I hold the view that animals, the ancient peoples and the Aborigines navigate perfectly well without compasses. This we often call a sense of direction. People with a sense of direction very seldom get lost even on dark nights even in unfamiliar territory. Not everyone has a sense of direction but those who do rely on it because it works for them.
In Nature is your guide by Harold Gatty after a long study came to the conclusion that some humans are not blessed with an inherent sense of direction. This is of course true, but others do have this sense and usually know it.
I recently discussed this ability to have a sense of direction with a senior army officer and he agreed that some soldiers had a developed sense and others not. But he said a good commander would spend time assessing who had this skill and then try to put one person with a sense of direction into each group. Going the right way on the battle field can be the difference between life and death.
It is really important to make understand that navigation is difficult and all good navigators use every clue that they can get (such as the direction of the sun, the prevailing wind and as many landmarks as possible to help them). The Sense of Direction is a vague sense that tells you that you are going in the right direction but you are always looking for navigational clues to support your notion of direction. The sense of relief when you see you first landmark is palpable.
How navigation works without a compass
I believe that the ancient peoples “always know” where they are going and many other people also just know where they are going (a sense of direction).
The need for Help
It is interesting that the need to know how to get somewhere is often the trigger that enables navigation to begin.
A friend of mine whose wife always says, “why do you use a SatNav when your own direction finding is better every time”. We discussed how his sense of direction worked for him. First, he said: “It had to be important to him to get to his chosen destination then he said you need to relax and let your self know which direction to go in.”
Rowitho Wiltshko (a huge figure in animal navigation) told me two stories about the Sense of Direction. She said her son, while he was learning to glide, was taught to always know where his airfield was to be found. The instructor did not tell him how to do this but as he worked on it and was soon able to do this as a matter of course.
I met another pilot recently who said that training this sort of sense of direction was critical and he could do it too.
Rowitho Wiltshko also tells the story of the explorer in the nineteenth century coming across a tribe who lived in the Steppes of Russia with very high grasses which made it impossible for them to see over them. The explorer asked how they got around when they had no compasses and could see nothing except the sky. They just laughed – they had always known how to navigate – they just knew the way.
Guy Holmes, a marine commando extracted his troop form serious trouble when, on winter manoeuvres in Norway, they lost their tents and equipment when a night time storm blew up, he dowsed the direction required to get his troop back, and started off, getting back three hours before any other troop in similar circumstances had managed it.
In the The Bushman’s Handbook by HA Lindsay. (A seminal book on survival in the bush in Australia first published in 1948. On page 123 of Lindsay’s book he says: “I know I have an acute sense of direction myself and my father in an even more developed form. It cannot, however, be acquired by study; like an ear for music, one has to be born with it. All I can offer in the way of explanation as to how it is done is to say that I seem to know that the camp, the track or the place where the car was left is over there, even if darkness has fallen and all the landmarks have become hidden by dust or fog.
Never yet, in nearly fifty years of wandering around on featureless plains, in dense and low scrub, in forests or in hills even in country which I have never seen before, have I been wrong. I have met others with the same gift too”.