This Walking Safari Brings You Closer to Africa’s Raw and Rugged Wilderness

A dazzle of zebras at sunset.
A dazzle of zebras at sunset.Courtesy of Mark Thornton Safaris

Most visitors to Africa experience its wildlife from the safety of a Land Rover. But on a walking safari, things get real fast.

THE FIRST THING WE NOTICED WERE THE VULTURES, about a dozen of them, perched on the flat top of a tall acacia tree. Every so often, two or three of the birds, white-feathered and ominous, would swoop down into the tall grass, remain out of sight for a few moments, and then return to their perch.

“Something has definitely been killed,” Mark Thornton said. “Let’s go see what it is.” He paused a beat. “Of course, whatever killed it is still around here, too.”

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We were deep in a swath of largely untouched wilderness in Serengeti National Park. The closest human was perhaps 75 miles away. Our plan was to set off on foot, but first Thornton, a veteran safari guide in Tanzania and one of the few guides in all of Africa to lead multiday walking tours of the bush, laid down some ground rules. “We walk single file, and we stay quiet,” he said. “That way we hear things.” He went on. “If a lion or a buffalo appears, do not run. You’ll be scared, but stay behind me and don’t move. As long as you don’t move, it’s a situation that can be handled.” We left camp, heading in the direction of those vultures, maybe 300 yards away. Thornton, a 46-year-old American with floppy grayish hair and bright blue eyes, took the lead, cradling a Krieghoff double-barrel .470 rifle, powerful enough to stop an elephant, across his chest. He was followed by a longtime colleague, a 60-something Nderobo man named Toroye, who wore the traditional sarong-like shuka and carried a bow and sheath of arrows. I fell in behind him, while a baby-faced park ranger brought up the rear, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. (Tanzanian law requires a ranger to accompany all safaris, whether in a vehicle or on foot.)

We made our way over a rise, then crossed a muddy water hole. It was quiet except for the rustle of our footsteps and the whir of insects. As we neared the acacia, the vultures scattered, and we saw what had been keeping them so busy: a dead impala, its body curled like a question mark in the grass. The antelope’s eyes were gone, and its stomach had been ripped open.

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Thornton and Toroye briefly conferred in Swahili. “A cheetah killed this,” Thornton told me. “Probably an hour or two ago.” He pointed at a trail of flattened grass. “He killed it, then dragged it over here.” Thornton then gestured toward a thick branch on the tree, pointing out some deep scratch marks on its trunk. “He probably wanted to get it up there,” he said. “But something spooked him.”

Mark Thornton leads privately guided, award-winning safaris throughout Africa.
Mark Thornton leads privately guided, award-winning safaris throughout Africa. Courtesy of Mark Thornton Safaris

We stared at the carcass. Thorntonand Toroye spoke in Swahili. I wondered where that cheetah might be.

“Let’s keep moving,” Thornton said. He led us over a game trail to a kopje, one of the small rocky outcroppings that dot the open Serengeti plain like islands. We walked until dusk. Back at camp, the other two members of Thornton’s crew had set up a makeshift kitchen—a metal grate over a wood fire—and soon we were sitting around a campfire, enjoying a dinner of fresh vegetables, lentils, and beef curry.

Later, as I prepared to head to my tent for the night, I asked Thornton something that had been bothering me: “What if, in the middle of the night, I have to take a leak?” Thornton assured me that cheetahs, lions, and the other wild animals in the bush have no interest in tents, vehicles, or most of the other items human beings bring into the wild. But step out of that truck or tent and it’s a different story. Suddenly you’re a threat—humans and animals, after all, have been at odds with one another on the Serengeti for 200,000 years. Thornton’s advice: “When you unzip your tent, shine your flashlight around. If you see any big eyes reflecting back at you…go back into your tent.”

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Several hours later, I was awakened by an unusual sound: a low, guttural, and weirdly melancholy moan. Was that a lion? It sounded nothing like the proud roar that precedes an MGM movie. Still, it was powerful and rumbling. And it seemed uncomfortably close. They’re not interested in your tent; they’re not interested in your tent, I repeated to myself. Somehow, I fell back asleep.

The next morning, sipping coffee at the campfire, I asked Thornton about it. He’d heard the sound, too. Yes, he confirmed, it was a lion. He nodded toward a large rock about 20 feet from my tent: “It was probably right over there.”

I HAD FIRST MET THORNTON EARLY the previous morning. He picked me up at my lodge in Arusha, the Tanzanian city that serves as the gateway to the Serengeti. It was my first trip to Africa, and I had no idea what to expect.

I certainly wasn’t expecting someone like Thornton, whose background hardly suggests “safari guide.” Rather than the woods or jungle, he grew up splitting his time between his mother on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and his father in East Texas. He first came to Tanzania in the early 1990s as a college student on a conservation project. After graduating, he landed a job setting up camps for a U.S.-based safari outfitter and stuck around, hopping from job to job, eventually getting a graduate degree in environmental management and working as a conservation consultant. In 2011, he published a spare and lyrical novel about a Tanzanian street kid called Kid Moses. On a whim, he sent it to his hero, the author and naturalist Peter Matthiesen, who was impressed enough to blurb the U.S. edition. “The prose is wonderfully quiet and controlled,” Matthiesen wrote. “Very good writing, indeed.”

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All the while, Thornton was spending every spare moment exploring the most remote areas of the bush, tapping the knowledge of the Maasai and transforming his brain into a virtual encyclopedia of the region’s plants, animals, birds, and insects. He began offering walking tours, and as word spread he decided to guide full time. He now leads about 35 trips a year, mostly in Serengeti and Tarangyre national parks.

We climbed into his Land Cruiser, drove to the town’s small municipal airport, and boarded a short flight to Seronera, the airstrip in the center of Serengeti National Park. The parking lot was full of shuttle buses and customized safari jeeps, emblazoned with the names of lodges and inns. Thornton located his team, and we crowded into a dusty Land Cruiser and headed east on the park’s main road.

We stared at the buffalo. The buffalo stared at us. I noticed that Thornton had shouldered his rif le.

Encompassing 5,695 square miles, Serengeti National Park is among the world’s largest national parks, as well as one of its most biodiverse regions, home to 500 species of birds and 300 species of mammals. Almost immediately, we began spotting some of them—giraffes, impalas, a warthog, and a small family of baboons. Crossing a bridge, we saw a pod of hippos floating in a shallow creek. Several miles later, we spied a Cape buffalo resting beneath a tree.

Wherever there were animals, there were vehicles—parked at the side of the road and packed with visitors on game drives. Some 1.5 million people travel to Tanzania each year, and 80 percent of them visit the Serengeti, the nearby Ngorongoro Crater, or Mount Kilimanjaro, the three destinations that make up the country’s famed Northern Circuit. Most of those visitors are in the country to observe wildlife, and the majority of them do it like those tourists at the side of the road.

On most commercial safaris, the goal for guides is to provide clients with sightings of the so-called Big Five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo. And since guides tend to depend on tips for much of their income, they need to deliver. As a result, many guides, even those who work for competing lodges, are in communication with one another. When one encounters, say, a coalition of cheetahs, word can spread fast. It’s not uncommon for the roadsides in popular wildlife preserves, like the Serengeti, Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, or Kruger National Park in South Africa, to be crowded with a dozen vehicles vying for position.

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Thornton offers a different kind of experience. On his trips, you venture into one of the park’s designated wilderness areas and sleep outside. Instead of cruising in a jeep, you spend your days exploring on foot. A support crew sets up camp, digs a hole for a toilet, and sets up a shower. Medium-size, stand-up canvas tents are equipped with cots and flannel sheets. In the morning, the crew breaks down camp, reloads the Land Cruiser, and heads to the next destination, while you set off, quietly and carefully, on foot. All of his trips are private and custom.

“It’s a more intimate experience,” Thornton told me, pulling off the park’s highway and turning onto a barely-there jeep road that eventually disappeared altogether. “When you’re on foot, everything slows down. You’re not ‘driving here, seeing this, driving there, seeing that.’ You’re part of it. When something amazing unfolds, it’s more meaningful than if you just drove up to it.”

The following morning, I got a sense of what he meant.

Thornton, in front with a gun, leads group up a kopje.
Thornton, in front with a gun, leads group up a kopje. Courtesy of Mark Thornton Safaris

WE SET OUT AS WE HAD THE DAY before—Thornton, Toroye, me, the ranger in single file. Within minutes, we came upon a tower of giraffes, munching on the leaves of a tall acacia. “Let’s try and get closer,” Thornton whispered. But before we could, the animals spotted us and galloped away. I expected giraffes to be gawky, but their gait was smooth and elegant, the thunder of their hoof beats shaking the ground beneath me.

After about 20 minutes of quiet walking, Thornton stopped, spying something through his binoculars. “A buffalo,” he whispered, pointing ahead toward a black hump rising from the grass. It seemed to be lying on its side. That was unusual, as buffalo prefer to sleep on their bellies. Thornton wondered if it was dead.

We moved in to investigate and were about 20 feet away when we saw it: The animal’s ear was wiggling. It wasn’t dead—it was sleeping. And we had woken it up.

On the list of situations you want to avoid in the bush, disturbing a slumbering buffalo sits near the top. To be sure, you wouldn’t want to stumble upon a sleeping lion, either. But even big cats tend to flee when surprised. A startled buffalo, by contrast, is far more prone to charge.

“Back, back, back,” Thornton hissed. We retreated, taking cover behind three small, thorny acacias. Through my binoculars, I watched the animal lumber to its feet. Its head was enormous, maybe two feet in diameter, with a pair of gnarled horns that drooped down and curled like pigtails.

We stared at the buffalo. The buffalo stared at us. I noticed that Thornton had shouldered his rifle. The vibe grew tense. The beast seemed to be weighing the facts at hand, trying to make up its mind about something. And then it trotted away.

We waited a few minutes, then walked up to the spot where the buffalo was sleeping. There was a depression in the grass where his bed had been—maybe seven feet long, five feet across. “That was a big one,” Thornton said. “An old male. Maybe 800 kilograms”—roughly 1,700 pounds.

We continued to walk, snaking through the terrain on game trails. My footfalls, brushing through the grass, grew hypnotic. I settled into a rhythm. With no big animals to gawk at, my attention turned to the little things that might otherwise have gone unnoticed: the spray of wildflowers, the free-jazz symphony of birdsong. I stepped over the weathered skull of a wildebeest and the bleached femur of a zebra. At one point, Thornton stopped and pointed to the ground—it was a single-file line of matabele ants, returning from a successful raid of a termite mound. Each ant was carrying on its black back a single white egg. It was the insect equivalent, Thornton said, of the routing of a small nation. “Think of the sacking of Troy,” he said. “In human terms, this would be a war crime.”

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We continued on. Toroye stopped and pointed to a small bush. He picked a leaf and handed it to me—it was a local basil, floral and fruity, which the Maasai use to make tea. When we stopped for a snack, I asked Toroye about the bow and arrows. Speaking in Swahili, with Thornton translating, he said that he had made them—he carved the bow out of cordia, whittled the arrows from oleleshwa (camphorwood), and pounded and filed stray construction nails into the arrowheads. Some of them were tipped with poison brewed from local herbs. He often fashions bowstrings from animal ligaments, he explained, but this one was nylon. “From the shop,” he said sheepishly.

Thornton met Toroye about two decades ago, while he was working with Maasai communities outside the border of the park. The Maasai tend to be pastoral people who live in villages and raise cattle. But Toroye, a Nderobo, was a loner, opting to live in the bush, much as his hunter-gatherer forebears had done centuries before. He would spend months at a time on the move, sleeping in caves and under rock overhangs on beds crafted from velvety sage leaves and subsisting on what he could find or kill. The two men got to know one another, and Thornton eventually convinced Toroye to join his team. “He knows so much about the land,” Thornton said. “No matter how much you think you know, he’ll always point out something new—some little hole in the ground and he’ll stop and point to some little insect.

“He’s just a nice, gentle presence to have on the walks,” he said. “And he’s the antithesis of commercial tourism.”

A backcountry tent camp in the Serengeti.
A backcountry tent camp in the Serengeti. Courtesy of Mark Thornton Safaris

THORNTON INSISTS HE HAS NOTHING against mainstream safaris or game drives. “Walks aren’t for everyone,” he said. “Group tours are great for some people.” In fact, Thornton often ends his trips with a day or two of driving. “You want to be able to drive up and sit and look at the lions,” he said.

That’s how my trip wrapped up. After four days in the bush, we broke camp and returned to Seronera for a short flight to Mwiba, just beyond the park’s southern border. We posted up at Mila Camp, a tented safari camp in a private wilderness reserve. It was everything that Thornton’s wilderness camp was not, with spacious, tastefully furnished tents, comfy queen-size beds, and en suite bathrooms. As glamping goes, it sat somewhere near the apex.

Soon after arriving, we climbed into the camp’s open-air Land Cruiser and set out along a jeep road into a stand of dense woods where some cheetahs had recently been spotted. It took about 20 minutes to find them—three fully grown cats snoozing in the grass below a tree. As we approached, two briefly raised their heads; the third could not be bothered. I watched for a while, snapping pictures. But napping cheetahs, however spectacular, are only interesting for so long. So we left the acacia grove and set out onto the prairie.

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Serengiti means “open plain” in Maasai, and that’s what we saw here—an endless ocean of green, with barely a tree or kopje in sight. Across the horizon was a long, antlike line of wildebeest, perhaps 100,000 of them, on their epic annual migration. We drove up for a closer look, passing through herds of zebras numbering in the thousands mingling with all manner of antelope—impalas, topi, hartebeests, Thomson’s gazelles. I finally saw my lions, four females, more or less piled atop one another, sleeping in the sun. Like the cheetahs, they barely noticed us, and we were able to get quite close. I snapped photo after photo. Later we spotted two males, part of the same pride, also sleeping. They seemed oblivious as we drove right up to them. In about three hours, I saw more animals, and at far closer proximity, than I did in four days in the bush. It felt like a highlight reel.

That night in bed, swathed in gauzy mosquito netting, I scrolled through my photos. Instagram, I thought, was going to love the game drive. But the pictures from hiking were, frankly, kind of boring. There were some pretty landscapes and sunsets, but no hero shots of animals. It got me thinking about something that had happened the day before.

It was our final morning in the bush and we were slowly making our way up a hill towards a herd of impalas. The animals clearly sensed our approach. Looking through my binoculars, each member of the herd was standing perfectly still and seemingly staring straight at me—all except for a single doe, who was nervously pacing back and forth. “She’s tense,” Thornton said. “Something is really bothering her.”

The herd scattered as we marched up the rise and over the other side. Toroye, in a loud whisper, said, “Chui!” Excited, Thornton turned to me and translated: “A leopard.” As quickly as I could, I brought my binoculars to my eyes and caught a kind of blur in an acacia up ahead.

We rushed forward and spent several minutes scanning the hillside, looking for a sign of the cat, but the tall grass made spotting the animal impossible. We walked back to the tree in which the cat had been sitting. Draped across a thick branch, perhaps 15 feet up, hung the carcass of an impala calf. Its neck appeared to be broken and its hindquarters were mostly gone. Thornton put it all together. “Remember that female impala who seemed so upset?” he said. “Now we know why.”

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We did another scan of the hillside, but saw nothing, and set off on our way. After a minute or so, Toroye stopped and pointed to a depression in the grass. He crouched, licked the palm of his hand, and placed it on the grassy bed. When he came back up, he showed us two fine hairs—leopard fur—stuck to his palm. “This is where it was hiding,” Thornton said. Toroye grinned. “It was laughing at us the whole time,” he said.

That evening, we decided to head back to that tree, see if we could get a closer look at the leopard. We moved quietly, taking cover behind bushes and trees, until we were about 25 yards away.

I raised my binoculars and there it was: a full-grown male, its body draped heavily across a branch. Thornton whistled through his teeth. “It’s a giant,” he said. Binoculars glued to my eyes, I could not stop gawking.

After a few minutes, the leopard seemed to sense something. It shifted its position, hopped to its feet and balanced on the branch. For a few moments, it stared right back at us. And then the cat leaped casually from the tree and disappeared.

We headed up to the tree. The baby impala was still there—by now, its entire stomach cavity was gone and I could see its rib cage.

I reminded Thornton of Toroye’s comment earlier that day that the cat had been laughing at us. Do you think he’s still laughing, I asked. “He’s probably just wishing we’d leave him alone and let him eat,” Thornton said.

We stood there quietly. The sun was starting to set, the shadows growing longer. I thought about the drama I had witnessed over the course of the day: the desperate doe; her slain calf; that well-fed leopard, first hiding in the grass, then lounging in the tree. I didn’t say anything, but Thornton evidently felt similarly. “That’s it,” he finally said, as we started back toward camp. “We got the whole story—beginning, middle, and end.”

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