Pokkie Benadie Interview

March 30, 2017

Pokkie Benadie is one of Africa's best animal trackers, and an instructor at the Tracker Academy at Samara and Londolozi Game Reserves in South Africa. Descended from Khoi San - the oldest human race on Earth and the finest trackers on the planet - Pokkie has spent most of his life in the veld as a ranger, tracking creatures like endangered black rhino and errant lions. At Samara, the master tracker took me into the veld to look for a black rhino - and of course we found one.
Master tracker Pokkie Benadie

Master tracker Pokkie Benadie, in Samara Game Reserve, South Africa

During summer, the sun rules South Africa’s Karoo, a vast arid region located a few hundred kilometres inland from Cape Town.

Every few weeks, if luck prevails, a thunderstorm arrives in the late afternoon, drenching the stony ground and filling the air with the rapturous smell of life.

The next morning the skies are clear again and the fire in the sky will soon resume its tyranny. But for an hour or two either side of sunrise, everything is sparkling and fresh.

“This is the best time of day for tracking,” says Pokkie Benadie, as he stops his pick-up truck and we get out.

The master tracker has seen something I haven’t. Not for the last time, either. He looks down at the ground and then at me.

“Do you see it?” Pokkie asks me quietly.

I don’t see anything, until he points with his hand to a faint pattern on the ground. The rain has saturated the soil, turning it into the colour of dark honey, the same hue as Pokkie’s skin.

And then I see it. The faint outline of a black rhino’s front right foot. Pokkie had seen it from ten metres away through the windscreen while driving.

“The rhino was here last night. Let’s start walking.”

We head up the valley, continuing an ancient ritual: following the tracks of a wild animal.

We head up the valley, continuing an ancient ritual: following the tracks of a wild animal. We’re doing what men have done most mornings since homo sapiens first started walking upright several million years ago.

As I follow Pokkie on the sandy soil, I see an obvious track now and again. But then the ground turns rocky, and I lose the spoor. The sandstone and ironstone substrate is rock hard. Yet the 54-year-old man carries on confidently through the veld, following a definite, albeit circuitous path. What is he seeing?

“Kyk daar”, he says. “See that little bush?”

Pokkie leads me to a tiny kapokbos in among hundreds of other tiny ones.

“See how it’s been pushed over a little. The rhino stepped on it.”

Then I look at it again. The leaves reflect the light a little differently to the other bushes and the roots are slightly exposed. Clear evidence.

And so it continues. Pokkie leads the way, weaving silently between gwarrie bushes, dancing across rocky stones and ducking under the thorny branches of soetdoring trees.

Here, the rhino has browsed on a small branch and its bark has been peeled off. There, a tuft of grass is wet where the rhino has urinated. And Pokkie points out a stone among a million others. The soil around it is slightly disturbed, an apparently obvious sign that the rhino has stepped there.

At first sight, these clues are mostly invisible to me, hidden in the vastness of a 250-million-year old landscape. But to Pokkie, these details are flashing neon lights, guiding him clearly along the rhino’s meandering track.

Every few minutes he stops and looks at me, hoping that I’ve seen what he’s seen. But then inevitably he has to point out the clue to his clueless pupil.

I feel like a young child learning to read English and William Shakespeare is my teacher. It’s hard not to think of Pokkie as a genius, yet the quietly-spoken man would laugh at the idea.

I feel like a young child learning to read English and William Shakespeare is my teacher. It’s hard not to think of Pokkie as a genius, yet the quietly-spoken man would laugh at the idea.

“Tracking is my first language,” he tells me. “It comes naturally to me. I don’t have to try. I just do it. It’s as normal for me as the sun rising.”

As a designated master tracker, and one of only 8 in the country, Pokkie is currently the instructor at the Tracker Academy, based at Samara Game Reserve.

Lying between Camdeboo National Park and Mountain Zebra National Parks in the Eastern Cape, and 250kms east of Karoo National Park, Samara is the largest private game reserve in the region. It’s an important ecological corridor between the eastern and western parts of the Karoo, the semi-arid biome which no-one knows better than Pokkie Benadie.

Karel “Pokkie” Benadie was born to parents Pellie and Saartjie on 24 July 1963 outside Beaufort West on Stolshoek Farm, an auspicious place and time for a baby blessed with remarkable tracking talents to be born. On that day, instead of the usual searing Karoo sunshine, there was a rare snowfall (or “kapok”) on the Nuweveld Mountains that rise into the sky in these parts. So his parents gave him the nickname “Pokkie”.

He grew up helping his father herd sheep. At the age of 11 he had to leave school when they moved onto the high plateaus. The young boy spent the days tracking lost lambs, and following the spoor of steenbok and mountain rhebok. He’d follow caracal and jackals that threatened the herds, chasing them away as best he could.

It was exemplary training for what was to come. In 1979 when Pokkie was 15, the farm was bought and proclaimed as the Karoo National Park. The young man started working for the new park as a field ranger, a job that lasted for 33 years.

During this time, he was assigned to track and find black rhinos, to make sure they were safe and accounted for. For more than ten years Pokkie spent every day doing exactly that.

“That was the only time I was truly happy,” chuckled Pokkie. “I’d get as close as possible to them, especially if they were sleeping. I could almost touch them. Then they’d wake up suddenly, and charge off. My heart would bounce in my chest, but I lived for that feeling.”

Pokkie doesn’t seem to get overly excited about much. Unassuming and sporting a regular wry smile, he trods the earth with a gentle gait and appears to be someone who’s surprised by little.

But as we tracked our own black rhino that morning, I could sense Pokkie’s simmering anticipation. His eyes darted from side to side, and his footsteps became lighter and quicker. Yet he moved in a calm, meditative way, floating across the stony ground with ease.

“After a while you go into that animal’s skin. Everything becomes peaceful inside of you. You feel like you’re part of the land, part of the animal you’re tracking.”

“After a while you go into that animal’s skin,” Pokkie stopped and whispered to me. “Everything becomes peaceful inside of you. You feel like you’re part of the land, part of the animal you’re tracking.”

We came across a copse of acacia trees, with good shade. Underneath, Pokkie showed me in the sandy soil where the rhino had been sleeping.

“Look! See how fresh this is. You can see the textures of its skin on the sand. And look, here’s where it rested its head. You can see the imprint of its mouth.”

We came to a thick barrier of thorn bushes. Pokkie stopped. “It’s over there,” he whispered, pointing through the thorn trees.

I saw nothing but a barrier of thorns. Pokkie pointed again. “We can’t see him, but he’s there” Pokkie whispered again.

“How do you know?” I looked at him incredulously.

He didn’t need to answer me. The silence was shattered by a series of explosive rhino snorts. Rocks flew in front of us and the trees shook. We still couldn’t see the rhino, but the sound and the fury sent shudders through my body.

“Stand still,” Pokkie said calmly as he held my arm, stopping me from running away. “Best to stand still”.

It seemed like the rhino was coming straight for us, but I still couldn’t see it! As it stormed over the rocky ground, the bulldozer of Africa’s animal kingdom turned and headed down the hill, kicking up a hail of flying stones.

Afterwards, I asked him how he knew the rhino was there.

“When an animal is close, I can feel it. Even if I can’t see it, I know it’s there.”

“When an animal is close, I can feel it. Even if I can’t see it, I know it’s there.”

Pokkie’s intuition for anticipating the whereabouts of an animal is legendary. It’s this sixth sense that gives him an advantage over many other trackers.

Alex van den Heever is the co-founder of the Tracker Academy and also an expert tracker and field guide instructor, assessing many of the top trackers in the country.

“I’ve seen Pokkie do this countless times. He may have only a little material evidence of an animal’s presence, but he will accurately predict its whereabouts. Inevitably he’s always correct. It’s very difficult to explain how he does this, in a purely scientific way. But he has so much experience as a tracker that his intuition is highly evolved.”

In 2010, Pokkie left Karoo National Park to be the lead instructor at the Tracker Academy at Samara. For the past 7 years he has passed on his tracking experience to hundreds of rangers and guides from around Africa.

It may seem incongruous that young men who have grown up in Africa’s rural areas need to learn how to track. But as Alex explained, most Africans now live in villages, and many young rural men no longer herd cattle or hunt their own food.

“Tracking is a skill that very few people naturally acquire these days,” said Alex. “It’s why men like Pokkie are so important.”

“Tracking is one of humankind’s most ancient skills. It’s vital in modern conservation when rangers are tracking animals or poachers. The knowledge has been passed down for thousands of generations but because of the modern world, it’s a skill that’s rapidly being lost.”

I ask Pokkie how he became such a talented tracker. He thinks for a while, then talks of his mother Saartjie, who died when he was just 12 years old.

I ask Pokkie how he became such a talented tracker. He thinks for a while, then talks of his mother Saartjie, who died when he was just 12 years old.

“She was from the Khoi-San. She knew these things. I think I was lucky in that way.”

Pokkie’s heritage comes from the oldest race on Earth, the original hunters and the finest trackers of all. They learned to track because their lives depended on the meat from the hunt. Pokkie’s skills would have made him one of the best hunters, but he seems also to have inherited the renowned humility of the legendary San hunters of the Kalahari.

In those times, arrogance was strongly discouraged and successful hunters would keep a low profile in the community after bringing an animal home.

“Pokkie is always wanting to learn more,” said Alex. “He’s very knowledgeable, but he’s always curious. He once showed me the bark on some branches, which had been smoothed. He had no idea what caused it, but then waited and watched, and discovered that the vervet monkeys always seemed to climb up the branches in the same place, using it like a ladder.”

“He has spent his whole life in the veld, honing his talents. His natural awareness for fine details is astounding.”

Wilderness guide Dr Ian McCallum is also an instructor at the academy and tells the story of Pokkie and the mysterious case of springbok at Samara. Pokkie once noticed that some of their spoor was subtly different, and postulated that these particular springbok had come from somewhere else outside the Karoo region.

“He was right,” Ian told me. “Unbeknown to Pokkie, a few springbok had been relocated from the Kgalagadi, where springbok hooves are naturally wider to cope with the sandy dunes. I couldn’t see the difference, but Pokkie had.”

The master tracker may not have a matric qualification, but like all creative geniuses, Pokkie has an exceptionally refined imagination.

“Ecologically speaking, Pokkie is one of the most intelligent and qualified people I’ve met."

“Ecologically speaking, he’s one of the most intelligent and qualified people I’ve met,” says Alex. “Pokkie can form a vivid picture in his mind of what’s happening, based on a few obscure clues, and then form a hypothesis based on scant evidence. His hypothesis is invariably correct.”

“Most importantly, he has an exceptional ability to walk in another creature’s shoes, to wear its skin. Even though he’s a tough man, he is sensitive to the presence of other creatures. He has a highly attuned empathy for the ‘other’.”

Pokkie was born with a love for nature, something which lasts to this day, even after 50 years of tracking in the Karoo.

“He’s a genuine naturalist. On a Sunday morning, when everyone else is still sleeping in bed or gone to church, he’s walking in the veld. Pokkie is highly connected to the natural world around him.”

Early the next morning the master tracker picked me up again in his bakkie, and we head off into the thornveld valley below the ramparts of the Sneeuberg. He’s done this for most of his life, yet he’s smiling at the opportunity to take me out, even though it’s his last day off before work resumes at the Academy.

We find another track, so we stop and get out, following a kudu spoor. I stop to take a few photos. I look ahead, and notice how comfortable Pokkie looks among the flowering acacia trees, the stony ground and the tufts of fresh summer grass.

The man with Bushman blood in his veins is at one with the land. It’s as if the San god /Kaggen himself has taken some of that ancient soil, moulded a man in the shape of Pokkie, and out emerged a master tracker into the Karoo sunlight.


Pokkie and Sylvester the Lion

In 2015 when a young male lion known as Sylvester escaped from Karoo National Park in South Africa, a team of park rangers and local farmers tried to track him down, but they couldn’t find the big cat. After several frustrating weeks in which the lion led the search team on a 300km chase, the park called in Pokkie to ask for help. For three days, Pokkie tracked Sylvester and found the lion below the cliffs of the Nuweveld Mountains. Pokkie called in the rangers to tranquilise the lion and return him to the park. Today Sylvester has been successfully relocated to Addo Elephant National Park.


Pokkie’s top ten tips for tracking

1. Know your animal tracks.
2. Start early in the morning, when tracks are fresh and the light is at an angle, when ridges of the spoor cast a shadow.
3. Use all your senses, especially sight, smell and hearing.
4. Walk with the wind in your favour, and keep checking to see if its direction has changed.
5. Walk with your body straight up and relaxed.
6. Move with intention, but never rush. Move silently as possible.
7. Stay on the track, but always keep scanning around, looking for other signs.
8. If you lose the track, go back to where you last saw it, and begin again.
9. Be quiet. Keep quiet. Don’t talk.
10. Give animals space. Learn their behavior and boundaries. Respect their boundaries.

Pokkie Benadie

"After a while you go into that animal’s skin. Everything becomes peaceful inside of you. You feel like you’re part of the land, part of the animal you’re tracking.” - Pokkie Benadie. From left: Waterbuck, Eland, Kudu, Human, Gemsbok.

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