January 5

Silvan Safari Blog – Guided by my Tracker

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By Kyle Olivier on
January 5, 2021

Since I started working at Silvan Safari, I have had the privilege of working with a number of the incredible trackers. Early last year, however, James was officially assigned as my permanent tracker and as they say, the rest is history.

The start of our relationship

The reality is that as guides we spend almost six or seven hours a day in close contact with our trackers. Most married couples don’t even spend that much time together, probably for a good reason. So it’s fair to say that a guide and tracker are in a working relationship. As with any relationship, you get to learn their intricate details very quickly. Their likes and dislikes, interests and what generally makes them happy. You learn to count on one another as appreciate each other, idiosyncrasies and all. This becomes the foundation for all tracker/guide relationship. 

It is important for our working relationship, as we spend so much time together, but also for the dynamic in how the guests get to experience the bush, Silvan and their time in Africa’s wilderness. When a guest sees the great interaction between us and getting along well – they enjoy it so much more. 

James’ sweet tooth

James has shown me a lot since I have been at Silvan & I always tell guests that every day I get to work with James I consider myself grateful. This is a man who has been working in the bush and tracking for longer than I have been alive. His years of experience are far beyond mine and I value immensely and try learn as much as possible from him.  

James getting friendly with our rhinos
James getting close to some curious rhinos

There is one special sighting which I shared with James which I will never forget and it sums him up as a person perfectly. We were on an afternoon game drive and out of nowhere James starts shouting, in a deep booming bellow. I can clearly see that James is excited about something but having seen nothing, I have no idea what he is so excited about. 

In typical James style, he doesn’t say a word, just points to the ground. Clearly meaning I need to try work out what is happening or happened here. I put on my best detective eye and start looking. I can see James is pointing at a hole in the ground. It seems empty, so not sure if he saw something dash into it. Then I notice the tracks around the hole and I start to get excited too. All around I can make out the tracks of a honey badger. Seeing the realisation on my face, James asks me to keep a look out, and make sure I cover his back, as he quietly gets off the vehicle for a closer inspection.

James proceeds to get onto all fours & then follows that with a full leopard crawl as he approaches the hole. Now we still have not said a word to each other, and nothing to the guests either, they are however completely captivated with what James is doing. He first double checks that the honey badger wasn’t still in the hole and once he is certain, he then stretches out his arm deep into the hole. After a few tugs, and a shuffle to get back to his feet, James emerges with a huge smile on his face and a handful of the freshest, sweetest honey I have ever tasted in my life!

James framing a perfect Silvan sunset
An African sunset from the guest’s perspective

In the wild the honey badger would have been guided to this special hole by a small bird, called the honey guide. Once the honey guide locates a beehive, it will do an alarm or alert call to let any honey badgers know that it has located a beehive which contains honey. The honey badger, being one of the most hardy animals in the world, will then go tear the beehive down and raid the nest for the honey inside. The honey guide will then feed on the surrounding bees, as well as some honey and the honey badger then eats his full before hiding any excess for a later meal.

The reason why James was so nervous is that if the honey badger was in the hole – it would have reacted very aggressively and since honey badgers will happily attack lions and leopards, James would have come off second best. 

The eye of the tracker

James ability to read the bush in general is just incredible. He has learned to read the bush and the animals over years of training and experience in a way which continuously astounds me. 

James going though protocols before starting a game drive at Silvan Safari
Safety first! James briefing guests before the game drive

On any given day, he will tell me upfront what animals we are likely to encounter based on the weather and animal movements over the past few days/months or even years. He knows where we should be going on our drives as he has grown up in the area and knows it so well. 

When we do find the animals – he is crucial in assessing the mood of the animal, how best to position our vehicle for the best viewing and likely movement of the animal. It produces the most incredible sightings as he understands their behaviour so well – but also individual animals and how they react to vehicles. 

The man, the legend

James has been tracking for over 26 years and turned 46 on 25 December (Christmas Day) – so we make sure there were double celebrations at Silvan. Our sightings on his birthday were also very special – wild dog, leopard and lots of elephant (no honey badger this time).

Mr Siwela has worked all over the Sabi Sand – a real legend of the reserve and is hugely well respected and loved, not just by the Silvan Safari team, but but the whole guide and tracker community as well.

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Kyle Olivier

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