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Where the wild hides its secrets

The discovery of the dead body was just the beginning.

Where the wild hides its secrets
This entry about a walking safari called “Where the wild hides its secrets” first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. You can join for free here.


The body had been there for a few days.

As we approached we couldn’t discern a shape, but instead saw a large dark mass rotting under the intense sun. The corpse had already bloated and seemed to ripple, the visual effect courtesy of hundreds of flies. It wasn’t until the wind shifted that it hit, the sudden scent of putrefying flesh. It seemed to head straight for the back of your throat.

The cause of death was clear. He had been killed by lions a few days ago in this small clearing. We could see the massive damage done by their claws and teeth. With a scarf over our nose and mouth, we cautiously moved closer. We were more afraid of another shift of wind than of anything emerging from the nearby scrub.

He was strong. He was very strong. Beyond the bloating you could see the size of what he used to be, his upper body still impressively powerful despite his lower half being mostly absent. His blood and bodily fluids had pooled around his corpse and coagulated into a dark sticky substance in the dirt, creating something almost like an inverted chalk outline around him. In the dirt we could see the footprints of visitors that had come past, each stopping to have a look before moving on with their own business.

This isn’t Law and Order, or a true crime podcast: this is just another day in the wilds of Africa. To see a buffalo on a game drive is one thing, but to stumble across the corpse of one and step through its final moments is a completely different one. We can see the evidence leading to the cause of its death. Buffalo footprints are spread in an erratic fashion, obviously looking around for attackers. We could see the footprints of lions and snatches of hair caught in the nearby thorns. And, of course, we could see the body left behind. No autopsy is needed to see the claw marks that tell the story of the buffalo’s final moments.

A walking safari takes you on a very different exploration of Africa than a regular vehicular safari. Rather than ticking off the animal wish list via a game drive, a walking safari is more of an exploration of what you don’t see, or don’t normally see. You don’t have the obvious benefit of carrying large territories in a vehicle, rounding a corner and coming across some giraffe or an elephant standing nearby. On a walking safari, you instead find yourself playing catch-up, looking for clues to uncover the hidden lives of the animals. The signs of broken branches, animal remains and the sounds of the bush all help to form a larger picture of what is happening all around you but hidden from your sight. You become almost like a bush Sherlock, looking for available clues and piecing together the story.

This strange and intimate experience with the buffalo was repeated again and again. We came across elephant tracks that lead to dried blood stains and odd patterns on the ground. It was established that here an elephant had given birth, the blood being the last remnants of the placenta. We could see various dung piles (or middens) showing us the comings and goings of a range of animals, almost like a punch clock on a work site. This included the elusive aardwolf, its dung revealing its diet of beetles through the shiny indigestible shells glimmering in the sun. We walked through elephant bedrooms, the impressions on the dirt still clear. We tracked a spotted hyena one night with our torchlight, the poor thing trying to avoid us as we coincidentally kept walking where in the same direction it was headed. To go on a walking safari like this is to instead take a step back in time, to almost recreate the feeling of an early explorer. This was the way they travelled, climbing nearby ‘kopjes’, or rocky outcrops, to get the lay of the land. We still do the same, except now we have a drink up there too.

There are different types of walking safaris. Some you head out from a lodge merely as an additional activity. There are some that do something similar but make the walk a point of focus and pride. There are those with itineraries that link established lodges with walks in-between them. And then there are walking safaris like this, where you drop off the face of the earth for a few days.

This particular trip only had two guests, my wife and I. Helping us along the way for the 4 days were twelve other people, some seen and some never really glimpsed beyond our initial introductions. Even getting to the starting point was an exploration. The camps are all mobile, meaning that they never stay for more than one night in one spot. Everything is packed up daily and moved on to the next location with the help of some fourteen camels. To even find your camp to begin our trip meant some strange and almost comical directions.

We were told to head to a particular small town in northern Kenya and then turn right on the only road, ‘road’ being a generous term for what it was. We travelled for a further 20 kilometres until we saw a rock with an arrow painted on it. From there we were to turn right until we saw a beehive in a tree. And on it went, each clue more enigmatic than the last, like the world’s most expansive escape room. We eventually came across a guide standing by the side of the road who joined our vehicle and lead us down a series of complicated turns toward the camp. It was our camp, having been set up and running purely for us. It is a wonderful experience, although maybe not suitable for those who require name-brand bathroom accessories. There was a shade cloth strung over the food table with two small camp chairs and a small table. Slung from the roof there was also the water sack for refilling our water bottles. Nearby was our tent, a 2m tall canvas tent with a queen-sized mattress on the ground. Outside was a small basin for washing our hands and teeth in. A bucket shower hung behind the tent and a nearby pop-up toilet completed the camp. The guides and staff camped hidden nearby, tending to the camels and running the camp. That was it. All for us and nothing or nobody else, leaving just the beautiful view of the nearby kopje complete with local baboons looking at us with suspicion. As our vehicle drove away without us I realised that this was the experience I was looking for, just like an adventure of old.

Each day beautiful meals were served, a range of fresh fruits and vegetables served with main courses of incredible taste that make you marvel at the ingenuity of the bush cooks. A walking safari also isn’t just all walking. You are also left to your own devices here, which means a lot of time without the devices you usually use to occupy your time. Time is instead spent watching nearby birdlife and the rock hyrax, large guinea pig-like animals that are unbelievably the closest living relative to the elephant. Animal books are flipped through and afternoon naps taken. Conversations are had. Silence is enjoyed. Only by getting away from everything can you finally start to reconnect with everything. You quickly fall into the rhythms of the bush. The morning starts early with the colours of the pre-sunrise and the pleasant splash of the steward refilling your basin with warm water to wash your sleepy face in. After something to eat you head off into the bush. Meanwhile, the team strikes the camp and prepares to relocate to a new, surprise location. They take a direct route whereas you take a more scenic route, stopping at items of interest and following what takes your fancy. In this case, we were joined by our local tracker (armed with a reassuring rifle) as well as our guide to help with our endless questions. Our young camel herder James leads Mahesh, our slightly cantankerous camel that keeps us company and carries our drinking water. Mahesh is also there to carry you the rest of the way if you get tired of walking. Having said that, if you have ever ridden a camel before you’ll know that their undulating gait isn’t always the most relaxing option either.

Off we head in our little expedition party. We climb numerous kopjes to scan the horizon and spot animals in the distance. We even see the life on these rocks, from baboons and hyrax to klipspringer antelope and a very rare striped hyena. Despite our best efforts to remain stealthy every animal for kilometres in either direction is aware of us. We see giraffes making their way around us, their incredible eyesight and vantage point giving them ample time to avoid us before we even see them. There are zebra in the distance watching us, aware of our presence before we even get near. We follow elephant footprints until we slowly approach an elephant, downwind so he can’t smell us. Keeping a respectful distance, we notice that he is injured, his front left leg swollen. This could make him dangerous if we approach too closely and so we scoot around the outskirts, watching this four-metre-tall animal peacefully munching on some breakfast. We even see some day-old leopard tracks as we cross a riverbed. Following them leads us to the remains of a goat carcass, a forbidden kill from a goat herder on a nearby property. We can see in this river depression the story of this leopard, hiding with its meal away from other larger predators.

You never know what lessons nature might teach you. It might come from the leopard tortoise, possibly the only animal out here that we were faster than. We learn the way of sexing the tortoise. For those of you interested, the underside of the tortoise is either flat or concave, the concave shape belonging to males which allows them to mount a female during sex. But, did you know that you can also find out the age of the tortoise by counting the lines on the underside of its body? It’s similar in a way to how you age a tree by counting the rings, the difference is that you don’t have to kill the tortoise first. Each rainy season will produce a new line of shell growth so by counting them and dividing by the two seasons per year you will have a good handle on its age. Most importantly, the abundance of the season dictates the amount of shell growth. This means that not only can you count the age of the tortoise but you can also see the growth of the habitat (and therefore the rainfall) for any year. The thicker the line, the more growth (and rain) that year. Do you want to know the rainfall late in the year from 10 years ago? Flip a leopard tortoise and get counting!

Will I ever use this information in my everyday life? Probably not. But, that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. Learning for learning’s sake is its own reward.

Just before lunch, we arrive at a new location to find our camp set up for us, this time overlooking a picturesque river. The following day it is in a different location, perched on the edge of a kopje and looking down a long valley. Each day on a walking safari brings a different camp and a different world to enjoy. Each day brings a new adventure and a chance to have a unique and authentic local experience. It might be a fallen buffalo, an elephant birth (or injury), an aging tortoise, a glittery pile of poo or a blanket of stars so awe-inspiring it makes you question your own place in the world. When you really think about it, isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

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