Nicole Johnston goes on a survival course with author Lee Gutteridge and learns about the birds and the bees and the plants and the trees.
You can learn a lot in two days — as the growth industry in woolly weekends away attests — but much of it isn’t terribly useful in real life. Forty-eight hours spent in the company of Lee Gutteridge cuts straight to the heart of that trickiest of businesses: survival.
Not in a redneck, survivalist American backwoods kind of way, of course — Gutteridge’s approach is more of the how to get out into our great outdoors, look at some incredible plants and animals and avoid being stomped by an angry elephant kind of way.
A lifelong naturalist and highly experienced game guide, Gutteridge combines a dry wit with encyclopaedic knowledge of everything in the bushveld, from scorpions to sour plum trees and a walk with him is rather what I imagine a stroll with Gerald Durrell might have been like.
Thankfully, for those of us who don’t have a couple of decades to spend in the bush learning this stuff, he’s distilled his knowledge into a single volume that combines scientific knowledge with first-hand experience in an accessible format.
The book aims to do away with the need to trudge off into the bush weighed down by a bird book and a plant book and an insect book — instead it combines all the necessary information relevant to the area in one volume (the average game-park visitor doesn’t really need to slog around with a hefty tome which includes the nesting habits of coastal birds). It’s easy to use, with colour-coded sections for trees, flowers, reptiles, birds and mammals and each section is arranged alphabetically for quick reference.
But what sets this book apart from all the other guide books out there is its emphasis on track and signs. An entire section is devoted to tracking just about anything: from pangolin to puff adders.
Gutteridge runs a training school for game rangers in the Entabeni nature reserve and invited us to field test his field guide. By day two even the children in the group were able to use the book to identify spoor and tell us not just that we were looking at lion tracks, but whether the animal was male or female, whether it was strolling or sprinting and even to identify its tail prints.
In addition to meticulous sketches of each kind of track, the book includes photos of each track in different kinds of substrate: a rhino track looks quite different in deep mud than it does in soft sand.
I particularly enjoyed the attention paid to the tracks of the “micro-safari” creatures — tracing the progress of a dung ball being trundled along by a proprietary beetle or seeing tiny chameleon tracks crossing the vast spoor of an elephant — but I drew the line at examining the tracks of a horned baboon spider. Frankly, there are just some things I don’t want to know.
Another of those things I don’t really want to examine too closely is animal scat, but apparently its an essential part of tracking and, while I do find it fascinating that giraffe dung pellets spread out widely because they drop two metres and then bounce off the hind legs, that’s as close as I want to get. Gutteridge, on the other hand, dives excitedly on to a pile of porcupine dung — which looks rather like a string of sausages — and after 15 minutes I know more about the fibrous roots that are the mainstay of the porcupine diet than I had ever wished to imagine. But the children are fascinated and I’m relieved when he admonishes them not to handle animal scat because it can carry dangerous diseases.
I must confess I’ve never been too keen on game walks — I’d far rather view animals from a jeep or on the back of a horse where there is less chance of something scary sneaking up on me in the tall grass. Gutteridge makes it clear that while accidents can happen, they can easily be avoided if proper respect for wildlife is shown and the bush is not treated like Disneyland. My favourite line of the book reads: “A charging or a running animal is a failure on your part as a naturalist, as you have caused the animal to waste valuable energy and moisture resources.”
And for those who do happen to find themselves lost in the bush, there is a whole section on survival techniques.
Looking for water? Watch the doves — they fly to water singly and away from it in a flock;
Found some dirty water? Use a water-lily stem as a filtering straw;
Not sure if plants are edible? Spread some of the fruit on the inner side of your upper arm and see if its starts burning;
Poisoned yourself by eating the wrong thing? Scrape some charcoal off burned wood and swallow a handful with some water.
Gutteridge says he wrote the book to appeal to a wide range of readers, from tourists to professional game guides, and it works on several levels, depending on the reader’s level of understanding. My 14-year-old son has been unable to put it down ever since we returned from Entabeni and can regularly be found poring over it for hours, eschewing the goggle-box to read out snippets about hyenas and snakes to me. Now that’s what I call a result.