January 20, 2023
In 28 years so far, Bruce has logged more than 20 300 hours of walking in some of Africa’s big game areas, covering a total of more than 40 400 kilometres. That’s a little more than the circumference of Earth.
While walking, he has encountered the “Big 5” more than 4 600 times, a record for his profession. As a trainer and assessor, Bruce has helped teach and mentor more than 4 000 trainee guides.
As a young boy aged three, Bruce almost died in a car accident. When he woke from a coma after 27 days, doctors said he would probably never walk again. His pelvis and femurs had been crushed when the vehicle rolled onto him.
The doctors were wrong. After six years of forced immobility, Bruce’s legs slowly healed. At the age of nine, the young boy stood up from his wheelchair and slowly learnt how to walk again.
“After what I went through as a kid,” Bruce says, “I want to do as much walking as I can for the rest of my life.”
In his twenties, he spent two years walking from Cape Town to Cairo. Soon afterwards, he walked the length of South Africa (a second time). Later in life, he trekked 1 200kms across South Australia with his wife Dee.
During the COVID lockdown in 2020, he walked 1 300 kms in 30 days in his bushveld neighborhood of Hoedspruit, for charity.
Bruce considers walking in wilderness a recipe for happiness, an effective way to counter the relentless rush of materialistic, digital lifestyles.
On Bruce’s three to five-day trails in the Kruger area, trailists carry everything on their backs and sleep on the ground under the stars around a small fire. Watches and phones are not allowed.
“On trail, priorities are very simple. Carry only what you need, put one foot in front of the other, use your senses, become part of nature, and leave no impact. You don’t need much to be happy.”
“The more you spend time on foot in the African wilderness, the deeper you can go,” Bruce told me. “You become fully present to every moment. You drop into the flow of nature. Then you discover things about yourself. People are desperate for that experience. I can help give that to them.”
Bruce Lawson on trail with guests in the Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Scott Ramsay: Bruce, you clearly love walking. As a three-year-old boy you were in a car accident, and lost the use of your legs. Do you remember that?
Bruce Lawson: I don’t remember the accident itself, but I remember a little bit of the hospital.
One of the vivid memories was waking up from the coma. There was concern that I wasn’t going to live. I was unconscious for 27 days. I woke up fortunately, and first thing I saw was my legs in plaster of paris, they were up in traction. I thought “oh no”.
The car had skidded and rolled down the mountain at World’s View near Pietermaritzburg. I was thrown out. My head hit a rock, the vehicle rolled over me, crushing my pelvis and my femur.
They put a metal bar between my legs to keep them at 90 degrees to each other. I was like that for two years.
After that I was in a wheel chair for four years, and the only school that could cater for me in a wheelchair was St Peter’s Convent. My sister was at the same school, she is five years older than me. She was able to look after me for a few years.
It was only when I was 9 years old that I was able to start walking again without any aids.
How did the experience affect you at the time?
I never really saw it as a disability, because I didn’t know anything else. I just thought I was different to the other kids.
The whole thing absolutely led to my love for walking now. I have no doubt that, after what I went through as a kid, I want to do as much walking as I can for the rest of my life. No normal person walks as much as this, right! It’s not a conscious thing, but if a shrink wanted to figure me out, they’d find it in a filing cabinet deep in the back of my mind.
You have two loves, it seems. Walking, and being in nature. Where did the latter from?
My dad Peter is an ornithologist and did a lot of bird surveys and environmental impact assessments. I’d always tag along with him, because it was just lekker to be in the bush.
I picked up a lot of knowledge from him through sheer osmosis. He’s retired now, but my sister now runs his birding tours company, which is based in Nelspruit. My dad started that business back in the 1990s, and it’s still going strong.
You clearly enjoy a good adventure, preferably in remote areas, because you spent time on both Marion and Gough Islands in the south Atlantic?
Yes, after school I went to the army, and spent five years in the Border War as a paramedic. Because of the specialist courses in paramedics, it got me a slot on the 1991 Antarctic expeditions to Marion as a paramedic for 14 months. I turned 21 there.
I came back for three months, and then went off to Gough Island for another 14 months.
I loved the naturalist studies on the island. I look back on that time now, and I sometimes can’t believe how special it was to be there.
On Marion there was a team of about 20 people. The island had been infested by domestic cats, which were destroying the indigenous bird populations. Most of the guys were conservation students, doing their internships. They spent their days blasting cats with semi-automatic weapons.
There was a great camaraderie, and I had lots of freedom to do what I wanted. I would spend a lot of time walking around the island.
The only recurring illness I had to attend to was a hangover, which I never found a cure for. There was lots of frost nip, and small injuries. Few broken bones here and there, but nothing serious.
How did you end up back in the African bush after that?
After Gough, I came back and joined my father as an apprentice guide on his birding tours. After two years on the border, I was bush savvy in a general way, but I soon I realized how few details I actually knew. I still had to learn a lot from my Dad.
Afterwards I did my apprentice training as a guide at Kukymoya in Manyaleti.
These days guide training is very formal, and you follow a strict process, but back then, it was more like “get out there, and start learning. Make sure your guests have a smile on their faces when they come back.”
What was really nice about Kukumoya was they wanted us to walk more than drive. The vehicle was just a tool to get somewhere to walk. We did long walks every morning. It was a nice, small camp, with only 12 people. Really good place to learn.
After Manyaleti you began planning for a walk across Africa. Where did that idea come from?
Our team leader on Gough Island was a very clever guy with amazing general knowledge. We were playing this game of naming capitals of African countries (which turned into a drinking game of course). I wondered how he knew so much about Africa.
So I thought I’d like to know all this stuff too, so I suggested a trip from Cape Town to Cairo. But he said that everyone was doing it by vehicle already. Motorbike? Already done. Bicycle? Done.
What about walking the route? Apparently there was a woman called Fiona Campbell already walking across Africa, but it was a supported walk.
So I started planning an unsupported walk! It was myself, and two friends – Karl Langdon and ?????
Bruce Lawson and guests camping in Kruger
So, that’s not exactly a small adventure…what was your route?
From South Africa, we walked through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and finally Egypt.
We started in Cape Town in February 1997, we were excited. But three days into the walk, when we got to the Karoo, I thought, “jislaaik, this is a really stupid idea.”
In the first week of walking, I had blisters that had gone septic, and couldn’t get my foot out my boot, and once it was out, I couldn’t get it back in!
So I caught a lift to Laingsburg, the doctor put me on antibiotics and said I must rest my feet for three weeks. I said “stuff it”, eventually got my boot back on, and walked to Bloemfontein.
It wasn’t fun, but I made it. I chucked my boots away, and bought myself some running shoes. But then was promptly bitten by a brown button spider, so I spent a night in hospital on a drip! I thought, “this walk is really not going too well!”
Which was your favourite country to walk through?
Zimbabwe was the best country, because of the people. The people were absolutely fantastic. It was actually hard to get through Zim because the people were so nice!
And the worst country?
Ethiopia. Aesthetically, it was the best. So beautiful. The Nile Gorge and Bale mountains especially. But the people were often throwing stones at us and hitting us with sticks. They weren’t used to seeing white people! They thought we were ghosts. When we got pissed off with them, they’d start laughing at us, and hit us even more. So I got myself some tear gas.
Southern Sudan was tricky, but for different reasons. The American military were bombing it at the time. When we walked past Khartoum, there were big trucks full of soldiers driving past. Then a chemical factory in Khartoum got bombed by US Tomahawks which had come in from the Red Sea. It wasn’t a good place to be. Then we were accused of being spies, and had to talk our way out of that.
But once we got to central Sudan, it was so easy and beautiful.
You had a nasty experience in northern Kenya, correct?
Ja, we got hammered by Somali bandits just north of Marsabit. We were sleeping in our tents on the side of the road. Next thing, someone’s throwing stones at us.
We shout out, swearing. We unzip the tent, we come out all aggressive, and there are three Somali guys with AK47s. They started firing bullets over our heads. Wooah! One of them snuck forward, grabbed our bags from us, and started going through them.
We took that chance to run away into the night. I was in the nick, because I had just woken up, so had just my hat and my flip flops!
We walked an extra 40kms that night. But the next morning we had to catch a lift back to Marsabit in the nude to resupply and carry on our walk!
And coming back home?
Re-entering society was tough. Actually, I don’t think I’ve managed it still. I realized how materialistic our lives are. All my mates were talking about things like their cars, their homes and medical aid etc. I thought, “what the hell is everyone going on about?”
A big thing for me was spending 22 months walking north, covering 12 500 kms. Then we flew back from Cairo to Joburg in just five hours. It was a huge mindfuck.
We landed at JHB airport, and everything seemed so shiny and new. And so many white people! We hadn’t seen that many mlungus for a long time.
My dad picked us up in his kombi at the airport, and none of us wanted to sit in the front, because it was just going too fast, even though he was driving slowly. “Shit” I thought, “we gonna die!”
Humans, fire, African wilderness, stars...a primal concoction that can bring deep meaning and understanding.
What impact did the trans-Africa walk have on you?
It changed me as a person. I became so used to a simple life. All I had to was just walk north. And just survive the day. It was tough of course at times, but strangely so rewarding.
For two years I slept on a thin foam mattress on the ground under the stars. And I was so comfortable, I slept so deeply. It was brilliant.
You also have to rely on the kindness of strangers. If something goes wrong, there’s little you can do. So no point worrying about it anyway! If your heart is pumping, you’re alive, so you don’t need to worry.
When you take people on trail into Kruger, how does your experience impact your clients?
I try introduce some of those concepts. It’s very difficult for some people. They’re not used to living in the moment. They are addicted to their phones, to their watches.
On my shorter trails of three nights, it’s difficult to get fully immersed into the wilderness way. Ideally, you need a four-night or five-night trail.
On day three, you only start getting into it. From day four, everything starts flowing. You can walk past francolin, and they will just watch you as you walk past. But on day one, they freak out and fly away, because you’ve got a big wall of anxious energy around you that animals can pick up.
After a few days, that wall is broken down. Everything flows. Everyone is calmer and quieter, there’s less talking, fewer questions. People start relaxing into the environment, and the animals are saying: “welcome, good to have you here.”
By day five, people really get into that way of being. “Wow,” they say, “why would we do anything else.” The more you’re out there, the more you want to do it.
You speak of “re-entry” depression. Can you explain more about that?
After you’ve been on a long wilderness trail, you obviously have to come back into this busy world. People struggle with that. So you have to give some tools to people, otherwise they can get very depressed.
It’s a mind thing. When I start a trail, I draw a line in the sand. Once we cross that line, time is irrelevant. And when we end, I draw a line in the sand again, and say, “now time is back on.”
Important advice for trainee guides?
As a young guide, you need to know that guiding is not a job. It’s a lifestyle, a way of life.
Get your qualification as a guide, but never stop learning. There are PhD scientists who train with me, and the more they learn, the less they realize they know.
I’m the same. I know how much I don’t know. You can never get to that stage where you are a total expert. When you think you can learn nothing more, you’re deluding yourself.
If you do something long enough, you start developing a sixth sense. Now that I’ve done 20 000 hours of walking, and look back at the 10 000-hour mark, I realize how much more I have learnt, and how much more I still have to learn.
What makes a good guide?
You must obviously have a competent knowledge base, but you mustn’t hammer clients with too much information. Clients don’t care about segmented worms, unless it’s connected to the bigger picture.
What’s important is linking everything in the ecosystem together. People want to experience wilderness as a whole. Not just one animal.
And talk about what you love. People don’t want to hear about something you don’t love. They can sense it. However, if there’s something you are passionate about, a special bird calling for instance, and you’re excited, then they will get excited!
What is your personal approach to guiding on a wilderness trail?
My gift as a guide is simply to facilitate your own wilderness experience. I try to give my clients a safe experience of being in wilderness. I don’t bombard people with information. Nature does the talking; we just do the walking.
You’ve spent a lot of time on foot in the company of the Big Five. In over 4 600 encounters, you’ve had only two dangerous encounters.
Yes, of course, not everything is in your control when you’re out there.
I’ve had to shoot two elephant cows while on trail. Those moments will always stay with me. I’m not made to shoot animals, but I had to do it. It was very traumatic. Elephants are my favourite animals.
Kruger itself is amazing. It’s such a big wilderness. The north in Pafuri is the best. Huge ravines and gorges. Animals are truly wild up there. They’re not habituated to humans, like down south. That’s very good for training and trails.
In Pafuri, the animals are exhibiting natural behaviour to humans, at a much greater distance. They give you more warning. You’re not in a critical zone when they close.
Lions will give you a warning sign 200 metres away. In the south, where animals see more people, they will only give you a warning at 50 metres, which leaves you no time to get out of the sighting.
Caprivi Strip in Namibia is also amazing. There are no fences, and plenty of elephants…I’ve seen up to 2 000 at one waterhole. Nature moves there in its own rhythm and time.
Bruce Lawson with guests in Kruger
How do people respond once they’ve been in wilderness on a trail with you?
Some people seem to change. It doesn’t show initially. It’s subtle, and there are long term changes. Increasingly, they don’t go to fancy places on holiday, instead they go hiking in the Drakensberg, for instance.
Their priorities become simpler. They realise how important wilderness is to them, and to humans generally. They can’t do without that feeling of being in beautiful wild places.
Talk about the concept of minimum impact on your trails?
I try impart lessons of treading lightly on earth. Clients soon realize how big an impact they have on the Earth, and how materialistic their lives are.
We make small fires only, using small branches of hard wood. These burn with a small flame, and slowly. Hard wood like combretum and leadwood have no insects in the wood.
We get some river sand, build it up, and make the fire on top. That preserves the soil, insects and organisms underneath. If you burn two pieces of wood on the ground, it will kill everything underneath it to a depth of 6 inches for 45 years.
The next morning, we take the ash and coals, and put it in whole in ground near a tree, putting carbon back into the Earth. We pour water over the area.
The concept of a small fire effects how the group interacts too. If you make a big fire, people have to sit further away because it’s too hot. So it’s less intimate. And people have to talk louder to hear each other.
If you make a small fire, you sit closer, and are more likely to talk to each other. You can whisper or talk softly because you’re closer. It’s all about respect for the animals and wilderness.
When we dig for water in a dry river bed, we fill in the sand again.
For a five night trail, I take one medium sized ziplock bag for my trash. If I have any more trash than that, it’s too much.
We clean up meticulously of course before we leave, and brush over the area where we camped.
Bruce lives for walking in wilderness...and is someone who has inspired me tremendously. Thank you Bruce.