Tanda Tula - termite mound at sunset in South Africa
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Stupid Termite Mound

Chad Cocking | Wildlife

The ability to not get lost in the middle of the bush, while out on a drive or a bush walk is, I guess, a rather important trait to possess when working as a guide.  I know that the idea of being lost in the great wilderness, ambling around aimlessly and taking in your surroundings, may be the idea of paradise for some. However, when it’s approaching ten o’clock and it’s time for bacon and eggs, I (or should I say my stomach) really needs to know exactly where I am in order to get home on time.

The art of not getting lost is, quite obviously, to always know where you are!  To assist with this, some clever person from the days before colour television and Netflix, came up with the notion of the cardinal points; north, west, south and east.  Conveniently, two of these are positioned close to where the sun rises and sets, and as long as you can remember which is which, and have some faint inclination as to whether it is morning or afternoon (hint: afternoons are usually hotter and have been preceded by a few hours of sunlight), you are able to work out the other points.  Of course, if you don’t know that the sun rises in the east, then you are already in trouble!

As you might have gathered from the above point mentioned, the sun is a rather important ingredient in finding ones direction.  Sometimes though, clouds or mist are thick enough to block out any semblance of a glowing ball of fire. I learnt this on a morning bush walk a couple of years ago and discovered it can be rather detrimental to my abilities to orientate myself.

I headed out for a two hour walk in the bush with a group of American guests early one morning. We drove to the Kruger Park boundary and the plan was to walk from point A to point B, where my tracker would pick us up two hours later.  Point B was straight south of point A, in a relatively open area, and should have been as easy to find as a set of coat-hangers at a traffic light in Johannesburg; all I had to do was keep the sun on my left.  This would have been a fool-proof plan had there actually been a sun!

Tanda Tula - thick mist on a walking safari in South Africa

Unfortunately for me, it was a morning characterised by thick mist. Still, for an experienced guide, how difficult could it be to walk in a straight line?  I soon found that the answer to that was “very”! Even without the sun, though, nature has several ways to help orientate oneself in the bush; red-billed buffalo weavers build their nests on the north-western corner of larger trees, lichen grows on the southern side of trees, mongooses defecate on the north-eastern side of termite mounds, and these mounds themselves usually lean in a northerly direction.  After some time, I came across one such mound and told my guests that they shouldn’t always believe what the mounds tell them – there was one clearly leaning south in the direction I was walking, and not north.  I think I ended the discussion with “stupid termite mound” and carried on walking “south”.

Tanda Tula - Buffalo weaver nest in the Timbavati

Tanda Tula - mongooses on a termite mound

An hour later, the mist still hadn’t lifted, and I still hadn’t arrived at Point B.  I looked at my back-up guide and asked how far he thought we were from Point B, and he retorted “about the same distance as we were when we started”.  Puzzled, I looked around, and realised that this spot looked quite familiar, and a little bit too much like Point A!

Quite impressively, I had managed to walk a perfect circle in the last two hours and end up in the exact same place I departed from without having a clue that I was off course! That fact might explain why, when I walked off from the termite mound, I thought I heard it mutter “stupid game ranger”!



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