Splashing Through the Okavango – The Field

IN THE FIELD – September 1994

SPLASHING THROUGH THE OKAVANGO

Deirdre Shields gets closer to Botswana’s wildlife on a horse safari along the Okavango Delta

“Lions” noted African adventurer William Charles Baldwin in 1857, “are proverbially fond of horseflesh.” This made uneasy reading, travelling to Botswana for a riding safari. After all, it was in Botswana – then Bechuanaland – that the great hunter Selous lay hunched one night, waiting for enough light to shoot some lions that were feasting on the remains of his horse.

The horse has long been an honoured companion in Africa. Cornwallis Harris hunted giraffe from his; William Cotton Oswell, who discovered Lake Ngami with Livingstone, found a novel way of killing hyena by undoing his stirrup leather at the gallop and felling them with one blow of the iron. He lost one horse to a buffalo, one to a rhino, and one – nearly – to a lion.

These days, game-viewing from vehicles can sometimes seem as special as driving round a wildlife park. Everyone jostles for position in their minibuses, clocking each other on the head with expensive cameras. All too often, the animals are reduced to an object at the end of a zoom lens. A horse safari, by contrast, is a revelation. You see more, you get closer to the animals, and they take notice of you. Zebra raise their heads as you approach; wildebeest scatter, bucking madly. You can get right in among them and there is no finer way to start a day than a wild, wheeling gallop with the herds. Suddenly, you find yourself promoted from mere observer to participant.

P J and Barney Bestelink run Okavango Horse Safaris in a hidden corner of the Okavango Delta, which occupies the north-western corner of Botswana. The Okavango rises in the Angolan hills, before hitting a block of Kalahari sand in Botswana and fanning out to cover 15,000 square km of waterways. The delta is a bewitching place: a series of grass floodplains, dotted with thick palm islands, mopane forests and clear pools. The islands become just that in high water – isolated pockets, teeming with game. With the wind soughing through the tall grass and the palm trees rattling, one has the sense of sailing through a chain of Pacific islands.

High water is from May to September. The flood seeps down the delta, creeping farther each day through a maze of channels. Rivers fill overnight. Each year the flood runs a different curse. Although one never feels water-logged, the horses spend 80 per cent of their time in water, splashing, wading and pushing their way through deep, glassy channels tangled with lily-pads.

Safaris usually last six days, although a 10-day ride is also available, covering 200km and staying at three different camps. There is the possibility of a 14-day ride next year, travelling the length of the delta. In November the horses are rested after their African horse sickness jabs, otherwise dates are available on request from October to December and January through to March, and usually fixed from mid-March through to September, although dates and length of trip can be varied. The horses are given a couple of days’ breather between trips. October, November and February are the hottest months and December to February the wettest. Temperatures range from 8 degrees C to 38 degrees C, according to the season.

The Bestelinks started their riding safaris in 1986. Their passion for the delta is infectious and they are a delightful pair, the sort of people you would want with you in a fix, dealing calmly with the dramas that invariably arise with horses around. They have 22 horses and a six-month base camp. (No permanent buildings are allowed in the area, a hunting concession, rented from Ker and Downey). The horses are a mix of Kalahari, Arab, Anglo-Arab, American saddlebreds and part thoroughbreds 14hh to 17hh, and all do their job in different ways.

“The US saddlebreds are very forward-going’” explains Barney, “and the Kalahari are hardy, sensible and strong. The Arabs are, well, challenging.” she should know. By the age of 11 she was official jockey to the Emir of Bahrain, and won several bareback races with his Arabs. These were wild, banshee affairs, and despite the fact whips were banned, her fellow jockeys took advantage of flowing robes to conceal theirs. In fact, her own Arabs are beautifully behaved and sleekly fit, along with the other horses. Marvellously tolerant with strangers, the horses are noticeably relaxed, no mean feat considering the work they put in and the fact that they are never free from the threat of predators. They have to be guarded constantly while grazing. Although they are stabled at night, lions sometimes slink round the camp, circling in the hope that the horses will catch wind of them and panic cialis online pharmacy.

I rode three: Katima, a delicate grey Arab, swift as a cloud; part-Arab Linyanti, who floated along: and the clown of the outfit, a tough little Kalahari/Arab called Smous, which means “wheeler-dealer”. The Smous was a horse with a great, if macabre, sense of humour.

Fed up with him gorging grass and snatching my arms as I led him one day, I gave his reins a shake. He shot me an old-fashioned look, stuck out his leg and trod on my foot. It was done so neatly, I eyed him closely. He gave a martyred sigh and gazed away with a look of such blank innocence, my suspicion grew. He made to snatch again. Curious, I gave another shake. Quick as a snake he struck again, tapping my foot just hard enough to let me know honour had now been satisfied.

The horses are admirably calm. Barney likes to buy them as two-year olds and turn them out for a year to get used to the bush. Elephants can get them going, but they seem to take everything else in their stride. When a 6ft monitor lizard crashed out from under Smous’ feet he never missed a beat, simply peering down thoughtfully. The horses’ presence seems to soothe the animals, and they have the added advantage of masking the rank smell of humans.

Groups are restricted to eight, although 10 can be managed, if they are all one booking. Ours included an elderly American who had hunted throughout Africa, a high-powered media couple, uproariously good-natured and game for anything, and race-horse trainer David Nicholson and his wife Dinah. “I’ve been on the brandy for weeks thinking about this’” confided Nicholson. “It was the wife’s idea.” In the event he was happy as Larry, whether wandering around checking the horses’ saddles or riding along, beaming, face aglow with the sun: “This is great, Barney. Isn’t this great?”

Any fears that up to six hours’ riding a day might take their toll faded. The ground is sandy and forgiving and we felt fit rather than aching, although anyone who saw our first creaking attempts to mount each morning would have been pushed to guess it. By varying the pace, from a relaxed mooch to brisk trots and stretches of fast work, broken with pit-stops and short walks leading the horses, the hours and miles flew past.

Tack is English, supple and comfortable. Each saddle has a sheepskin or seat-saver and everything, but everything, is done to ensure the horses” comfort. We were a mixed bag of riders, but everyone felt easy. The only condition is that people should be able to gallop out of trouble if necessary. P J rides with a .375 rifle, but has never had to use it. Although while chatting and pointing things out he and Barney are constantly scanning for potential danger. But that, of course, is part of the excitement.

The animals and birds are the glory of the Okavango. Around 90 per cent of Botswana’s buffalo population lives there and we shadowed a herd of 100-plus one morning. They glowered menacingly but when the horses ducked their heads down to graze they seemed to dismiss our presence, shaking their heads with a snort of disgust. Dismounting by lagoons we peered through stands of papyrus at the hippos. Fat crocodiles slid into the water. It was amazing the turn of speed we managed whenever Barney advised us to go through a particular channel “as quickly and quietly as possible”.

Another morning was spent playing a game of “grandmother’s footsteps” with a group of elephants. The spoor told us we were right behind them, but they melted away into the trees. Each corner turned seemed to reveal some new sight: tsessebi, hyena, impala, kudu, zebra, wildebeest, lechwe, bushbuck, ostrich, jackals, baboons. The wetlands attract marvellous birdlife: one rare sight was a slaty egret perched by a pool. Then there were huge groups of wattled cranes, spurwing and pygmy geese, jewel-bright kingfishers and bee-eaters, francolin, rollers, hornbills, lily-trotter, blacksmiths and long-toed plovers and the ubiquitous fish eagles.

No two days were the same, but they slid into a beguiling rhythm. Woken before dawn with a bowl of hot water, we washed to the sound of the siren whoops of hyena. A quick, scalding coffee by the fire, enjoying the luxury of watching our horses being tacked up for us, and we were away. We rode off past the lagoon, watching the lechwe, those waterbabies of the antelope world, skittering away in the soft morning light. You never knew what you were going to see in those first few minutes. Once it was three lions lying the grass. Another time we rounded a corner and cantered alongside a herd of giraffe. They lolloped along, gazing down on us with gentle bemusement.

After an hour or so we would slide off and walk the horses, startling warthogs which trotted off, tails aloft, bristling with indignation. Grass which had been swishing at our stirrups suddenly waved above our heads, and we realised what a great sense of security a horse gives. Mid-morning we half-picketed the horses and unpacked the saddlebags. P J built a fire and cooked up sausages and beans which we snaffled along with hard-boiled eggs, home-baked bread and oranges while the horses dozed.

Any sluggishness afterwards was countered with long, cooling gallops through the shallow pans of water. Arriving back at camp, the horses were fed and made comfortable. They rolled thankfully in the sand while we tucked into a late lunch, laid out under the trees. You do not starve on this trip. After a siesta, we rode or went on bird walks. Fishing, canoe trips, game drives and night-spotting for crocodile are other alternatives.

Afterwards, we wandered down to drinks by the fire. In the evening cool, the sand still smelled faintly of horses. The camp is a simple, but luxurious affair: two-main tents, campbeds, duvets, showers. The Bestelinks believe in leaving no trace after they have gone. There is no generator; the deep-freeze runs on gas, and paraffin lamps and flares sputter outside the tents at night.

The cooks conjure delicious food from an oven scooped out of an old termite mound. Camp guardian is Tokolosh, soppy pitbull, named after a mischievous local spirit, but only interested in clambering on to people’s laps. Toki and her daughter, sired, it is thought, by a wild dog, earn their keep chasing lions and elephants from the camp.

We fly-camped far out in the delta one night, sleeping under nets and star, with the horses tied to a chain. Everyone is asked to do a watch by the fire, since 10 horses lined up on a picket means a tasty equine kebab to a lion. The horses do not give much sign if there are lions around, apart from getting irritable, so it is important to stay alert.

So passed one of the longer hours of my life. No sooner had I padded round the horses, a lion started roaring. It is a sound that goes right down through you. It was about a mile away, and moving closer every 10 minutes of so. Suddenly every shadow started jumping. To pass the time I tried some long-forgotten maths: if a lion travels at x miles per hour, how long will it take to cover nth of a mile in the 37 minutes left before I can hand over the watch?

In the end the lion did the decent thing and stayed away, although we heard it harrying a herd of zebra as we rode out on the plain the next morning. Any risk, of course, is borne by P J and Barney, who have no intention of putting their horses and clients in any danger, but it all adds a whiff of adventure, a vital ingredient, to an already rich mix, with the horses, animals, birds, and dazzling beauty of the delta.

After the safari we were dispersing as widely as the flood waters: the Nicholsons to Mozambique, the others to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nxamaseri, the Bestelinks’ idyllic fishing camp farther up the delta in an area known as ‘the pan-handle’.

Our last morning was an exceptionally beautiful ride. I dawdled along with Stevie, an advertising whizz back in a world that seemed mercifully far away. We splashed gently through the pools, our two grey horses mirrored in the water. She was going on to Victoria Falls. “The trouble is,” she announced, “after all this, I’m worried it’s going to be rather an anti-climax.” I’m quite sure it was.