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Monday, September 25, 1995

Africa Journal - Tracking with Iona

Monday, September 25, 1995

Tracking with Iona
Meet Iona. She will be our guide on the morning game walk and the afternoon game drive. I am grateful for the change, as it was just getting too weird having an LJE lookalike as our nature guide. I was experiencing Oracle flashbacks.

Iona is a professional guide. They take this term very seriously in Zimbabwe, where they have the most rigorous guide certification policy in Africa. To become a professional guide requires written tests, a two year apprenticeship to a certified professional guide or hunter, and an invitation to take the final exam. The final exam is a seven day practical in the bush that makes "hell week" at the Citadel look like a stroll in the park. All in all, about a four year process. Last year there were exactly six professional guides certified in all of Zimbabwe. One of them was Iona. She is 22 years old. Now Iona will be the first to tell you that she made some mistakes in the final. As a result, her certification is contingent upon her completing some additional tasks. One of those assigned tasks was to kill an elephant. She has completed that task.

Now Zimbabwe is not generally considered to be at the forefront of feminism. The country stands on the two legs of Shona tribal custom (women walk behind the men and do all the domestic work so the men can hunt and fight wars) and white Rhodesian colonial patriarchy (women are deferential and do all the domestic work so the men can hunt and fight wars). Between them, there is not much room for young female professional guides. Which makes Iona’s accomplishment even more impressive. There is a very good story to be told here, but you will have to come to Zimbabwe and hear it from Iona herself.

Our morning game walk was with a couple from the U.K. who, like us, were celebrating their wedding anniversary. It was their thirtieth and our third. We dubbed the walk the Anniversary walk. Iona loads her rifle (required by law when a Professional Guide takes a client on a walk in the bush), and we are off. We saw antelope, baboons, many birds, and spoor for what Iona called a "damn big leopard". The tracks were from the previous night. She tracks the leopard back through our camp where we find the leopard had walked within two meters of Iona’s door, and seven meters of ours.

As the heat begins to build for the day, Sigrid and I go back to our lodge to wait out the afternoon sun. I go for a dip in the pool, work on the journal and relax. We hear a snorting shuffling noise outside the room. I look out the door and see nothing. Sigrid suggests that it sounds like someone dragging furniture on concrete. I agree and go back inside. These are tracking instincts deeply rooted in city life.

A few minutes later, we hear Iona outside the lodge "Mike, Sigrid, Come quick. There are elephants at the pool." The pool is directly behind our lodge. I grab the camcorder and jump out, but can already hear Ray at the pool shouting and clapping. As I arrive the elephants are disappearing into the bush. There had been six of them. Ray was apologetic, but was not interested in refilling and cleaning the pool, as had happened when one of the elephants decided to take a bath last week.

It is time for the afternoon game drive. It will be only Sigrid and I with Iona. Iona has a glint in her eye. "Would you like to go find those elephants?" she asks. Soon we are off in the Landcruiser, tearing around the dirt roads that circumnavigate the property.

Iona finds spoor where they crossed the road. We jump out. Iona loads the rife, Sigrid loads the Canon, I load the camcorder. We are tracking on foot. We don’t speak. Iona moves quickly and quietly. Sigrid and I move less quickly and less quietly. We are trying to get downwind of the elephant's path. Iona stops and crouches, and motions us to do the same. She listens intently, and points. The only sound is the soft humming of the camcorder. In a few seconds, they are crunching through the woods directly in front of us.

A bachelor herd, six in the group. We are up and moving again, trying to stay downwind. We stop and crouch behind a tree on the bank of a dry river bed. Iona thinks they will come this way. Again we hear them. The lead elephant is just on the other side of the tree. The wind swirls and they stop. They smelled us. We wait. They wait. They know we are around, can’t see us, and don’t like the fact that we are hiding. Iona stands, and motions us back. The elephants start to move. I stop to shoot video. A big bull elephant moves past the tree, turns and looks directly at me. He is maybe 20 meters away, maybe less. There we are, eye to eye - or, more accurately, I’m looking him in the eye, he’s looking me in the camcorder. Iona starts talking softly to the elephant, or maybe she’s talking to me " Easy big guy. Easy".

It is just as he turns and starts walking away that I notice STBY in the corner of the viewfinder. I was not recording. Ok, so I got a great shot of an elephant turning and walking away. In a few steps the herd has moved up the opposite river bed and completely disappeared.

It is like a magic trick. Now you see them. Now you don’t.

 Back in the Landcruiser where we follow a trail that ends at the remains of an elephant killed in a hunt.

Bleached skull and bones, dried skin. Iona is distressed. It was probably a licensed trophy kill, but the hunters did not take everything as they should. Meat was left to rot. It should have been carried out and given to the local people, who are not permitted to hunt elephant.

Finally, back to the waterhole, where Iona produces a bottle of champagne and glasses. As the sun sets, we all drink a toast to our anniversary with the champagne. All except the elephant at the waterhole, who chose to drink water. I think I love this place.

That night, dinner is served under the stars in the Buma, a circular corral of wood stakes.

 The tables are set up as a concentric circle inside the corral, and a small campfire burns in the middle. Dinner is grilled beef and chicken, with a variety of barbeque sauces, sudza, vegetables, salads and a red South African wine. Everything is delicious.

 Rob Clifford stands to toast the anniversary couples at dinner. They also baked us a cake.

To cap the night, we have Larry, I mean Ray, take us on one last night game drive.


NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: This is a back-post / cross-post from my first on-line journal/blogging effort - a journal of our Southern Africa Tour in 1995. Originally posted to an abandoned domain (, the term "blog" had not yet entered the parlance. I am migrating the original posts to this blog. Links to the original journal Date Index or Africa Tour Home Page will likely eventually disappear. The images from the original post were graphics and screen caps from video which I am leaving in it's low-rez glory for historical integrity. My intent is to also add some of Sigrid's higher quality scanned photos to these blog back-posts.  The difference in images should be obvious.

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