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Skip the Safari Jeep: Discover Wildlife on Foot

African safari bush walk elephant
Elephant sighting in the Okavango Delta, 2012

Don’t get me wrong I love an African message. You know, the complimentary kind included in any bumpy jeep safari. But hear me out; leaving behind the rubber wheels of a vehicle has massive advantages. Some of my most memorable wildlife encounters have been on foot while walking through the bush. Here’s why I think you need to grab your hiking boots, be brave, and safari outside the jeep! 

Where I’ve safaried on foot: Kruger National Park, South Africa – Okavango Delta, Botswana
Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania – Jozani Forest, Zanzibar – and soon in the Masai Mara, Kenya

African safari bush walk
Expert guide, Whiteman, in Selous Game Reserve

What is a bush walk, game walk, or safari walk? Simply put it’s a guided stroll through nature, in lieu of a typical game drive. No, I’m not talking about a multi-day backpacking hike through the bush. Think of a bush walk as a leisure-low-impact, afternoon nature hike.

Most African safaris offer it as an option, in addition to your typical morning and afternoon game drives. Just make sure to check when you’re planning your safari, some protected areas restrict certain activities like bush walks and night drives. Everywhere I have safaried has offered a walking option of some sorts, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to doing so again on our honeymoon in Kenya.  

Jozani Forest Zanzibar
Red Colobus monkey in Jozani Forest, Zanzibar

Many people worry that a walking safari isn’t as safe as staying within a vehicle. But the reality is, seeing animals in the wild always includes inherent risk. The likelihood of you experiencing an unwanted run-in is very slim. Of course, walking safaris can never have a 100% safety guarantee, but neither can a safari jeep, or any sort of travel for that matter. Personally, I place my trust in the highly trained and experienced guides leading these walks. These professionals are extremely skilled in tracking wildlife, identifying behaviors, and keeping their guests safe. On the two occasions when I encountered dangerous wildlife on foot, I felt like I was in great hands the entire time. My recommendation is, don’t let a concern over safety prevent you from exploring the African bush authentically.

Another concern folks have about guided safari walks is that they won’t see any animals. Honestly, I myself had a similar thought on my very first bush walk I took in Kruger National Park. But I was quickly corrected after just 10 minutes of walking. Our guides froze and silently instructed us to stop in our tracks. Only about 30 yards away in the thick grass I started to see tawny heads begin to peer up back at us. Those heads were from a pride of lions that we had woken up from their afternoon slumber. This was my first time seeing lions in the wild and in the most unexpected way. There were over a dozen lionesses and adolescent cubs, all looking directly at us. Thankfully after a few moments they ran off in the other direction. I had assumed wrong, any bush walk can include Africa’s wildest of residents, and the hairs on the back of my neck were evidence that was true.

My 4 reasons to go on a bush walk when you’re on safari:

  • Feel Grounded: Walking in the wilds of Africa gives you the opportunity to feel the bush, rather than passively observe it. Leaving the rumbling jeep behind will remind you just how deep in the wilderness you are. Being immersed in nature, where the only noises are your footsteps, helps to anchor you in the animals’ domain. You’re experiencing the world on their terms (of course, in the safe hands of your professional guide). It’s impossible to not feel grounded by this raw moment in the wild.

  • Go Where Wheels Cannot: Getting out on foot means that your guided group can see places inaccessible to vehicles. Maybe it’s appreciating a closer look from the riverbank, or touching an ancient baobab tree, or soaking in a panorama view on top a rocking outcropping. All these experiences are only possible on foot.

  • Be a Detective: Walks are a great opportunity to learn from your guides, as they hone their tracking skills from ground level. This exercise in playing detective will train you to look closer for clues right under your nose. The bush is filled with signs of wildlife: dung, tracks, burrows, nests, and even scent marks. Join your guide and try to figure out which creature might have walked, flew, or slithered where you stand.
  • Better Perspective: On foot you will find yourself noticing parts of nature that would have otherwise been zoomed past. Sure being perched up high in a jeep might seem like a quality view, but truly great photos come from eye level. Some of my most cherished pictures were taken of tiny animals on bush walks. Remember that antlions and lizards are just as much African wildlife as leopards and rhinos. Let the bush help broaden your connection with all wildlife.

Wildlife I’ve seen on bush walks: an entire pride of lions, alien-like insects,
massive bull elephant, twisted trees, giraffe, countless bird species including wattled cranes,
red Colobus monkeys, antelopes of all shapes, and tracks I could fit my handprint inside! 

African safari bush walk elephant
Elephant sighting in the Okavango Delta

My other unforgettable bush encounter came from a walk in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Our two guides, Lasty and Amos, cruised through the freshwater channels docking our boat in the reeds of a small island dotted with sausage trees. There we climbed out and began our walk, just the four of us (my friend, myself, and our two guides). About halfway through our island loop, the guides realized we were in the company of the world’s largest land mammal, a bull African elephant. I was reading back into my travel journal and laughed when I read what I had wrote back in 2012. “This guy (the massive elephant) was seriously only about half court away from us… as if he could dribble a basketball.” I can still vividly remember just how close to this elephant we were. For the most part he calmly kept eating, grabbing a few trunkfuls of sand here and there to toss on himself. We stood there for what felt like centuries, snapping pictures the entire time. Eventually, our guide motioned for us to start walking around some thick shrubs to get one last look before we’d continue on. Our change in location caught the bull’s attention, causing him to turn and face us with his enormous ears held wide. We all stopped, while realizing he was slightly closer from this new angle. In that second came the loudest trumpet as he lunged through the brush. It sounded like a rouge steam engine plowing towards us. As told, we held our ground, and fought every instinct to run. Before our minds had a split second to process the chaos, the bull had already stopped in his tracks to raise his proud head high. Our hearts were racing while we waited for him to make the next move. Thankfully for the four of us his goal was complete, he had reminded us that we were simply visitors in his home. The message was fully received. The second the bull turned and trumpeted off, our guide looked back at us and said, “there’s an African elephant for you, minus the zoo!” 

African safari bush walk
Elephant footprint in the Okavango Delta

That moment would have been nowhere near as humbling if we were confined to a jeep. Being charged by a massive 13,000-pound mammal is forever engrained in my memory. And though my heart was pounding outside my chest, I fully trusted our guides, they knew exactly how to read the bull’s behaviors and keep us safe.

I hope you leave the rubber wheels behind at least once and take advantage of exploring Africa on foot. No matter what you encounter on your own bush walk, just know that you are in for an unforgettable African experience. Lace up those hiking boots and safari outside the jeep!