Having spent a week in 2017 in Rwanda on a near-religious pilgrimage of a gorilla trek with my dad, Africa was calling me back even as I boarded the plane in Kigali to go home to New York. This time, I wanted to bring my husband, Mahir, and children with me.
Mahir and I had already done the traditional game drive safari pre-kids, and, always in favor of trips where there’s some exercise involved, I liked the idea of seeing animals on foot. We weren’t spoilt for options when picking where to go: many African game viewing destinations don’t offer walking safaris, and fewer still allow young children.
A web search brought us to Mark Thornton Safaris. Would you believe that Mahir knew Mark Thornton? Coincidentally, the two were classmates at the Taft School, in Connecticut. Mr. Thornton now lived in Arusha where he owned a company that runs private safaris in remote areas of Tanzania and had several trips suited for kids.
One WhatsApp call with Mr. Thornton convinced me that this was the vacation we had to take. “Walking,” he said, “gives you an intimacy with animals in a way that a game drive can’t. You can smell them, feel them and move in the same terrain that they do.”
Mr. Thornton would be accompanying us on our safari (either he or one of his guides lead all the trips): we would start off camping in the Simanjiro Grasslands south of Arusha where we would track non-predatory animals on foot such as zebras, impalas and wildebeest. From there, we would move to an upscale safari camp that bordered the Serengeti National Park. Here, Mahir and I would take turns walking with Mr. Thornton to track more game and also see the migration of the wildebeest while the other would go on game drives with Meenakshi and Amrita (children aren’t permitted to walk in the area because of the dangerous wildlife).
Our camp was a model for sustainability: Mahir, the girls and I would two canvas tents, each with two cots. The set-up also had a stall with a solar heated shower; a stall with a sit-down toilet (the flush was a large bucket of soil with a spade!); a campfire area; a cooking tent; and a communal tent stocked with snacks, drinks and books and maps related to African wildlife. We would use solar chargers to power the headlights that we would need to get around come nightfall, and our drinking water came from the well in Mr. Thornton’s backyard.
At least 20 other large mammals- warthogs, impalas, jackals and giraffes among the bunch- lived here, according to Mr. Thornton, along with an untold number of birds. On our walks, we spotted untold numbers of wildebeest and zebras, along with elands, dung beetles, a leopard tortoise and an ostrich.
THE LUXURY CAMP
Back in Arusha, we boarded a 12-seater charter plane at Arusha Airport and flew an hour to Mwiba Airstrip, which is a 15-minute drive away from Mwiba Lodge, the high-end ten-room camp where we would spend the next three days. The property is owned by Legendary Expeditions and set within Mwiba Wildlife Reserve, a 130,000-acre piece of land that’s exclusive to the company’s guests. It’s also a 45-minute drive from the Maswa Game Reserve, nearly a half-million acres and also only for Legendary’s guests. Both reserves are adjacent to the southern Serengeti National Park.
The lodge was exceptional: it had views of a rocky gorge on the Arugusinyai River, and when we sat for a lunch on the outdoor covered deck on the afternoon we arrived, we gazed at three lions sunning themselves on a boulder. The balcony of our room overlooked a nettled acacia where dozens of yellow weavers were busy constructing nests.
We were assigned a butler, Philemon Mbise, who would be looking after us throughout our stay and serving us all of our meals.
Walking on the short grass plains on the edge of the Serengeti was an experience quite unlike the gentle carefree strolls in Simanjiro. You realize that you’ve left the training grounds for the big leagues. All around you is flat, open ground, and there’s no tree to climb up, no boulder to hide behind. At any point along the way, out of any bush, something could pop out that views you as lunch.
The wildlife viewing is different, too. Of course, you can never get as close to big game as you can in a vehicle; if you are lucky enough to come upon any, you have to approach the animals carefully so that they don’t feel threatened.
Mr. Thornton and I were accompanied by a tracker, Nkangala Buhimila, who is part of the Hadzas, a hunter-gatherer tribe, and a ranger; both Mr. Thornton and the ranger carried rifles in case any animals threatened our safety. The entire savannah was for us to explore, and there was no other car or person in sight.
Over the next four hours, we saw herds of elands, zebras and hyenas. The best part was when we encountered a troop of several hundred wildebeest, including dozens of newborn calves, slowly moving along the grass and belting out loud snoring like noises.
On another walk, the wildlife frenzy continued. Several sightings of giraffes, wildebeest and elands later, we continued through the wooded area in the hopes of sighting a lion or leopard, but we had no luck. And then at the very end, a tuskless bull elephant, around 40 or 50 years old, emerged from the trees and began chewing on the grass. Occasionally, he cast a wary eye towards us and eventually, he disappeared back into the woods.
None of us spoke for a good couple of minutes, lost in the feeling of serenity that this interaction had created.
If You Go
We arranged our walking safari through Mark Thornton Safaris, an outfitter that leads private trips in wildlife areas throughout Tanzania. While the company specializes in camping trips in remote areas with no road access, it can also leads safaris in wildlife reserves that are near safari camps such as Mwiba Lodge. Prices start at $750 per person per day, inclusive of accommodations, meals, drinks, including alcoholic beverages, transportation and guiding. Children get a generous discount, but the exact amount varies per trip.
EXCLUSIVE ACCESS The company has access to roadless, wildlife-rich and tourism excluded areas of the Serengeti National Park. When you’re on these exclusive trips, your own group has its own private guide, vehicle, mobile camp and crew.
REAL WILDLIFE EXPERIENCES Everybody wants to have that picture-perfect moment of seeing a huge animal like a giraffe or elephant in a clearing and seeing it go about its business as if you weren’t there. Someone may be able to see 100 sightings like this from the back of a land rover, but the ones on foot always feel the most meaningful and surreal.
ACCOMMODATING FOR LUXURY Not all of the company’s safaris need to be based in the mobile adventure camps. In Maswa Game Reserve, you can keep the same formula of top guides and private areas, enjoy exclusivity of the reserve and a beautiful, private luxury camp, Mwiba, and still be guided on foot by its guides.
KIDS IN THE BUSH I love taking my kids on safari. While some parents do as well, the kids don’t get a chance to experience as much as adults because many safari camps don’t allow them to participate in game drives. “We want to make sure the kids see the animals just like their parents, and get their hands dirty by learning about the local culture,” he said.
TRULY SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL If you want responsible travel, this is it. When you’re on one of these safaris, you put up camp in a new location everyday eliminating the environmental impacts that come with permanent camps and lodges. Mr. Thornton and his team are so committed to this idea of conservation that they were among the three finalists for National Geographic’s prestigious Legacy Awards reflecting their commitment to promoting low impact travel.