My thoughts on game walking and what to think about
Game walking is something special. I did it the first time in Kruger National Park in 2009 and have since then done it each time I have travelled to Africa.
For many people game walking seems like the odd thing to do when you go on safari. Why should you leave the comfort of the vehicle for something that could be dangerous? Well the answer is simple for me as you get so much more out of your safari experience when you transform yourself from a camera-clicking observer to an active participant.
Of course there are downsides, but they are few in my eyes. If your sole purpose of a safari is to get as close as possible to take portrait shoots, then I would think twice about game walking, even if I would recommend you to try it.
The wildlife will become aware of your presence as soon as you leave the box-shaped vehicle to continue on foot. You will certainly not come as close to the animals especially if you move directly towards them and push them into their flight zone, more about zones later. Still the benefits are greater as you now can notice all the small things, hear what would be missed from inside a vehicle, smell the scents, see the spoors and so on. You will become aware of the surroundings as your senses sharpen. None which would happen from inside a vehicle.
Another benefit is that you actually will be using your own body to move around. To sit still in a bumping vehicles for too many days will make you sore so to be able to mix it up with game walking is overall good for you.
What should you think about before you go on a game walk? Well I would say there are certain boxes that need to be ticked. I will explain them here.
1. The guide is your ticket to the wild. Use a knowledgeable one. It is the expertise of the guide that you will rely upon to get you back safely. A good guide will also be your teacher and hopefully give you insights to a world you will come to appreciate.
2. Group size matters. If you do game walking with the intention of photography, then the group size need to be small. If you do an educational game walk, then the group size could be much bigger, but you will need at least two professional guides. I wouldn’t suggest anyone to go on a photographic game walk with more than six photographers in the group, except the professional guide and photo guide. A bigger group will easily push animals into their flight zone, which is bad for your photography.
3. Always respect the professional guides decision. They know best, not you. This might be hard for some to grasp especially when you want to take that special photo to use on Facebook. It is not just selfish and plain stupid, but you also show a disrespect to the rest of the group as you put them at risk.
4. You have been invited to their home. Respect the wildlife and never ever force behavior.
I think these things are the most important to have in mind prior to a game walk. Always listen to the professional guide and act accordingly. Always have in consideration what the purpose of your game walk will be as that will dictate the group size.
Video: Elephant from my second game walk in 2009
The private space of animals
Yes animals do have private space as us humans. Animals will act differently around the globe, but we are still consider to be at the top of the food chain. This might be hard to grasp, but we have hunted everything eatable for thousands of years.
This is why you will be seen as the aggressor when you are game walking and why it is good to understand the concept of private space. It is an easy concept to understand as long as you keep in mind that you are the aggressor.
1. Are you alone or in a big group? This will influence animals behavior as a small group is less of a threat.
2. Are your behavior antagonizing or not? Are you walking directly towards the animal or are you zigzagging? Straight on is never good and will quickly push animals into their flight zone.
3. What mood do you send out? Are you active or are you patiently waiting? To let animals approach will extend the comfort zone and hopefully bring them nearer.
These questions are all important if you want to get close to animals on foot. Some are of greater importance if you attend a photographic workshop with lots of game walking. I have had all of them in consideration when I limited the Mana Pools expedition to just six photographers. More than six wouldn’t be professional in my eyes as it would hamper the groups result.
The different zones
The private space of animals are normally divided into three separate zones. These zones will be different if you are inside a vehicle or game walking. A vehicle will get you closer than you normally can accomplish on a game walk. It is mainly because animals normally don’t see the box-shaped vehicle as an aggressor.
1. The comfort zone is the zone in which you can approach animals. They are totally relaxed by your presence in this zone.
2. Next up is the flight zone. If you get too close for comfort the animal will flee their aggressor. This zone can shrink if you send out a passive mood and let animals approach. That will extend the comfort zone into the flight zone. You normally triggered the fleeing behavior if you approach in an aggressive manner or if a group splits posing more than one threat. The last part can push an animal from the comfort zone to the flight zone even resulting in mock charges from bigger animals.
3. In the fight zone animals will fight and not flee. One of the golden rules when you are inside an open vehicle is to never break the silhouette. The reason is that you might push animals from the comfort zone to the fight zone just by showing your body shape. It is only primates that have color vision and can recognize people inside vehicles. Rest of the animals see in black and white and they are ,therefore, more tuned to movement and shapes and react to them.
Understanding the concept of game walking
I hope this text gives you a better understanding of the concept of game walking. Why a small group is better for photography and why animals tend to react in a certain manner.
Game walking is not dangerous if made in a professional manner. I even feel more at ease on foot in Africa than I sometimes do in my car back home in Europe.