A Horse of a Different Continent – The Irish Independent

IRISH INDEPENDENT WEEKEND – Saturday June 16 2001

A HORSE OF A DIFFERENT CONTINENT

Peter Cunningham wrote a novel set in a mythical delta, some years later he gets the opportunity to experience ‘a homecoming of the imagination,’ only this time on horseback at the Okavango River Delta, Africa

My horse’s ears are pricked. He’s a 16.1 hands, 7-year-old bay gelding named Kitzamakazi, but he once raced on the track in Harare, where he was called Thunder Cloud. Kitzamakazi is mooning across a spiny, sour plum bush at two buffalo. He may not have seen buffalo this close before. I certainly haven’t. Their broad, dung-flecked rear ends loom towards us as their heads stay down, grazing. They haven’t picked us up yet. A metre to my right, a man named P.J. Bestelink is astride Lamu, a chestnut stallion hop over to these guys. Lamu, an American saddle horse, is tacked up western-style to accommodate the .375 rifle that’s still slung on his withers. This gun can stop an elephant. Suddenly, the buffalo look up, their massive-horned faces angry and belligerent. And the horses spook. Whoa! We ease back, eight of us in all, and walk down through a vernal water meadow. Behind, the buffalo stare us off their patch. It’s 8:30 a.m. in the morning and already we’ve been riding two hours in the Okavango Delta.

One hundred and fifty million years ago, a mighty body of water raced down the western side of southern Africa and into the ocean. As the earth’s plates grumbled and shifted, subtle but massive movements occurred in the continent’s crust. This reconfiguration tilted the water inland. The great Okavango River, as we now know it, could no longer reach a sea. Although it still rose in what is today known as Angola – where it is called the Cubango and meshes with many other tributaries in its southbound flow – the river now became soaked up in the great desert of the Kalahari. The result was a gigantic swamp reaching over some 18,000 square kilometres which, if you like comparisons, is almost the size of the state of Massachusetts. Today, the inland delta of the Okavango is one of the last remaining, true wilderness areas in the world.

BLAZING A TRAIL ON THE LONESOME PLAIN

The trip from Jo’burg up to Maun is completed in under two hours by Air Botswana turbo-prop; we drone over dun-coloured wastelands where the reflections of clouds sit like ink blots. Staying the night before in Jo’burg was a good idea after the trip down; a day to chill out, get sorted and gear up for the big adventure. The town of Maun, criss-crossed by dusty paths, is a sprawl of tiny holdings, many with circular, thatched huts. I’m through Maun airport in 15 minutes and in a four-seater flying north-west over terrain that’s suddenly green. The pilot points down and calls, elephant, but all I can see are gigantic fairway-like swathes. Minutes later we touch down on a bone-white landing strip whose airport arrangements consist of two fire extinguishers lashed to a fencing post.

I’ve flown over the Mississippi delta and steeped myself in books and films on France’s Camargue. I’ve written a novel set in a mythical Irish delta set outside the fictional town of Monument. This trip to the north-west of Botswana is less a fantasy realised than a homecoming of the imagination. The Okavango Delta or more properly, swamp, since deltas are preludes to seas, only opened to tourists around twenty-five years ago. Divided for safari purposes into a number of concessions, P.J. Bestelink and his wife, Barney, a peerless horsewoman, run one of the horse safaris here. The concession alone stretches to more than 1,000 square kilometres.

Dawn. I’ve just heaved myself into the saddle. This morning I’m on Delta, a dark bay gelding, since Kitzamakazi’s back is sore. The sun is still a rising red balloon, the birds are still full throated, but the baboons have gone quiet. Twice during the night they woke me with their raucous, coughing barks. We move out from base camp in a file along the side of a wide water meadow or floodplain whose reeds and grasses are rinsed through in washes of light: white and green, jasmine and champagne. No chatter, since the game may pick it up; and the horses’ unshod hooves barely break the shell of the new morning. Everything can be heard: birdsong, the horses’ rubbery exhalations, waking beasts. And smelt. Dew. Horse. The earth. Sunrise picks out a craggy pillar of termite mound. Overhead, a lilac-breasted roller’s turquoise wings become luminous and the bird falls into a steep dive.

The base camp in a place called Kujwana has been cut from bush. Four raised decks are set in groves of wild fig and African ebony with tents erected on each one. Two beds to a tent. Behind are toilets and showers, canvas sided. In the case of the showers, hot water in a canvas bag is hoisted by pulley using the branch of a friendly tree. This is wilderness. Everything must be trucked in: water, rations for people and horses, and anything else from sewing needles to hunting knives. Some electrical current comes from solar panels. Cooking is done either by gas or over traditional fires. All the bread is baked daily in earthenware.

HIGH NOON WITH THE WINSOME WILDEBEEST

We’ve stopped at 10:30 this morning for oranges and chocolate. We’ve been in the saddle for four hours and the horses are hot. Earlier, along a sandy path, the tail-track of a crocodile moving between lagoons stood out like the fat tyre mark of a meandering bicycle. We loosen the girths, twist and tie up reins and martingales, and with lead ropes hitch the horses to bushes around a mound where a spreading camelthorn provides deep shade. Barney and P.J. need to keep around 40 horses in order to offer 10-day-long safaris for a maximum of eight guests. The horses are a mixture of Arabs, American saddle horses, show-jumpers and ex-racetrack thoroughbreds. Barney regularly makes the trip to Zimbabwe for fresh stock. The horses are thoroughly schooled and well mannered. English saddles are used. Now Delta and the others munch languidly as we sprawl beside them to take in the view. The grasses of the floodplain murmur and rustle, intermittent waterholes gleam with the pink of water lilies as in the high blue two white-headed fish eagles glide and circle, their hoots resonating. In a tiny pond to the left, a pair of wattled crane are into fellow-grooming, their distinctive, bobbing jowls giving them the appearance of clerks in a Dickens story. Right of the pond, a herd of wildebeest browse, or give the odd buck, or generally peer about, sensing company but not quite able to fathom what it is. Two hundred metres further on, two warthog enjoy quality time. At first, it seems like just mum and dad, but then through binoculars a couple of playful little kids, endearingly ugly, can also be made out. But there’s something else afoot. Midway between wildebeest and warthog, a sly, brown rippling of the grasses gives away the ears back, predatory snout thrust of a side-striped jackal. And then, a second. They’re closing stealthily, wishing one of the cavorting warthog youngsters to become detached from the family unit. Suddenly, warthog senior sniffs the breeze. He’s probably picked up human sweat, or chocolate. Whatever, abruptly the group takes off for the bush. And the jackals are swallowed up in the meadow reeds.

It’s bright at 5.30 every morning here and dark as soot by 6.15 p.m. The nights too are astonishing. Outside each tent is a flaming torch; the camp perimeter is electric-fenced and foot-patrolled against high-shouldered, low-rumped hyena that occasionally make raids on stores or kitchens. And lion too, if hungry, may go upwind of the kraal to let their odour ride in on the night air and panic the horses. There’s a staff of 20 grooms, drivers and watchmen to ensure that everyone, including horses, sleeps. But sleep is a challenge, particularly on the first nights, not through any sense of unease but because of the unique racket that nature makes here when the sun goes down: the unremitting xylophone of frogs, the clacking of insects, the hooting of owls and the barking of baboons. Dinner is eaten by candelight on a table by the campfire. The food is plain and good, the company bursting to unload that day’s excitements. It’s tent-time at 10.00 since we’re all up again before dawn. The stars of the Southern Cross stand out so near I could touch them were I just that bit taller. During the night I write down the sounds I hear and have them translated over a snatched breakfast: whoop-whoop-whoop was the hyena; heh-heh-heh, the jackal. The swishing sound I heard around four was probably a grazing hippo. The trumpeting elephant and the roaring lion I can work out for myself.

We move out from base camp every day at dawn, returning for lunch and before the worst of the heat. But after a couple of days, depending on the season and the weather – on the distribution of the game – there is relocation to a fly camp, pitched wherever P.J. and Barney think the best sightings will occur.

We set out at the usual time with a half-day’s ride to fly camp ahead. We walk, trot, canter over white-sand terrain, slosh through floodplains and duck and weave by fallen mopane trees and confetti trees whose thorns are six inches long. Without knowing it, in just a few days, in this lost environment, one has grown used to the absence of mechanical sounds or the noise of people. Instead, one has become attuned to listen and watch. What at the outset would have been invisible, now crystallises in wondrous clarity: a malachite kingfisher is pinned like a multi-coloured broach to the branch-tip of a dead mopane tree. Tiny and exquisite, he revolves his turquoise capped head and then with his long, red bill ruffles the orange plumage of his breast.

A VISIT TO THE NEAREST WATERING HOLE

At eleven, we encounter a herd of nine giraffe. Docile and curious they stand and stare at the strange, man-beast combination that we present. Then set off by some secret trigger, they glide away, as smooth as if on gimbals. We come round a grove of marula trees ten minutes later and see 50 or 60 red lechwe in a wide water meadow. As we gallop towards them, each in our own spray of water, the antelope scatter to both sides, the rams with lyre-shaped horns taking big, exaggerated leaps, the does bolting through reeds, ears back. We pull up, drenched, and the lechwe regroup at a distance before melting into the background.

Fly camp, remote and tiny, perched on a small island overlooking a water hole, has been cleared of some vegetation in the two days before our journey. Two of the horses are put out to graze on long ropes; the rest are just turned loose. It is truly untamed here; the tents are set straight down on the earth, there are just a couple of gas-lights, some fires and the usual flaming torches. Fifty metres from where we will sleep a colony of maribou storks has taken up position by the water. Huge, bare-headed, fleshy-throated, they wade and spear the pond’s teeming catfish, or just hang out on the sandy foreshore as impala and zebra wander among them to the water. Further along, exotic saddle-billed stork flap their way along the surface, their red, black and yellow bills catching the last of the sun.

The individual in charge of the camp water – and much else besides – is a charming man named Trello. It is Trello’s soft voice that calls us each morning. A qualified guide, after we have ridden out one day from fly camp, Trello takes us on a bird-and-plant walk down the lush and wide expanse of a dry floodplain. We pause at an acacia tree, so loved by giraffe; we pause and listen to a Senegal coucal, then to the squawking of unseen franklin birds. By the sandy shore of a tiny waterhole, Trello points: the fresh footprint of an elephant stands out in the white sand, huge and round and distinguished by the tiny ripples of the myriad muscles in this huge creatures’ feet. And then, fifty metres away, the best himself steps out from the camouflage of trees.

Elephants move in female dominated herds; the bulls such as this one are loners, except at mating times. They can be dangerous and if their ears flap or their tails wiggle, you beat it. Trello unslings his rifle; we walk quietly into the tree line on the other side of the floodplain and watch the elephant amble back into the bush.

REDEFINING THE ROLE OF THE PICNIC

A picnic out here redefines the concept. We ride out at dawn along the edge of the bush where at dusk the evening before I counted at one time, 40 stork, six impala, five zebra and fourteen loping baboon. Lion too were heard, deeper in. In a week now we’ve seen no other people outside camp, no other vehicles. But in a rare concession to the 21st century, Barney switches on a GPS device in order to rendezvous in six hours time with the team setting up the picnic. We ride all morning, dismounting every couple of hours to walk the horses for ten minutes. Whiskered tern buzz the surface of a waterhole from which a hippo erupts, massive jawed and threatening. We press through bush, scattering vervet monkeys and causing shrill panic in a covey of franklin. Sandgrouse break from the cover of a raisin bush. Two bat-eared foxes sit up in the grasses, startled, then slide away.

We need the satellite device because it’s over a year since anyone has been to the picnic site: as we peer from a mound across limitless swamp, six ostrich sprint in tight formation over the middle ground. Around midday, we find the site. It’s been set up beneath spreading ebony and sausage trees. A cold beer in this setting is seared in the memory. After lunch we curl up in the tree shade and doze off listening to the hump-hump of a distant hippo, carried on a little breeze across the wetlands.

If you’ve never been on safari, either in jeep or on horseback, but you want to do both, then do the jeep one first; because once you’ve ridden a horse here, you’ll never sit in a jeep again. No one abiding memory: except perhaps the curious snout of the croc as we splashed through the edge of his lagoon; or the sight of the bateleur eagle, red billed and imperious, high in his acacia tree; or the pride of lion snoozing in the shade behind the carcass of a newly killed giraffe; or the taste of delicious Botswanan beef fillet, cooked over an open fire and washed down with South African wine as all around the little camp the dark, unseen world of the delta went about its business.