The Okavango Delta is one of the World’s most sought after wilderness destinations and an experience like no other. This unique, vast and pulsating wetland surprisingly covers up to 15,000kms of the harsh, aridness of the Kalahari Desert. Each year, an influx of water from the Okavango River in Angola floods into the Delta to create this natural miracle, a patchwork of river channels, lagoons, islands and floodplains. This lush, succulent paradise attracts a wide variety of animals and birds to the area, giraffe and elephant splash through the river channels, hopping from island to island, hippo lie relaxing in the deeper lagoons, buffalo and wildebeest stampede through the shallows showcasing the spectacle of a wild Africa that dreams are made of.
After three international flights, a 30 minute charter flight, a 20 minute four wheel drive spin and a 5 minute boat ride, I had penetrated deep into Africa’s untouched interior and finally arrived at Macatoo, the home of African Horseback Safaris. Part of the beauty of the Delta is the inaccessibility, to make destinations too convenient draws the crowd, but over population of tourists also distracts from the natural beauty and serenity, keeping the Delta as a hidden treasure (an expensive on at that!) is the key.
The charter flight demonstrated only a glimpse of the spectacular waterways and networks that comprise the complex ecological system of the Delta…….barren, parched expanses of land interspersed with rich pools and streams of sweet fertile water, palm-fringed islands thick with woodland and resplendent with lush vegetation, a land of unique contrasts, I couldn’t wait to explore the largest intact inland delta in the world by horse………and I was literally in the saddle within 45 mins of arrival, splashing through the waterways in the dusky evening light. The evening rides at Macatoo are quite short, only about two hours at the slower pace of walk and trot, a chance to truly appreciate the area and capture amazing photographs of wildlife with the stunning evening light, the backdrop of the slow descent of Africa’s burning sun melting into the horizon.
Tent number one was my home for the week I spent at Macatoo, furthest from the Central Mess but closest to the stables…….priorities indeed were met! I can never get used to calling these structures tents, or referring to it as camping. Camping to me is pitching your tent, unrolling your sleeping bag and trying not to slip off your thermo rest as you twist and turn, trying to get comfortable with a few precious moments of snatched sleep………sleeping under the stars in a swag hoping that a jackal doesn’t suddenly take a fancy to your riding boots and leave you with a nice leather impression of his teeth in the morning. To be able to walk into a “tent” and stand comfortably doesn’t qualify as a tent in my eyes, to have beds makes it a permanent home! My first experience of safari camping in Africa was also in Botswana eight years previously, so I was prepared for the luxury………polished wooden floors with a scattering of rugs, starched white sheets spread over gleaming bed frames, an abundance of piping hot water and the most amazing veranda from which I had many a wonderful experience viewing wildlife. The majority of my horse adventures are rustic, progressive riding were we make new camp every day, not many luxuries and certainly no hot water (mostly cold streams!!), so I truly felt like I had stepped into a life of opulence and grandeur……and I must admit, even though I felt like I was cheating the pioneering lifestyle, I did quite enjoy the comfort!!
The days at Macatoo started at 6.30am with the rich and comforting aroma of coffee wafting through our tents, a gentle wakeup call pulling us from sleep. Each morning as I pulled the canvas open and stepped onto my wooden deck a beautiful sight would greet me………..a breeding herd of elephants navigating the waterways, giraffe gently loping from island to island, bush buck and impala frolicking and splashing active and full of energy as dawn broke. One morning I noticed a shape moving silently and stealthily through the high grasses, its golden coat seamlessly matching that of the grass, I can’t be sure but I think I had just witnessed a lion skulking clandestinely to the undergrowth, hibernating from the sun. A group of Wild Dogs scurried past one morning as I made my way to breakfast, eager to set off on a hunt……..anything could happen at Macatoo! The magic continued on each of our morning rides, four hours of wonder, exhilaration, marvel and awe as we explored this wetland paradise, our intrepid, knowledgeable guides ensuring we had an experience that we could never forget………..invigorating splashy canters through the flood plains, rainbows spraying from our horses hooves, droplets of colour plunging into an abyss of waves and ripples.
There is no better way to view wildlife then from the back of a horse, animal to animal magnetism provides some incredibly close encounters and ample opportunity to observe animals in their natural environment, rightfully wild and free……..female giraffe with their babies at foot delicately picking through the scrub, large pools of liquid brown watching us curiously as they loped by, sometimes they ran with us, easily keeping pace with their graceful long strides. Family herds of zebra, the stallion tracking us with his watchful gaze grazed happily, the young drinking delicately from their mothers udders. The great bulk of an elephant adjusting himself by the palm trees, shaking its trunk, showering himself with delicious sweet nuts. A deep lagoon dotted with hippo heads, sporadically appearing and disappearing as the horses waded in the shallows. Sometimes our encounters were a little too close……..a breeding herd of elephants lining up to charge certainly is a magnificent and adrenaline fuelled sight, but one that reminds you of the sheer bulk and power of these wise giants, one that reminds you of how vulnerable you really are, thankfully our nimble footed steeds carried us valiantly to safety! Stampeding wildebeest encased us in sprinklings of dust as they careened past, and changed from our direction at the very last moment.
The water was just at the right level to enjoy a boat safari in the afternoon, an alternative to the horses and a chance to let any aching muscles rest. As the boat sliced smoothly through the water channels we watched elephants as they crossed carefully, placing the young in the centre of the group, careful not to leave any behind, careful to protect them from what might be lurking in the depths beneath. Sundowners at a well known fishing spot, a bull elephant silhouetted against the setting sun, trunk raised and ears flapping heralded the end of yet another wonderful day.
At night time the bush orchestra would ignite the silence that darkness brings. Being an open camp, wildlife moves freely along the sandy tracks and dusty paths, you may find a stray buffalo or elephant meandering through the trees or blocking your path. Often I’d lie in bed listening to the lions calling or hyena laughing, wondering if the tracks I had seen outside my tent belonged to them or a stealthy elusive leopard. Waking up in the middle of the night to wander sleepily to my bathroom I glanced outside the gauzy window, my gaze was met by that of two bull elephants munching happily on the dense vegetation surrounding my tent, so close I could hear every morsel of food they chewed, the pale moonlight dappling their creviced skin through the branches overhead, intricate patterns of shade and light.
Macatoo has a stable of approximately fifty horses each with his (all geldings!) own unique personality and ability, there is a horse to suit each individual rider and Mod the stable manager is extremely talented at matching horse to rider and I must admit, each horse that I rode was exactly the type of horse I like to ride! Due to the fast paced nature of the riding, you generally rotate through about three different horses during your stay to ensure each horse has adequate rest and recovery time. There is a horse to cater for every level, but I would strongly advise that you are a confident, experienced and fit rider, the horses are very forward going and clearly enjoy their safari work, full of energy, they relish their lengthy canters through the water channels and open sandy tracks of the bush, hungrily devouring the ground under hoof. During my stay I had the pleasure of riding five different horses ranging from Arab Crosses to local Tswana breeds, Namibian Warm bloods to Thoroughbreds and an amazing little chestnut Boerped, the stars of my trip to Macatoo, all of whom I’ll pay homage to and speak more about in my Meet The Horses section.
To ride amongst the abundant wildlife of the Okavango Delta had always been a dream of mine, but somehow I had always put it on the long finger. As I mentioned previously, I’m more of a rustic traveller taking on incredible adventures with a horse by my side……often I’ve been on rides were we knew where we had to get to each night, the path however, yet to be discovered! To be stationary in such luxurious surrounds is definitely a step outside my comfort zone, but to truly be adventurous one must constantly push outside their boundaries. I could not have felt more at home in Macatoo, I genuinely did not stop laughing from the moment I landed until the moment I left, there is an incredibly energy emitting from the camp, and from the amazing people that work there, a warmness and friendliness that radiates and absorbs you into the fold. The Botswanan people sure can give us Irish a run for our money in the banter and craic stakes and I can still hear Sekongo’s big, booming laugh echoing through camp, the starlit sky glittering and twinkling in gratitude and collusion.
African Horseback Safaris, Macatoo Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Author : Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrottingcowgirl.)