In Praise of the Trails Guide

This entry was posted on 12 March 2021.

Escaping to the great outdoors has become the perfect antidote to lockdown life, and it makes sense: there’s nothing like getting up close and personal to ward off the stress of our day-to-day. A walking safari can especially take things up a notch, as Denis Costello, co-author of Walking Safaris of South Africa writes.


"IT'S ENJOYABLE TO WANDER in wonder through a museum, and even better when guided by an expert who knows the story behind every artefact and artwork. A superficial experience can be transformed into a profound appreciation for the brilliance of human creativity. It’s the same with South Africa’s national parks and reserves. These are every bit as fascinating as the finest museums, living ecosystems where every visit brings a new discovery – and we’re lucky to have some of the best guides in the world to help us.


When we planned which reserves to cover for Walking Safaris of South Africa, there was an easy demarcation line: they all have potentially dangerous game animals, and therefore guides are mandated when going on foot. But it would be wrong to think of trails guides as glorified security guards or mere way-finders. Those are important aspects of the role, but professional guides bring a breadth of knowledge and skills that exceeds that of any museum guide. The men and women who guide are the key ingredient that makes a walking safari such an enriching experience.


“Instead of a blur of bushveld we find individual flowers, seed pods and fruits, identify trees by their leaves, spines and bark.”


During a game drive, it’s natural to focus on the larger animals, the birdlife, the biggest trees. It’s when we venture on a trail that the guide can really show off, as we encounter insects and reptiles, nests and burrows, fossils and feathers, spoor and bones; each one an element of an ecosystem with a story to tell. Instead of a blur of bushveld we find individual flowers, seed pods and fruits, 

identify trees by their leaves, spines and bark. As well as a deep knowledge of flora and fauna, trail guides can expound on geology, hydrology, archaeology, and astronomy. Tracking and bush skills – even story-telling – are all part of the guide’s repertoire.


It’s not just this “outdoor nature class” aspect that makes the walking experience rewarding. Good guides know when to stay quiet; to allow moments to simply sit in silence under a tree or atop a koppie. That’s the reason we recommend multi-day trails so strongly in the book: they provide the time to truly adapt to nature’s pace: rising before dawn to an ageless soundscape, and setting out on slow-paced walks, tempered to the demands of the season. The Zulu guides of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park are especially fond of sharing this dimension of the wilderness experience, the therapeutic benefit of pausing in quiet appreciation of the natural world that sustained us.


“Our hope is that readers of Walking Safaris will discover that trails are about much more than exciting encounters with big game.”


Indeed, the father of South African wilderness trails, Ian Player, regarded time spent in the wilds as akin to a spiritual experience, and was insistent that trail walkers should take a turn at night watch, alone with their thoughts by a small fire. Today, that style of trail is still popular, but not mandatory. Overnight trails span the full range of comforts from a mat on the ground to luxury en-suite tented camps. Their common denominator is “natural immersion”, a phrase that encapsulates the sensory reward of disconnecting from the contemporary world and all its distractions.


Our hope is that readers of Walking Safaris will discover that trails are about much more than exciting encounters with big game (and the less exciting analysis of big game dung). It’s a real privilege to spend time in some of the earth’s last wilderness areas, and it wouldn’t be possible without the trails guides. It’s why we namecheck as many as possible in the text. Like artisans who keep ancient handicrafts alive, trails guides preserve human attributes that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, but are in danger of being lost: a deep understanding of our place in a healthy and balanced natural world."



Denis Costello is an avid adventure traveller. Having visited more than 130 countries, he has completed solo treks in Greenland and Papua New Guinea, descended the upper Congo River by pirogue, and driven across the Sahara Desert. When not travelling, he works as an IT consultant.


by Hlengiwe Magagula & Denis Costello

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