Hiking and walking as an adventure have a long history dating back to ancient pilgrimages when travellers would embark on spiritual journeys to find solace, and discover answers to life’s deep questions. It’s often thought of as an activity reserved for the athletic outdoor adventurer, but the truth is, a long walk through an urban corridor can deliver a similar result, which is an opportunity to simply observe the world around you. Whether exploring a city or hiking over a mountain the objective remains the same, to put one foot in front of the other and see where it takes you.
Arlene Stein interviewed Rudston Steward, curator of the Maremma Safari Club, who organizes group walking tours through Italy offering participants the opportunity to experience ‘slow travel’. Rudston believes you can best explore the world on foot.
How did you discover walking/hiking?
I grew up partly in South Africa and spent a lot of time in the bush when I was young. In that wild part of the world, humans are definitely not the top of the food chain when they’re out and about on foot, so you develop an awareness and an instinctive ability to navigate landscapes. My first memory of walking for days on end is from southern Botswana. I was staying on a friend’s farm which was in effect a game reserve and I’d wake up each day, spin an empty bottle and walk all morning in the random direction the bottle pointed in. After a lunch break in the shade of an acacia tree I’d then walk back to camp in the afternoon. I encountered, amongst others, a herd of elephants and a lone hyena on successive days, and the excitement of those experiences has stayed with me ever since. So later in life, when I was thinking about meaningful things I might do with my time and share with others, walking was an obvious candidate.
You describe your trips as safaris, while many people imagine hiking as part of a grand mountain adventure and walking as something you do everyday to go to the store or walk the dog. What’s the difference?
I’ve always been a traveller and in my opinion walking is the ultimate form of slow travel. The word safari comes from the Swahili and Arabic words for journey, and the Maremma is the part of Tuscany I live in, so my company’s name, Maremma Safari Club, seeks to claim the wildness and magic of the African bush for the walking trips I operate all over Italy. I specifically call them walking trips as opposed to hiking or trekking trips because our itineraries don’t really fit into the industry category of “active travel”. They involve physical exertion, we walk up mountains and down rivers and into the sea, therefore the walks are challenging and adventurous and certainly active. But that aspect is secondary to the deeper goal of immersion in a landscape and culture, of discovering a place in all its aspects, slowly on foot, over the course of a continuous multi-day route.
People think hiking involves lots of strenuous exercise but it actually has a long history of meditation and reflection. How would you describe the activity?
Something strange, often wonderful and magical, happens to people, both as individuals and groups, when they walk. I see it happen on my trips all the time. There is something about the rhythm of it, of walking all day for a few consecutive days, the simplicity of the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other, that frees up the mind. It’s as if your thoughts become unhooked from their usual patterns and habits, they are allowed to wander. The speed at which you travel on foot, the gradual but constant pace at which your surroundings change, allows you to simultaneously focus inwards, in a reflective or meditative sense, and also outwards, all your senses activated and engaged with the wider world.
Outside of the obvious health benefits, how does a walking journey benefit the sense of self?
We all tend to live busy lives constantly on the run, so slowing things down to a walk for a few days really allows you to decompress. In our current age of ecological crisis the choices people make about how and why they travel make a big difference, so the benefits of walking across the Aspromonte in Calabria versus, say, floating a mega cruise ship into the Venice lagoon, are reflected not just on the sense of self but also on the places and people you visit more generally, as well as ultimately on ecosystems, societies and the environment.
Can hiking be part of an urban adventure?
Absolutely. Before moving to Tuscany twenty years ago I spent a decade in New York City, and I walked everywhere all the time. For me walking is intimately linked to narrative, every stroll is a potential tale waiting to be told, and in urban settings a high degree of compression occurs. Walking in Manhattan there seemed to be a story unfolding on every block, the sidewalks thronged with characters, the potential for plot twists and unexpected encounters lurked on every corner. So in urban settings, as with all environments generally, some experiences are available only to those who venture out and explore on foot. In terms of walking trips in Italy, some of our safaris stick to remote areas far from any cities, but others include urban settings. The Via Francigena pilgrimage route takes about two weeks to walk from Siena to Rome, and after crossing the idyllic countryside of southern Tuscany and northern Lazio blazes a trail through the major modern and eternally traffic-clogged Eternal City enroute to its endpoint at St. Peters. And in Tuscany I am currently researching a Chianti Safari walking from the city of Florence to the city of Siena, via lots of amazing wine estates and mountains of delicious pasta of course!
If someone wanted to create a self guided journey what would you recommend?
Don’t bring your cell phone. That way you won’t spend most of your journey staring at a screen instead of at your surroundings. Without GPS you’ll be forced to read a paper map, read the landscape, follow your nose, talk to strangers. It takes a bit of trial and error. The start and end points are inevitably less important than what lies between them.
You can follow Rudston’s adventures on Instagram @maremma_safari_club
A great resource for building your own adventure can be found through Kamoot.
Arlene Stein, Stifado