The ground doesn’t lie. Short of teleporting or being a ghost, a human being will leave some evidence of its presence or movement. It is science; tracking is empirical and fact-driven. It is not an abstract, ancient art form.

Those two basic tenants would be drilled into our brains during the week-long combat tracking course with the Scott-Donelan Tracking School.

The tracking skillset first captured my attention (more appropriately my imagination) when I received a reproduction of the 1911 Boy Scouts handbook. In addition to assorted fieldcraft and exciting activities that would likely result in a lawsuit in 2015, the handbook also contained a significant chapter on tracking. After all, Robert Baden Powell (founder of the British Boy Scouts) was a veteran of the Boer War and was familiar with the value of tracking in warfare.

Earlier this year, while doing research on the Rhodesian Bush War, I took a closer look at the applications of tactical tracking and its potential use in modern warfare, particularly small wars. There is a certain romance revolving around the simplicity and universality of tracking as a skillset that spans the centuries and generations of warfare, despite technological advances in warfighting and tactics. Like many others, I placed the skillset and its practitioners high on a pedestal reserved for sage warriors who possessed an enlightened relationship with nature and their surroundings. After reading the exploits of the Rhodesian soldiers in the bush war and Rhodesian tracking manuals, I decided that a tactical tracking course was on my bucket list.

After doing my homework on the multitude of courses available in the U.S., I decided that the Scott-Donelan Tracking School (TSDTS) was just what I was looking for. Founded by former Rhodesian SAS operator and Selous Scout David Scott-Donelan, the school taught the Rhodesian tracking method but also incorporated counter-IED and tactical acuity training to make tracking more potent for the modern warfighter. The team at TSDTS had been instrumental in developing the USMC’s Combat Hunter Program and the more comprehensive Border Hunter curriculum. I set my sights on the weeklong combat tracking course that TSDTS uses to introduce the skill to the Navy Special Warfare, Army Special Forces, MARSOC, and EOD communities.

Rhodesian SAS on patrol.

After a whirlwind adventure across the country, with delayed flights and a long drive through rural Oklahoma, I pulled into the patch of wilderness, where the course was hosted, in the wee hours of a Monday morning. A few hours later, I peeled myself out of my sleeping bag and dragged my uncaffeinated corpse into the camp community hall where the classroom portion of the course would be conducted. Cornelius Nash, a West Point graduate and a seasoned Army intelligence officer, would be our lead instructor. He quickly settled the class and fired up the LCD projector.

He directed our attention to a video featuring a South African game ranger who had discovered a murdered rhino with its horns cut off. The ranger used his tracking skills to reconstruct the crime in a matter of seconds, sweeping his fingers meticulously through the air to portray the scene and point out blood spoor, matted grass, shell casings, and the assassin’s shooting stance. The soft, mouse-like precision of his speech (a hallmark of Rhodesian extraction or parentage) described in Holmesian detail exactly how the deed was done. Cornelius flicked the lights back on and assured us that by the end of the week, we would be able to provide the same level of detail while we conducted “follow-ups” on our quarry (the term used for those a tracker pursues). I shuddered at the insurmountable charge to match this experienced tracker’s skill.

The first several hours were spent in the classroom as we digested the tracking fundamentals at a breakneck pace. Though intense and highly scientific, I was blown away by how interactive the cadre made the lectures — we absorbed the knowledge without noticing the passing time. Cornelius was quick to dispel the most widely held myth about tracking being a “lost art.” Tracking, especially combat tracking, was far from being lost and was still being employed even in the most technologically advanced conflicts.