“Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard”.
So said the greatest exponent of walking, Henry David Thoreau. To me, this expresses the spirit of a walking safari so well. As a travel and conservation journalist, I’ve had many opportunities to dip my toe into this world, and it is the ultimate way to experience the wild.
The sensation starts from the moment you step out of the vehicle, mokoro or boat, to enter a world we once inhabited as primitive humans. Your senses tune in to an ancient rhythm and the further you walk, the more of the tune you recall. Once, heading up the Sinyati Gorge in Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park by boat, our guide steered between a large group of crocodiles as we neared the shore. The embarkation point on the river bank was inhabited by a bask of their toothy friends, so we aimed for another bank that was clear of these beasts. After gingerly stepping ashore, our guide chambered a round in his rifle, and led us through a tunnel that hippos had created in the undergrowth. The size of the tunnel, its almost perfectly round shape, inspired deep appreciation for the size of these dangerous creatures, and we trod as quietly as we could until we were in the clear, reaching a sandy stream bed where fresh elephant tracks dwarfed that of the hippos. Soon we came across a deep well that an elephant had made to reach fresh water. Leaning in, the scent off the elephant filled my senses, fecund and warm. Nearby, our guide dug down to shoulder depth until the water welled up, cool and delicious at the taste.
After a long while of walking in the elephant footsteps, crossed by the spoor of leopard, buffalo and reedbuck, it dawned on me that, despite not seeing these mammals, it felt like we were part of their domain – feeling vulnerable but more alive. The bush on the valley slope no doubt shrouded the leopard watching us; the constant scent of elephant reminded us how close we were, and by the time we caught up to them, it seemed we had walked among them and that we were not unwelcome. We sat and watched them from a safe distance as they drank at a glistening pool waiting, as is the custom for most animals, until they had drunk their fill and moved on. We walked to the pool where small tiger fish circled in a silver-orange gyre, and we cupped our hands in the water and drank in long, thirsty gulps, finally dunking our heads to stave off the heat.
Eventually, heading back to the boat, I was reluctant to leave this world which tugged at a primitive chord. But the sensation lasted long after the boat ride, the plane trip and the traffic jams on returning home, the mechanical drudgery of domestic life until I returned to walk in the wild again.
Written by: Anton Cronje, Editor at African Birdlife Magazine