“Get down!” hisses senior tracker Pius, ducking behind a large tuft of grass. The wildlife path we’ve been following winds downhill through a tumble of granite koppies and, with my view partially obscured, I can’t yet see what he has seen. Trusting him implicitly, I simply do as he says. Ranger Ezekiel shakes a handkerchief stuffed with ash to test the breeze. We’re crouching so close we can feel each other’s breath.
There’s a rapid exchange of whispers. One word stands out: simba. My Swahili is rudimentary, but every Disney fan knows that one. Lion.
Njile, our other tracker, has scrambled up a small hill gripping his quiver and bow. Silently, he raises a hand, his face bright and alert: four fingers. I dare myself to peer over the fronds, and there, in the middle distance, is one of the four: a magnificent lioness, padding across another koppie in the dewy morning light. Like a tabby on a living room carpet, she chooses the sunniest-looking spot and sinks elegantly on to her side.
She throws a casual glance in our direction. There’s no doubt she’s seen us, despite our hasty attempts to hide. But at this distance, we’re not a mutual threat. For the next five minutes or so we enjoy something rare and extraordinarily precious: a ground-level view of a wild lioness in her prime, on her terms, her permission implicit in her nonchalant gaze and the lazy twitch of her tail.
It’s migration season in the northern Serengeti. In Lamai, where my journey began, the close-cropped grasslands sloping down to the Mara River are resounding with gentle, conversational grunts. Like sullen teenagers, wildebeest seem monosyllabic at first, but if you listen carefully, you can detect small, meaningful variations in their calls. Few of the Serengeti’s visitors get the chance to dwell on such subtleties, however. Many have travelled for miles with a single goal in mind. In the rush to witness one of East Africa’s signature wildlife dramas, their drivers put their foot to the floor and hurtle along the dusty tracks, hell-bent on reaching a river crossing point just before the first wildebeest of the day surges over the brink.
It’s quite a spectacle. Braking on the bank to watch a herd of antelopes thicken and twist in the fast-flowing water, dodging fat crocodiles and grappling for purchase, is both nail-biting and exhilarating. But after a day in the melée, I was ready to move on. My plan was to devote a few days to a different kind of experience, led by a walking safari team who believe that it’s when you switch off the engine, climb down from the vehicle and step out of your comfort zone that the adventure really begins.
The first of our three camps is a cluster of bell tents in a beautiful, remote meadow, fringed by fig trees and acacias. Officially, we’re fly-camping (a temporary camp away from base), but this isn’t the rudimentary set-up of boy scouts or hardcore pioneers. ‘Fly-glamping’ would be closer to the mark. We have a chill-out space strewn with kilims (rugs) and cushions and, in the shade of a balanites tree that elephants clearly use as a rubbing post, a well-stocked portable bar.
The man behind this magic is Alex Walker, a 50-something East African with bushlore in his blood. His company, Serian, has several conventional safari camps, stuffed with the elegant touches that well-heeled adventurers tend to expect. But I quickly get the sense that it’s here, in the stripped-down surroundings of a camp that only sprang up here today — and will be gone without a trace tomorrow — that he’s most at home.
“Sunlight filtering through leaves. Dappled shade, a gentle breeze and a campfire,” he says. “The Japanese have a word for that: komorebi. It’s all you really need.”
They say that a walking safari is all about the little things. Instead of barging into the bush in a noisy, cumbersome vehicle, you venture in, as if on tiptoe, hoping its wonders won’t flee. It’s an opportunity to forget the Big Five and discover, instead, the intricacies of nature: the ecological genius of a termite colony, the trill of a honeyguide, the turnip-like scent of acacia sap, the filigree of a scarlet dragonfly’s wings. All of this is true. But what they don’t always tell you is that if you’re lucky enough to see one of the big things, you’ll be filled with such fascination and respect that you’ll never want to be a backseat wildlife-watcher ever again.
Njile, a Hadza Bushman from the southern Serengeti, is the joker in our pack. Brought up in the bush, his senses are so sharp that he’s always the first to spot anything. “I learn from him every day,” says Alex.
Each of our morning and late-afternoon bush walks reveals something new, from the terrifyingly large bull elephant which emerges from the undergrowth to eye us with patient calm, to the warthogs that peer curiously from a distance, uncertain of what we are.
“See how close you can get,” says Alex. I step into Njile’s shadow and follow his lead. Like kids playing a game of grandmother’s footsteps, we inch forward, then freeze, inch forward, then freeze.
“We got within arrow-shot range!” says Njile, triumphant, when at last our target scurries away. My warthog-whisperer training is off to a flying start.
Our last camp is close to the Mara River. As I sip my morning coffee, the high-pitched braying of zebras drifts up from the banks. “They sound agitated,” says Alex. “Perhaps the wildebeest are about to cross.”
The old me would want to jump into a vehicle and find out. But the new me wants nothing more than to stay right here, with the grass beneath my feet, feeling utterly, blissfully, alive.
Alex Walker’s Serian offers a 10-day Soul Drifter safari in the northern Serengeti including five nights walking and fly-camping from £935 per person per night, all-inclusive, excluding international flights.
Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)