The best places for Walking Safaris in Africa

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There’s a more engaging, memorable, and eco-friendly way to view Africa’s wildlife… a walking safari

Tourism is shifting slightly on its axis. As the world is beginning to note the consequences of a consumer-driven, convenience-orientated way of life, travellers are becoming aware of the fact that their choices have an impact on the ecosystems they visit. Walking safaris are an example of this new approach and offer many benefits:

  • They’re on foot – you benefit your health, the earth benefits from one less vehicle tour.
  • You actually get to understand an ecosystem up close and naturally – no idling car, and if you sit for a while, the natural sounds will start up and seep into your being.
  • On foot, you get to see the detail that you wouldn’t when perched above it in a car.
  • No endless stop-starting of a vehicle peopled with tourists who want to move on to the next thing too quickly.
  • Good guides are knowledgeable, smart and reassuringly in control – I have always had fascinating conversations about wildlife, the systems within which they live, culture, history and personal anecdote.

If you’re able-bodied, smart and can take an instruction, there is no better way to be in the wild.

 

RHINO RIDGE SAFARI LODGE BUSH WALKS

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, KwaZulu-Natal

Life and death are things you’ll think about when on a walking safari. Especially if you’re in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and walking with Nunu Jobe, prime guide and a Zulu. It was here, he might tell you, that conservation began in South Africa. The very lands you’ll be walking through were Zulu king Shaka’s hunting grounds, and people were forbidden to hunt too much or in breeding season, for obvious reasons. While colonial hunters were shooting elephant, rhino and other big game, it was the locals who practised conservation here. These are the kinds of interesting things you may talk about. When you can talk. Mostly, you’ll be very, very quiet, so Jobe can be on the lookout.

We started off down a hill and it didn’t take long for him to spot and point out a rhino and her calf. He pointed them out. They were ambling down towards a midden – we cut a perpendicular path to her trajectory and Jobe sat us down on our haunches to wait for her to come close. She ambled on down the decline, before taking a detour towards what was obviously the perfect scratching post. Then she smelled human. Ever seen one ton of flesh go from zero to blasting-straight-at-you? It’s electrifying, seeing your potential death. But like the professional he is, Jobe stepped between her and I, clapped his hands and shouted – a lot – and the armed juggernaut veered away.

That is the adventure of walking safaris. You never know what you’re going to get. You’re in the wild proper and must be prepared for anything. The flipside is you’re never going to feel more alive. And it’s absolutely vital to be with someone who knows what they are doing. Jobe’s your man. He contracts to Rhino Ridge. Book him.

Duration: Three days

Animals seen Black rhino, white rhino, elephant, buffalo, kudu, nyala, blue wildebeest, zebra, many birds

FLY SAA flies into Durban daily

DRIVE From there it’s a 211km drive to the park

isibindi.co.za

SANBONA TWO-DAY SLACKPACKING WALK

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, Western Cape

Having grown up in KwaZulu-Natal with its game-abundant reserves, I was used to being easily entertained and therefore never much impressed by the Western Cape’s wild spaces. The game drives seemed dull in comparison: endless driving to see a couple of collared lion, or a black-backed jackal jogging across the sparse landscape. The time-vs-reward equation just didn’t seem to work out. But this is because there is a way to see the Klein Karoo… and that’s on foot with a guide who can tell a good story and knows the flora (have patience: this story does end with fauna red in tooth and claw).

Flora is where the Klein Karoo story comes alive. It’s astounding in its resourcefulness, how it stores water, how it weathers the winds and scorching sun. It’s a story of remarkable finely tuned ecosystems, set in exquisite tones of olive, sage, lime, grey, chartreuse, blue accentuated with shocking pinks, reds and yellows – there’s a reason hundreds of South African artists paint this landscape.

But there is fauna too. Walking down a sandy riverbank knowing there was a rhino somewhere ahead of us was both terrifying and exhilarating. We witnessed three rhinos fighting over territory, an eagle hunting for prey, and, best of all, I stood five metres from a cheetah, who took up a stone in her paw, flicked it over her head and caught it like a kitten.

There is simply nothing like spending two days getting in touch with the fine details of an ecosystem and seeing up close the powerful creatures that live there. This was my best walking experience ever. Casper Bester was our guide – an Afrikaner who feels the land like a true boerseun, and his passion for the place delivered fascinating details and conversations.

Duration: Two nights

Animals seen: white rhino, giraffe, peregrine falcon, black-backed jackal, hippo, cheetah, zebra, duiker, klipspringer

Cost: From R10 790 per person sharing, includes accommodation, all meals, a selection of house beverages and two guided walk

FLY SAA flies into Cape Town daily

DRIVE From there it’s a 230km drive to the reserve

sanbona.com

MASHATU GAME RESERVE

Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Botswana

Buttered popcorn. It’s an unlikely smell to encounter while walking in the wilderness, but unmistakable. Turns out, any time you catch a whiff of the movies in the bush, look up: it’s the scent of leopard pee, and there could be a big cat in the tree above you. On high alert, as we scanned the canopy above us, I realised that on a walking safari, the adrenaline comes as much from what you do see, as from what you don’t.

Mashatu Game Reserve is in Botswana’s Tuli area in the south-east, a little triangle that links borders with Zimbabwe and South Africa. There’s the traditional lodge experience, but while there’s lots to love on a game drive, actually being on foot, hearing the birds or the thudding hooves of a herd of eland – instead of an engine – delivers a powerful sense of connection. “When we’re out walking, it’s about therapy. About being out there, smelling it, feeling it,” said Stuart Quinn, our guide.

It’s a diverse region, so our walk over three days and two nights threaded together some remarkable experiences: visiting a brown hyena’s “boneyard” – bleached bones and skulls at the entrance to its cave – before emerging on a dramatic buttress overlooking the wide, almost-dry bed of the Motloutse river. Winding slowly down to the river took us past overhangs with rock art, hinting at the area’s earlier residents. Later, sitting comfortably on the bank, we watched a massive herd of around 80 elephant jostling for position in the pools of water. Camouflaged in the shade of a tree, we saw a real-life, big-screen documentary unfold before us.

That evening, sundowner time, we were on another rocky buttress, with a lone, ancient baobab clinging to the rocks right at the top. What stories this tree can tell: it presides over Mmamagwe Ruins, rocky walls from a 900 CE site linked to South Africa’s Mapungubwe kingdom – and Cecil John Rhodes’ initials carved into the bark.

Walking from camp to camp – rather than day walks from one base – gives you a powerful sense of achievement. There are two undercover bush camps to choose from, but by far the most romantic was Kgotla, a circle of protective leadwood stumps creating a safe space inside. We slept on cots under crisp white linen, watching the stars twinkle between the branches of a giant mashatu tree. It may be camping, but who says it needs to be rough?

Duration: Three days

Animals seen: Elephants (the reserve is home to the continent’s largest herd on private land), leopard, lion, giraffe, eland, zebra, ostrich and kori bustard.

Cost: $340 per person per night until end December 2018. Includes four meals a day and drinks (including local beers, house wines and spirits)

FLY SA Airlink flies into Polokwane daily

DRIVE From there you can do the 225km drive to Mashatu via the Pont Drift border post with South Africa

walkmashatu.com

 

GOLIATH SAFARIS

Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

“He’s coming,” whispered our guide Stretch Ferreira. The six-ton bull elephant strode towards us, making his way through the dappled light of the forest. “Sit down quietly behind me.”

Ordinarily most guides would back away from an approaching bull elephant, and understandably so. But not Stretch. For 35 years he’s worked and lived in Mana Pools National Park, first as a ranger, and then as a guide alongside the Zambezi river in northern Zimbabwe.

The photogenic floodplains here make for superb walking safaris and have an undeniable wow factor that rivals the Serengeti and Okavango. It’s unlikely that anyone knows this wilderness – and its resident bull elephants – better than the six-foot-six friendly giant with a ginger beard. Having spent decades here, Stretch knows each one almost like his own family.

The elephant stopped 3m from us, its huge tusks within touching distance. My heart may have been pounding and my camera shaking, but the elephant was calm and relaxed. He sniffed the ground with his trunk, and picked up a few seedpods, popping them into his mouth like Smarties. Stretch spoke quietly to the elephant, as if catching up with an old friend.

Despite the intensity of the encounter, it’s clear that Stretch knows what he’s doing, and has a unique relationship with the bull elephants. For the record, he’s walked with guests thousands of times without incident. His extensive knowledge and experience of Mana makes him unique.

“These bulls have their own personalities, their own identities,” said Stretch later as we sat around the fire at his comfortable tented camp on the banks of the Zambezi, cold beer in hand and the sounds of hyenas whooping nearby. “I suppose by now they know me, my voice, my smell, and perhaps they trust me. Still, these are wild animals, so I’m always very careful.”

Duration: Daily

Animals seen: Elephants, lion, wild dogs, hippos, carmine bee-eaters, leopard (jumping out of a tree as we walked past it)

Cost: $640 per person per night. African residents qualify for discounts, enquire for more details. All meals, drinks, accommodation and walking included. Daily national park fees extra.

FLY SAA flies to Harare daily.From there you can charter a small plane into Mana.

DRIVE Alternatively, hire a 4×4 vehicle in Harare for the five-and-a-half hour drive to Mana Pools. The camp sleeps a maximum of 12 people in six tents. Airlink flies into Polokwane daily

Goliathsafaris.com

REMOTE AFRICA SAFARIS

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

The lionesses saw us before we saw them. All eight were basking on the warm banks of the Luangwa river. The predators raised their heads, and sixteen golden eyes fixed on us like laser beams. It’s a strange sensation, being in the gaze of eight predators. Part of you wants to run away. But part of you wants to move closer, to feel the primal rush… which makes a walking safari the ultimate wild adventure.

“At night, lions can be very dangerous,” said our guide Bryan Jackson. “But during the day, they tend to keep their distance. Let’s try get a bit closer.”

One lioness stood up, muscles rippling. Then she turned and headed for the mopane woodland. The others followed her in single file. We watched them, each one melting into the vastness of the Luangwa wilderness. Only their tracks remained, but like most encounters on foot with lions, the brief moment seemed to stretch into eternity. Further on we found a mahogany tree with deep shade and our porter Jastone Sakala brewed a pot of fresh coffee on a makeshift wood fire. Next to us the river was jammed with hippos, probably a hundred of them. They seemed to be in a lively morning meeting, grunting to each other loudly and discussing the matters of the day.

South Luangwa National Park is the home of walking safaris in Zambia. In the 1950s, the renowned hunter Norman Carr swapped his rifle for a camera and began leading guests through the sensuous topography of shallow rivers, oxbow lakes and floodplains. “You don’t really know a country until you’ve walked it,” he liked to say.

Carr would definitely have given Remote Africa his nod of approval. Started by Luangwa denizens John and Carol Coppinger in 1995, the family-run company offers visitors an old-fashioned, yet authentic, immersion in Zambia’s most popular national park. The small yet comfortable Crocodile and Chikoko Camps accommodate just six guests each and can only be accessed on foot. Remote Africa has exclusive rights to walk in this northern part of the park.

“You have it all to yourselves,” Bryan reminded us. “It’s just us and the animals. No other visitors, no vehicles, no other lodges.”

Duration: Daily

Animals seen: Hippos, lion, elephants, Cape buffalo, honey badger.

Costs: From $590 per person per night. African residents qualify for discounts, enquire for details. All meals, drinks, accommodation and walking included. Daily national park fees extra.

FLY SAA flies to Lusaka daily. Several smaller airlines fly into Mfuwe from Lusaka.

TRANSFER It’s a two-hour drive from Mfuwe to Tafika, Remote Africa’s base. Alternatively you can arrange to fly from Mfuwe to Lukuzi airstrip in Remote Africa’s small plane.

Remoteafrica.com

WHAT TO PACK FOR A WALKING SAFARI

  • Light clothes in earthy colours so you don’t stand out. Avoid blues, tsetse flies are fond of the colour. Long sleeves and pants for the evenings as it can get chilly, and will protect against mosquitoes.
  • Sun protection – cream, a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Binoculars and camera – a long lens will be good as you may not get too close to the animals.
  • A small backpack with a waist strap for comfort.
  • A water bottle or bladder to go in the backpack.
  • Good walking shoes or boots that you’ve worn-in already.
  • Plasters for blisters.
  • Don’t take perfume – it often attracts unwelcome bugs.

 

NEED TO KNOW

Are walking safaris safe?

You’ll generally be accompanied by at least two rangers who walk one in front and one bringing up the rear. If dangerous animals are about, one will carry a rifle. They will also have radios to get help if needed.

How fit should I be?

It depends on the kind of walk. Mostly though, if the idea is to get close to animals, you’ll be walking quietly and slowly, so a reasonable level of mobility and fitness is fine.

In your pocket

You don’t want to be carrying heavy bird and mammal books with you. Luckily, there are apps for that. Try these bestsellers.

Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa

Roberts Multimedia Birds of Southern and Eastern Africa

iTrack Southern Africa

WORDS Sonya Schoeman, Scott Ramsay, Adelle Horler

IMAGES Supplied, Scott Ramsay

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