Take a walk on the wild side

African game on your bucket list? You could follow the herd and hop into a Jeep. But for full sensory overload, walking safaris are the way ahead. Stanley Stewart steps out in the Serengeti.

In the sand by the river, Prim knelt down to examine a line of animal prints. Then he stood up, suddenly.

‘Two lions,’ he said, scanning the raised banks above us. ‘Young males. They are close.’

Prim is the Sherlock Holmes of the Serengeti. A walking guide, he has an uncanny ability to read the landscape and trace the passage of its animals. I was half expecting him to tell me what they’d had for breakfast. And then he did, pausing by a pile of fresh dung. ‘They’ve taken a young wildebeest,’ he said. ‘Probably four or five hours ago.’

I followed him to the top of the riverbank where he lifted his gun in readiness. ‘There,’ he said, pointing. About 100m away, moving slowly through the long grass, were the lions. They stopped and looked back at us over their shoulders. For a moment I was eye to eye with one of Africa’s greatest predators. Considering the options, then deciding we represented too great a danger, they went on, shoulder blades seesawing through the grass.

My pulse raced. We were in the Serengeti National Park, one of Africa’s most popular wildlife destinations. More than 300,000 visitors come each year, nearly all of them ensconced in the upholstered comfort of 4WDs and minibuses, seeing Africa from a safe distance. But we were on foot.

However you explore it, the Serengeti is, of course, a once-in-a-lifetime experience (even if vehicles are likely to converge en masse on an elephant sighting or lion kill). It is made even more special by its international-class, luxury lodges. But tourism is focused on about 40 percent of the park. If I was coming this far, I’d told myself, it made sense to go the whole (wart)hog: to see Africa at walking pace, stretch my legs and engage with the landscape as well as the animals; to experience the country without a lodge, a vehicle or even a road in sight.

The Maasai call it Siringet, the place where the land runs on forever. Tipping down from the Crater Highlands in Tanzania towards the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the vast grasslands of the Serengeti are archetypal Africa: long horizons and towering skies. Across 15,000sq km of wilderness a bewildering array of wildlife meanders with proprietorial ease.

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As I flew north from Lake Manyara, there was no sign of habitation below us, just baked emptiness, except for a scattering of lodges and camps. Our 12-seater Cessna hopped between dirt airstrips like a flying bus, dropping off safari visitors along the way. I had an appointment with a rare guide, licensed for game-viewing on foot.

At Kogatende, as we came in to land, a small herd of wildebeest, three startled warthogs and a gangly giraffe all scuttled off the airstrip. A 4WD was waiting. We set off for the wilderness zone through a landscape of gentle hills and yellow grasslands edged by acacia woods. The tracks we drove on grew smaller until they disappeared altogether. Long grasses swished against the car as we dodged trees and boulders. At a dry riverbed I got out to help scout for a crossing place. On the far side, we passed a pride of lions sitting in the grass, scanning herds of wildebeest and impalas in the distance.

The Wayo camp was strung along the banks of the Bologonja river, half a dozen tents on an open rise. The moment the car stopped and the engine died, I was seized by a sense of peace. The only sounds were of Africa: the river chattering among boulders, the clattering of Egyptian geese and, far away, an elephant trumpeting.

‘There’s a disconnect when you’re in a vehicle – you’re seeing Africa on your terms,’ said Jean du Plessis, the owner of Wayo Africa, who would be leading me. ‘Walking is a different experience. You’re here on Africa’s terms. That’s when you really begin to feel the continent.’

Jean grew up in South Africa running around the African bush with Zulu children in the Drakensberg mountains. He came to Tanzania 20 years ago to help train park rangers, and spent a lot of his time on long foot patrols. He fell in love with the country – and with the idea of seeing it at walking pace. His contacts allowed him unique access to the wilderness zones, but it’s a two-way deal: for the park authorities Jean’s camps act as a deterrent to poachers in less-visited areas.

I’d imagined walking meant roughing it, but there was something splendid about the camp at Bologonja – this was how visitors saw Africa 100 years ago. Furnished with duvets, mattresses and camp chairs, the two-man tents were cosy and comfortable. Close by was a roofless loo of wonderful simplicity – a composting short-drop thunderbox; a sink with a mirror; and a bucket shower readied with warm water by staff on demand.

We had pre-dinner drinks around the campfire prior to three-course candlelit meals served beneath skies swarming with stars. I felt I could linger here for a week, but Bologonja was merely base camp, where the walking base safaris begin and end. As we chatted round the fire after dinner, I sensed Prim was keen to get going.

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‘There is a male elephant that roams a territory a couple of days’ walk from here,’ he said. ‘He’s very old, a bit cantankerous, and lives entirely on his own now. I have watched him for years. He is like an old friend. I am keen to see if he is still alive.’

Awaking in the pre-dawn I dressed by lantern light. When I emerged from my tent, the eastern sky already carried a rose tint. Over coffee by the embers of the previous night’s fire, I watched the landscape across the river slowly materialise: the smooth, lion-coloured boulders, the flat-topped acacias, the slopes of yellow grass dotted with hundreds of wildebeest and zebra. As we ate a hearty breakfast, a great chorus of chattering birds filled the morning.

We were a small party: myself and a mother and daughter from New York. We were accompanied by two guides, Prim and George, a park ranger. Regulations stipulate that both men should be armed (on foot, extra levels of safety are required). But in many years trekking the Serengeti, neither men had ever needed to shoot.

We followed the line of the river, among scattered trees, towards the Nyama Lumbwa Hills. The smell of wild mint and sage rose from beneath our feet. In the fresh morning air, with the grass still wet with dew, the early sun casting long shadows and the birds singing, Africa felt new-born. Prim moved with care, gently dispensing information and stories. There is, he told us, an old African saying that you feel a place through the soles of your feet. Walking, I began to savour nuances – I was no longer just looking at Africa, I was beginning to sense it.

He showed us an orange caterpillar as long as a man’s hand – its bristling hide would produce stinging sores if touched. He pointed out a woodpecker cocking its head in order to hear the subtle movements of larvae beneath the bark, and the honey guide flitting noisily from tree to tree trying to lead us to a beehive in the hope we would open it. He explained how termites could build new ‘chimneys’ in a day to achieve the optimal temperature inside their castellated mounds. We followed a trail of Matabele ants on their way to raid a termite mound. For another bird, the anteater chat, it was love rather than lunch – from atop the highest fever tree, it sang its heart out to a dowdy, uninterested female not far away.

Prim’s detective work was ceaseless, but beside his Sherlock act, I was the bumbling Watson, bemused and amazed in turn. He lifted a fistful of grass, smelled it and told us about the leopard that had recently passed this way. Stopping by hyena poo, he told us the animal’s age and habits, the specifics of its lunch. He knelt to examine rhino tracks and could tell us when the beasts passed and where they were going.

Crime scenes were Prim’s speciality, and the Serengeti is thick with corpses. We meditated for a time on the skeleton of a juvenile lappet-faced vulture beneath a tree. Eventually Prim reached his verdict: fratricide. It had been killed by its siblings in the nest above, and a parent had disposed off the body by pushing it out of the nest. By the remains of a wildebeest, he recited its biography – its age, sex, status in the herd, and how it had met its end. He pointed out the differing lengths of the femurs on its front legs. It had had a limp, and was too slow for the lions that had taken it down.

Life was everywhere. In a dry riverbed, two hyenas paused, turning their great heads slowly to look at us with malevolent eyes as vultures fed on a fresh carcass nearby. Elegant in the air, the birds were colossal on the ground, Jurassic Age survivors, squabbling over carrion, their bald heads bloodied from foraging in entrails.

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Of course, the Serengeti wasn’t all death and defecation. A herd of zebras, a couple of hundred strong, suddenly lifted their heads among the trees in front of us, then turned and galloped away. A small group of impalas, elegantly poised, watched us from the far side of the river. A family of warthogs passed at a stiff-legged trot, their tails sticking up like antennae. At some distance, giraffes browsed among acacias, their long necks protruding amusingly among the branches. But for comic appeal they were upstaged effortlessly by the wildebeest, creatures composed, some tribes say, from the animal parts God had left over: a few stripes from the zebra, a handful of lion’s mane, the head of a warthog and the neck of a buffalo. Yet they also offer one of the great spectacles of the Serengeti. Herds migrating in search of fresh pasture make epic river crossings, which safari-goers congregate to watch – as I did, after a walk in the bush.

In a way that seemed fitting for these hapless creatures, the thrill was chiefly in watching crocodiles devour them as they flailed mid-stream, like freeloaders vacuuming up the buffet at a party.

It was elephants Prim wanted to find; in particular the ageing male he’d told us about. ‘The old separate from the herd in their last years so as not to slow or hinder,’ he said. ‘This elephant is like a recluse these days, waiting to die.’

A small group of them appeared on the far bank of the river later that day. Behind a screen of trees they were grey ghosts; stepping into the open they were suddenly solid and real. Lifting their trunks, they pulled entire branches off the trees as if they were twigs.

Prim scanned the hills beyond with his binoculars for the old male. ‘It’s silly. There are other elephants, other animals. But for me, the landscapes are not the same without him.’

We walked for three days, starting early each morning, when the air was cool and fresh, and reaching our overnight fly camps by lunchtime. Cooks and porters, having gone ahead, would already be preparing food. Tents were usually pitched on a sand bank next to a fresh stream so bathing was a few steps away from the front flap. We spent the heat of midday resting and reading beneath awnings. Tea and fresh muffins arrived at four o’clock. Then, late afternoon, we set off to explore.

At some point on each outing, we came upon a spoor of fresh elephant dung, grassy blocks that Prim would examine, looking for clues. On the third day, in the late afternoon, we crossed the river and struck across country to emerge on a wide plain. A pair of tawny eagles circled above a family of warthogs, a mother with four young clambering over rocks. We walked for a couple of hours, savouring the last light of the day. Then, as we were turning back towards the camp, we heard it…

From somewhere beyond a wood away to our left, where the sun was starting to set, came a trumpeting. Prim stopped and listened. A moment later a great bull elephant appeared on the skyline from behind the trees, silhouetted suddenly against the red sun, like an African cliché. Prim nodded.

‘It’s him,’ he said. ‘He is still alive.’

His face was broken by a smile. ‘And he looks well.’

The creature was magnificent, seemingly twice as large as any elephant I had seen before, with a pair of wonderful tusks catching the last light. Trunk raised in defiance, ears flapping forward, he began trotting menacingly towards us in elephantine slow motion. I felt the same rush of adrenaline as I had done on that first morning seeing the two lions so close in the long grass.

His thunderous footfalls seemed to reverberate through the very ground on which I stood. I wasn’t just seeing or hearing his approach, I was feeling it.

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Stanley Stewart / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing