Article : from The Mail on Sunday; September 21, 2003
A SADDLEBACK SAFARI IN BOTSWANA
Anne Aitkins and family find that luxury under canvas and cocktails at sunset can’t compare with the thrill of the chase
The evening is astonishingly noisy. Frogs rattle, hippos snort across the water, baboons shriek with laughter above us. There is a blaze on the horizon. We first saw it the night before. ‘Look! Fire!’ Benjamin had cried. We were impressed – if a little puzzled, being in the middle of the flooded Okavango Delta and the only humans within a week’s ride. But we were keen to prove ourselves to be the most observant and intelligent guests that our hosts Barney and PJ had ever had, and congratulated our youngest for being so sharp. ‘Well spotted, Ben’ Nick smiled to himself. ‘Let’s wait and see,’ he said, turning off the Land Rover and lugging the cocktail cabinet out of the boot.
Nick was our camp prefect, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bush, its flora and fauna and how to survive in it. So we sat under the stars, enjoying our drinks and waiting for Something to reveal itself. And as we watched, someone else’s campfire rose into a vivid orange football above the tree-tops, making the Milky Way pale. ‘Coo,’ we said. ‘The moon.’
Behind us, the long dining table was alight with candles. Our fellow guests were full of the day’s ride and sightings of game – and the first drink of the evening.
We were spending ten days, with our four teenagers, in Botswana with Barney and PJ Bestelink, who run Okavango Horse Safaris. It all started years before. I had been in Namibia, researching my best-seller. You will scour the bookshops in vain for this masterpiece, because after a month of painstaking note – taking, I lost my diary. Nevertheless, I fell in love with Africa, as one does, and vowed to return with my family. I also discovered the only way to see it: one magical evening on a game reserve, I was taken out on horseback by a groom who rode barefoot and called me madam. The birds didn’t fly at our approach; the giraffes and zebras treated us as one of them. Then, last year, a friend told us to drop everything to meet Barney, who was visiting London. We were introduced to a beautifully spoke diplomat’s daughter who lives in Botswana with lots of horses. You know those seasoned travellers who bore you with endless anecdotes? Barney is not one of them. She had us enthralled all evening, talking in her self – deprecating way of fires breaking out while she single handedly rescued 50 panicking horses; or of tracking her missing mount for days while she was tracked in turn by lion; or of someone’s pet bull elephant escaping and turning up at the back of a stampeding herd, the chain still round his ankle.
All reassuring stuff. We knew we had found the person to show us Africa. Barney’s gold standard is that her guests must be able to ‘gallop out of trouble’. Our eldest, Serene,18, my husband Shaun and I are competent enough. Ben,13, can certainly gallop into trouble, and he and Alex,15 , booked riding lessons. But Bink was not sure. Would there be a decent bathroom in the bush? What about the loos and her deep – seated loathing of horses? We received a kit from Africa. Mountain horse make boots to die for, trousers that zip into shorts and equestrian underwear to end your sex life. When we arrived at Johannesburg stopover, The Cradle, we wished we had a week there: drinks in the sun, a game drive, even a rod for Ben to cast into a steam in the late afternoon sun, before a superb dinner. The next day we rose in a six – seater plane above the mud huts of Maun, before flying over miles of scrub – here a fleeing herd of Zebra, there a cow elephant and a calf at a pool – and eventually glittering silver ribbons, which turned into the shining flooded plains of the Okavango Delta.
Nick met us at the airstrip. He was obviously anxious to initiate us into the hardships of the lifestyle and already had the drinks cabinet with him. We had braced ourselves for the privations of camping life, so I was shocked by the elegant outdoor drawing room, stunningly created around trees, its wooden panels painted with African scenes buy 5mg cialis online. There was even a basin of warm water on a stand, so we could wash our hands for the tea that Barney said would be served in a moment, after we’d been shown our quarters.
Expecting a cramped, two-man tent, I was guided to a luxurious suite in canvas, on a wooden platform, with shower room, flushable loo, solar electricity, bedside light, linen sheets, double bed and a porch with rocking chairs overlooking the breathtaking view across the water. In the morning, we’d wade through the river in the chill, yellow dawn, trot through clouds of dust into the warming sun, riding till our mid-morning break of chocolate and oranges by a glittering lake. We’d shower off the dust, or pester Nick to patrol the river for hippo so we could swim, or drink beer under the awning. After tea we’d paddle dugout mokoro canoes through the ready shallows, eyes peeled for game; or on a night drive, spotlight bush babies or jackals; or – best of all – be taken on a walk by the knowledgeable Tirelo, the jewel of the camp. He has learnt English and qualified as a guide. His face is full of smiles, and his conversation of genuine, Bottom – like explanations: ‘You see, the lion hear the smell.’ One morning we heard the crash of a breaking branch. Barney signalled quiet. We crept on, gradually seeing the dim grey shape. We circled downwind. PJ had explained that the elephant hears and smells but barely sees, so don’t whisper and he won’t know what you are. We didn’t even breathe. He was eating breakfast. He turned and stared blindly. Suddenly something annoyed him and he began to charge. Quicker than thought, I positioned my horse in front of my children’s. The flush of adrenaline, half – fear, half excitement, was already over. He changed his mind and turned away in contempt. Often we would see a giraffe, snaking through the dappled trees – one morning we cantered, splashing in the shallows, for half – an hour beside them. We watched the Bateleur eagle balancing on a tightrope high in the air, or the Honey – Guide calling us to follow and find the hive so we could raid it and leave the larvae to him. There are other safaris. None comes anywhere near. Viewing African game from horseback is always going to register in life’s top – ten experiences. But Barney and PJ have so much more. Bink is still talking of the sumptuous food. The company is such fun that guests make friends for life. We came to feel our hosts were life – long friends. The combination of luxury and adventure was unique. One day we knew we were to ride all day. We didn’t expect a table laid for lunch in the shade of a Baobab tree, miles from anywhere. Beyond were bunk beds for our siesta.
We did have one disappointment. The other guests came home every day with fresh anecdotes: they surprised a Leopard at his kill, watched a cheetah bring down an antelope, had drinks in the Land Rover amid a pride of lion. We didn’t see a single cat. So when PJ asked us whether we would like to lie – in on our last morning, we declined, hoping for a miracle. At dawn, the camp was buzzing. All the talk was of the stampeding of terrified zebra, the contented roaring after the successful kill. The row had continued half the night. We had slept through it all. We knew lion were nearby, so Tirelo put us in the mokoros, loaded the rifle and punted us across the river. We walked behind him silently.
‘There!’ he whispered, and there he was, his mane magnificent, his hips swinging as he walked away. If you can only do one trip in your life, make it this one. Save up. Book now. Learn to ride, especially.
Even Bink, who eschewed the horses, will have memories of it for life.