“THE TRUEST WAY TO FEEL THE HEARTBEAT OF AFRICA, IS THROUGH THE SOLES OF YOUR FEET”
A Walking Safari Experience with James Steyn
Senalala Luxury Safari Camp, Klaserie Reserve, Greater Kruger.
Experiencing a driving safari, comfortably seated in a large metal vehicle is a wonderful experience. You’re safe, smiling happily as a lion walks next to you, snapping away with your camera, hoping he will turn his scarred grizzly face toward you, so you can get that perfect photograph. And – there it is – his eyes lock into yours for a moment, and you instinctively sink a little deeper into your Land Cruiser seat, forgetting about your photo, thankful for the metal between you and one of Africa’s most dangerous predators.
You’re secretly relieved as the ranger turns the key, and you feel the comforting shake of the game drive vehicle as you bounce toward your next sighting.
But, when approaching some of Africa’s most dangerous animals on foot WITHOUT the protection or security of a game drive vehicle to lull you into a sense of safety, the quality of your guide is the crucial factor in deciding whether you will come back alive or not. Any guide can take a bushwalk, but it takes a ranger of real standard to lead a true walking safari, and a log of over 11,000 walking hours in Big 5 territory is near impossible to beat.
Hidden away in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve of the Greater Kruger lies one of the most authentic safari camps I have ever come across. Overlooking a wide portion of the Ntsiri River, Senalala Luxury Safari Camp is one of a kind. Priding themselves in a ‘real’ safari experience, the team are determined to offer everything a safari is supposed to be about, with a focus on keeping it wild.
Calling this camp home for the last 12 years is James Steyn, who is the head guide and camp manager along with his team mate and wife Corlia. With one of only 9 Scout badges (a highly qualified, experienced and trained Dangerous Game Specialist) in the entire country, along with his impressive walking hours, James is undoubtedly the ‘go to guide’ for an in depth walking safari experience.
As I drove through the thick Mopani trees and wound my way to Senalala’s main camp gates, I was a little nervous for what the day would hold. Approaching giraffe and zebra is one thing, and I have done that many times on a bushwalk at various lodge within the Kruger, but today’s activity was going to be distinctly different. I knew that when it came to James, lions were his favorite to approach on foot. This may be due to the 179 trails he led while in the Sweni area of the Kruger – famous for their man eating lions that roamed the plains – but as we began speaking, he admitted the reason behind his choice.
“Lions are a big part of Africa – for many guests, it is the one animal they love to see. So when we can safely and successfully have an on foot experience with a pride or even just a solo lion, the guests all have these unbeatable smiles on their faces –and that makes me feel like I have done my job properly.”
“This job,” James continued as he offered me freshly brewed 6am coffee, “is just as much about the people as it is about the animals. You have to be able to read your guests in a way that will enable you to give them the best experience – what they’ve flown halfway around the world for. And if you can achieve that, you’ve done well.”
As we began to get comfortable on the cushioned couches, and as they teased my bush walking outfit (jeans and CAT boots – what’s a girl to do?!), Lize (one of the trainee rangers) ran toward us, announcing quietly that one of the lions they’d seen late the night before was back at the waterhole.
Grabbing my camera, I followed the team out onto the wooden viewing deck, and strained my eyes in the early morning light, pretending to see the male lion that they were all viewing. I nodded slowly, trying to look like I was simply looking from side to side while the others were all chatting about what he might have been up to since they’d seen him last.
Then, just like in the movies, my eyes landed upon his massive mane, golden dawn light washing through the strands as he walked swiftly into the clearing. If he’d been a human, he would have been Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tawny skin covered strong and lean muscle, and though he stepped quietly and softly as he walked, it seemed as if you were near enough to him, you might just feel the earth move with each step he took. We observed him for a few moments, and I listened to the bush gossip – it was actually a different male lion, a new one to the area, pushed so far out of his normal territory because of the drought. The team around me concluded that he was walking so quickly because he’d sniffed the females in the area. Men!
As he disappeared into the bush, I followed James, Corlia, and the owner of Senalala back into the lounge to continue our discussion. The owner is a South African born business man, who has found the secret to a successful working partnership – empowering his staff.
“As the owner – it is really important to empower the people who you work with. Actually, the most important thing is your staff. I have a really powerful team.” He says humbly.
As the owner and I sat chatting a little more, James reappeared, his rifle resting lightly over his shoulder. He asked us politely but urgently to follow him – the lion was back. I paused for a second, knowing that rifle-on-shoulder-and-walking-boots-on-feet meant it was time to move. I also knew that a lion out there meant James was about to lead me into an experience I’d never undertaken before.
As we left the security of Senalala Lodge behind and made our way into the wild, approaching the wide dry riverbed, James stopped a few meters out of the gate and turned toward us. Had we found the lion already?
He placed the butt of his rifle into the river sand, his eyes sweeping across the open plain, and darting underneath every bush. He lowered his voice, signalling us all to come closer.
“I need you to stand directly behind me at all times, one behind each other, close together in single file. You’re welcome to ask questions, but please try and keep a quiet voice.” James said rather seriously, not helping the racing heart in my chest. For someone who had lived and worked in the bush for almost 6 years, I was suddenly terrified. I nodded hard, said my prayers to the Universe and prepared to set off.
As we took off at a rather quick pace, I made damn sure I stepped directly into the footsteps James left in front of me, probably closer to him than society would deem appropriate. But when your life is in the hands of someone, you do exactly what they tell you. I watched as he took an odd looking plastic bottle out of his pocket, unscrewing the lid with his mouth. He squeezed the bottle slightly, watching it intently as a white powder blew out of it and into the wind. We paused for a moment as he assessed the powder. Not only does a walking safari guide need to focus on tracking game and presenting his guests with sightings – in fact, that is the least of his worries – but he needs to have an in depth knowledge of his surroundings and the animals that call it home. Which way is the wind blowing? Where were the lions last night? When did they last eat? Do they have offspring – and if so, how old are they?? In this case, James was checking where the wind was coming from, and where it was going to.
James put his bottle away and changed direction slightly, managing to dodge bushes and shrubs all while surveying the land and keeping an eye on the walkers-in-tow behind him. My body began to heat up as we crunched through the bush, and I felt like a rookie as I managed to get snagged on almost every thorn that James had so professionally avoided. Swearing under my breath, I vowed to be more careful each time, and failed each time.
I’m not going to lie to you – I pretended to be hard-core and fearless, excited about the idea about meeting Nala, Simba and Mufasa on foot – and I suppose I was, underneath my fear – but in reality, I was terrified.
Naturally, our logical brain begins to question how smart this decision is in regards to how it will affect the outcome of our survival. But, when offered the opportunity of a lifetime to experience the primality of a walking safari, I couldn’t refuse. There is no other ranger I would trust to the extent that I trust James – and in my opinion and experience – he is the industry leader in walking safaris. His relaxed nature is balanced by his extreme attention to the task when he leads the walks.
“During a walk I stay focused and have an exceptionally high level of situational awareness. If I don’t have a specific purpose like tracking or approaching an animal, I look for things to present themselves to talk about. Throughout the walk I always stay sensitive to the environment, the animals, the people, and most importantly, myself. I let my experience guide me instead of trying to guide an experience.” James says, explaining how he assesses his approach to a trail.
Throughout our walk, I saw him put this into practice in a way that only an experienced old hand could do.
Not only was he extremely aware of us all, making sure we understood what we were doing, but throughout the trail he continuously assessed and re-assessed our movements, interpreted the environment around us, and stopped to teach us interesting bits and pieces about the bush along the way.
As we got thicker into the bush and the lodge was long out of sight, a subconscious shift began within. And, as we trekked deeper into the wild, something primal began to take over.
I found myself less in my head, and more in my gut. Thoughts about getting eaten alive and making sure I exactly in the footsteps that were laid in front of me began to be replaced by a keener sense of what was happening around me.
Though my heart was still pumped by a healthy fear, a growing sense of calm begin to present itself. The internal chatter stilled.
We all fell into step with James effortlessly, and walked in silence as he continued to navigate pathways around thick thorn bushes and crumbling termite mounds. I watched as he constantly scanned the environment, and wondered if his eyes were able to move different directions at once. Just as I felt comfortable with what was happening, James stopped suddenly, raising his hand in a calm manner.
“There.” He whispered, pointing toward a curve in the road no more than 20 meters in front of us. Frozen in my half paced walk, my boots glued to the red earth, my eyes immediately fell upon him. A young male lion stared back at us, the white underlining of his eye catching the early morning sun. He blended perfectly into the bush that surrounded him. So did his siblings – who I hadn’t noticed yet – but that James naturally had.
“Do you see the others?” He asked us quietly, his voice blending effortlessly into the background noise of the bush. I craned my neck around James’ shoulder, not sure where I should be looking, when the others began poking their heads curiously out of the thorn bush. Whether I swore out loud or only in my head, only one word starting with an F summed up the insane amount of adrenaline that was rushing through my body.
There are rare moments in life that require intense exhilaration to be balanced with total peace, presence and calm – and this was one of them. For what felt like hours, we were in an experience that made me feel more alive than I had in years. It was an odd emotion, feeling my body switch to survival mode – blood pumping in my ears, tight chest, and sweaty palms – but not wanting to move in case I missed even a second of this “out of this world” moment. Being mere meters from 8 lions, with no physical boundaries between you and their teeth is a once in a lifetime experience.
As we watched the pride become more relaxed, James motioned for us to drop a little lower. Automatically we listened to his instruction, dropping slowly onto our haunches as a few of the more curious lions began to approach us, their huge padded paws stepping gently onto the sand that covered the road.
There it was – the moment I’d been terrified to witness. But, instead of freaking out like I assumed I would do, I felt completely at ease. James’ total awareness of the situation allowed me to relax into the experience, knowing at a deep level that I was totally safe with him.
It was in that moment, as the lions trotted happily toward us, that I understood the most important factor when it came to enjoying a successful and safe walking safari – and that is the quality of your guide. I soaked in the present moment, allowing myself to be truly humbled by what stood before me – Africa’s icon animal, the King of the Jungle, the fearsome predator – as curious about me as I was about them.
James instructed us in a hushed voice to slowly get up and start walking away, and we again listened without hesitation. Though I didn’t look, I sensed him stay behind for a few moments longer, ensuring we were safely headed on our way while he kept an eye on the curious pride. It wasn’t until he asked me how I felt about the experience that I knew he was back with us.
As we left the lions exactly how we found them, I was grateful to have had such a natural experience. Our presence didn’t affect the behavior of the lions, who were only inquisitive toward us. I think that is what sets James – and Senalala – so apart from everything else. James is not a hotelier, with thousands of hours of hotel management experience – James is man naturally born to be in this role, who steps into his ‘job’ so effortlessly that you wonder how he could ever be anything else. You can’t help but admire the deep level of knowledge and experience of all things wild that James offers.
As we left the lions comfortably behind, and a level of normality returned to our group, I asked James what makes a walking safari guide different from any other guide –what, in his opinion, guests should look for when choosing a lodge based on their walking safari experiences.
“Well,” he said, resting his rifle on his shoulder again, “A lot of average, or not so experienced guides can lead a really great bush walk. But it takes an experienced, well rounded, bush orientated person to lead a successful walking safari. There are the legal requirements of course – as set out by the National department of tourism – but when it comes down to it, the longer you’ve done it the more successful you’re going to be.” After having just experienced what we did, I couldn’t agree with him more. James used his knowledge to create such an intense sighting for us, and this understanding of the wild and the animals that call it home can only come from years (and YEARS!) of experience.
“If you just want to plod along and see a butterfly and an impala and one tree – a Trails Guide qualification is absolutely fine, and this is of course where we all start – with around 150 to 300 hours on foot logged… That’s ok for a bushwalk. Once a guide gets to 500 hours, then you start to see the guide begin coming into their own. Becoming confident. Then, there’s a huge difference between being confident in leading your walks, and being comfortable to lead the walks.”
As Senalala’s thatched roof came into view across the wide open riverbed, and I got a whiff of the delicious breakfast being cooked, I pondered what James meant – the difference between confident and being comfortable.
I guessed that it came down to the amount of times you’ve pushed yourself out of that comfort zone in order to grow. We can’t become comfortable in a situation until we’ve done it time and time again, or until we’ve been faced with overcoming challenges we hadn’t previously encountered before. And that’s where the hours, the weeks, the months and the years come in – in this case, the hard work of putting one foot in front of another, meeting hundreds of different animals, encountering a different situation each time you step out of the lodge, having to make decisions in a split second, all while looking after guests and ensuring the safety of those around you.
That sort of comfort only comes from one place.
Experience – and 11,000 hours worth of it.