Monday, October 20, 2008

Lost and found

Rediscovering the art of tracking.

After several years’ procrastination I’ve finally taken the plunge and become involved with New Zealand Land Search and Rescue, the first step of which is getting educated in the ways of SAR with introduction to tracking course.

I have to say my understanding of the subject was until recently, limited to B-grade TV shows where the ‘Indian’ tracker would point down at muddy footprints and say, “Two men went this way, Kimosabe”. Needless to say in real life it’s a bit subtler than that.

In fact, tracking in the SAR context is really about tuning in to the environment, getting intimate – down and dirty - with the land, then looking for something out of place; a turned leaf, a broken twig, a straight line that looks man-made.

It sounds like a ‘needle in a haystack’ exercise – and often it is. If it takes twelve hours to find out someone’s missing, and they’re walking at two kilometres per hour, then you have about 5500 square kilometres to search.

But it’s not all bad. The good news is that as you wander through the bush, especially thick bush, you leave about three thousand footprints per kilometre, from which a trained tracker should be able to extract about five or six ‘signs’ each.

Then there’s above the floor evidence like broken branches, and disturbed dewdrops, ‘top sign’ as it’s known, plus information gleaned from huts, toilets, cars, witnesses, and the person’s family and friends.

When you add in the statistical information known about the behaviour of different groups of people when lost (that’s another course in itself) plus some high-tech gadgetry like helicopters with thermal imaging capability - then you really start to stack the odds back in favour of finding them.

There’s no guarantees they’ll be able to thank you when you get to them – but at the very least you’ll be giving the person’s friends and family a bit of closure, rather than leaving them with a question mark.

NZLSAR’s Trail and Clue Awareness course is a two-day crash course in a subject people devote their lives to, so it’s pretty safe to say I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Even so it’s surprising how quickly you get the knack of it. On Friday night I couldn’t track down someone unless they’d walked through wet concrete, by Sunday afternoon I could do it - not well - but I could slowly but surely follow a person through the bush by the signs they inadvertently left behind. And that’s an amazing thing for a slow learner like me!

Which led me to thinking; it’s only in the last thousand years or so that we’ve been ‘civilised’ to the extent that we haven’t had to do this for a living. For a few million years or so prior to that the ability to track is what kept us alive.

Perhaps like just walking, talking and having sex, this is something that, through evolution and natural selection, has been hard-wired into our brains. Perhaps doing a course like this isn’t so much about learning, as remembering what we instinctively know.

I suppose that might also explain my tendency to stray from human tracks onto deer tracks over the weekend - it must have been my inner caveman saying, “never mind the lost bloke, what about lunch!”