In praise of Excellent
In my last blog post, which you can read here (I recommend it), I wrote about my recent visit to South Africa, which included a glorious safari weekend at Naledi Game Lodge in the Balule Nature Reserve on the fringes of Kruger National Park.
In Part 1 I sang the praises of Oupa, our driver and guide, who hurtled us through the bush in a huge truck, and who got us nearer than might be thought possible to an extraordinary range of wildlife, including lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, rhinos, zebras, impala, wild dogs and a splendid leopard.
Here in Part 2 I’m going to say nice things about Oupa’s colleague, Excellent, who spends his working life balanced precariously on a high seat over the truck’s bonnet. It’s Excellent’s job to track and spot the animals, using his skills at interpreting footprints and other signs.
Tracking in Africa
From his elevated perch at the front of the safari truck, Excellent maintains an intense and uninterrupted focus on spotting animals in the bush. He scans the sky, the trees, the bushes, the grass, the earth. He notes footprints, faeces, gnawed bones, trodden ground. He listens for noises (calling, roaring, chomping, squawking) from nearby beasts and birds, and he listens for human voices from his radio, his phone, and from his colleague Oupa.
Instinct, long experience, thorough training and razor-sharp observational skills combine to make Excellent excellent at his work. He misses nothing. He points a finger to signal a change of direction, and Oupa responds unquestioningly, hurling the truck to and fro regardless of terrain. And then he presents us with our trophy: a perfect view of a wild animal or group or herd or pride thereof, a perfect tableau of nature at its seemingly most natural.
Because, of course, we are on safari, and part of the deal is that you have to come home from a safari with a trophy. Not so long ago, it would be the head or the hide or the horns of some unfortunate beast which has been posed in front of you by your tracker for you to shoot with your rifle. But that doesn’t happen on this particular nature reserve (although it still does happen in other places not so far away). Here in Balule, Excellent brilliantly provides us with endless photo-opportunities as our trophies.
In my safari pictures, of which there are many, the most persistent and prominent feature caught on camera is a rear view of either Excellent or his colleague Oupa.
On one day, between drives, Excellent leads us on an hour-long gentle walk through the bush. He brings with him an antiquated but very dangerous-looking rifle, for use in case we’re approached by any creature with sharp teeth and/or big trampling feet and hostile intent. Worryingly he tends to use this weapon as a pointer, brandishing it in all directions as he shows us the leaves on a bush, footprints crossing the track, and the finer points of many different varieties of poop.
It crosses my mind to wonder whether Excellent’s firearm is genuinely to be used in defence of the lives and wallets of the Lodge’s guests, or is merely a theatrical prop deployed to add an extra element of excitement and thrill to an otherwise harmless and risk-free excursion. So I ask him when was the last time he had to shoot an animal on one of his walks, but receive no response other than an enigmatic smile.
Excellent points out a giraffe’s footprint and shows us which way it’s headed: towards the water hole. He tells us which bushes the animals like to eat, and which ones they avoid because of high levels of tannins in the leaves. We inspect trees knocked over by elephants and are given an expert analysis of black rhino poop. It appears that the arrangement of their teeth means they chomp up grass at an angle, so if you see jobbies containing undigested stems cut at 45o, it means a black rhino has passed this way. Who knew, except Excellent?
Here in this part of Africa, as perhaps everywhere in the wild (I know nothing about the wild) faeces feature heavily. We watch a dung beetle rolling a perfect sphere of elephant shit much larger than himself, while fighting off another and much larger dung beetle who wants to steal it from him. His intention is to present his dung-ball to his chosen female so that she can lay her egg inside it. If, after examination, his paramour rejects his offering, he’ll have to start all over again.
To a city person, it is all very strange, all very exciting, all somewhat unsettling. And yet at the same time it is all very familiar. After all, I’m a tracker too.
Tracking in Scotland
A few days after getting home to Edinburgh, I’m back in my own natural habitat, where, like Excellent, I conduct a version of tracking and spotting and trophy-hunting. In this pursuit, I’m doing very much the same as what he does when seeking out wildlife in the bush: deploying similar aptitudes and expertise, and engaging finely-attuned senses in a similar way. He uses mainly vision and hearing; I use mainly vision and touch.
In my native urban environment, I’m off on safari to the local salerooms and charity shops hunting for interesting and valuable objects lurking in the underbrush. I concede that my discoveries are seldom quite so spectacular and dramatic as those of the redoubtable Excellent – none of the objects for which I hunt are likely to chase or eat each other – but it’s indisputable that my excitement and satisfaction at spotting a rare vase are quite as intense as that of Excellent when he spots a hyena.
My first stop is a large Salvation Army shop. Elbowing my way through the forest of clothing, which holds no interest, I make for the bric-a-brac, the pictures and the books, scanning shelves, handling objects here and there, focussed intently on spotting something unusual, something you wouldn’t expect to find in a landscape generally characterised by low-grade homewares, cheap china, trashy novels, grease-spotted cookbooks, kitsch prints.
And there! Look! A distinctive object lurking on a low shelf: a large, sombre, very brown vase with simple black and yellowish decoration on the shoulder and neck. In shape and colour it reminds me of the décor found in lower-middle-class terraced cottages of the 1930s. I pick it up and look at the underside, expecting to find an unglazed stoneware base, marked with a maker’s name such as Lovatt’s or Bourne Denby – in which case I’ll put it back down and move on.
But the base is glazed and the vase seems to be made from earthenware and not stoneware, and – ooh, that’s interesting! – it has an impressed mark WEDGWOOD, and – yet more interesting! – it isn’t marked ENGLAND. Which means that it must be from before 1891, the date from which all Wedgwood ware was marked with the country of manufacture.
By now I know I’m on to something. This isn’t low-grade mass-produced ware for the 20th century suburban market. Instead it must be late Victorian Art Pottery with influences from the Aesthetic and Arts-and-Crafts movements. But hold on a moment – I didn’t know Wedgwood made that sort of stuff. This object needs some serious research.
On my urban safari I had tracked and sighted a rare beast. It had a sticky label on it saying CHIPPED: £5.00. I paid for it and brought my trophy home. Excellent would have been proud of me!
To complete the tale, you should know that my vase turns out to be a very rare beast indeed. It was made at the Wedgwood factory by (or under the supervision of) George Anthony Marsden, whose patent for a process for making tiles was bought by Wedgwood in 1880 and who was employed at the Burslem factory for the next decade, making mostly tiles, but also trying out his process on a few pieces of pottery. It wasn’t a popular or profitable line, and production fizzled out around 1889. As a result, examples of Wedgwood Marsden’s Art Ware are very scarce. (You can see a video about them here).
On the rare occasions when a piece of this ware appears on the market, it is fought over by a small group of specialist collectors as voraciously as a lion and a hyena will tussle for an impala carcase in Balule Nature Reserve. As I write, the vase is listed for sale on eBay. If (as I hope) it sells for a decent price, I’ll follow my usual practice in these circumstances and donate a portion of the proceeds back to the Salvation Army, so that they receive an approximate equivalent to the price they should have charged had their in-house trackers spotted the piece before I did.
The bush and the city
So in the end what’s different between the tracking that Excellent does in the bush and the tracking that I do in the city? Not much. We’re both highly skilled at looking for hidden things in an entirely familiar terrain, with a high statistical probability that we’ll find something interesting if we look for long enough. What makes us successful is our familiarity with our habitat, and our radar for spotting something out of the ordinary. If our locations were exchanged, I suspect that Excellent would be as ineffective at seeking out Random Treasure as I would be at spotting wild animals.
We have a knack, but we also have an advantage. Both Excellent and I have the odds stacked in our favour when it comes to successful tracking, because we both set out to seek our game in controlled conditions where our chances of finding it are much better than random.
In the first episode of this blog I suggested that perhaps the distribution and variety of wildlife in the Balule Nature Reserve is more abundant than would occur in an entirely natural environment. There might be some careful backstage engineering and management which encourages or motivates the right animals to be in the right place at the right time to thrill, educate and entertain the visitors.
I’m not objecting to this in any way. Conservation of wildlife is an expensive business and must be paid for. There’s no way that the voters of South Africa would or should agree to their government meeting all the cost of doing what is needful to preserve the integrity and diversity of the country’s amazing wilderness. So it is encouraging that the private sector should also wish to be involved.
It seems to me to be preferable that this private investment should be used to promote non-violent, relatively non-invasive tourism, rather than the myriad other types of land exploitation which might be available to owners as alternatives (shooting, mining, farming, industrial development, etc). And better still that some privately-owned land (such as the Balule Nature Reserve) is run co-operatively by its several proprietors in the best interests of the ecology of the terrain and the diversity and wellbeing of its animal inhabitants.
It is better, too, for the tracker Excellent. How much easier and more effective must his expert job be when assisted not only by the technology of a fast vehicle, radio and mobile phone, but also by having so many of his target animals concentrated by clever management into a limited area.
Compare the effort required to do his professional work with that of, say, a Zulu hunter of a hundred or more years ago. He (almost certainly a he) had no means of travel other than his legs, no weapon available to secure his prey other than a spear, no way to scare off other predators, and no scientifically-proven techniques to attract edible wildlife to his bush doorstep.
I’m not in any way trying to belittle Excellent’s expertise. Absolutely not. He’s brilliant. All I’m suggesting is that his chances of spotting a trophy animal in his hunting territory are very much greater than they would be if the land were truly in its natural state.
As are my chances of success in my natural habitat in Scotland. Despite my insistence throughout the many entries in this blog that my miscellaneous treasures really are found at random, in fact there’s nothing random about my tracking behaviour at all. In my charity shop and saleroom habitat, I’m hunting amongst a range of objects which have been to a certain extent pre-selected and gathered into a curated display.
Behind the scenes in the charity shop stock-room, someone – probably a volunteer – has sorted through the donations and has chosen from among them those which will be neatly displayed on the shop shelves for sale. Even if the sifters and merchandisers don’t know that a vase is a great rarity (as they didn’t with my Wedgwood Marsden’s vase), they will at least have a general view on what is suitable for sale in the shop and what should go directly into the trash. For the tracker, this simple form of curation greatly reduces the effort involved in seeking out a rare treasure lurking at the back of a shelf.
Similarly, in the saleroom the auctioneer chooses which objects he or she will accept for sale from among a much larger number offered by sellers. Acceptance for inclusion in the auction catalogue will depend on the object’s perceived potential to attract a winning bid which will generate commissions high enough to cover the auction house’s running costs.
Local auctioneers invariably have finely-attuned antennae for what will sell and what won’t, but this doesn’t mean that they always spot the best and rarest pieces. They tend to be generalists, lacking the time and specialist knowledge required to research in detail every obscure and arcane object which comes through the door. From time to time they miss or mis-identify an important or valuable piece, thus providing the tracker, the hunter for Random Treasure, with the opportunity to swoop in and grab a bargain.
Say for example that any 200 objects displayed on shop shelves or saleroom tables have been sorted and sifted from perhaps 1,000 totally random household objects. Operating in this rarefied environment, an experienced tracker improves fivefold the chances of bagging a trophy. As with Excellent in the managed bush of Balule, expertise and skills are still required for success, but the total input of effort is very much reduced.
A final observation. As I conclude these musings about the hunt for photogenic wildlife in the African bush and the hunt for Random Treasure in Scottish second-hand outlets, I note a further parallel. Both of these pursuits deserve a big green tick for the ecological benefits that they bring to the planet.
In Africa, the greenness is about conservation of the land and maintenance of the diversity of wildlife. Although I suspect that the bush of Balule and the concentration of species therein are not quite so primeval and natural as might be thought at first sight, it’s a given that their use for “ecotourism” must be more beneficial than for alternative purposes.
Compare this approach to more traditional forms of land use or misuse. Use by shooters for big game trophies murderously upsets the natural balance. Livestock or arable farming drives away wild animals. Mining or industrial development brings pollution and devastation. Large-scale commercial or residential exploitation does all of the above. Abandonment and neglect of the land invites invasion by poachers for rhino horn and elephant ivory.
In the Balule Nature Reserve the landscape and its contents are conserved professionally and presented for viewing by enlightened owners for an elite bunch of well-heeled, environmentally-aware tourists. Granted, this kind of approach raises all kinds of ethical and political issues: about public access, inclusion, land ownership, wealth distribution and much else. But in comparison with the other uses – well, overall it seems a pretty good solution not only for the tourists, but also for the beasts, for the land and for the world.
In Scotland, the greenness is about recycling and re-use of pre-owned objects. What’s better for the environment: sailing a container-load of newly-made plastic homeware and chipboard flatpack furniture halfway across the world from China, or offering an array of useable, viable second-hand goods sourced locally by a charity or small business?
Many unwanted objects are too good – often very much too good – to be thrown in the trash. If you can help them to extend their useful lives by keeping them moving from owner to owner, then you’re making huge contributions to the preservation of raw materials and to the reduction of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste. At the same time you’re helping to boost local employment and contributing to the local economy. It’s a no-brainer.
Note incidentally that the sifting of objects is an iterative process. The bric-a-brac food chain continues its downward spiral from the level of the local saleroom and charity shop, down via the car boot sale, eventually to the Council recycling depot and the rubbish skip. Even here there will generally be a band of dedicated bottom-feeding trackers on hand to spot and scoop up items of use or value which have escaped filtration while passing through the higher strata.
The wilderness of Africa, the shops and skips of Scotland. Oupa the guide, Excellent the tracker and Roger the blogger: all doing similar jobs in a similar way, and all doing our bit.