A walking safari at Tanda Tula in the Timbavati

Posted by Sarah Duff on 31 May 2011

Everyone loves that exhilarating feel of coming face-to-face with a wild animal on a game drive. Take that feeling and multiply it by a hundred and you’ll come close to what it feels like to track animals on foot and then stand metres away from them while they continue doing whatever they were doing, completely unaware of your presence. Walking safaris are definitely the ultimate way to experience the bush.

I’m what you’d call an urban sissy who loves the bush. I’m terrified of snakes and spiders and other things that may crawl into my sleeping bag on a camping trip in a game reserve, and I’m definitely not the hardy bundu-bashing type that you’d expect to go on a walking safari.

So it was with slight trepidation that I set foot in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve with my boyfriend, knowing that there were literally thousands of things in the bush that could kill me. The first thing that our strapping, exceedingly bush-savvy guide from Tanda Tula, Dale Jackson, said to us was that what people often worry about on walking safaris was thinking that there are all these creatures lying in wait to attack them. I laughed nervously, pretending that I wasn’t thinking the same. However, we hadn’t walked 10 metres when I started to relax into the walk, feeling completely reassured that Dale knew what he was doing (and by the confident way he carried his loaded rifle).

The three of us set off in the golden late afternoon light and it wasn’t long before I soaked up the wonderful feeling of being completely in the bush: enveloped by its sweet, earthy smell, the birdcalls, and the piggy snorts of distant impala. We hadn’t been walking for long before we started tracking elephant: Dale had spotted fresh tracks and broken branches. As the light turned golden we spotted the two young bulls: they were in the distance, on a mission. Even though they were pretty far away it was a pretty awesome sighting.

While we didn’t see anything else Big Fivey that afternoon, it was all the little things that you don’t see on game drives that I loved. We spotted a spider-eating wasp dragging an unconscious baboon spider back to its hole to lay eggs on the spider’s back, which apparently is about as rare as seeing wild dogs. Dale pointed out bird’s nests harbouring tiny blue eggs, social spider nests, impala and rhino middens and taught us how to spot tracks of various animals.

As dusk started to fall, we walked back to the Land Rover game drive vehicle and chanced upon a fortuitous sighting of three lionesses and seven (very cute) cubs having a lie-down. We got so close that I could see the tiny fuzzy hairs on the cubs’ paws. We finished off the day in the bush drinking gin and tonics (accompanied by yummy bush snacks of chips and basil pesto dip and dried mango) under a thickening blanket of stars before our return to camp.

Paraffin lamps were lit around the hide when we returned, and Bishop, our private chef for the safari, was busy cooking dinner over a blazing campfire that smelt like smokey bush. After a few more gin and tonics around the fire, we sat down for dinner next to the dam (from which rather loud plopping noises  of fish could be heard) on a table complete with tablecloth and bottle of wine. Bishop had cooked up a delicious bush feast of roosterkoek, baked yellowtail, baked potato, and mielies.

Under my gently swaying mosquito net that night I slept fitfully, constantly awoken by every noise I heard, used to having to be alert of intruders in the city. I heard animals drinking big gulps of water, which sounded like a water cooler emptying, fish plopping out of the water, the harsh bark of baboons and countless other unidentified worrying loud things.

After 05.30 am coffee and rusks, we drove out to a waterhole with Dale and experienced tracker Isaac, who spotted rhino tracks. He led us into the bush tracking the elusive rhino, We smelt grass he’d urinated on, felt his dung and felt grass that he’d bitten off like a lawnmower. We were a couple of hours behind him though, and didn’t manage to catch up to him. We did learn a lot about tracking and had started to recognise a couple of different tracks. I kept finding myself looking down as we were walking, testing myself on tracks I saw.

As the day heated up we headed back to the hide for a massive brunch of eggs, hash browns, and fried tomatoes, cooked over the fire. Tummies full, we spent the hot afternoon having siestas under our mosquito nets.

We set off for another walk when the heat of the day had dissipated. This time we got lucky and managed to track a white rhino down. We’d been after him for a few kilometres and then suddenly he was there, in the bush, happily munching away, 20 metres from us. We were so close we could hear his lips chomping down. It’s a different thing to experience a rhino on foot: you re-appraise its bulk, especially considering it could be thrown your way.  We were careful to keep ourselves under his radar: the wind was blowing our scent away from him and we were quieter than he was.

In between walks, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, we did game drives and had some incredible sightings, like two male lions fighting over an impala kill and growling at their cubs who were trying to eat as much of it as they could, a very chilled out leopard who let us park off close by and watch him as he took an early evening nap, and a group of bull elephants who frolicked in a river, play-fighting and swimming.

That night we feasted on Bishop’s feta-baked trout and veggie skewers next to the watering hole, our ambience music provided by fish plops and elephant drinking. By then I’d eased into the bush and my sleep that night was heavy and peaceful, disturbed only by the sudden, harsh bark of a solitary baboon in the stillness of the middle of the night.

After two nights in the bush, we were not keen to return to civilization. I could have stayed out there for a month. We had a transition period though – we spent a night at Tanda Tula’s lodge before heading out of the reserve. The lodge has all the rustic, intimate charm of a family-owned bush camp, together with luxury touches that make it one of my favourite bush lodges.

All in all, the walking safari was one of my most memorable bush experiences and after getting back to the grimy city all I can think about is going back to the bush. If you haven’t gone on a walking safari before it needs to be at the top of your travel bucket list.

Contact Tanda Tula

Tel 015-793-3191, [email protected], www.tandatula.com

For news on widlife sightings and awesome photos taken by Tanda Tula‘s guides, join their Facebook page.

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