//Beyond the game drive: the rise of alternative safaris

Beyond the game drive: the rise of alternative safaris

Safaris are diversifying across the African continent, says Lizzie Pook, with alternative safaris ranging from pitch-black bush walks in Kenya to long-distance bike rides in Botswana.

It’s an age-old tradition: trundling along in an open-top safari vehicle, scanning every spindly bush, watering hole and grassy inch of the savannah for a flash of fur or coil of tail. More often than not, it’s followed by the slow glug of sundowner drinks and an early night in your tent, as the moon yawns in the wide night sky.

It’s all rather lovely, but change is afoot when it comes to the well-trodden safari experience. Instead of trusty 4x4s, travellers are taking to canoe, bicycle or even their own two feet to make their way through the wildlife-filled African bush.

Or, instead of setting out in the early morning as the sun rakes its first claws across the land, they’re using technology to get out into the bush in the dead of night. This is when predators commence their meticulous hunts and every animal in the kingdom is on wide-eyed, high alert.

What’s behind this shift in alternative safari culture?

“Travellers are seeking ways to connect more deeply with the environment they are exploring,” says Katie Fewkes, commercial manager at East Africa-based safari company Asilia. “They want to engage their senses, immerse themselves in the landscapes and culture of their surroundings and seek out a richer safari experience.”

In short, it’s about pushing past the sense of detachment that comes with idling in a vehicle. Here’s how to best reignite the sense of adventure that many people associate with a safari.

Walk with wildebeest

Walking safaris are often fairly short lived: an hour in the morning to look for birds and bugs, or a cursory 30-minute stroll round the bush after lunch. But a new wave of walking safaris offered by tour operators around Africa involve multi-day trekking and getting into the heart of nature’s most dramatic spectacles. These include east Africa’s Great Migration – the yearly movement of two million wildebeest, zebra and antelope from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.

“So many travellers ask to see the Great Migration, but it’s nearly impossible to achieve,” says Asilia’s Fewkes. “By getting out on foot and into wilderness zones of the Serengeti accessed only by specialist guides, you have the opportunity to witness the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle without the jostling of vehicles all around you. Instead you’ll soak up all of the sights, smells, dust, and noise without distraction.”

Asilia’s seven-day walking trip, escorted by an experienced armed guide, takes you from the southern tip of the Serengeti into the central heart of the park. You’ll fly-camp along the way, sleeping alongside riverbeds, in bird-filled acacia woodlands and among boulders where tiny klipspringers trot. All the while you’ll be soaking up the sights of the migration – bearing witness to new zebra foals being born or seeing the tip of a lion’s tail swish in the grass as it lies in wait for an animal to cross its path. From £6,540 per person sharing.

Get a bird’s eye view

Hoanib_valley_camp Namibia Natural Selection safaris

Seen from above, it’s clear why the bushmen who first lived across Namibia’s staggering landscape called it ‘the land that God made in anger’. The tangerine-coloured sand dunes of Sossusvlei thunder across the land, flanked by parched lunar-like deserts and ostrich-speckled plains. In the north, the baked salt pans of Etosha National Park thrum with huge elephants and predators, while the shipwreck-strewn Skeleton Coast is a colossal stretch of bleak beauty.

You can see it all with a bird’s eye view on Natural Selection’s new flying safari, which takes guests on a six-day journey by plane throughout the country. Stay at Kwessi Dunes within the private NamibRand Nature Reserve (and climb the iconic ‘Big Daddy’ dune at sunrise); and at Hoanib Valley Camp in Kaokoland – one of the best places to see desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, lion and rhino – and then the salt-smattered Shipwreck Lodge on the mythical Skeleton Coast.

“We launched this unique scheduled flying safari in order to showcase the highlights of Namibia in a cost-effective way,” says Dave van Smeerdijk, co-founder of Natural Selection. “Namibia is spectacular from the air. It’s the only way to really appreciate the incredible geological formations.’’ From £5,386 including all internal flights from Windhoek.

Canoe with crocs

Aardvark Safaris
(c) Aardvark Safaris

Zimbabwe’s waterways are heaving with wildlife, from boisterous, wide-mouthed hippos to Jurassic-looking crocodiles. The best way to get up close to them (if you have the nerve) is a multi-day canoeing safari with Aardvark Safaris. It takes you down the famous Zambezi River and into the animal-filled Mana Pools National Park, known for its mahogany groves and elephants that stand on their hind legs to pull seedpods from the trees.

Covering 50km over four days, guests paddle, fish, walk and fly-camp across the landscape, keeping their eyes peeled for birdlife and antelope as well as bigger game like elephant and buffalo, plus lions, leopards and wild dogs.

“We sell these trips as they give guests the opportunity to get more out of their safari – a sense of authenticity and a chance to truly immerse themselves in their environment,” says Alice Gully, co-owner Aardvark Safaris. “A canoeing safari awakens your senses, it’s so silent and peaceful and you’re completely surrounded by nature.” From £953 per person.

Follow the hunt after dark

Picture the scene: all is quiet in the pitch-black bush. The only light comes from the stars that speckle the sky like burnt embers. The only sound you can hear is your own heart, beating quickly in your chest. Suddenly, a screech goes up into the night. You click on the heat-seeking camera and see an impala streaking away from your vehicle. It’s pursued by a pride of formidable lions that have emerged stealthily, without you even noticing, from the surrounding bush.

“Wildlife behaviour changes completely at night,” says Claudia Stuart, co-founder and owner of Mara Bushtops in Kenya, which offers night safaris for its guests using military-level thermal imaging technology. “Animals like lion or leopard become more active and hunt, which causes noticeable behavioural changes in plains game who appear more alert than they would be during daylight.”

These night safaris are changing the wildlife-viewing game, giving guests the chance to see creatures that are almost impossible to find during the day, such as porcupine, bat-eared foxes and even aardvarks for the very lucky.

“In national parks, game drive experiences have only been possible in daylight,” explains Stuart. “This is due to the increased complexity of managing large protected areas outside of regular operating times. Since we have our own private conservancy, our operations allow us to offer experiences that are not possible in the national reserve.” From £722 per night.

Cycle through the African bush

Horizon MTB Cycle Mashatu mountain biking safari

Instead of the boisterous grumble of a 4×4, Horizon MTB Cycle Mashatu uses comparatively-silent mountain bikes for its safaris, taking guests along ancient elephant migration paths on seven-day safari cycles (led by armed guides) through Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve.

“We are firm believers that viewing game from a vehicle is completely different to seeing it from a saddle,” says Laura Dowinton, partner at Cycle Mashatu. “It’s exhilarating. Without the noise of the engine and diesel fumes, you feel at one with the environment and the interactions with the game become so meaningful. All of your senses are heightened.”

Taking to two wheels also gives a different perspective on the landscape, and access to the largest herd of wild, free-roaming elephants on private land in Africa (as well as giraffe, hyena, lion, leopard and cheetah). “Being on a bike allows you to see, hear, touch, taste and smell the African bush,” says Dowinton. “You can see people ride away from bike safaris with tears in their eyes from the sensory overload. It’s truly one of the best game viewing experiences you can have.” From £300 per person per day.