Walking on a wilderness trail is the only way to feel the pulse of the African “bush”. That is what I believe anyway. I have experienced my fair share of the African safari concept: vehicle-based photographic safaris, game drives and stays in high-end and exotic game lodges, and even canoe safaris down the wild Lower Zambezi. But none of this compares to following a game trail on foot: listening for a warning call, watching the reactions of the tracker, sniffing the breeze, or simply existing in your immediate sphere. Nothing compares – except perhaps for the canoe safari.

Telling others that a wilderness trail is about finding out what it feels like to be in the food chain, rather than at its apex is a good attention-getter, but needlessly emphasises the danger element at the expense of the spiritual, educational and leisure elements. Consider the following definitions and descriptions of the essence of wilderness trails:

A concept unique to Africa in that it has evolved to imply a walk in the company of a game ranger or conservation officer, usually armed, through big game country. Aspects of the ecology of the area, environmental management and ethics are also explained and the emphasis is often on environmental education

Source: unknown

We aim at blending in and harmonising with the environment, and finding our niche in the cycle of life. We, in a sense, are seeking in a small way to rediscover primitive roots. As we show a respect for the wildlife and move in subservience, as opposed to dominance, as is a common habit of modern man, we find nature very forgiving and accepting. Experienced wilderness guides will lead you through the wilderness in such a way that you will feel secure and re-discover being “at one” with all around you.

Source: KZN Wildlife

The purpose of these trails is to “walk in search of a deeper spiritual understanding of nature and of our place in the universe”

Source: Wilderness Leadership Foundation

It is clear that wilderness can mean many things to the trailists, and for some it can be a profound, life-changing experience. For many a couple of days of immersion in nature evokes a heightened awareness of the interdependence of species and ecosystems, and the distance that we have put between ourselves and nature. If we are lucky we start to feel connected again, a part of nature, dependent. Education about life-support qualities of ecosystems, symbiotic relationships, the many uses of plants and natural resources reveal wilderness as both a source of wonder and inspiration, but also as a “classroom”. Here the interpretive skills and passion of the ranger are all important. For others, simply being outdoors is psychologically and physically restorative and therapeutic. One could characterise wilderness walking as active meditation – the wilderness as “cathedral”.

On another level one could simply revel in the physical exertion of walking in the heat, focusing on the next step – the wilderness as “gymnasium” – although the trails are not strenuous at all. And of course, there is the adrenaline charge of potentially dangerous situations, face-to-face with Africa’s megafauna, that is almost unique to the trails. Let’s not kid ourselves – it can be exciting and sometimes frightening. Feel alive! But once again the experience of the rangers is vital. I have never met one who was anything less than very cautious and who did not have the safety of his or her trailists – and the wildlife – at heart.

The pioneering wilderness trail was Ian Player’s Imfolozi wilderness trail which operates under the auspices of KZN Wildlife. I have not walked this one yet, but I believe that it remains true to its roots. The seven wilderness trails in the Kruger National Park are by now legendary since the Wolhuter Trail commenced in 1979 (in response to many questions I have written a short FAQ on Kruger’s wilderness trails ), and I try and walk them regularly, but they are notoriously difficult to book. The advent of private concessions in the Kruger Park has brought new wilderness trail experiences into being, admittedly of the more luxurious variety, but the walks themselves remain true to the wilderness ethos. Two highly recommended trails are Rhino Walking Safaris (which also features an exciting sleep-out in tree platforms) in Kruger and Machampane Wilderness Trail, in Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, close to Kruger’s eastern border. By contrast, the Great Walk of Africa through Kenya’s Tsavo West and East National Parks is a completely unique wilderness walking experience, extending over 11 days on trail through really wild country. Our impressions of the Great Walk can be found here.

So feel the pulse of Africa. Try one – it will be addictive. The challenge for all of us is to take what we have learnt on a wilderness trail, our new insights – in short our newfound eco-literacy – back into everyday city life. And to reflect on our profligate consumption of resources and energy and what we can do to live in harmony within our ecosphere.

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it.

— Soren Kierkegaard, from his Journals and Papers

First published on ecoAfrica’s Blog