THE NEW YORK TIMES – Travel Section, Sunday February 22, 1998
A SAFARI ON FOUR LEGS
On a horseback game-viewing trip in Botswana, riders must know how to gallop out of trouble – by Lisa Fugard
The Cessna flew at 1,500 feet above the Kalahari Desert scrub that had recently been ravaged by bush fires. From the window I watched eagles and vultures glide beneath us on the thermals. It was a bleak and inhospitable vision, Africa at the end of a long dry winter. But then I saw something glinting, as if the sun were bouncing off a mirror. The Cessna began its descent and I saw a channel of water sparkling into the distance. Beyond it were blue lagoons and vivid green flood plains. A lone elephant stood in the middle of an oxbow lake; a herd of antelope sat neat as china figurines on a small palm-fringed island. I’d arrived at the edge of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The game viewing had already begun, and I suspected it would only improve, for I’d flown in for five days of exploration, not on foot or by canoe, but on horseback.
Okavango Horse Safaris is run by Barney Bestelink and her husband, P J. They have lived and worked in the Delta for over 20 years and are the most generous of hosts. Their base camp is set in a stand of towering trees, knob thorns and African mangosteens, overlooking the Xudum channel. The horses, tack area and open-air kitchen are at one end, and the six safari tents with private showers and pit toilets are scattered among the trees at the other; four tents have twin beds, two doubles.
Barney is a slender woman, with a quiet elegance that belies her fantastic bush sense and nerves of steel. Over a cup of afternoon tea she gave us the necessary but slightly unnerving safety talk on riding in a big game area. Elephants have exceptional hearing but rather poor eyesight, so we could get quite close to them as long as we kept quiet. When we were watching buffalo, we should let the horses graze: the sound and the behaviour seem to relax the buffalo. When lions were around we were to ride very close together as a herd – no stragglers, please!
Half an hour later I was astride Linyanti, a gray Anglo Arab, sloshing through the flood plains, vast seasonal lakes no more than a foot or two deep. The terrain felt wild and utterly unspoiled, and a sentence from Okavango Horse Safaris’ brochure circled in the back of my mind. “Riders must be able to post to the trot for stretches of 10 minutes” (no problem), “be comfortable at all paces” (I definitely am), and “be able to gallop out of trouble.” Gallop out of trouble? When I wasn’t marvelling at a herd of wildebeest fanning out in front of us, or watching a pair of saddlebill storks take to the air like two giant black and white origami birds, my imagination ran riot. Trouble, I decided, was a euphemism for lion.
That evening we tucked into a delicious meal of vegetable soup, roast lamb with carrots and potatoes, salad and apple crumble. It was as elegant as a dinner in the African bush could be, with candles on the table, but I was distracted. A strong wind kept the candles flickering and blew snatches of conversation down to my end of the table. Didn’t I just hear Barney say that the barn where the horses are kept at night is surrounded by an electric fence to deter lions, but the rest of the camp isn’t? I turned to John, the fellow sitting next to me, who philosophically said, in the thickest Yorkshire accent imaginable, that since we didn’t bear a resemblance to zebras there must be no need for fencing in our area. Before a fitful night’s sleep I made a mental check. Day One: lion-free. The following morning we settled into what would be our general routine for the next five days. We woke at 5:15, had a light breakfast and by 6:30, when the sun rose up over the distant ilala palms, we were in the saddle. For the next six hours we explored the Delta, making several stops to stretch our legs and rest the horses’ backs. At all times we were accompanied by Barney riding her stallion, Lamu and P J, who rode Noghatashaa, a bay thoroughbred, and carried a .375 rifle. (On other trips they sometimes split up, with only one of them guiding a group.) We returned to camp in time for lunch and afternoon naps, followed by an optional game drive or walk in the early evening.
We were quite an eclectic group, ranging from an impeccably attired titled British aristocrat and her third husband to Yorkshire John and his longtime Swiss girlfriend, who worked as a veterinary assistant. It was most definitely a horsey crowd, but that isn’t always the case. P J told me some guests, particularly Americans, learn to ride just so they can come on the safari.
Barney’s 22 horses are well schooled and used to encountering wildlife. Much thought went into matching the 10 guests on our safari with horses that complemented their riding ability. On the second morning, after Barney sensed Linyanti was a bit sedate for me, she paired me with a huge part thoroughbred named Nyika. During our first long canter through one of the flood plains I fell for him. Nyika’s stride was enormous. Part gentleman, part rocket, part amphibious vehicle, he thundered through the water, yet was easy to rein in.
The morning I first rode Nyika we set off for a two-night stay at a small fly camp. The 25-mile ride felt like a great adventure and was a superb introduction to the Delta’s unique ecosystem. From its source in the Angolan highlands the Okavango River flows around 800 miles through Angola and into Namibia before entering the north-western corner of Botswana, where, trapped between deep fault lines, it forms one of the world’s largest inland deltas. During the dry winter months, when the land beyond the Delta is parched, large concentrations of game flock to the islands and seasonal flood plains.
We trotted through watery expanses with groups of red lechwe, semi-aquatic antelope with lovely backward sweeping horns, bounding in front of us. The landscape was extraordinarily beautiful and varied. A canter through a stretch of burnished grass with a herd of zebra keeping pace brought us to the edge of an island, beyond which lay flood plains so green and tranquil they resembled the fairways of a golf course. An hour later we were deep in a riverine forest where strangler figs with their thick entwining roots had all but devoured their host trees. There was an almost primeval feeling to the scene, and Eddie, a gruff American who worked in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, said that it wouldn’t surprise him if we came across a dinosaur.
We made our way back into the sunshine and saw several hulking shapes in the distance. Elephants. The wind was in our favour so we rode closer, fording channels filled with waterlillies, until at last we stood on a small rise with the elephants knee-deep in the water in front of us. I could feel the slight apprehension in Nyika’s body as the elephants warily flapped their ears after picking up our scent. But our persistence was soon rewarded, for they resumed feeding, winding their trunks with the utmost delicacy around stalks of papyrus.
When I wasn’t watching game I was lulled by Nyika’s easy gait. I wondered if this was what the first explorers who travelled through the Delta had felt: a certain intoxication brought about by a landscape that is utterly idyllic yet shot through with danger. “Be able to gallop out of trouble” popped into my head, but now it produced a growing curiosity rather than a spasm of anxiety. Where were the lions, I wondered.
Accommodations at the fly camp were simpler; we slept on camp beds in dome tents with shared toilets and showers. Our luggage had been transported by a truck loaded with the necessities for our mini-expedition, everything from pony nuts to fine cheeses. As at the base camp, each meal was accompanied by a loaf of warm whole-wheat bread baked in a huge cast-iron pot buried in the ground over a bed of coals.
Our ride the next morning took us through clouds of dragonflies to the deep lagoons at the edge of the permanent water in the Delta. Apart from numerous grunting hippos and a fleeing crocodile, we didn’t see as much game, so I began to notice how colour manifests itself in the birds. Little egrets high-stepping through the flood plains revealed yellow-dipped feet, while black crakes with their bright pink legs dashed into the reeds. The great treat at the fly camp occurred at night. As soon as the sun disappeared a surreal orchestra seemed to tune up, hippos on tubas, reedbucks on rusty penny whistles, painted reed frogs that sounded exactly like wooden wind chimes and hyenas impersonating car alarms. We had just sat down to dinner on the second night when I hear a softer sound, a distant moaning. Lions, said Barney, and I smiled. To my delight my anxiety about encountering a lion had blossomed into a fervent desire to see one.
Our journey back to base camp the following morning was to be an all-day affair. We hadn’t ridden for more than half an hour when P J spotted fresh lion tracks in the sand. We stayed at a walk, moving cautiously. Then Barney saw something way up ahead in the long grass. She reached for her binoculars, as did the rest of us. It took a steady hand and a keen set of eyes to see them, but there they were at last: lions. More precisely, three pairs of stubby lion ears. “Looks like panda ears!” chuckled Yorkshire John. I had to agree. I kept hoping for more – a roar, a snarl, a great lion sighting – but they stayed at ear height in the grass, eventually slinking off in the opposite direction from us.
As the morning progressed, we came across recent buffalo tracks. After following them for 15 minutes, we caught glimpses of four nervy young buffalo who suddenly came crashing out of the undergrowth. Barney had kept us at a safe distance, so there was plenty of room to manage startled horses and watch the buffalo dash across a flood plain. We rode on, encountering kudu, a magnificent male waterbuck and the ubiquitous red lechwe. Just when we were tired and sweaty and the noonday sun felt unbearable, we rode into a clearing to find the backup team putting the finishing touches on a picnic table laden with bread, cheeses, salads and chilled drinks.
Late in the afternoon we mounted up again. We were a few miles from base camp when one of the camp staff drove up in a jeep with the news that two lions were mating nearby. After a brief discussion it was decided we would ride to view them, with the vehicle as backup. We stayed close together, forded another channel, rode halfway across a grassy plain and stopped. Presuming the vehicle was between us and the lions, I scanned the distance. Suddenly from the grass, maybe 75 feet in front of us, a male lion stood up and roared. This was the “gallop out of trouble” moment, and it seemed to happen in the most glorious slow motion. Barney yelled, “he’s coming! Everyone move!”
Nyika flinched and I urged him on. I was mesmerised, yet at the same time I realised that I felt quite safe on my horse as this flurry of lion, a tawny cannonball, shot out of the grass. He came for 25 feet and then stopped – a mock charge. We reined in, gave our horses grateful pats and kisses on their necks and watched the lion lope back to his snarling mate. We were all impressed when Barney told us that they would spend at least three days together, coupling once an hour or more. She added that she had felt comfortable taking us to view them, knowing that the male would not abandon his mate for more than a few moments. Yorkshire John couldn’t help but express the excitement we were all feeling. “A double bolt day!” he bellowed. “Buffalo in the morning, a lion before dinner!”
It was almost dark when we rode into the base camp buy cheap cialis online. I dismounted and one of the grooms took Nyika’s saddle. Then I slipped off his bridle, put on his halter and held the lead rope while he rolled, first to one side and then to the other. With his hoofs in the air, magnificent Nyika, who had faced buffalo and lion, suddenly looked vulnerable.