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James Kydd

NAME: James Kydd

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TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: Walking safaris through the eyes of a guide

This diary entry took place at South Africa

How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and the season instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk. ~Author unknown

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~John Muir

From a young age I decided that I did not want to be a doctor. Or a vet, for that matter. Having the responsibility of others lives in my hands was not my idea of fun. Spending my days in nature and sharing the joys of wildlife with people from around the world was, though, and before I knew it I was a week away from qualifying as a safari guide. And then it dawned on me. I could in all likelihood be leading a walking safari for the first time on my own. Just me, my guests, and the wild things.

This made me feel slightly edgy and so I decided to go for a stroll. Since I had been trained to always conduct a walk as if I was unarmed I resolved to leave the rifle at the lodge and immerse myself completely in the bush. It was (and still is) like stepping through a portal into another world. A place with different rules. My senses seemed activated as if some chemical had just been injected into my body. I was a part of the ecosystem, I was no longer un-natural. The further I walked away from the lodge the more I was aware of. I remember clearly the sweet aromas filling the air from the crushed sage under my feet and the dew-dampened leaves of the lavender fever-berry. My eyes felt hard to control, they flicked from the sky to the undergrowth, delighting in clouds, grasshoppers, nesting birds and a myriad of flowers while scanning my periphery protectively. My fingers ran across the bark of a velvet corkwood, lingering for a moment on a soft patch of lichen.  My ears were the most awakened: I pressed them against a fallen marula and listened to the wood-borers excavating their tunnels. A grey-headed bush shrike announced its ghostly presence from the canopy and the low, buzzing drone of a dung beetle's wings seemed to bounce off the trees around me. I was in heaven. There was one sound I didn't recognize though. A strange, throaty moan. Soft at first, but getting louder. And louder. And closer.  Something in distress. I could hear hooves. The hairs were up on my neck, and what were left of my animal instincts were now shouting at me to run. RUN.

That fiery baptism was the first bush walk I ever took on my own, and I've been addicted to walking in the wild ever since. But not because of the adrenalin rush, although the thrill of the unexpected is ever present. It was the sensory overload that had me hooked. The more I’ve walked the deeper my enjoyment of the experience has become, and the stronger my desire to share it with others.

In South Africa, walks are conducted by a qualified guide armed with a rifle (sometimes accompanied by a back-up guide or tracker) and a maximum of eight guests.

Walking safaris are a highly under-utilised and underrated way of experiencing wild Africa. Those that embark on a walk expecting to see and photograph animals like they would on a game drive may be disappointed: most large animals tend to avoid humans when we\'re on foot, and a lot more ground is covered in a vehicle, providing more opportunities to locate these animals.

But for those looking for the finer details it is a must. For those wanting to explore a macro world of insects, tracks, small mammals and flowers; those hoping to learn ancient survival techniques and the medicinal uses of plants; those hoping to get away from all things mechanical and to re-connect with nature on an entirely different level, walking provides opportunities that no vehicle is able to. To walk is to be out in the wild as another animal, sharing their space and the daily drama of their lives.

There are essentially two ways to experience Africa's wilds on foot: walking safaris and wilderness trails

Walking safaris
Safari walks come in a variety of forms, each allowing different opportunities, which I will discuss below:

1. A short walk from the vehicle
A walk could be a short departure from the vehicle during a game drive, often to see something specific. This would typically take ten minutes to half an hour and can be beneficial for a number of reasons: Firstly, short walks give guests an alternative means to observe animals. Imagine, for example, driving up to a river pool, parking next to the water, and viewing some hippos. Now imagine walking to the pool from 300m away, tracing their footprints from the night before along their path and inhaling the earthy scent of their dung scattered in the bushes alongside. As you approach the water through a forest, the silence is broken by a loud blast of spray from a gigantic nose, giving your heart an invigorating skip. Your first sight of them could be a long distant view through the trees but since you are on foot, it will be way more enthralling. And as you enter a clearing to get a better view, all their heads turn to eye you before you bellow out their impressive voices. Essentially, you have viewed the same animals, but had an entirely different experience.

Some animals like giraffe can be quite relaxed in the presence of humans, and spending time walking near them while they feed could be an unexpected highlight of your trip.

I had a great walking experience in Tswalu Kalahari when we were lucky enough to spot an aardvark. Instead of watching it from the Land Rover, we disembarked and hid behind a termite mound in the direction it was travelling. With the wind in our favour the rarely seen creature walked right up to us, digging holes in the red sand just metres away. An experience that never would have been possible if we weren’t on foot.

Secondly, being on foot allows you explore secret places or vantage points that a vehicle might not be able to access due to the terrain.

At Londolozi I have two such favourites: the first is a small cascade (a rarity in the Sand River) that falls into a dark shady pool deep enough to swim in, surrounded by a sandy beach and an enclosure of giant ebony trees. The other is an ancient rocky outcrop, where generations of lions have been born and raised, and from whose summit you can watch the sun rise over what feels like the whole of the Kruger National Park.

2. Late morning walks
Many lodges will offer a late morning walk after the morning game drive so that guests can maximise their chances of seeing and photographing animals during the early hours. This means that by the time you walk it might be hot and the wildlife is usually a lot less active. These walks are also typically conducted from the lodge, increasing your chances of your wilderness experience being disturbed by noise from the camp and other vehicles. As far as the benefits of walking go, it is only advised to do this type of walk if it's your only chance to be on foot while on safari, or if your objective is simply a bit of exercise, as it is by no means the best time of day to walk.

3. Early morning walks
Dawn, however, is.  The atmosphere is electric and there is no greater play on the senses than just before the sun rises. The air is cool, moist and dense, amplifying the sounds and smells of the bush. Some of the night creatures are still active: hyenas howl and lions proclaim their territory. As the light begins to glow it feels as if you could watch the petals of flowers unfolding if you looked closely enough. Tree branches shake with the waking monkeys, mist rises from the river, crickets are still sounding off, and when the dawn chorus kicks in, a thousand songbirds become your soundtrack. How much of this will you experience from the comfort of the Land Rover? I would suggest that you put an entire morning aside for walking instead of going on a drive and stay out for 3 or 4 hours before breakfast.

4. Tracking and viewing potentially dangerous animals (PDAs)
Another under-rated safari experience is sharing in the science of tracking. A wealth of riddles and stories are left behind by animals all the time, and with the right guide and/or tracker you could spend an hour observing an area of just a few square metres. Against that tamboti are the claw marks of a leopard. Here the eagle-owl landed, hunting a mouse. There, the swallow's beak gathered mud for its nest.

All safari walks include some form of track interpretation with the intention of finding the likes of elephants, black and white rhinos, lion prides and buffalo herds. Although it is possible, and in some areas probable, that you will come across some of these animals without purposefully tracking them, this type of walking is different in that the focus is on following the animal from spoor or any other signs that it has left behind, and will rely on the skill level of your guide. A walk like this can be a thrilling experience, whether the animal is found or not. If the animals are found, the objective should be to view it in a way that is not threatening to either party, and to leave it without disturbance.

Tracking or viewing PDA could of course be integrated into any of the other walking experiences mentioned throughout this article.

Wilderness trails
Wilderness trails are different from safari walks in that entire days and nights are dedicated to spending time completely immersed in the wild, in total separation from civilisation (bar an emergency hand-held radio). The first wilderness trails, as we know them, were pioneered in 1959 by a young Natal Parks Board ranger Ian Player, and his mentor Magqubu Ntombela, and have grown hugely in popularity since. In South Africa, wilderness trails are only found within a few of the national parks and provincial game reserves.

A wilderness trail is the quintessential African walking experience combining the best of all the above-mentioned safari walks (scenic vantage spots, hidden treasures, insects, flowers, tracking PDA, survival skills, traditional plant uses) but in an area only accessed by foot, or canoe. Days are spent in pristine nature, exploring terrain that has been untouched by development, and only seen by few. Nights may begin huddled around a campfire, sharing stories and a strong sense of community, and may end hearing an elephant feeding next to your tent, or the rasp of a nearby leopard. If you are looking for the ultimate way to re-awaken your natural instincts, your senses and perhaps even your soul, walking on a wilderness trail is definitely the way to go. 

So, is taking part in walking safaris and wilderness walks a dangerous activity? No matter how relaxed a guide tries to make his guests before a walk, for many, the indemnity form they signed earlier will be flashing through their minds. And although most walks go off without any incidents, there is good reason for caution. To tell you that walking in a so-called 'Big 5' area doesn't come with any elements of danger would be to pull the wool over your eyes.

However, a good starting argument for the safety of walking is the fact that the majority of animals try their best to avoid any conflict whatsoever with man. Their instincts are that of survival and we can nearly be certain they view us as predators. But there are of course exceptions, and every year lives are lost while walking in the bush,  and while on game vehicles for that matter.

The biggest contributing factors to accidents are inexperience, inadequate training, bravado and complacency, but sometimes also plain bad luck. No matter how skilled and experienced your guide, how well behaved and cautious the guests, things can go wrong in the bush. This begs the question: Is it ethical to knowingly enter another creature's habitat armed with a rifle and possibly endanger lives on both sides?

My answer to this difficult question would be as follows: The number of negative incidents that occur is minuscule in comparison to the dangers of the city, which again are outweighed by the benefits of walking. The re-awakening that can occur while on foot is extremely powerful, especially for people who may have spent their entire lives in the city or in parts of the world where the wildernesses have long since disappeared. Walking can re-establish a relationship with nature in a way not otherwise possible.

And how does walking benefit animals? Many guests are so moved by the walking experience that they not only return to South Africa year after year, bringing with them the revenue crucial to conserving our land and wildlife, but become actively involved in conservation through various projects. Also consider the environmental benefit of walking in terms of the fact it requires no roads, no vehicles, no diesel, no electricity cables, no noise and has zero carbon footprint. This minimal impact is not possible with conventional safari tourism.

Having said that, if you are going to walk, it is important to choose a reputable operator. Companies like Wilderness Safaris and &Beyond, for example. &Beyond send their new guides out walking in the bush on their own for up to ten days. They are sent unarmed, with the purpose of learning, amongst other things, independence from their rifle. Long after they are legally qualified they will face further stringent assessment that can take months or even years to pass before they will be allowed to track PDA with guests.

I'd like to encourage you spend your next safari on foot. Leave behind the roar of the diesel engine, the buzz of the radio, the separation of the vehicle. Leave behind the schedules, expectations and instant gratifications, and return to the wilderness from which we all came. Step through the portal into another world where time slows down and you can lose yourself in a hundred microcosms. A world you will never see from the back of the safari vehicle; a place with different laws where you are mindful only of your next step.

Summer vs Winter:
Each season comes with its own advantages for walking in the wilderness: Dry winters with the fallen leaves and low grass mean great visibility. There are no rain interruptions, no uncomfortably soaked shoes from the dew, much less pests such as ticks, and pleasant walking temperatures throughout the day. Animals will also be concentrated along the rivers and easier to find. However bear in mind that it does rain occasionally in the Eastern Cape and frequently in the Western Cape during Winter.

The summer brings with it the pulse of life: migratory birds and insects have returned, the trees and flowering plants look spectacular, and dramatic skies add to the array of colour.

8 tips for walking:
1.No matter what the temperature, it is advised to wear long (light weight) pants while walking. There's nothing that will drive you to madness quicker than the itch of the pepper tick bite, and tick bite fever is very unpleasant to say the least. Check yourself for ticks thoroughly after the walk, and if you find a one on you, make sure it is removed very carefully (ask your guide how to do so).
2. Spray your feet, ankles and legs with mosquito repellant.
3. Get a binocular shoulder harness to allow quick access to them while keeping your hands free and taking the weight off your neck.
4. If you are going to bring a camera, make it a small camera. Big cameras are not only cumbersome but distracting from your experience. If the camera is on your phone, make sure it is on silent.
5. Comfortable hiking boots that protect you from thorns are essential.
6. Silence is golden.
7. Keep your head up and help your guide look for animals.
8. Be alert but not afraid. Never feel pressured into going on a walk.

Top walking destinations in South Africa

Pafuri Camp, Wilderness Safaris
Pafuri accounts for only 1% of Kruger's land mass but contains 75% of the park's biodiversity, so from a walking trails point of view, it is hard to beat. It is a birder's paradise, teeming with specials like Pel's fishing owl, racket-tailed rollers and Bohm's spinetails. In amongst big forests of fever trees and enormous baobabs, Sharpe's grysbok and eland are occasionally seen, while in the winter months you’ll encounter over a hundred elephant on foot along the Luvuvhu River. The area has a rich anthropological history with rock paintings, pottery chards, walls and engravings in the area that date back 20 000 years. Pafuri has a dedicated trails camp a 20-minute drive from the lodge. www.wilderness-safaris.com

&Beyond Ngala Tented Camp
Ngala boasts fantastic game viewing and the mostly dry Timbavati River, bordered by forests of giant leadwoods, jackalberries, mahoganies and tambotis is incredible. The other highlight of Ngala is their exceptionally skilled Shangaan trackers, who are extremely skilled at tracking from spoor. Extended trails can be organised on request. www.andbeyond.com

&Beyond Phinda
Phinda Game Reserve is an exceptional destination for birding with over 400 species recorded. It includes a remarkable seven distinct habitat types: woodland, grassland, wetland and forest interspersed with mountain rangers, river courses, marshes and pans. It is also one of the best places in the world to see both black and white rhino, as well as cats such as cheetah. ww.andbeyond.com

Singita Lebombo and Sweni
Singita is in the Sabi Sand area of the Kruger Park and is dotted with euphorbias and interspersed with dry watercourses perfect for walking and exploring. This area is known for big prides of lions, and you’ll have a chance of seeing rare species like sable antelope and black rhino. www.singita.com

Africa on Foot
Specialised walking trails conducted by experienced guides in the Klaserie Private Game Reserve. www.africaongoot.com

Kruger National Park wilderness trails
Kruger has a remarkable one million hectares of land zoned as wilderness, and it is in these areas that the park conducts its seven walking trails, of which the Nyalaland, Olifants and Sweni trails come highly rated. Due to their popularity you may have to book over a year in advance. www.sanparks.org

Imfolozi wilderness trail
This legendary trail was started by Dr. Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela, and by reputation is a thrilling experience www.kznwildlife.com



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