The sky was just beginning to lighten as my alarm roused me at 4:45 a.m. Normally I’m not a morning person, but jet lag and excitement for my first day riding in Botswana made it easier than usual to get moving so early. I donned my breeches and riding sneakers, grabbed my helmet and half chaps and shrugged into my fleece jacket as I set out to meet my group for breakfast. April in Botswana is similar to April in Maryland–except that Botswana is heading into winter. So mornings and evenings can get chilly, particularly when traveling in open four-wheel-drive vehicles.
At breakfast I greeted my chaperone Paul Swart of Natural Migrations in Bend, Ore. Paul organized the trip for me in conjunction with the Botswana Tourism Board and was accompanying me for most of it. He grew up in South Africa and had been a guide in his home country as well as in Botswana, so I knew I was in good hands. We met our riding companions for the day–two young women from southern France. They were staying in a satellite camp in the Mashatu Game Reserve, part of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. We were staying at the Main Camp.
Mashatu is located in the easternmost part of the country where Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet. The Tuli Block is bordered in the south by the Limpopo River, which I had crossed to enter the country the previous day. It definitely was not by any common means of transportation: Paul and I–and our luggage–arrived by cage, with half walls created from welded mesh grates, a metal roof and a wood floor, suspended over the river on a cable. I lifted my camera to my eye as our attendant on the South Africa side of the crossing called across to her colleague a half mile or so to the Botswana side to have him turn on the cable’s motor to carry us across. I clicked away at the scenery to take my mind off dangling 20 feet up from possible death by crocodile. It was at that point I knew I was in for the adventure of a lifetime.
Elvis, our driver and guide, who had met us at Pont Drift when we arrived (yes, his name really IS Elvis–full name Othusitse Elvis Ramogale), gathered Paul, the two French riders and me into the Land Cruiser and drove 45 minutes to Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris (LVHS), near where we entered Botswana. I learned quickly that travel is generally discussed in terms of time, not distance. You don’t say, “It’s a 10 kilometer drive.” Instead, “It’s a 45-minute drive.” This is because of the conditions of the mostly unpaved roads and other considerations–like a herd of elephants or impala that might be blocking the way. Most roads in Botswana are just two tracks of sand worn into the grass from sparse vehicle traffic. This is a nice contrast to the rush-hour congestion on metro Washington, D.C., highways, but you’d better be with a seasoned driver who has water, extra gas and spares on board. In other parts of Botswana, like in the Kalahari Game Reserve, we never saw another vehicle on the three-hour drive into and out of the park. And cell phone reception is found only in the cities and sparse small villages.
As we pulled into the stable yard, we passed through the gate of an imposing 7-foot-tall electric fence that encloses the stables and paddocks. This level of security is essential to keep out lions and other predators that would LOVE a quick and easy dinner! I met Louise Carelsen, the owner and managing director of LVHS along with her husband Cor. Louise is a British/American dual citizen who competes in dressage and eventing when she’s not entertaining guests or caring for horses. We filled out our paperwork and got a rundown of the signals the guide might use while riding–the most important of which was a raised hand in a waving motion, which means “canter” and a raised open hand that means “stop.”
My mount for the day was Albany, a nearly black Boerperd–a local breed known for its sturdiness and good temperament. The other horses at the stable were Thoroughbreds, warmbloods, draft-crosses, Appaloosas and more. Riders at LVHS can go on static rides, like we were doing–leaving and coming back to the stable the same day–or they can do a mobile ride that travels from camp to camp, usually over the span of a week. Riders leave in the morning, the staff pack up your tent and luggage and transport it to the next camp where it’s set up before you arrive after your day’s ride. I met two Americans, Bambi and Sue, who were on a mobile riding safari with LVHS, a trip donated by Paul for a horse show fundraising raffle. Sue was the lucky winner and brought Bambi who had just finished treatment for cancer. The friends were bursting with excitement and enough energy to run power in the camp as they told me about their wonderful horses and guides and the food. All three of us teared up as Bambi recounted how the previous night her guide cut a lock of her horse’s tail and braided it into a hatband, adding in beads and other trinkets as a souvenir.
The LVHS horses wore English tack and standard all-purpose saddles. Unfortunately with a group of riders out on the weeklong mobile ride, Louise had run out of English saddles, so I had to settle for an Australian stock saddle. It was definitely different–like a cross between a dressage saddle and Western saddle. It had “wings” that hooked over my thighs to keep me in place. Louise instructed Paul and I to go into the fenced, sand arena peppered with jumps and canter around once so she could make sure we were experienced enough. Paul had told me prior to the trip that all horse safari riders need to ride regularly–partly because we’re in the saddle for three or more hours each day and partly to be able to stay on in case we have to make a quick getaway from wild animals. Albany swiftly picked up the canter and went exactly once around the arena before slamming on the brakes when he got back to the gate. I got the feeling he’d done this before!
Our guide “West” Mmanoko slung a rifle over his shoulder as we headed out into the bush. Guides always carry rifles, whether in a vehicle or on horseback, to keep guests safe. It was comforting to know someone had my back should I fall off while being chased by lions. We saw many animals–herds of impala, a family of warthogs and wildebeest. Impala are quite common and plentiful in the bush. If I didn’t see them, I often heard the males’ loud grunts and snorts as the small antelope battled for dominance over harems of females during rutting season. It took awhile not to react when these odd noises that should have belonged to much larger animals ripped through the peaceful sounds of nature. Most animals we encountered seemed unconcerned about our presence, though some were more skittish than others. Zebras tended to be one of the more wary species, raising their heads from grazing to watch us approach, then taking off to hide in denser foliage when we got too close. West was excellent at reading the body language of these equids, slowing approaching the herd then stopping, moving closer in increments to show them we weren’t a threat.
West raised his hand to signal for us to canter (we had to be on guard–the horses all knew the hand signal and would surge forward as soon as it was given), and we followed him through the low brush growing from the sandy soil. We scaled up and down steep, silty hills, then rode silently along a narrow isthmus with steep sides just taking in the view: the occasional tree reflecting in the mirror-like water, clear blue sky and the vast variety of birds. Dry riverbeds made for good tracking–we saw what animals came through recently, both by their prints and the freshness of their dung. We either followed the tracks or went the other way, depending on the animal. (As you may have guessed, avoiding the big cats is a priority unless you’d like to become their next meal.) The elephant prints were some of my favorites–large and roundish with a distinctive “fingerprint” from the sole and toe marks.
All around us we heard the cry of the turtle doves (“Work haaarrrder, work haaarrder” in the morning and “Drink laaaaaaager, drink laaaaaaager” in the afternoon.) Bright yellow flowers carpeted the usually sandy, sparse landscape from the abnormally significant rainfalls they’d been having in what should be the dry season. I breathed in the clean, earthy air punctuated by the pungent smell of wild sage. This is probably one of the most unspoiled areas left in the world–no development, no trash, no pollution (noise or otherwise). Botswana’s tourism philosophy of low volume, high value, with a strong commitment to environmental conservation, keeps it that way.
As the hours passed, I was becoming less aware of the breathtaking scenery and more cognizant of the pain in my lower back. The thigh panels on the saddle did not allow me to move around enough to take the pressure off my back, while putting me in an awkward position that caused my joints to ache. Despite that minor inconvenience, Albany was a perfect gentleman as I held on to my camera with one hand while steering with the other and stopping often to take photos along the way.
Three hours had passed before we arrived back at the stable where I gingerly slid out of the saddle. We enjoyed brunch of broccoli quiche, juice and iced tea with Louise and a British student named Kate who was at LVHS to do her “practical” for her horse-management studies. Elvis found us to take us back to Mashatu. Once there, we gathered for lunch, then a midday siesta. I was so tired from the early morning call that I slept several hours, getting up at 3 p.m., just in time for high tea. I could get used to this!
Riding horses isn’t the only thing to do in the Botswana bush though. After tea, Paul ventured out with another guide to check out one of the tent camps, while I set out in the Land Cruiser with Elvis and tracker Morgan for an evening game drive. Giraffes and kudu (antelope with long, twisted horns) posed among the trees for photos, but Elvis was determined to find one or more of the big game animals. As we reached the top of a steep riverbank, we found a fresh pile of elephant dung, which told us we were hot on the trail. Around the next corner we came nose to trunk with a herd of about 15 ellies. Elvis maneuvered the truck carefully, gauging the animals’ reactions to us, then came to a stop right in the elephants’ path. I got choked up being so close to these enormous animals as I photographed them eating and walking toward and around us in the golden late afternoon light. At one point we were probably only about 12 meters away from a young male.
As the light faded, the elephants vanished noiselessly into the bush. It was an illusion that rivaled when magician David Copperfield seemed to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Only, this was REAL magic.
More Journal Entries
Part 2: Big Cats | Part 3: Delta Dreaming | Part 4: The Elephant in My Living Room | Part 5: Hidden in the Trees | Packing and Contact Lists