A Walking Safari Isn’t About the Animals

November 6, 2019   1 Comment »

The safari jeep pulled away and we were all just standing there.
On the ground.
With no transportation.
My heart raced.

I quickly realized I had a whole different perspective doing a walking safari. I suddenly felt what it was like to be an animal living in this tall grass – wondering what predator was around the corner. It’s easy to feel safe in a vehicle, but on the ground, I felt exposed.

This bush walk is one of the extra safari activities you can do at Thanda Safari. When I agreed to do the walking safari, I thought it would be a good way to learn more about animal tracking and get a new perspective. However, I hadn’t considered the fear and panic that was also going to be present inside of me when Christian drove the vehicle away saying that he’d pick us up in a couple of hours.

Wind is your Enemy in a Walking Safari

“I’m not saying we are going to find a rhino, but we will try,” said Truman, the Reserve Operations and Security Manager. “It’s quite a windy day…,” his sentence trailed off as he looked around nervously. He continued, “with this wind, it will carry our scent away.”

Leaving the safety of the road, and going by foot

I could tell he was trying to decide if we should do this walk on the ground on such a windy day or not. Wind is your enemy in this situation because animals really don’t want to come across a human and will steer clear of us when they can. If our scent it carried away in the wind, then it’s more likely we could come across an animal and startle it.

Our other guide explained, “Animals are afraid of us on foot; they generally don’t want to have conflict. Conflict for animals is something that is dangerous, and there’s no national health program for them! If they get injured, they usually die. They will only get into a conflict if it benefits them. And a conflict that benefits them is either a conflict that ends in food or one that ends in mating. For any other conflict, if they can, they will stay away.”

Walking Safari Instructions

As one would guess, there are lots of instructions when it comes to being on foot in a game reserve. Truman gathered us around and went through the rules.

“I’m your lead rifle and I will be walking in the front. Ryan (a guide on the antipoaching team) will be behind me in case anything happens to me. At all times stay behind the rifle. There is no intention to shoot and kill the animals, it’s only here in case we walk into a situation beyond our control.”

He went on to show us exactly where his ammunition was and how to load the gun – just in case. I paid close attention even though my stomach was in knots.

He continued, “When we walk into a situation, you will listen to my command. Walk single file, and stay an arm’s length apart from each other. When we see an animal, we stay at a safe distance and respect the animal’s space. Never ever decide to back away from the group, or stop and look and fall behind.”

I’m pretty sure that there was no chance I was going to allow anyone, especially Truman, out of my sight over the next two hours. Who in their right mind would think it’s OK to fall behind and be on your own walking in the bush I thought to myself!

“At all times, keep your voices minimal. We don’t want to expose ourselves to danger which we cannot see. These animals are in their natural space, so we are the intruders, and we have to respect it and give them their space at all times.” And with that, Truman asked if we had any further questions.

I think I was a little too nervous to even ask a question at that point!

The First Few Steps

walking safari thanda reserve
Photo by Christian Sperka

With no questions, Truman picked up his gun and took off. The other guide, Ryan, stepped into stride behind him, and we all followed like a line of ants marching into the bush.

The first few steps were a complete adrenaline rush.

Even though Truman was an expert in his field and had done many of these walks before, I was still quite nervous. My heart raced and all of my senses were heightened. I gingerly took steps and found myself scanning everywhere in the grass.

A bird above us chirped and I nearly jumped a foot in the air! It was then when I told myself to just calm down and breath.

Learn How Experts Track Animals in the Wild

Not only was this an adventurous sensory experience, it was also a learning experience. We didn’t talk while we walked, but often Truman would stop us, asking us to huddle around to teach us about animal tracking.

“Looks like there’s been a Poo party here,” Truman says with a slight smile as he looked down at a huge pile of animal dung. Our laughter helped ease my nerves. We all huddled around and looked at the poo on the ground. I felt like a private investigator. Truman kicked it around a bit and then knelt down close to it. “Animals have their own ways of communicating,” he explained.

I had never really thought of poo as communication, but it definitely was. White rhinos eat grass, and Black rhinos eat leaves on bushes and trees. This makes the contents of the poo quite different. By looking at the poo you can start to narrow down the type of animal that was at the ‘party’. It wasn’t only something people on walking safari use to track, but animals also use this information to track each other too.

The poo pile was definitely grassier, we found no twigs in it – indicating it was a White rhino that had been there. However, the poo was quite dried out, “If I was a rhino poacher – I would look at it and realize that it is an old dung pile,” explained Truman. This reminded me that animal tracking is used by all types of people – and especially poachers.

Trackers also look at places where dirt is disturbed, branches are broken, or leaves eaten. And then we started getting more advanced as Truman told us about how to figure out the direction of urine to determine what direction the animal was moving.

In addition, there were a number of areas that he pointed out silently where you could see a large animal had been walking through the disturbed grass or sleeping in the grass where it was flattened. All of these things kept us on the trail of the white rhino we were trying to find.

Caution at Water Holes

We slowed down as Truman gave us hand signals to wait. We were approaching a watering hole and it is here where things can get dicey. He didn’t want to startle any animals at the watering hole. Truman slung his gun around and had it ready as we walked out of the bush and into the mud around the watering hole.

Once again, my heart raced. More than anything I didn’t want to encounter a cape buffalo. I had heard cape buffalo were the meanest and their charges are deadly. The cape buffalo kills more people in Africa than any other mammal after hippos. It charges at approximately 56 kmh according to guide Rory Young

Please, please please no water buffalo I repeated in my head silently.

watering hole on safari
Be extra careful around watering holes

Truman gave us the ‘all clear’ sign and we knew we were alone at the watering hole. We surveyed the area seeing a number of tracks checking how fresh they were and determining direction.

Traversing Grasslands

We passed around the watering hole, traversed a gully, and hiked out into a field. The grass became taller and thicker, and sweat was pouring down my forehead and back. The grass made me even more nervous because I remembered how easy it was for the cheetah we saw the prior day hide in the grass. You could be just a few feet from it and it was undetectable in the grass.

As we bushwhacked through shoulder high grass, I found myself worrying about the smallest of animals – tics. With each step my mind skipped from tics to cheetahs to cape buffalo to rhinos. Except for the tics, you want to see the animals and you don’t at the same time. It makes for a strange push/pull of your emotions.

walking safari grasslands
Are there tics here…yes…

After sweating and walking through the high grass I was exhausted. Suddenly I saw Truman hold up his hand indicating for us to stop. We had been hiking on foot for 2 hours by now and I had kind of given up finding a rhino in a way. He motioned for us to get down low. We all crouched and Truman pointed in the distance. I followed Truman’s pointing finger and saw an animal move among the trees. A white rhino and a young calf were munching on grass just ahead of us. They were luckily about 200 feet away, but it was pretty incredible to watch the animals while feeling so vulnerable.

I tried to take a few pictures with my phone, but it was challenging; 200 feet is still a pretty big distance. The photographer in me wanted to get closer, and the tourist part of me was pretty happy being far back.

Truman spotted the rhino ahead of us!

Viewing Wild Animals On Foot is Great But…

The Walking Safari was a success, but even if we hadn’t found the rhino and baby, it still would have been a success. I think the real benefit of doing a walking safari isn’t really about seeing the animals from the ground, it’s about putting yourself in an environment with heightened senses and observing your own emotions. I developed a whole new understanding and appreciation for wild animals that day; more than I ever could have done simply viewing from a jeep.

How you can do a Walking Safari in South Africa

Thanda private game reserve offers bush walks through their private reserve as a chance to view animals and learn about the flora, fauna, and culture of the region.
Thanda Safari Website
Thanda Walking Safari


I was a guest of Thanda Private Game Reserve during my stay, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

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