What to expect when going on a walking safari
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As you explore the African bush on foot, you hear leaves rustle and notice some unfamiliar scents. Suddenly, your guide points to a footprint on the ground. Lo and behold, it’s a lion’s footprint!
This is a scenario you can expect when going on a walking safari in Africa. It’s exhilarating, isn’t it?
That said, we know it can be “scary” not knowing what to expect when you head out on your own two legs in the middle of the wilderness.
Fret not, in this article, we’re sharing useful information so you know what to expect on walking safaris.
But first, what is a walking safari?
Photo credit: Viva Safaris
A walking safari is the most authentic version of safari. It leaves the roads behind and takes you on paths less traveled.
Walking safaris enable you to encounter things you might miss from a vehicle. Instead of rushing from one animal sighting to another, you examine footprints on the ground and track them.
You’ll learn how to identify the animals by their droppings as you listen to the melodic chirps of birds, and watch a beetle roll the dung.
Sometimes, you may be lucky to spot an animal. But that’s not the goal of a walking safari.
When do walking safaris take place?
Photo credit: Viva Safaris
Most walking safaris take place in the morning, so you’ll have to wake up early. Some camps also run walking safaris in the afternoon, but nothing beats heading out in the bush at the crack of dawn.
This way, you’ll be able to make the most of the experience as the animals are most active during the first two hours after sunrise.
Regardless of the destination, it’s always better to take a stroll while breathing in the crisp morning air.
During the African dry winter months, walking is easier because of the low temperatures and humidity. Also, the vegetation is dry and the chance of spotting animals is high.
However, during summer, the temperatures rise so much that walking safaris may not even be run anymore. Especially during this time of the year, the walking safaris take place in the early morning or late afternoon, to reduce the risk of sunstroke or heat exhaustion.
Who will come with me on a walking safari?
The rules are different in each park/private conservancy, but you are likely to be accompanied by at least two people, out of which one will always be armed.
Usually, these two people would consist of a guide and a tracker. Sometimes, though, there’ll be two qualified walking guides or a walking guide and a park ranger.
If the walking safari you chose includes tea time in a set location, there will also be a tea bearer and/or an assistant.
It is standard practice that at least one guide will lead the walk when the party is less than four participants. A minimum of two guides will lead the walk if the party is between four and eight guests.
Is a walking safari safe?
As with any activity around wild animals, there are some risks involved. But that’s why you are always accompanied by a walking guide. They go through rigorous training and mentoring before they are allowed to be a lead walking guide.
Before you start the walk, your guide will give you a comprehensive safety briefing. You should follow their instructions explicitly. Don’t rely on your instincts.
You will walk in a single file. Both the guide and the rifle carrier will be leading the walk. Stay behind the rifle (gun) at all times. And keep quiet. This will heighten your other senses and be able to sense any danger that may lay ahead.
Most importantly, obey the guide’s commands immediately. In the bush, time is of essence when it comes to responding to a potentially dangerous situation.
How fit do I have to be to go on a walking safari?
Photo credit: Viva Safaris
There are quite a few types of walking safaris (more on this below). But, in general, walking safaris are gentle strolls in uneven terrain. You will stop a lot to examine different things and there may also be a tea break in a lovely spot.
The guides will always check the physical conditions of the guests before deciding where to walk.
If you have difficulty walking in general, then a walking safari is going to be a challenge and is not advisable.
Are my young children allowed on a walking safari?
Due to the physical nature of the walking safari, only children aged 12 or older are normally permitted to join.
Should you travel with young children, make sure to ask the lodge whether they organize activities or walks for the little ones.
»Are you bringing the kids on a safari in South Africa? Read more planning a family safari in South Africa!
How long do the walks take?
Each camp offers different durations of walking safaris, but the guides will tailor the walks based on your fitness level.
In general, a walking safari can last between 2 and 4 hours at a relaxed pace.
If you are up for an adventure, you can opt for a full-day walking safari or even a multi-day walking trail.
What clothes & shoes should I wear? What do I need to bring?
Choose clothes with natural color intensity. You don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb so white, yellow, black, and red are out of question! Also, blue attracts the tsetse fly.
Several layers of clothes that blend in with the environment are great. Think shades of beige, light brown, and kaki.
Your trousers can be of any lengths but make sure your ankles are covered either by long socks or gaiters. In fact, in the African heat, it’s best to choose short trousers. Long ones may get you stuck in the vegetation.
As for shoes, leave your flip flops at the accommodation. Comfortable walking shoes appropriate for uneven surfaces should do. If you are going on a full day walking safari or a multi-day hike, make sure to bring a very good pair of light hiking boots. And remember, always break in your new shoes/boots prior to your trip – not during!
If you are going on a short walk, a small backpack with a water bottle, bugs repellent, camera, wet wipes, sunscreen, and binoculars should be enough.
As a rule of thumb, pack less rather than more. Hauling too much stuff will definitely weigh/slow you down.
Are there different types of walking safaris?
There are several different types of walking safaris to consider, based on your fitness level and what you want to achieve during the trip:
While there are hiking trails available that are deemed safe enough to allow you to walk without a guide, some lodges and camps offer guided hikes as an option.
Aside from being there with you for your own safety, the guide’s knowledge will help you understand and experience the bush up close and personal.
A hiking trail route can range from 1-2 km (0,6-1,2 miles) up to 15 km (9,3miles) in length.
Getting out on a game drive
Photo credit: Spurwing Tourism Services
Sometimes, where allowed, the guide may want to leave the vehicle behind to get a closer look at a specific area or to explore it on foot.
In private conservancies, the guides are allowed to drive-off road but, typically, only when they spot one of the Big Five animals or wild dogs. For other animals, they won’t go off-road to lower the impact on the bush. Instead, if they want you to take a closer look, you’ll disembark, get a safety briefing, and set off on foot.
Depending on the distance of the animals from the vehicles, you may walk a couple of hundred meters/ feet to at most a few km/miles.
In national parks, it is not allowed to do this during a game drive. Some parks will allow to book a walking safari separately, though.
If you self-drive in a national park, it is prohibited to get out of the vehicle or to go off-road. Self-driving is not allowed in private conservancies.
A short walk from the lodge
As mentioned above, you are not allowed to go on a drive or walk on your own in private conservancies. Therefore, the lodge will provide a guide and arrange the game drives for you.
Most often, you don’t need to set out on foot and cover long distances as the wildlife can be spotted during a very short walk from the lodge. This is typically shorter than 5 km (3 miles) in length.
A morning or afternoon walk
Photo credit: Springbok Atlas
This is what is usually referred to as “a walking safari”. A two to four hours guided walk is an option in both private conservancies and some national parks. The distance covered is between 5 and 10 km (3-6.2 miles)
You may either leave the accommodation on foot or drive to a certain area and then set off on foot.
The morning walk starts right before the sunrise. You’ll get a chance to hear and see how the animals of the bush awaken. On an afternoon walk, you might spot the animals coming to the waterholes. Sitting down for a “sundowner” (watching the sunset as you nurse a drink) is a traditional safari activity and possibly the best way to end a walking safari, before heading back to the accommodation.
A full-day walking safari
This is a great choice for those who want a more adventurous safari. This type of walking safari literally takes an entire day. You will leave the camp before breakfast and return in the late afternoon. Breakfast and lunch are served in the bush.
Depending on the operator, they may set up the meals for you, or you’d have to bring them along yourself. So, make sure to get the details ahead of time!
The distance covered depends a lot on the terrain but, in general, it’s about 10-20 km (6.2-12.4 miles).
A multi-day walking trail
As the name suggests, these safaris are done on foot during the course of multiple days.
Depending on the operator you may:
- Walk from and back to the camp each day
- Drive further way from the camp before setting out on foot.
There are different ways to do a multi-day walking trail, such as:
- Staying in fixed camps: this is either a single camp to which you return each day; or multiple camps, and you’d need to carry a sleeping bag and pillow with you, as well all as all your luggage.
- Staying in mobile camps: can be done as flying camping, which refers to the traditional way of camping under a flysheet. During the day you are on foot and at night you sleep in lightweight tents that move location daily; or backpacking, in which you carry everything with you, from the tent to the food.
During a multi-day walking trail, you’ll cover about 10-20 km (6.2-12.4 miles) per day, but it depends on the type of terrain.
What exactly happens during a walking safari?
Photo credit: Ku Sungula Safari Lodge
You need to remember that a walking safari is not about seeing as many animals as possible. If that’s your ultimate goal on a safari, we strongly recommend choosing a game drive.
With that being said, you might still spot some wildlife. This will be a more intimate and intense encounter than if you were in a vehicle. The guides will use their senses and concealment to stay undetected and to bring you in for a closer look.
Being on two legs will allow you to go to places where a car cannot go. You’d be walking along the tree line, by rivers, and go deep into the bush where you won’t see any tire tracks.
Therefore, the focus is different than on a game drive. You’d be examining footprints and droppings, you’ll inspect plants and soil types, you’ll also be able to take a closer look at insects and smaller species that you may otherwise miss on a game drive
Most importantly, you’ll be making use of all your senses and learn to interpret different sounds and scents as you go.
What are the best destinations for walking safaris?
Photo credit: Kubwa Five Safaris
Walking safaris are available in all of Africa’s traditional safari destinations. However, depending on what you want to achieve on such a trip, you have a choice of activities in various countries.
South Luangwa Valley in Zambia is considered the birthplace of the walking safari. Nowadays, it’s one of the best places to spot a leopard!
And if you want to go to a place where only walking safaris are allowed, the Imfolozi Wilderness Trails, South Africa is a great choice. There are no roads, lodges, or cell signal.
»Read more about the off-the-beaten-path walking destinations in Africa
Go on the adventure of your lifetime in the African bush! Join a walking safari and unravel the mysteries of nature.