Riding with Giants.
Landing in Africa for the first time is something truly amazing, the vastness, the ruggedness, the rawness……. an almost primal sense of belonging takes over, a sense of despite having left this continent many, many thousands of years ago, you have now returned home……. well, I can’t speak for everybody, but that’s exactly how I felt descending the steps of the airplane at Johannesburg International Airport, that and a slight twinge of jet-lag mixed with adrenaline at the adventure that was to ensue!
The five hour drive northbound to the Tuli Block, a narrow fringe of land at Botswana’s eastern border, wedged between Zimbabwe to the north and east and South Africa to the south, was very reminiscent of my time spent travelling in Outback Australia, mountains of red dust, savannah grasslands and giant rock formations flanked the minibus as we passed through the Tropic of Capricorn. There were five of us in total, ready to enter the bush.
At Pont Drift the adventure truly began as we left South Africa behind, crossing the mighty Limpopo River by cable car to finally arrive in Botswana, and our home for the next 7 days.
Due to our slightly late arrival (Africa Time!), Cor, our guide, hurriedly ushered us to the stables for a quick afternoon tea and rendez-vous with our team before trying our horses for the first time. The stables contained 35 horses of mostly South African breeds, which are well known for being of a tougher nature and able to cope under extreme conditions including Boerperd, Shire Cross Thoroughbreds, Appalosas, and the S.A. Warmblood. The horses living here have a varied routine, usually on safari for one week, rest for one week then a week of schooling, making them extremly responsive to the rider, of upmost importance when observing the wildlife or fleeing from an angry bull elephant! My partner for the week was Ajax, an ex South African cattle horse and the minute I sat astride him I knew we’d connect and be perfect partners for the week ahead.
Whilst the horses are all schooled to perfection in English style, on this safari it was preferred to use a more looser style of riding, mainly neck reining. Walk and canter, no trotting as it expends too much of the horses energy on such long rides in the heat, and also it’s a lot easier for a horse to maintain his balance in a canter over uneven terrain. Our first ride was a very brief introduction to our steeds, figuring out their gears and basically to see if we bonded……………..then out of nowhere a group of three giraffe lopped by, their majestic heads bobbing in time to their steady, meandering stride, taking a cheeky inquisitive look at these strange beings frolicking on their land…………..ostrich and wilderbeast soon joined, stampeding past in a scene reminiscent of the opening credits of The Lion King, all that was missing was the background beat of the African drums. All this within the first 45 mins of the adventure, through the frame of my horse’s ears, a small little taster to whet the appetite. I’m not sure the enormity of what we had just experienced had sunk in, it was such a surreal moment to be sitting on a beautiful horse in the wild African Bush with giraffe, ostrich and wilderbeest going about their normal everyday musings……….the adrenaline was definitely building for the week ahead!
Our base camp was at Two Mashatus, on the Mashatu Game Reserve, also known as “Land of Giants” as it is home to the largest mammal (elephant), tallest mammal (giraffe), Africa’s largest cat (lion), largest antelope (eland), heaviest flying bird (kori bustard), and largest bird (ostrich), as well as massive baobab trees. Parafin lamps lit the way to the lounge area, cushion covered couches and a table full of glasses for pre-dinner drinks sheltered beneath a thatch roofed rondavel. The “dining room”, complete with polished table set for dinner was housed beneath another thatched roof. The permanent tent’s were situated a short distance from the main area and it would be the first time I’ve been escorted to my tent by a man with a rifle! Camping on safari in Africa is not camping, it is more akin to five star luxury. My previous experiences of camping include rolling my swag out beneath the stars in Outback Australia or huddling in a leaky tent trying to gain some shelter from the torrential rain at various Irish music festivals. My current tent had a wooden decked verandah with awe-inspiring views across the African plains, a family of warthogs snorting and rustling beneath. On opening the zipper and peeling back the canvas I was met by a sight of pure opulence……..rugs strewn across the floor, a proper bed, a dressing table, and a bathroom complete with an open air bucket shower and proper eco-toilet! During the ride we would be moving to satellite camps including, Jwala on the banks of the Jwala River, the Kgloto, which is an old tribal court from a nearby community that was relocated to the banks of the Motloutse River on the western periphery of Mashatu and Liana Camp…………..which we were informed would not be so luxourious. In these camps we would have to share the shower, but we’d still have our own toilets and the beds would also feature in the tents, not that much of a step down!
Our days started with coffee or tea being brought to our tents at 5.30am, along with hot water to wash, the aim being to be mounted by 6.30 and have our rides complete by lunchtime to avoid the burning African sun, enjoy a leisurely lunch and siesta and fill our evenings with game drives, bush walks or just simply visiting a beautiful look out point to enjoy a refreshing cold drink while the day gave way to night, before returning to camp to enjoy delicious meals cooked over the fire by two wonderful ladies, Martha and Grace.
Every day brought new experiences that left me speechless, an assault on the senses that formulated incredible memories that I will never tire of reliving. We rode over a varying terrain of basalt ridges and old elephant trails, the sandstone formations of Soloman’s Wall where ancient civilisations harboured wealth among the hills where the Limpopo and Matloutse rivers meet, dense mopane bush, open plains and a land dotted with giant Boabab trees. The smell of wild sage and fresh grass hung in the air as we meandered along our way. I vividly remember the magical sight of a guard of honour of about twenty giraffes chewing lazily on the trees, their long lashed eyes semi closed in indifference as our horses soldiered by. I’ll never forget the feel of adrenaline as we narrowly avoided being charged by a protective bull elephant, his ears flapping in rage and trunk showering us with dust when we stumbled across his herd in a thick mopane forest, two firm cracks of Cor’s bull whip as we slowly retreated to safety staved him off. The pure sense of freedom and exhiliration as we enjoyed lengthy canters along sandy tracks impala, kudu, zebra and ostrich running along side us. The nervous energy twitching through our horse’s bodies when we found a lone lion cub, it’s protective mother surely stalking us from afar.
The bush walks and game drives didn’t disappoint either………Cor’s words of advice still ringing in my ears “if you come across a lion in the wild and you’re on foot, just make yourself as big and scary as possible, don’t run, you then make yourself a target……”as we tip toed nervously through the bush, hyper sensitive to every sound around. Four wheel driving in the inky black night with no lights on was a certain skill Bashi was apt at, and he managed to get us incredibly close to game………….so close that one night I could feel the wind trumpeting from an elephant calve’s trunk brush past my face, the five year old making his presence known as we sat in the darkness to observe his herd. Searching for the elusive leopard in the branches above, you could almost feel it’s silky paw caress your hair, but alas we had no sighting, only that of a dead carcass dragged into the branches by this majestic cat. A lioness sprawled with belly full as her mate continued to devour an impala, his powerful teeth and jaws slicing its soft skin, magnificent mane glowing as the last rays of the setting sun spread across the plains. Hurtling through another dense growth of bush a beautiful clearing revealed a group of Wild Dogs, their painted coats camoflaging them perfectly against the dried yellowing grass.
The thing I loved most was listening to the sounds of the bush around me as I lay snug in my tent…………..lions roaring in the distance, always more active at night, the hyena’s laugh as it scavanged through the camp, the pitter patter of raindrops like little feet dancing on the canvas overhead as the boys whooped and danced with joy at the coming of rain, heralding new life and growth, and the sound of the birds and insects lulling me into a deep deep sleep.
There was no better way to end the days then enjoying sun-downers whilst witnessing the mighty African sun setting the sky ablaze with a glorious show of reds, oranges and yellows before plunging the world into darkness, impala enjoying their own sun downer from the Limpopo River. There was no better way to end the adventure than sitting atop a sandstone Kopje, beneath a solidary Boabab tree, dust rising from a travelling herd of elephants, like an army of ants dotting the Land of the Giants.
Limpopo Valley Horse Safari – May 2009.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)