The light is starting to filter through the low tambouti trees on either side of the trail as we tramp along in single file like giant soldier ants. Within 20 yards, Fred stops and points down. "What is this?" he asks. To me, it looks like someone has bounced a rubber ball on the hard dirt. "Hippo," one of the trainees says promptly. "Why not a rhino?" Fred asks. Why not a rubber ball? I think. "Because this print has four toes and rhinos only have three," the trainee says. Fred turns and walks on, which we learn is his response to a correct answer.
As we continue down the trail, within the first 100 yards we spot the tracks of Cape buffalo, terrapin, black rhinos, and white rhinos (bigger than the black rhinos and more wrinkly). We stop by a porcupine track, which we recognize because we can see the thin line made by its tail dragging behind. And here's an elephant print. "Each back footprint of an elephant is unique," Fred tells us, "like a fingerprint." In fact, this one has two distinct curlicues on its pad. My eyes are slowly opening to the realization that this wilderness is strewn with clues. It's CSI alfresco.
"What's this?" Fred asks, standing next to what looks like a short, fat palm tree. "And how did it get here?There aren't any other trees like it in sight." The group confers and comes up with the answer. "It's a lala palm," one of the trainees says. But they are stumped on how it found its way here. "It's the favorite food of elephants," Fred hints, and then we get it. The large brown seed was eaten miles away and was dropped on this spot by a passing elephant. "If you follow the elephant trails to Mozambique," says Fred, "you'll find lala palms lining the way."
It's midmorning; up above, the South African sun stares down, tracking us patiently. Suddenly, Fred holds up his hand and we all bump into him, Keystone Kopsstyle. About 25 yards ahead of us, grazing in long grass just off the trail, stands a giant white rhinoceros. I learn later that although rhinos are nearly blind, their sense of smell would put an Irish setter's to shame—and we're upwind of this huge bull. He picks up his head, blinks his piggy little eyes, and immediately starts toward us. Fred motions, and we do a quick about-face and retreat in the opposite direction. The rhino, unmollified, begins to trot. "Okay, let's pick it up," Fred says in a stage whisper. We're jogging now and stealing backward glances at the rhino, one ton of armor-plated fun heading straight at us. "Okay!" Fred says, and he doesn't have to say any more—we plunge into a full-scale run. Our little morning stroll has turned into a Pamplona-style running of the bull.
Finally, the rhino slows down and turns aside, distracted by some brush that apparently can't go uneaten. We collect ourselves, laugh with relief, and continue with our nature walk.
It ends abruptly a few minutes later: time for a test. Fred stands in front of a spidery tambouti tree, hands us a long rope, and announces that everyone in the group has to touch that high branch up there as quickly as possible. "Starting now!" There is an immediate explosion of opinions on how to accomplish this feat. Some are for scaling the tree, others for climbing the rope. "This is where you see personalities come out," Fred says, amused. The debate rages on for a few more minutes until Big Warren, an affable trainee the size of a major appliance, pipes up. "We should create a pulley system," he suggests. "Toss the rope over the branch, tie a loop in one end, and someone puts one foot into the loop and is raised up by the rest of the group pulling on the other end." It is a stroke of genius, and another trainee, Ted, chips in by proposing a double loop on one end to haul two people up at a time. Four minutes later, when everyone has had a turn in the rope elevator, and even Big Warren has been pulled up with ease, Fred congratulates us on setting the new trainee record.
Three of the recruits do not make it to the end of the week, the first casualties of the demanding program. A fourth—me—has skipped ahead to get a taste of the next phase of training. Mike Karantonis instructs me on how to drive a huge open-topped Land Rover down a vertiginous hill. He informs me that elephants communicate with low-frequency rumbles and purrs that they can "hear" through their sensitive feet. He teaches me that, in a pinch, potatoes make good windshield wipers.
Finally, I'm ready for my scenario test. Mike hands me a .357-caliber rifle and instructs a burly ranger named Martin to hide behind a bush down the trail and play lion. Three other trainees fill in as my guests.
I start walking, my heart pounding in anticipation as my "guests" chatter away behind me. "Gee, I haven't seen any big cats yet," one of them muses. We're walking around a bend in the trail when Martin leaps out of the long grass. I hold my fist up. "Freeze!" I command my guests. But my feet start slip-sliding backward. Martin, snarling, advances. Somewhere deep in my lizard brain, I realize I haven't shouted at the lion, only at my guests. Worse, I realize I should have stood my ground, so now I take a few steps forward. Martin retreats a few steps.