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A Beautiful Track

After this morning’s classroom instruction on urban tracking, we loaded up on the trucks and headed to town for a tracking exercise.  Captain George Little, a student from the Royal Marines, was skeptical that we would succeed in town, and so was I.  After all, we were supposed to track someone through miles of area where people are crawling all over the place, and much of the ground was paved.

When we got off the truck, some Gurkhas wanted to talk about my website dispatches; at least one Gurkha has been reading the site.  So the Gurkhas were talking about it, and very happy to see that some Americans were now thinking about the “Gobar Gas” mentioned in a previous dispatch.  Also, the Gurkha who told me about the British UAV getting shot down read that dispatch, and wanted me to convey that they did allow the Taliban to get the UAV.  The British soldiers, Gurkhas in this case, got it back.  I told the Gurkhas that some Americans have questions about Gobar Gas, and that the Gurkhas are welcome to post comments or answer questions from readers.  However, despite that they are outstanding and courageous soldiers, the Gurkhas can be a bit reserved and so we’ll see if they chime in to answer reader questions.

Before setting off to track our quarry through town, we broke into three groups.  My group consisted of six students and one instructor.  Two students were British Marines, another is Para and the last Brit is RAF.  Two officers from the Brunei Army were in our group.  The Brunei soldiers, Lt. Khairul Azme, and 2LT AK Baharuddin, are also enthusiastic about this training.  It was good to have them in our group today; during urban tracking we are allowed to ask people anything we want to ask – just like in real life – and so the Brunei soldiers had a second job as built-in translators.  Our instructor was CSgt. Mick Corry who has a black eye that he earned playing rugby the other day.  Not sure where he gets the energy to play rugby after we nearly melt during training each day.  British combat soldiers are a fit bunch.

So we started off, and I figured we wouldn’t be able to track very far, and our biggest hope likely would reside in asking people “Which way did they go?”  The first prints were actually good enough for us to determine that we were trailing four people, but the sign quickly got harder to follow as it headed to the intersection of a paved intersection.  Cars were flying by and traffic was heavy.  It took me a couple minutes just to get across.  After that first very short stretch of good prints, I think we didn’t see another good beautiful footprint for maybe two miles.  But we somehow stayed on the trail – there was occasional sign – and we took numerous turns through a residential area.  Traffic was still sometimes whizzing by us on some roads, but few people were outside because it was very hot.  Sweat was pouring from me like a rainforest.  We finally came across some locals who were not whizzing by in air-conditioned cars.  Two men were very friendly but they hadn’t seen anyone.  But a woman nearby said she saw five to six men and told us which direction they came from and where they went.  She was right about the direction, but it was only four men.  Her words gave us confidence that we were still following the right trail, which amazed me, actually.

The men we were trailing – British soldiers – had many options on routes to take, and so it would have been extremely difficult for a single tracker to stay on them.  Since we had seven people (six students and me) with ten days worth of tracking training, we were able to simultaneously confirm or deny different routes that our quarry might have taken.  The soldiers spread out and checked all the intersections and down the roads until they found a sign, or confirmed that there likely was no sign.  One lesson was that it would have been extremely difficult for a single tracker to stay on the trail.  Finally, after maybe two miles of paved surfaces we found a perfect track in some sand on the pavement.  The print was exactly like that back at the start point.  It matched up to the photos a soldier had taken, and to a track they had sketched.  CSgt Mick Corry, the instructor, said something like, “Now that’s a beautiful track.”  Mick says that every day, whenever we get a good track.  More than 99% of what we follow is hardly recognizable as a footprint.  But everybody gets a good feeling, a kind of track-joy, when we recognize a print that definitely belongs to our quarry.  Again, this was probably a couple miles from the origin before we finally got a great track.  But that was it.  The tracks disappeared on the pavement again and we got only occasional partial prints or signs.  Kids were coming home from school and were smiling and waving at the British soldiers, who smiled and waved back.  Many others waved at us from their cars.  The kids were leaving footprints everywhere.

We kept losing the track, but since we had seven trackers we kept finding it again, and finally it seemed to vanish near a gigantic mosque.  We totally lost the track.  Several hundred yards away some workers were sitting in the shade.  All the soldiers had rifles.  I walked up to the workers, smiled and said, “Hello,” and one man smiled back saying, “What are you doing?”

“Looking for you,” I said.  He threw his arms in the air as if in surrender, and just laughed at me and I laughed and sat down with him.  One of the Brunei soldiers, Lt. Khairul Azme, asked if the man had seen anyone.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen a soul because he’d been there only ten minutes.  He wasn’t even sweating yet.

Finally, a couple hundred yards away, a soldier found a beautiful print and it was definitely one that we had been trailing.  And just close by was another print that we had definitely been trailing.  This was fun and we all got a bit of track-joy going every time we found a beautiful print, or even a good impression of any part of one of the shoes.  Good grief it was hot, though.  The instructor, Mick Corry, must have been happy that the students were doing so well, because his mood was good and he said of the Brunie people, “They sure are a friendly bunch of people.”  Mick told the story of getting a flat tire. His spare was flat, and a Brunei man stopped and took him to a garage.  A man at the garage gave Mick a free tire and just asked that he bring it back when he was finished.  The first man drove Mick back to his car, but the tire didn’t fit.  So he gave Mick his spare, and asked him to bring it back when he was finished.  Two different people gave Mick tires.

In any case, we tracked successfully for about five miles and we never permanently lost the trail, despite that the majority of the trail was over paved roads or sidewalk.  Captain George Little, the Marine, was as surprised as I was.  We tracked four men in a city for about five miles, and it took maybe two hours.  Another group tracked only one man, and they went more than six miles and succeeded.  The third group also succeeded.

In total, our three groups successfully tracked roughly fifteen miles through a city.  We did it with only ten days of training.  It is difficult to understand why every combat troop in the United States military has not had this training.  In reality, even in the most elite units, many people have had only perfunctory tracking training, if any that’s even noteworthy.

In any case, we just got in from night training.  It’s getting late and tomorrow starts early.

Please click here for Part VII of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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