Answer by Rory Young:
In African Parks that are healthy eco-systems, there are always paths. However they are not created by or for humans.
They are game-trails that have been created by the movement of animals.
Usually they occur between food and/or water or they are “runs” used by different species for escape.
Sometimes they are generic and used by a variety animals. Others are specific to one species.
To use them is not very straight forward or easy and takes practice until using them becomes second-nature.
For example, elephant trails seem nice to walk on until you discover that you have to keep climbing over obstacles.
To get round the problem people will walk around the obstacles but can’t understand why they keep losing the large and obvious trail.
The reason for this is that people tend to walk the right hand way around an obstacle whilst elephants (and most other species) take the left hand route.
Another example is hippos. The trails are sometimes a bit annoying to use because they actually create two parallel paths because they are so fat that the straddle of their right and left sides never deviate from a straight line.
Walking their trails when you are not used to it can also be strange because they take long circuitous routes round non-existent obstacles.
The reason for this is that what seems like an insignificant or non-obstacle to us, such as a tree branch for example, is a big problem to a hippo. I used to use thin logs to prevent hippos coming back to fields they had raided when doing “problem animal control” work.
The owners of the fields would be very skeptical of this method till they actually saw the next hippo walk up to the log across its path and then just stand there with a stupid look on its face. (they are not stupid actually but can definitely give one the impression they are sometimes).
Animals use trails when moving to water or from one feeding area to another. Therefore in some places there aren’t any and you just have to take a circuitous route round these patches.
Some animals do not create trails and tracking animals shows their different habits. Lions for example can be very frustrating to follow. This is because sometimes they just walk in one direction and then suddenly change for no apparent reason. It can because they have smelt or heard something. They also sometimes don’t walk on trails. Especially when they are moving towards a sound, such as prey they may have heard or other lions.
In these cases they tend to make a bee-line. They wander straight through some strange places. Interestingly, when not stalking they make a hell of a racket crashing through the bush and slapping their paws down.
A story I have always enjoyed is how the road from Makuti down the Zambezi escarpment to Kariba was built.
The Italian company Impresit who were to build the massive Kariba dam in the 1950s employed a team of surveyors and engineers to figure out a route. They battled and were taking too long. They whole mega-project was falling behind schedule. By chance an old prospector heard an engineer discussing the problem over a drink. He told them to follow the elephants.
Elephants can’t jump. They can climb hills at remarkable gradients but not enough to make a road along their path impractical.
The road team invited the prospector to show them. He did. The main road was built following the elephant trails from Makuti to Kariba and is still there to this day and the elephants also use the route to this day!
As for avoiding danger, that is equally interesting.
Obviously, one uses one’s eyes to look for snakes and other dangerous animals. However, you really use your ears a lot.
For elephant you will usually hear the sound of branches being broken or leaves/bark being stripped. This can be heard long before they are seen in wooded areas.
I am always listening for ox-peckers when I walk in a dangerous-game area. They sit on the backs of buffaloes and eat the ticks. They have much more acute senses than the buffalo and will let out an alarm call to let the buffalo know you are coming. If you hear this sound you really pay attention as buffalo are the most dangerous animal on land in African parks.
Amazingly if ox-peckers are on domestic cattle they will not sound the alarm as you approach. Somehow they know that man is not a threat to cows.
Regarding tracking and approaching dangerous game and or encounters with them, here are some other answers I have written: