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London - “One hour ago. Maybe less,” confirms your guide, scrutinising the sand at your feet. “And looks like they were going our way.” He nods towards the dense thicket of bushwillow ahead, where your trail continues.
Straightening up, you meet the nervous glances of your companions. There is no disputing the big signature paw prints: four toes, no claws and two small notches at the back means lion. Now, as you fall back into step, your early morning stroll takes on a new dimension. Every shadow seems to hold a tawny feline form; every trembling twig is the twitch of an ear.
Walking in lion tracks, however, does not necessarily mean that you will get to see the lions. First-timers often assume that stepping out on foot gets you closer to the wildlife than any vehicle could. But the animals do not simply queue for your viewing pleasure. Out in the bush, you are the most obvious creature around, and - believe it or not - the most intimidating: zebra that seemed so tame on a drive melt away into the scrub; a rhino detects your scent on the breeze and thunders off before you get a glimpse.
The thrill of a walking safari, then, is that you're meeting the animals on their own terms - as participant in their world rather than as observer. It is not so much about snaps for the album as about a total sensory immersion in the bush. And in the process you discover the secrets to which no 4x4 passenger is privy: a puff adder's caterpillar-track trail; the musty odour of a waterbuck's bedding spot; the uncanny heat emanating from a termite mound.
The key to all this is your guide. He or she will ensure that you return safely - getting lost is generally more of a danger than being eaten - but also that you get the most from your walk. A good guide will spot most of the wildlife (however hawk-eyed you think you may be), and will give you an enthralling hands-on education in the ways of the wild, from tracks, droppings and seed pods to antelope alarm calls and the sex lives of bushbabies.
Of course, there's always the chance of a heart-pumping encounter. Fresh lion tracks quicken the pulse like nothing spotted from a vehicle. On foot, the crack of a branch in elephant country takes on a new and vital resonance. Sightings are never guaranteed but things often happen when you least expect it: a leopard drops from a branch; a buffalo thunders out of a thicket.
Walking safaris were once a niche activity. Today bush walks feature on many typical safaris. Explore (0845 291 4542; explore.co.uk), for example, has a one-week Tanzania safari for £1,819 (about R23 000) per person, with international flights, that includes walking in three national parks. Such walks will usually last two or three hours and are easily combined with standard game drives. More specialised walking safaris may involve several days on foot. Three-night wilderness trails in South Africa's Kruger National Park, from R3,900 excluding international flights (sanparks.org), for instance, take place far from any road or public camp.
Certain destinations, such as Zambia's Luangwa Valley, Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve and Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park, have built their reputation on walking and claim to have the best guides in the business. The Zambezi Safari Company (01548 830059; zambezi.co.uk) has a one-week Mana Pools safari that combines walking and canoeing to reach the remotest parts of the Zambezi Valley: prices from US$1,440 (£900), excluding international flights. Such raw wilderness experiences usually, and understandably, have a lower age limit, typically 16. But this is also changing: the Footsteps camps in Botswana's Okavango Delta (kerdowneybotswana.com) are among those trips now catering for families, with walking activities for younger children.
Any chance to feel the bush underfoot is worth grabbing, wherever you are planning your safari. Afterwards, a game drive will seem like watching animals on TV.
Practicalities Easy does it: the pace and agenda of a walking safari are generally relaxed, without goal or destination; the idea is just to get out in the bush and see what you can find. You will start out in the cool of the early morning - also the best time for finding tracks - and be back in camp or taking a break at midday.
Keep it natural: dress for comfort and camouflage - lightweight, breathable longs in neutral colours are best. (Shorts can mean ticks and thorns; whites and brights give you away.) Avoid artificial scents. Sturdy trainers are fine for most terrain. Don't forget to bring binoculars, camera, water bottle, sunscreen and a hat.
Do as you're told: most destinations use two guides, one works as the tracker while the other is the group leader. Usually at least one will be armed. Groups are no larger than eight; the smaller the better. Your guide will brief you before setting out. Rules generally boil down to doing exactly what he or she says at all times; this may sometimes involve standing still, in defiance of what your legs are telling you.
To the tracker, the bush is a cryptic puzzle, with clues that show which animals have passed, why, when and in what mood.
Tracks: check size, shape and direction; count toes (three for a rhino, four for hippos); and claws (cats' don't show; a dogs' do).
Droppings: fresh or old? Piled or scattered? Check content. (Hyenas' are white with crushed bone.)
Feeding signs: The different ways in which animals grab and bite their food.
Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) has nine nights' self-drive to Namibia (three nights at Mundulea, above, with guide and three nights in Etosha), all for £2,657pp, including car hire and flights from London.
Tracking gorillas or chimps in the central African forest is a more single-minded pursuit than savannah safaris. The idea is to get straight to the animals in order to make the most of your time with them. The approach is thrilling: with chimps you may hear the ear-splitting shrieks; with gorillas there's the hollow drum-burst of a chest-beating male. The encounter can feel highly intimate, and is not soon forgotten, but primate tracking is not cheap. Natural World Safaris (01273 691642; naturalworldsafaris.com) has 10 days in Uganda with chimps at Kibali, mountain gorillas at Bwindi, plus game-viewing at Queen Elizabeth National Park for £3,535pp, excl flights.
Valley of the herds
Prefer wildlife with a dash of adrenalin? Try the late dry season (Sep/Oct) in Zambia's Luangwa Valley or the Zambezi Valley, where great herds rumble down to the last of the water with predators hot on their heels. Without the cocoon of a vehicle, the flap of an elephant's ears or the snarl of a lion can turn knees to jelly. Rainbow Tours (020-7666 1250; rainbow tours.co.uk) has an eight-night walking safari in Luangwa for £4,560pp, including international flights, four nights at bush camps in South Luangwa National Park and three nights in North Luangwa.
Rhino tracking offers thrills to bush detective and adrenalin junkie alike. With the huge but placid white rhino, this is not too hard. The smaller, shyer and stroppier black rhino is more of a challenge. Imfolozi Game Reserve, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, is Africa’s rhino capital. Mkhaya Game Reserve in nearby Swaziland also offers excellent tracking of both species. Imagine Africa (020-7622 5114; imagineafrica.co.uk) has a six-night self-drive South Africa/Swaziland package, including the three-night Imfolozi Wilderness Trail and two nights at Mkhaya, Swaziland, from £1,569, including car hire and international flights. The same company also offers a one-week self-drive safari to Namibia, including three nights at Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland and two nights in the Etosha National Park, for £2,600, including international flights and car hire.
Stroll of the wild
There is no better guide to the African terrain than one who has never known anything else. Today, people of traditional cultures, from the San to the Samburu, are employed on walking safaris. As well as their unrivalled tracking expertise and understanding of the habitat, they offer safari-goers a fascinating insight into the culture, explaining bush lore and sharing recipes around the campfire. Samburu-led walking safaris through the remote Laikipia region of northern Kenya are supported by camels, which transport the camp gear from one location to another, leaving the guides free to find the wildlife, from elephant to rare Grevy’s zebra. They can also immerse their guests in the thrill of the African bush and its traditional heritage. Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk) has a week’s holiday to Kenya that includes five nights on a Samburu-led Karisia walking safari. The price of £2,305pp includes all flights. - The Independent