SA College for Tourism

SACT Tracker Academy – Teaching Skills For Life

Can you spot the rhino tracks?

Just outside Graaff-Reinet on Samara Private Game Reserve, Pokkie (Karel) Benadie is out tracking with his seven students. “Look at this,” he says, pointing to a newly dug shallow trench. “Anyone know what this is?” Everyone is puzzled. “Last night a porcupine was digging for roots and bulbs here,” he says, “and these are his tracks when he left.”
Tracking is about much more than identifying animal footprints, it’s about reading the bush for information – a bush newspaper, if you like. “There’s a giraffe print from two weeks ago, a young female,” says Pokkie, pointing to it with his stick, “and there is a rhino spoor from a week ago too. It was a male.”

Master tracker and facilitator Pokkie and his lecturer wife Janetta have been with the Tracker Academy since its first intake of students in 2010. The Academy is a non-profit training division of the SA College for Tourism (SACT), that operates under the auspices of Peace Parks Foundation with the purpose of training disadvantaged rural people in the traditional skills of tracking.

With Pokkie’s assistance, Janetta developed the course material – which is CATHSSETA accredited – and presents lectures to students; Pokkie does the field work training with them.

Master Tracker, Pokkie Benade

Entirely self taught, Pokkie says he has been tracking since the age of 12. “I learnt from my dad when he trapped rooikatte (caracal) and I became adept at fine details. Something was just in me to do this; tracking is my world.” Before joining Tracker Academy, Pokkie worked for SANParks for 33 years, but says: “It was my dream to show people how to track animals. I am so happy here.” Clearly, so are his students.

Tshepo Dzemba from Mpumalanga says with Pokkie’s guidance he now feels connected to the bush. “I now know that everything is connected and nothing in the world is useless. This course has brought positive change to my life, like you can’t believe.” Kaneth Makhubela from Limpopo says he loves applying his mind and senses to create the picture of what has happened in the bush. I never knew that a tree could give you information and that they’re connected to people and animals. The course has opened my mind a lot. I now see animals in a different way, with emotion. Our trainers are excellent and I feel lucky to have them.”

Pokkie smiles and says modestly: “The secret is to be sharp. Listen, look, smell. It’s about the big picture around you, not just the track. So don’t track looking down like a bushpig. Look ahead, look around and you won’t walk into danger. Tracking is a good skill for life because it makes you aware of everything around you.”

Pokkie and Janetta training students in the field

One animal that is sometimes difficult to track, says Pokkie, is the gemsbok “because their back foot registers perfectly on the print of their front foot, which can be confusing.” But by the end of the year-long course, his students will know exactly how to track gemsbok too. Graduate Benedict Phepheng, who is now employed as a tracker on Samara, can vouch for this. “The Tracker Academy was a very good experience for me. I was a city boy and knew nothing about animals or birds. What I got from Pokkie and Janetta I will never forget. They are incredible and their knowledge is amazing.”

Janetta Bock, who has been married to Pokkie for 18 years, says the first time she saw a gemsbok she thought it was a big springbok. Now she’s responsible for all the theory training. “I come alive when teaching the birds,” she says enthusiastically, “and there is always a big picture behind what you see in the bush.” She says she has seen so many students better their lives through the course, where six months is spent at Samara and six months at Londolozi. Students all say that Pokkie and Janetta have uplifted them immeasurably.

Hitting the books in a Tracker Academy classroom

Siphiwe Mandleni is a good example. He arrived in 2011 to do the tracking course but had absolutely no animal knowledge and couldn’t speak English either. With support and guidance from Pokkie and Janetta, he graduated as top student and is now a tracker and trainer at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve – the third branch of Tracker Academy, after Samara and Londolozi. There have also been requests for branches to be opened in southern Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana. Tracker Academy graduates are also far flung around the world and some are currently working with jaguars in the Pantanal in Brazil, others are in Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Malawi.

In 2014 Pokkie was also named as one of the 21 South African Icons, and says he was honestly surprised at the honour. “For me it’s simple,” he explains, “tracking is my life. I know I was born to track. I think I have some Bushman blood in me.”

Story and photos by Keri Harvey
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