered a perfect set of chameleon tracks beautifully embedded in the early morning sand, I was thrilled. Thrilled because I knew this track, and also because it was so distinct.  Maybe we’d find the actual creature and remove all doubt.

I intensified my gaze into the branches and stems of the young silver cluster leaf. Flapped necked chameleons can be pretty small and highly camouflaged, so I inspected every folded leaf from every angle and most importantly in this case, a dangerous amount of confidence.

Doubt had not yet entered my mind and, as a consequence, my doggedness grew in a determination to get the right result, until one of the novice trackers in our group pointed out the animal we were tracking.

“No ways, it can’t be.”

Well, it was. There, right up against the main small trunk, and still half covered by grass in the sand was the tiniest of Leopard Tortoises – no bigger than an original Lions match box!

In those few seconds I learned enough to fill a field guide. Maybe even a field guide to life?

  • If you follow the tracks of the animal, you will find the animal who left the tracks.

There is no getting around this. No matter how much you want to find a chameleon, if you are tracking a tortoise, you will find a tortoise. Try to apply this simple fact to your own life.  You may find many lessons.

  • Be clear about what you are tracking, otherwise you end up looking in the wrong places.

Tortoises do not climb trees. Nor even small shrubs. Period.

  • Over confidence and sticking stubbornly to a set of beliefs may take you down an unwanted and irreversible path.

This is a bit like getting on a train bound for Cape Town and hoping you will arrive in Durban. The tracks are laid out and the journey in this case has a predetermined destination.

  • If my ego is attached to my outcomes, I may be in trouble.

Pretending to have seen the tortoise and then covering up my search in the branches as a quest to find a chameleon as well, would be nothing short of lying to protect my image.   is not a desired trait in any Leadership book, blog or banter.

  • The newest recruit may have the best answer.

Whilst experience can be invaluable, so too can fresh eyes. They are unencumbered by the wrong experience. Sometimes thirty years of experience is not always a good thing – especially if I have been walking unaware and practicing bad habits.

There are so many lessons to be learnt in the sand and, indeed, everything leaves a track. It is the mark of our presence, an acknowledgement of our impact on this earth. We can map out where we have been, what we have consumed and where we have shopped. We can work out with whom we have been and with whom we haven’t. and as we look back over the twists and turns of the many branches of our journeys, we can see clearly the mistakes we have made or the opportunities we have grasped. The stories of our lives can be pieced together like intricate tapestries which would make for some interesting reading in reflection as we follow the pathways of our own puzzles.

As much as we must be conscious of the tracks we are leaving behind, are we also aware of what we are tracking in our lives?  Many times, I have lost sight of the tracks I am following.  Trackers sometimes refer to this process of being on ‘the path of not here’.  Significantly, the ‘path of not here’ is a huge part of the journey to the right path.

Leaders can learn much from trackers.  Not least that leadership is a journey that is best taken with the whole brain, and as the artistic scientists of the !Kung people might remind us, it is helped by a trusted gut, and an open heart.