Go walking and let all your senses take over!
By Leon van Wyk
There is something very special about experiencing wild Africa on foot. I would strongly urge all guests to join their guide on a bush walk. Bush walks vary hugely in terms of their pace and duration, depending on what people want to do. For the individual who enjoys a bit of exercise and the feeling of blood flowing through limbs, a good brisk walk for an hour or two is great. Going briskly, you can easily walk 5 kilometres (just over 3 miles) in an hour. For some, a gentle stroll for the same length of time might result in only 3 kilometres (just under 2 miles) being covered. Still others might need two hours to cover a single kilometre – not because they are unfit or slow, but because for them the purpose of the walk might be to have a much closer look at little plants, insects or animal tracks.
Just as every game drive is unique, so too should each walk be a completely individual experience, which will include a healthy blend of purposeful planning and open-eyed discovery. A guide who always points out the same termite mound, the same rhino rubbing post and the same buffalo skull from a 2-year old lion kill, is going to stagnate.
A walk does not always have to be seen as an activity to pass the time between breakfast and lunch, or to fill the gaps between game drives. It is an alternative form of safari experience, which can happen during a game drive or instead of a game drive. Flexibility is a key issue here. I always advise guests to wear comfortable walking shoes on a game drive, because there is a good chance that, during the drive, we will get off the vehicle and spend some time on foot.
I am not for a moment suggesting that a game drive be sacrificed for a walk, or that we do away with game drives. However, I do feel quite strongly that not nearly enough people are deriving maximum enjoyment from their total safari experience, because not enough of them are participating in walking activities. With the right blend of people, a good bush walk in a game reserve presents a marvelous opportunity to get in touch with Nature, and to discover or rediscover a part of one’s soul that is often lost or forgotten in the rat race – whether that rat race is back in the business world of turning over money, or in the somewhat overrated pursuit of the so-called “Big Five” on a series of game drives.
Neither am I advocating that the “Big Five” are not important. Each one of these iconic mammal species is very special and can be thrilling to watch. In order to best watch them and photograph them at close quarters, there is no doubt that an open Land Rover / Land Cruiser presents the easiest opportunities. However, just imagine the thrill of viewing any or all of them on foot! On guided walks over the years, I have had multiple unexpected encounters of all of the Big Five, and have also conducted quiet, careful approaches to them on foot, to view them without them even realising we were there. Not wanting to tempt fate (and I am touching wood!), I have not once, in more than two decades of guiding, had an unpleasant encounter with a dangerous animal while I had guests with me. There have certainly been occasions where the adrenaline has flowed, but never have I come close to having to fire a shot.
A walk in an area where dangerous game abounds, does require all one’s senses to be alert and engaged, as they can play a key role in fore-warning one to the proximity of certain animal species, so that rather than stumbling into them, it is possible to predict their presence and be ready for the encounter or approach – or to avoid it if appropriate!
While having sharp eyesight might seem to be the most obvious way of detecting animals, and it often is the case that animals are located visually first, there are numerous occasions when other senses will alert one to the presence of animals before they are spotted. The sound of ox-peckers twittering could easily suggest that buffalo or rhino may be nearby. Whenever I hear ox-peckers, I stop to listen for any other clues that could reveal the identity of the animals that they are using as a food source. The ground is also visually checked all the time, for any tracks, dung or other signs which could be useful clues. Sense of smell can also be a very useful indicator of what animals may be nearby. Elephants have a characteristic scent about them, and the fresh dung of elephants has a sweetish to acrid aroma to it. A fairly easy odour to identify is that of an elephant bull in musth – the testosterone-rich urine that dribbles along his path has a smell which reminds me vividly of rhubarb!
Fresh leopard urine, which is released in very small quantities at short intervals by either a male or female leopard on a territorial patrol, has a smell which reminds me of warm popcorn! The smell of a carcass, fresh or old, could indicate that carnivores may be nearby, and fresh predator dung also has a foul odour which is hard to miss.The bodies of lions tend to have a musky odor, and as for their breath……well, I hope you are never in a situation on foot where you are close enough to a lion to smell its breath! Waterbuck and wild dogs both exude fairly pungent odours – waterbuck probably smell rather like a sweaty shirt that has been worn for 3 or 4 consecutive summer days, while wild dogs (shall we rather call them “painted hunting dogs”?) smell rather like a mixture of Bovril and wet dog.
But it is not just about the smells and sounds that are associated with large or dangerous animals. There are the fragrances of wet earth, of fungal growth around a damp log, the sweet scent of certain blooming trees, the wheaty smell of dry grass, the Thai-curry smell of a little herb called Hemizygia, the menthol aroma of some of the wild sages as their soft green leaves are crushed when walking through a seep line. There are many more, and they also vary with time of day. The potato bush, for example, has a very familiar smell in the cool of early evening, but is often not noticed during the day, when the warmer air rises.
Related to sense of smell is sense of taste. Depending on the time of year, there are numerous different plant parts and fruits to sample – but be careful, and be sure. Don’t be persuaded into tasting something if you are not confident!
Bird song, particularly in the early morning, can best be appreciated without the sound of a diesel motor running, or of tyres rolling over sandy and rocky roads. Even while walking, one’s footfall on the ground can muffle many of the sounds, so it is important to just stop, be still for a while, and quietly listen. While a guide might know what each bird call is, it is not always necessary to vocally identify it for his / her guests. Perhaps just stop, point in the direction of a particular bird call or other animal sound, and smile. Identify if asked, but don’t feel the need to show off your “vast knowledge!”
We should also not forget about our sense of touch or feel. Gently use your fingertips to feel the soft sand where a leopard’s paws have left their prints, in an attempt to gauge freshness of the tracks. Feel the warmth exuding from a termite mound, by placing your hand at the mouth of one of its large entrance holes. Feel how tough and hard the leaves of the evergreen Euclea bushes are. Feel how smooth the stump next to the mud wallow is, from decades of having rough hides rubbed against it.
Let us also not forget about the harder to define senses, such as sixth-sense or gut-feel. The more time you spend out in the wild, the more these senses will come into play.
Humans have advanced from the early hunter-gatherer, and now are able to acquire their food and other needs without venturing into the wild. However, I believe that a great deal of our hunting instinct remains concealed somewhere in our persona, and every now and then it is humbling, energizing and stimulating to go back to the basics, use those hiking boots and enjoy the tranquility of a long walk in Nature, saying little but experiencing much. Go on and try it. I believe that you will not regret it, and you will want to do it more and more. Enjoy!