By A. Ziegler
It’s undeniably exciting to ride along in a Land Cruiser with a guide who has just sighted a leopard or a pride of lions, and whose driver has hit the gas in pursuit of the best viewpoint to stop. It’s heart-pumping to feel your driver inching closer, but not too close, to a mother and baby elephant or a herd of angry-looking buffalo. East Africa is nothing if not massive, unpredictable and raw, and open-air safari vehicles are the ultimate front-row seats to one of Mother Nature’s most dramatic shows.
But on a recent Micato Safaris trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I discovered that moving slowly, paying attention to tiny details and even feeling unsure that I really wanted to see animals, brought a whole new excitement to the savanna. Bush walks, also called walking safaris, have been growing in popularity—and for good reason.
There’s a frisson that comes from being so exposed. Although I walked with guides who are top-of-class in their areas, along with rangers who grew up in those particular corners of the bush and carry large rifles, it was a far different experience from being shielded by several tons of metal (which I’ve always been told animals don’t perceive as a threat or even as vehicle filled with humans). I felt exposed and vulnerable. And exhilarated. It’s exactly the kind of sensation that adventure travellers of all stripes have in mind when they talk about getting out of their comfort zone—but not too far out of it, and never in a way that puts them at unnecessary risk.
To be clear: A walking safari isn’t exhilarating in an endorphin-infused runner’s-high kind of way. It’s not a fitness activity. While it’s mental change of pace from sitting in a Land Cruiser, I knew it wasn’t going to make up for all the excellent food and drink that I’d been enjoying. One of my walking guide’s first instructions was to move very slowly (the others: stay single-file, speak quietly if at all and be prepared to follow his lead in backing away, dropping to the ground or adopting other defensive postures, should the need arise).
Instead, what quickened my pulse was a heightening of my awareness; a sharpening of all my senses. I could catch the aroma of native plants, feel the sun warming my skin. I was getting a new perspective on the savanna: not the epic landscapes sweeping by as I rode in a high seat but the details of the ground itself. The experience presented me with an opportunity to tune in —to everything—with my two feet on the ground.
I never thought I could share a naturalist guide’s enthusiasm for droppings and tracks, but I found myself growing increasingly fascinated with nature’s minutiae. I also learned as much, if not more, than I had on any number of game drives, on which everyone’s attention had been (understandably) focused on thousands of stampeding wildebeest or a cheetah stalking her prey.
Just as with the game drives, every game walk is different. At Mahali Mzuri, on a conservancy just outside Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, my excellent Maasai guide, who had grown up on that land and spoke fluent English, educated me about the plant life and medicinal traditions: a shrub fiber used as a tooth cleaner, a leaf used to fend off insect bites, and herb taken to relieve medical conditions. I came away with a deeper understanding of and respect for, the culture.
There was a thrill in a walking safari that was so different than a game drive: the rare sensation of being fully in the present moment. For me, going on foot let me contemplate the landscape up close. Most people go to Africa in search of lions and rhinos (and the zebras and gazelles that were around on my walks), not rodents and insects. The Big Five are indeed magnificent. But a walking safari showed me so much more: that the elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, lion ant, and rhino beetle—the so-called Little Five—are no less fantastic.