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Walking safari in South Africa – Three days of adventure in the African bush!
You are right in it all. In the middle of the African bush. On foot. Only a few meters away from a huge bull elephant. In front of you are the ranger and his assistant, both are carrying guns. You must not make any sound, be quiet as a mouse. The wind turns, the elephant can now smell you. This one was close! Your heart is pounding, adrenaline is rushing through your entire body and you almost forget to breathe. Only once you made it back to the jeep and the elephant slowly takes off your muscles start to relax and you are safe again – there is nothing more intense than this experience! I did a three day walking safari in South Africa and had several encounters like this which I can hardly put into words. To give you an idea what this walking safari is like and what you can experience on a safari like that, I will try to share this intense experience with you.

Three days of adventure in the African bush!

Shamwari Game Reserve Explorer Camp – the adventure begins!

I have always wanted to do a safari and when Line told me that there is the option of doing a walking safari, I knew immediately that we had to do this – and so we did. As the conclusion to our road trip along the Garden Route we drove from Jeffreys Bay to Shamwari Game Reserve, around 70 kilometers from Port Elizabeth, to spend a weekend from Friday to Sunday. Shortly after Port Elizabeth the landscape changed and suddenly we were driving through the rolling hills of a savannah that stretched endlessly towards the horizon. First on the N2 towards Grahamstown we followed a sign that read “Eagles Crag Lodge” and turned left away from the N2 onto a dusty gravel road. “The Lions Sleep Tonight” was blaring from the speakers and we already saw the first zebras and springboks peacefully grazing and walking around. Amazing! After a few more kilometers on the gravel road we finally reached the entry gate to the reserve and were warned by several signs to beware of lions. After a ride through the thick bush and a short steep ascent we finally reached our destination: the lodge at which we were to meet our ranger for the next days for the first time. But it was actually two rangers not one: Geran and his assistant, or better the trainee, Ayman. Geran already had over 20 years of experience as a ranger. He had originally studied photo journalism and through journalism discovered his calling as a ranger. After a delicious lunch together at the lodge it was time to load our stuff on the jeep and already we were driving to our new home for the next two nights: the Explorer Camp – a kind of tented camp in the bush.

Day 1 – Arrival and first encounter with elephants

On the car ride we already met the fist young bull elephant who didn’t really know how to react to us. He didn’t seem to want to challenge the jeep, because the animals perceive the jeep as a large animal which is not always an advantage. I have already seen wild elephants in Sri Lanka and Thailand but never before have I come this close to a wild elephant as on this short drive from the lodge to the camp. Because rather than passing the jeep on the right side where there would have been a lot more space this young bull decided to squeeze by on the left side of the jeep. Suddenly there were several tons of grey thick skin passing only a few meters away from me – so insane! Once he was past us he turned around once more and looked at us, seemingly contemplating. I am pretty glad that he decided to move on in the end. You don’t want to have a young bull elephant running into your jeep because bottom line is he does have more strength and weight than every car, so all the PS in the world wont’t help you if an elephant like that starts running…

The Explorer Camp

So the bull elephant moved on and we drove towards some cliffs, heading to the camp. And suddenly we stopped in the middle of nowhere, got off the jeep and climbed up the cliffs. And then we stood there, on a little wood terrace with an amazing view of the surroundings. Nothing but savannah and bushes, really nothing else – simply amazing! Zola, our camp manager and cook welcomed us with a refreshing drink and showed us the rest of the camp. From the terrace we went down a few steps where our sleeping tents were pitched and there were a toilet and shower out in the open. So you had a really cool view of the landscape rather than a doorknob in front of your face when you had to go. There also was a kind of campfire place with a tent and little hut where food and drinks were stored. It was all pretty cozy! In a tent there were two small single beds, old wooden trunks for storage, a bedside table as well as a little outside patio of wood with a private toilet, shower and sink. Very convenient that you don’t have to find your way to the main toilet in the dark while you hear lions roaring somewhere out there…

The first walk

After the tour of the camp we had a little time to relax and then already set out on our first real safari and hike through the African bush! We had only been walking for a few minutes when Line spotted the first two elephants in the distance – not even our two rangers had seen them. Geran and Ayman briefly deliberated, then we changed our plan and drove towards the elephants. The animals were on a kind of high plateau and we had to hurry a little to catch up with them before they would disappear again, going down into one of the densely overgrown canyons. You can picture the Shamwari Game Reserve as hilly territory that is crossed by a few canyons. Walking is only safe on the hills and on wide clearings because lions and cheetahs hunt in the canyons. The canyons are also populated by rhinos which you really don’t wan to run into on foot and that little of a distance. We drove to the place where we had seen the elephants just moments before, passing a small herd of zebras and springboks on the way, encountered a warthog and parked the jeep to get off for our first hike. Garen explained a few rules and told us how to behave and what to look out for: we were to walk in single file and stay close behind the person in front of us, we should if possible only speak very quietly and listen to his commands. We were to stop if he raised his hand and speed up if he waved faster. So far so good. Off we went! We knew roughly where the two elephants probably were, possibly there were even more than two there. That was the most exciting part: at any given time there could have been elephants behind any of the bushes. Because believe it or not, the huge animals can actually hide and are difficult to spot. Several meters and several tons distributed to four feet are almost invisible in the African bush. To find the elephants Geran and Ayman started reading the tracks on the ground and while doing so we came across a kind of oversize toilet of a black rhino. By the looks of it it had been here recently and so now we also had to be alert to a rhino roaming the bush. The tension grew as we were really able to smell the rhino. Still we went on, keeping a lookout for the elephants but saw nothing but bush, trees and grass. A bug here, an occasional spider there. After a few bushes we had to stop and wait together with Ayman while Geran checked if the path was safe for us, then we were allowed to follow him. And suddenly Geran stopped, stared into the distance and pointed to a bush. And there he was: one of the two elephants that we had seen from the jeep earlier. I needed a bit of time till I could really see him because he was well hidden behind a bush and I could just barely make out the silhouette of an enormous grey behind. We went a little further, always making sure that the wind blew towards us so that the elephant would not smell us. Ayman spoke with another ranger via walkie talkie from time to time. The other ranger was in a jeep on the hill on the opposite side of the canyon and could see the elephants whose tracks we were following. Apparently the second elephant was somewhere to the left of us. So we were walking between the two elephants. Geran warned us that this situation was not exactly safe and my heart began beating faster. The one elephant kept on dozing behind the bush and was not supposed to smell us while the other one could show up in front of us at any moment. We were not allowed to speak, were constantly checking the wind and in this manner carefully advanced through the bush. And then he was in front of us: the second elephant. Around 30 meters away he was eating and lazily reaching for green leaves with his trunk. Again the wind changed and we had to hide behind a bush so that the elephant would not see us in case our smell drifted towards him. Geran explained to us that this bull elephant was in the mating phase and probably pumped up with testosterone. He was able to tell from the exudate coming from its skin behind the eye. So this bull was not to be messed with, his laziness could quickly turn into pure aggression – which we definitely didn’t want to provoke. We heard a deep grumble – the elephant was calling for the other elephant, because it was time to head down into the canyon. So we had the one bull full of testosterone in front of us who was not supposed to see or smell us and from the back the other bull elephant was slowly approaching. Not exactly a relaxing situation. And to make matters worse it was already 6 in the evening and it was slowly growing dusk – we had to get back to the jeep and to the camp soon. The question was how. We slowly crept back to the first elephant, according to Geran this one was less aggressive so it presented the ‘lesser evil’. Hugh. And so my heart beat even faster, i could hardly breathe and was brimming with adrenaline. We found the first elephant again who was now heading towards the other one and thus coming right towards us. Again a bush had to serve as hideout and we carefully sneaked away from the elephant keeping a good distance from it so it would not notice us. But even though it didn’t sense us we could not stick around, we had to get back to the jeep. After a few minutes and what felt like an eternity of waiting we headed back to the jeep, slowly and always cautiously. As we approached the place where we had parked the jeep we saw the second bull elephant standing right next to our jeep. It had smelled us and was now pacing around the jeep nervously. Would we ever be able to get back into the jeep? It didn’t look like it. Because from the back the other bull was now slowly coming closer too. We were trapped. And so the game begun. Every time the testosterone bull moved a few meters away from the jeep we advanced. Step by step. Slowly but steadily. This game lasted for over 20 minutes and several times we had to hide behind bushes, walk very very close to each other and were not allowed to make any sound. Then we had reached the last bush. Right behind this bush was our jeep, a few bushes down the bull elephant. When he briefly turned around and made a few steps away from us we seized the opportunity, doubled over towards the ground and quickly crept up to the jeep – we had made it! We were sitting in the ‘safe’ jeep again. The bull elephant turned around, looked at us and started walking towards the jeep. Our breathing froze. He stared at us but then turned away and slowly took off. But then all of a sudden the first, less dangerous one was standing to our left and slowly walked past our jeep. Together the two bull elephants went on through the bush and gradually disappeared like two invisible creatures. This experience was so intense that to this day I get goosebumps and my heart starts pounding when I think about it. Unbelievable!

Campfire and braai

Back at the camp we were welcomed by a warm campfire and the smell of delicious grill meats. We briefly went to our tents, got changed and then cozied up to the fire in camping chairs and a glass of wine for a typical South African braai and talked about what we had just experienced. Is there anything better? A bit later, still pretty early, we all went to bed because we would be getting up at 5 the next morning for our next adventure.

Day 2 -Attack of an angry rhino

Shortly after 5 we heard the first movement in the camp and were soon awakened with a pot of tee and some biscuits. It was unusual for me to not be woken by the alarm on my iPhone but by unknown sounds and the voice of a ranger. Normally we like to hit the snooze button and then doze a little before we get up. But not at the camp on a walking safari. This time we were full of energy and anticipation for the adventure! At 5:30 we were all sitting in the jeep and ready for new crazy encounters. And we wouldn’t have to wait long: after only a few minutes of driving, as we were entering a small canyon, we saw a black rhino right in front of us. It seemed to be just as surprised as we were by the early morning run-in and came charging towards us. And like I already said, you don’t want to mess with an enraged aggressive black rhino. Only a few meters before it would have hit our jeep Geran started screaming and raised his arms and was able to deter the rhino in the last second before jamming its horn into the jeep and saved me from peeing my pants. Boy, was that intense! The rhino disappeared into the thicket again and we drove on through the reserve, past zebras, springboks, impalas, kudus and warthogs with their young ones. In front of us lay a kind of open savannah landscape where several herds moved along side by side, peacefully grazing. We drove on and suddenly saw a giraffe, then two, then three, then four…. and then something like 20. As soon as you spot a giraffe you will see plenty of them. And these huge animals really are funny! Giraffes are super curious and always stare at you, watch what you are doing, follow all of your movements. It’s really cute. Unfortunately their curiousity probably is also what gets them killed. Two bull giraffes even fought with each other to establish the hierarchical order. To see that in real life is very impressive! Two animals, both several meters high, banging their long necks and heads against each other and yet looking rather peaceful while doing so. The spectacle lasted for several minutes until the two parted. We drove on to find a very special animal which we did: a cheetah. These animals really are incredibly beautiful and it is simply mind-boggling that they can run up to 120 km/h. The cheetah that we saw however, did not move at all, it was lying in the shade of a bush. We watched it for quite some time but then left it alone. Back by the giraffes we parked the jeep and again set out on a hike. Geran had watched the female giraffes for a bit and said that there were probably babies around. And he was right: after only a few meters on foot two little giraffe heads were peering from a bush, then there were four of them curiously watching us. We slowly walked past them and little by little they came out from the bush to see who or probably more what we were. Super cute! For around half an hour we passed first the little ones then a few other giraffes until we had to return to the jeep. We also encountered a few warthogs and zebras on this hike and it really is a whole other experience meeting the animals like this rather than on the jeep. Simply amazing! We were back in the camp around 10 and it was time for a proper breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, pesto, toast, jam and orange juice – just the right thing for me after an eventful morning like this one! Since it was getting close to noon and with that it was getting pretty hot and because we were all a little tired we retreated to our tents after breakfast and took a nap or read. To be honest I am not used to simply doing nothing any more but I laid down too and did fall asleep immediately. All the impressions and having gotten up so early had taken their toll… I slept without interruption for several hours!

Searching for lions

After a refreshing cold water shower under the open sky it was time for food again. Around 3 pm there was bread with cheese and cold meats and at around 5 we set out on yet another safari tour, this time with the goal of finding a lion! The reason we set out so late was simply the heat. January is the hight of summer in South Africa and it was around 35°C that day. We drove off to one of the most beautiful canyons in the reserve and started our search for lions. Instead of lions though we first ran into a large land turtle and were then surprised by a very beautiful bull elephant. While we were all still looking at the in comparison rather small turtle this guy suddenly peered at us from around the corner of a bush. He slowly emerged and walked past us towards a little water hole that was right next to our jeep where he began drinking. We watched him do so for a little while, then he walked back past us again, stopped briefly and lifted his trunk right in front of us, then he quietly disappeared into the thicket of the bush again. In the meantime the turtle had of course silently gone away. Nobody hat noticed it leave. We drove on and this time came across not one but a whole herd of elephants, with several female elephants and their offspring. A few young bulls were present too and they were all eating peacefully next to each other. You really hardly heard them at all except for cracking of branches and bushes. Line and I were sitting in the back of the jeep and we all watched the elephants and especially the cute baby in front of us when Line turned around and saw a huge bull elephant come towards us. I really had never seen such a big one before and he was headed straight towards us because he was aiming at the female elephant that was standing in front of our jeep. And we were in the way. Really in the way. Geran tried to drive the car further into the bush ahead to make space for the bull, but that didn’t work. After short deliberation he put the car in reverse and drove straight towards the bull. Line and I glanced at each other and could both see the other person’s fear. What if this was only provoking the bull even more? What if the giant grows mad and charges? This bull too was in the mood for mating and so he was all about demonstrating masculinity. Luckily he stayed calm and we could swerve to the side and back into the bush to finally make room for him. He peacefully walked past us and on to his lady elephant. Another one of those extreme moments! After this encounter we drove on through very beautiful canyons and valleys, past giraffes and zebras, until we reached a higher plain and finally found lions! A male and a female and a little further off and well hidden another female. It is incredible what calmness these animals radiate and how peaceful they look. We watched the three lions for a while and then headed back to the camp for sunset. The sunset was just as amazing as the day before, the entire sky was lit up in red purple and orange and on the horizon one could see giraffes walking along – a stunning picture! When we arrived at the camp it started raining a little. The first rain since October and it was really needed. This time we sat in the tent for dinner and there was a delicious beef stew that tasted almost like goulash. With it we had Pap, a traditional South African corn porridge, and salad. After eating we went back to our tents and fell asleep to heavy rain and thunderstorms.

Day 3 – Waking up to the lion’s roar

The next morning we were woken by the roaring of passing lions and again our day started around 5:30 am. After a cup of tea and biscuits we set out for our last safari. Again we encountered giraffes and lions, zebras and springboks, warthogs, turtles, jackals and large bugs. We went for a last hike through an open plain and learned a bit more about the region’s plants and insects. Time and again it fascinates me what nature is able to create and how both animals and plants adapt to their environment. We were back in time for breakfast, there was great omelette and then we already had to pack our backpacks and say good bye to our camp manager and cook Zola as well as our second ranger Ayman. One last time we got into the jeep and drove from the camp over to the lodge where our, suddenly a lot less adventurous looking, Nissan Qashqai was waiting for us to take us back to civilization. One last time ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight” blared from the speakers and with a grin of happiness and contentment and lots of stories in my head I turned from the gravel road back onto the N2 towards Port Elizabeth.

More information on the walking safari

The Explorer Camp only takes place in the summer months, always from Friday to mid Sunday. You sleep in simple tents and single beds, but right in the heart of nature and under the stars. All in all there are 4 tents in the camp, three for guests and one for the rangers. So a maximum of 6 adventurers can come on the walking safari. The two nights and all excursions and hikes as well as the meals and drinks cost around 680,- Euros per person in a double tent. I can only recommend this walking safari – it was one of the most intense experiences I ever had, especially the encounter with the elephants! You can also combine this nicely with a road trip along the Garden Route. Alternatively, you can do a safari at Addo Elephant National Park, which is also not far from Port Elizabeth. But on this safari you don’t leave the jeep, sleep in normal lodges and things are far less adventurous than at Shamwari Game Reserve’s Explorer Camp. You can get more information and book a safari here! Have you ever been on a walking safari and if so, any stories to tell? If you haven’t, would this be something you can see yourself doing?
Sebastian Canaves
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