For a true wilderness experience there is nothing to beat a walking safari. Leave behind the distracting sounds and smells of vehicle or boat engines; enjoy the freedom of exploring at will, away from the restrictions of tracks that scar the landscape. As you follow your guide into the bush, the senses instantly become heightened, you feel connected with the surrounding environment and you savour the excitement of encounters with wildlife first hand.
On foot you quickly become attuned to the natural signals of the bush: the smell of wild thyme as you brush past; the shrill alarm call of a puku, suggesting the presence of a leopard nearby; the rustle of hundreds of tiny wings as a flock of quelea pass overhead.
There is nothing more thrilling than walking in the open near to big game, close enough to hear the rumble of an elephant's stomach. Walking safaris recapture the spirit of the golden days of safari, when it was down to the experience, bushcraft and intuition of your guide and tracker to locate and approach animals.
The relationship that you have with your guide defines any safari, but never are a guide’s abilities more critical than when you are walking in the bush, both for safety and the wealth of information he or she can pass on. In the company of Africa's best guides - the likes of Gavin Ford in Botswana, Robin Pope in Zambia or John Stevens in Zimbabwe - your safari becomes a riveting journey of discovery as layer after layer of the natural world is unveiled.
On a walk you have time to examine termite mounds, peer down spiders’ holes and learn about the medicinal properties of plants and trees. You may, admittedly, see fewer large animals - they recognise humans on foot as a threat and tend to be more skittish - but you will appreciate far more about the fascinating web of relationships that make up the natural world.
Many lodges and camps throughout Africa offer half-day walks locally, but for the purpose of this review we have focused largely on areas where you can make a journey in the true sense of safari, travelling on foot from place to place, staying either in a series of permanent lodges or at fly-camps.
By their nature, walking safaris tend to take you to Africa’s wildest and least developed wildlife areas. We have recommended some of the very best, ranging as far afield as the community reserves of northern Kenya, the vast Selous Reserve in southern Tanzania, the Zambezi Valley, the Okavango Delta and Zambia’s Luangwa Valley - regarded by many as the home of the modern walking safari.
These walks are about savouring nature up close and personal, unhurried, undisturbed, unspoilt. They are not endurance hikes. Distances covered are not huge and you rarely carry more than a camera, binoculars and suncream. Your luggage miraculously appears at the next camp, where your shower and a welcome meal are guaranteed. For your own safety, it’s vital to do as your guide instructs at all times; and for the love of Africa, follow the conservationists’ maxim: “take only memories, leave only footprints”.
In 1866, David Livingstone crossed the Luangwa River in what is now South Luangwa NP and declared: “I will make this land better known to men that it may become one of their haunts. It is impossible to describe its luxuriance.” Famous for big herds, the park is considered one of the world’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries: the concentrations of game near the river and oxbow lakes are rewarding, and there are over 400 bird species.
The flat-bottomed valley is 700km long by an average of 100km wide. It lies 800m below the surrounding plateau and is an extension of the Great Rift Valley. Mineral -rich alluvial flood plains are covered with mopane woodlands and open grasses giving onto distant blue hills. There are two distinct seasons: dry, bare bushveld in winter (May - November) and lush greenery in the wet summertime (December -April).
The walking safari originated here, first run in the 1950s by conservation champion Norman Carr. The park still offers some of Africa’s finest walking, and travel on foot remains the best way to experience this landscape. Unsurprisingly, there’s an excellent choice of operators to walk with, including some classic names in the field.
Robin Pope Safaris have built their considerable reputation around walking, operating five-day trails covering around 10km/day, following the clear Mupamadzi River in the remote north of the park. “From ants to buffalo, birds’ nests to lion tracking,” clients learn the bush, sleeping in fully serviced mobile camps.