by Rachel Hamada
The first thing that springs to mind when you think about the African bush is the dramatic open landscapes of the savannah and the legendary Big Five. Spaces such as the Serengeti belong on widescreen, and driving inside this landscape feels like watching wildlife cinema. But for fit-minded travellers who want to be more active, there are increasing opportunities to get down from the jeep and get out there and walk amidst the flora and fauna of this incredible continent.
The concept of walking safaris in Africa began over three decades ago, but are newly gaining in popularity as people look for moare active holidays and fitness adventures. Participants stand some chance of seeing big game, but animals are much shy of people than they are of vehicles (particularly in areas with a history of poaching) and tend to keep their distance. Nevertheless, much of the charm of a walking safari is in the detail – the flashing colour of a sunbird’s wings, the hard and ambitious labour of a team of termites, identifying the tracks and pathways of elephants and hippos.
The Big Five
Guides in most African countries undergo rigorous training and use their tracking and observation skills to make sure you get the most from your experience. In many countries, visitors on walking safaris will be accompanied by an expert ranger with a gun – just in case of emergency. You are walking in the wild and animals can be unpredictable, but accidents are extremely rare, and your guide will tell you how to respond if a situation arises.
Any risk is well-balanced by the rewards – for instance, the feeling of wellbeing that comes from time spent walking in the open and the joy of total immersion in the natural world. Walking safaris can be tailored to suit almost anyone – for the less fit, walks can be short and informative, and for those who relish more of a physical challenge, safaris can be more like treks and enable participants to see the wonderful variation in the landscapes of the bush. Generally all walking takes place in the early morning and late afternoon to avoid the harsh glare and intense heat of the midday sun.
Where to stay on your African walking safari depends on your preferences – the simplicity of fly-camping in the middle of nowhere, luxurious lodges, or upmarket bush camps, which combine good food and service with rustic, wild locations and tented accommodation. Some of the more expensive camps are in the most remote locations, which allow you to walk all day without seeing other people, but there are also less expensive camps in equally good locations. You can also shop by country to get a bargain – for example, Zimbabwe is competitively priced at the moment because of the political situation there, but the country is still well geared up for tourism, and the national parks are teeming with wildlife.
What to Take with You
You should aim to wear neutral clothes to blend into the landscape – beiges and khakis are best. Hats and a high-factor sunscreen are essential, and you should also take binoculars, a camera, and if you are creatively inclined a notebook to jot down impressions and sketches. Your guide should bring water to make sure you stay hydrated throughout your walk.
When to Go
On the whole it makes sense to avoid the rainy season (mid-November to mid-May) as rivers swell and many areas become impassable. Some camps close entirely during the rainy season. But it’s worth consulting with your travel agent, as some locations will still be accessible and you will benefit from lower prices, lusher landscapes and rich bird and insect life.