Words and photos by Tracey Bruton – Field Guide, Kings Camp
One of my favourite activities as a field guide is a walk in the wild, literally!
To walk along a path on the same earth where generations of elephants have trodden, to inspect the track of a lion that had padded by exactly where you are standing, and to have the peace and tranquility of nature all around you is something very special to experience.
After the thrills of finding and photographing big animals often very close to the vehicle on morning game drive, a relaxing game walk after breakfast is a serene activity which allows you to feel a connection to nature, to feel like you are walking amongst the creatures, away from the confines of the vehicle and the noise it creates. Walking in silence along a game path listening to the sounds of the bush all around you is a humbling experience. Being relatively safe in a game vehicle, you appreciate all you see, but you can only really connect to nature when on a bush walk. When you are down on the ground, you really notice how every part of the ecosystem works together in balance.
A nature walk allows participants to experience aspects of the bush that can’t be appreciated fully from the vehicle- to look at and learn about tracks and signs, trees, flowers and grass, invertebrates, reptiles and smaller animals, birds, and much more. You are also immersed in the sounds of the bush – birds singing, the low rumbling of elephant communication, the soft chirrup of a group of mongoose as they forage, the iconic call of the African fish eagle, a whoop of a spotted hyena, the high pitched buzz of the cicada, rustling of leaves in the wind or the hooves of a herd of antelope as they scatter from a disturbance.
Of course one might be lucky enough to experience the thrill of seeing a large animal on foot, which may be viewed safely if conditions allow. Your trails guide always has safety as a priority, carrying a rifle in case of the worst case scenario in an encounter with a dangerous animal, however a multitude of safety precautions are followed to avoid a serious confrontation. These safety aspects include safe areas to walk, avoiding thicker areas, wind direction, warning sounds of animals and birds indicating the possible presence of a dangerous game animal, and tracks and signs, to name a few. If ‘dangerous game’ animals are encountered, you may be able to approach to a safe distance, and view their behaviour. The best way to do this is to approach, view and retreat without the animal ever knowing you were there. This approach is safest, and also allows the animal to continue its natural behaviour without interference.
One should not be nervous to experience a bush walk though due to the possibility of bumping into potentially dangerous animals. Your trails guide uses precaution and knowledge to ensure that dangerous encounters do not occur. Awareness of the environment and knowledge of the inhabitants of the bush is paramount for a trails guide, so that one knows animals are ahead before the animals know you are there.
I have had wonderful encounters with my guests where we watched the natural behaviour of animals with them being unaware of our presence. A most recent occasion was watching a small herd of elephants as they napped during the midday heat in the riverbed under some large trees. We approached them using vegetation to hide us, the wind in our favour, and on the opposite bank above for safety. We watched adult females standing over their calves, creating shade for them, rocking from side to side, trunks lightly resting on the ground. Calves lay sleeping in the soft sand. After watching them quietly for ten minutes, we silently move away.
Even if you do not encounter one of the big five animals on foot, there is a multitude of fascinating creatures to see and learn about! I love coming across the smaller, more overlooked creatures, such as dung beetles, chameleons, termites, spiders and reptiles.
Feel the concrete strength of a termite mound, and wonder at the amazing organization of the termite community. Stop to really appreciate the intricacy of a spider web, or the perfection of a bird in flight.
Inspect the newspaper of the bush – the tracks and signs that animals leave behind. And not just animals – my previous guests will remember how I have caught them out with the track of a clump of grass blowing in the wind and leaving a perfect semi-circle in the sand!
Tracks tell you a story- who walked there, who chased who or followed who, who walked that path afterwards, who left a territorial scent mark and who broke off a branch or rubbed their muddied skin on a tree stump. It is fascinating to read the tracks of the bush. These don’t only include footprints- also signs such as scent markings, rubbing trees or posts, dung middens, scrape marks, even bent over grass where an animal has walked, or a faint mark of claws scratched against a tree.
Sitting quietly in the shade for a moment, you will realize that there is life all around you. The inflorescence (or flowers) of a variety of grass species tickle your legs. You see out of the corner of your eye the movement of a small lizard scuttling over sun-baked rocks. And the birds! Forever a bird song in the air! The comical “guwayyyy” of the grey go-away bird glancing down at you, a soft rising toot of the tiny pearl-spotted owlet from the hidden branch of a high tree, the cackling cacophony of the green wood-hoopoes as they search for insects in holes and under tree bark, the knocking of a woodpecker, the “kisshhh” calls of oxpeckers that signifies an antelope or perhaps a big game animal.
At any time of the year the bush walk has something special to offer. If you walk in summer you will be able to witness the stunning display of wild flowers, or inspect natural waterholes for tracks of animals such as terrapins or frogs. A walk in the dry winter months may allow the sight of a herd of elephants moving to a waterhole to bath and drink.
Try your hand at identifying our trees and plants- the iconic marula or the tall knobthorn, the thorny Acacia bushes or the poisonous tamboti. Smell the aroma of the wild sage or wild aniseed, wash your hands with a soap made from the devils thorn!
Being completely immersed in the bush is what really gives me a connection to nature, and sharing this feeling and passion with others hopefully instills in them the same sense of love and respect that I feel for our precious wild places and inhabitants.
Post courtesy of Kings Camp