Picture a wildlife safari and you may well see yourself in an open game-viewing vehicle parked up close to a pride of lions. But there is an alternative: a walking safari. These are available in a limited number of locations in Southern Africa.
In this article, I recount my experiences of a few I have visited, and I reflect on the serious challenges for wildlife resulting from the Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Walking is a wonderful way to appreciate the bush. Yes, for safety reasons you can approach fewer animals (no lion pics here!), but from a photographic perspective, there are distinct advantages over being in a game vehicle.
First, it brings you down to eye level. Here are two young cheetah brothers posing for me in the late afternoon sun. One apparently indifferent to my presence, and the other gazing directly into the lens.
Then there’s the thrill of getting up (relatively) close….
Here are three rhinos we got close to in a South African reserve. Our two highly experienced guides had worked with them for months, getting them accustomed to occasional humans before allowing guests to approach on foot. But you still need to proceed with extreme caution and downwind: rhinos are much more dangerous than the cheetah. And you can’t hide behind a tree if they charge – our guide explained they would simply demolish the tree…
Last but not least, in a vehicle it’s so easy to focus on the hunt for exciting sightings, and then take lots of close-ups with a long lens. In contrast, hiking slows you down and makes you more aware of the environment. This encourages images of wildlife in context, even if just bush and grasses, giving a sense of place often absent in close-ups taken from a vehicle.
I have not focussed on technical aspects in this article. You will see I have used a very eclectic range of cameras and lenses (far too many!) over the last decade and any decent images are as much due to being in the right place at the right time with good equipment as to any technical prowess in this field!
So let’s set off…
Table of Contents
First, Find Your Cheetah
6 am, high on a grassy plain in the Samara Private Game Reserve, Eastern Cape, South Africa searching for an iconic cheetah called Sibella.
She had been spotted somewhere in the area the previous night, so we had a good starting point to search for her. She wears a radio collar, but she can still be very elusive.
We follow erratic radio signals for 20 minutes or so, then we see a head emerging from the long grasses:
This was my first ever experience of being close on foot to a big cat and something I will never forget. Over the years Sibella has become relaxed around humans, and cheetahs don’t see us as prey. But still, she is very much to be respected: around 50kg of muscles, jaws, and claws.
And no, you can’t exactly run away from her: 0-60 mph (97kph) in around 3 seconds…
It’s a Family Affair
Samara is a story of 2 families. An English family of humans, and a South African family of cheetahs.
The humans are the Tompkins. Over the last 2 decades, they have restored 67,000 acres (270 sq. kms) of former farmland, comprising 11 farms, to its natural condition. This included removing the plants and trees imported by farmers from regions as far-flung as Mexico and Australia to feed their livestock and provide shade, and replacing them with indigenous vegetation. Original wildlife was then reintroduced, including the first cheetah in 125 years, the first elephant in 150 years, and the first lion in 180 years.
The cheetah family are Sibella, and her many descendants.
Sibella was rescued from hunters when two years old. She had been savaged by hunting dogs and locked in a cage. But she was rescued, and with extensive veterinary care recovered completely. She was then given a new home at Samara where she became a major rehabilitation success, producing 19 cubs in four litters. At the time of her death in 2015, she was mother to 9, grandmother to 10, and great-grandmother to 18 cheetahs still alive across reserves in South Africa.
In 2012 Sibella surprised Samara. She had disappeared for a month or so in midwinter causing some concern, but then she appeared near the lodge to show off her 2 last cubs, Chilli & Pepper.
We caught up with Sibella and the cubs a couple of months later. After initial introductions, Sibella wandered off lazily, leaving the cubs to familiarise themselves with us paparazzi. Essential life skills training for the daughters of cheetah royalty.
If you are observant you will notice these shots are with my cheapest camera and cheapest lens….
Our most recent trip to Samara ended with a very special cheetah encounter. By now Chilli (or was it Pepper?) had 4 cubs of her own – nearly adult in size and appearance, but not yet able to hunt for themselves. We searched for them on our last morning and had almost given up when, following a faint radio signal, we found them at last. But as we got near them a large hare appeared, and they were off on the chase at full speed, disappearing behind some trees. We ran after them (slightly slower) and eventually found a perfect star-shaped array of 5 cheetahs, heads centered on the remains of the hare. We stood entranced watching them eat and, when finished, groom each other.
Elephants, Hippos, Big Trees and a Big River
Walking safaris are big in Zambia. In August 2015 we spent 6 nights, through Expert Africa (highly recommended), in 2 camps, Old Mondoro, and Sausage Tree, in the 4000 square kilometer Lower Zambezi National Park. Both camps are spectacularly situated on the banks of the Zambezi River, backed by extensive forests of tall leadwood, ebonies, acacia, and figs on a carpet of rich grassland.
On our first night, it was rather hard to sleep. We live very near the center of Edinburgh, home to over 500,000 people. Very quiet at night by comparison with the Lower Zambezi! There we were serenaded all night by the locals: hippos grunting and munching on the grass outside our tent, elephants trumpeting, lions roaring from across the river in Zimbabwe, constant cicadas, and from well before dawn, a cacophony of bird cries and songs.
Our first day took us on a long hike deep into the forest. Though accompanied by a highly experienced guide and an armed Zambian army trained scout, you are constantly in a heightened state of alert, knowing you are on foot in a remote area where anything can suddenly appear.
As if to underline the unpredictability and the need for extreme caution, within minutes a leopard runs across our track – much too quick for my camera. But more than enough to set the pulse-raising – and raise expectations!
Then we are deeper into the forest. The high foliage allows the dark trunks to form towering cathedral-like structures.
An occasional animal appears in the distance – a buck, then here a solitary zebra illuminated in a pool of sunlight in a soft landscape, blurring into mysterious half-lit depths.
I don’t know who lights the animals here and teaches them how to pose, but they’re very good at it. Within an hour of the zebra, I find this beautifully lit hippo, one eye watching me. As with many shots on this trip, I used a 300mm lens, so not quite as close as it looks, but still close enough to be very respectful.
An advantage of forests for wildlife photography is that the light and shade from the trees still allow reasonably lit shots in the middle of the day. The last shot from our first day’s walk was taken at almost midday. Yes, the high sun has only lit the tops of the elephants, but they are still clearly delineated, and the foliage creates light and color.
I do admit to cheating for the next shots: they were taken from a canoe, not on foot like all the others in this article. Canoeing was actually the scariest part of the whole trip. The scary bit is when the hippos you’re paddling past sink into the water – because you don’t know where they’ll come up again… It was quite an experience but to be honest not one I’ll repeat. But you certainly do get close….
There are no tarmac roads in or to the Lower Zambezi, so access is difficult. The reserve is flanked on one side by the Zambezi River and on the other side by hard to penetrate mountains. All these factors have helped to preserve wildlife and to make poaching more difficult (though sadly not impossible).
This has resulted in higher game densities, including a large, although still declining, elephant population. Here they are in a variety of environments, deep forest, shrubby bush and riverside grasses, highlighting the diversity of photo opportunities available here for just one subject.
Supporting Ethical Wildlife Tourism
It is a privilege to see wildlife up close in their natural environment, and no amount of documentaries (or articles such as this!) can quite prepare you for the real-life experience.
But the simple truth is that most African wildlife only exists in the wild because of tourism. The economic and social pressures of urban expansion, resource mining, and agriculture have funneled the remaining wildlife into smaller and smaller areas: national parks and private reserves. And all rely on significant tourist income to be financially viable.
Maintaining a national park or game reserve, and restoring and stocking former farmland back to its natural state, are very expensive enterprises. And that is before you add the cost of employing highly trained guides and providing tourist facilities in often remote locations, sometimes for restricted seasons (the Zambian camps are simply taken down for the wet season).
In addition, over the last decade or so poaching has become a real threat to elephants and rhino. Anti-poaching measures do not come cheap.
In the Lower Zambezi, the camps all pay for Anti-Poaching Scouts who are trained by the Zambian Army. The Scouts alternate a week working as scouts at a camp with a week on anti-poaching patrols.
Responsible wildlife tourism doesn’t just support animals. It also contributes significantly to local economies and communities. South Africa’s game reserves are thought to employ around 4 times the number of staff as similarly sized farms – Samara employs more than 100 – and equally importantly, they provide up-skilling opportunities that are hard to come by in poor rural communities.
But not all tourist wildlife encounters benefit wildlife. Cruel training methods underpin elephant riding. Wildlife “sanctuaries” and “conservation initiatives” are not always what they claim to be. In South Africa, tourists have unwittingly subsidized captive lion breeding (to be used for canned “trophy” hunting in limited enclosures) by paying to pet cubs and by paying to “volunteer” to look after supposedly orphaned cubs, thus helping to habituate them to humans. Recently there were estimated to be up to 8000 captive-bred lions in South Africa: almost 2/3rds of their entire lion population.
Southern Africa is a wonderful place to get out on foot in the bush for stunning photographic opportunities, accompanied by high quality, confidence-inspiring, professional guides.
But for this season at least tourist revenue has completely dried up as a direct consequence of Covid-19. National Parks are closed. Private reserves are closed. Anti-poaching is prejudiced. Local jobs are lost. The outlook is bleak until tourists start to return, and hopefully when they do that will not be too late for many businesses and, in turn, the wildlife that depends on them.
So hopefully this article will inspire some of you to visit as soon as you can! Do your research carefully and choose ethical destinations. You will have the experience of a lifetime, but more, you will be contributing to the future sustainability of iconic wildlife that could otherwise disappear, and the communities that look after them.