Big Game at a Gallop – The Sunday Times

THE SUNDAY TIMES – Travel Section, June 3 2001

BIG GAME AT A GALLOP

Chris Ryan spent 10 years in the SAS – but riding in Botswana was still a challenge – The Sunday Times – TRAVEL – June 3 2001

There is nothing but a few yards of thin air between us: me, my 12-year-old daughter Sarah and a pride of lions. They are gathered around a fresh kill, half a dozen females with a cub in tow. These are huge, powerful animals. At this distance, I can see the play of every muscle as it flexes under the skin. Momentarily unnerved by our arrival, they move off, about 50ft, and the vultures swoop down to the carcass. Slowly, calmly, we keep moving through the bush. Then the largest lioness begins to slink along in parallel with us. She is stalking.

It’s an encounter that, under other circumstances, would be terrifying. But I’m not afraid, for Sarah or myself. For one thing, the bush brings an almost surreal sense of relaxation; for another, we are in the very safe hands of PJ and Barney Bestelink – and, as well as a .357 rifle, PJ is carrying a bearbanger (about which more later).

And for a third, I’m too busy relishing a moment that could hardly have happened in any other way. If Sarah and I were on a regular safari, pitching round the bush in roaring three- ton four-wheel-drives, there is no way we’d have come this close to such a scene undetected. But we are on horseback, now riding steadily away from the lioness, which finally loses interest and heads back to the kill. This is the way to see game.

Africa has meant many things to me. I’ve been here, in my SAS days, on training and on operations; I’ve returned on conventional, and walking, safaris. Botswana, specifically, has a significance. On my last trip here, with the SAS, we lost a man, Joe. I was with a mountain-climbing team in the Tsodilo Hills, and it was said that he had offended the ancient spirits of the land by killing an animal. I’m not someone who’s easily spooked, but the incident cast a long shadow.

Before this trip, sitting at home in England and looking at the glossy brochure, something else had given me pause for thought. Was my riding up to it? There would be up to six hours a day in the saddle – one slightly intimidating photo showed riders cantering alongside a herd of zebra and wildebeest. Hardly kids’ stuff, you’d have thought – but that’s exactly what it would turn out to be. Because I had my own secret weapon: my personal riding instructor, Sarah, who’d live on a horse if she could.

Still, as we climbed into a six-seater Cessna at Maun airport for the 20-minute flight to our camp in the bush, I wondered for a moment if I’d really shaken off that shadow. Our destination was the Okavango flood plain, north of the Kalahari Desert – a unique inland delta, much of which lies underwater for several months a year. It’s a remote and unspoilt area, with abundant wildlife, as we see at once on the short drive from the airstrip to the base camp. Sarah and I are thrilled by the sight of giraffe, elephant and gazelle appearing as if on cue to peer at our Land Rover.

The camp is very different from the rough-and-ready soldiers’ affairs I’ve been used to. In fact, it’s a bush version of the Ritz. In a lovely setting, tucked away in a small copse near a pool, the framed tents stand on wooden decking, with space within for two beds, tables and a wardrobe. There are solar-powered lamps, a shower with hot water, and a toilet. The communal dining area contains a help-yourself bar and space for a campfire at night.

Our hosts and guides, PJ and Barney, know their business. PJ, a Namibian geologist, is an expert on the local flora and fauna, while Barney, who grew up in England, has worked with horses all her life click to investigate. The pair of them have fallen in love with this part of Africa, and put down roots. Since 1986, they’ve been guiding groups of visitors like ourselves around the delta. This time, the party is small but diverse: a lawyer, a photographer, a marketing executive, a former soldier and a schoolgirl; three English and two Germans. We get on like a house on fire from the start.

Our first ride is for two hours, to get us used to the horses we have been allotted. For Sarah, it’s a lively young thoroughbred- cross called Pemba; for me, Quito, a wise old fellow whom Barney refers to as “the armchair” – he’s that comfortable to ride. Sarah rides behind us as we walk, trot and canter, and issues a string of commands: “Heels down, Dad, and tuck your bum in.” She’ll make an instructor yet.

I can immediately see the beauty of watching game from the back of another animal. You are never this close to nature, physically or spiritually, on a mechanised safari. In a car, you’re an intruder, isolated from the world by glass and steel. Here, you’re part of the landscape.

It has the edge over walking safaris, too. The horses provide a first-class viewing platform, meaning you can take in far more of the wildlife and landscape. And a calm horse reassures the jittery game animals. When it drops its head to graze, it signals to its fellow ruminants that it’s relaxed, and all is well with the world. Which, Sarah and I agree, it is.

That night, we eat a three-course dinner (fresh, simple and delicious, as all the food turns out to be) and relax round the campfire with our hosts. The stories come out: about dangerous packs of hyenas, close calls with predators, and about the comic side of bush life – the bull elephants who feast to excess on pound after pound of amarula fruit, which then ferments in their stomachs, leaving them drunkenly weaving until they pitch over, sozzled, to sleep off the session.

The next morning, we’re woken at 5.30 with hot water for washing and freshly brewed tea. An hour later, after breakfast, we’re ready to saddle up. We ride out over flat plains dotted with stands of big ebony trees and mangosteen. During the flood, these clumps of trees rise above the water like islands – which is how our guides refer to them. But now, in late April, apart from the main river tributaries, it’s dry underfoot and all around is lush grassland, like the overgrown fairway of a vast golf course.

As we ride, we encounter a variety of animals and birds – five giraffes, their long, graceful limbs moving in slow motion, a crocodile and some hippos basking in the water, a bull elephant calmly watching us from 20ft away as he eats the fruit of – yes – an amarula tree.

PJ rides at the rear of the group, and he doesn’t miss a thing. He pinpoints kill sites from the circling of vultures above, and from the scent of fresh blood in the air. He picks out a 12ft python muscling its bulk through the swaying grass. The horses, surprisingly, are not bothered by it. Barney challenges PJ to pick up the monster, but he declines – it’s too big even for him.

On my previous trips through the bush, I’ve usually carried a firearm, and I feel a little naked without one. I ask PJ about his rifle, and he confirms that, as I suspected, it’s as much for the guests’ peace of mind as anything. These days, he says, a bearbanger – a device the size of a pen that shoots a noisy exploding pellet – is enough to deter a lion who might fancy a tourist for tea.

Barney rides in front, as vigilant as PJ, though it’s the guests and her beloved horses that are the focus of her attention. She looks out for Sarah in particular, checking that she’s wearing sunscreen and, on one occasion, as Sarah is mesmerised by a herd of elephants, quietly telling her to keep her feet in the stirrups: a rider must always be prepared to get out of trouble fast.

We return to camp at about 1.30pm, our heads buzzing with the sights and sounds of the bush. We’ve stopped once, mid-morning, and snacked on a bar of chocolate and an orange in the shade, and now we’re eager for lunch and a change of clothing. It’s lunchtime for the horses, too, and as we hand them over to the waiting grooms, Sarah remarks on how well the animals are cared for. Barney is ever alert to their wellbeing, and later in the trip, I notice how quickly she spots that a horse has gone lame overnight. She pulls it out of service at once, and gives it an injection – this far from civilisation, she doubles as a vet. The work these horses put in is what makes the safari possible, and they are treated accordingly.

After a well-earned siesta – Sarah resists, but I insist – we are taken on a game drive, savouring a beer as the sun sets, then returning in the dark, spotting deer and hyena by flashlight. Then it’s drinks, dinner and coffee round the campfire, and I realise I’ve completely switched off. I fall into my comfortable bed, utterly content: if this is life in the bush, it’s the most luxurious form I’ve ever come across.

The days merge together. On each ride, PJ’s expertise brings us into intimate contact with new animals (including that close encounter with the pride) and birds – fish eagles, marabou storks, bee-eaters. After two nights, we embark on a ride of some 35km to a smaller “fly” camp. Here, the terrain is different. We’re riding through woods of thorn trees and scrub, without the visibility of the open plain – anything could be lurking round the next corner. Twice, we come upon breeding herds of elephants, and we’re fascinated to see mothers shepherding their young away from danger. Unfortunately, we’ve approached them upwind, and they’re off. It doesn’t seem possible that 40 elephants can melt instantly into the bush, without even the sound of a breaking twig – but that’s what happens.

Sarah and I are loving every second of these days on horseback. They are so full, and, after our exertion, our sleep is so sound that I hardly have time to be troubled by doubts or dreams. Does that mean I’ve overcome my misgivings about my riding ability? Have I really shrugged off the shadow cast by the death of my colleague?

The answer to the first question comes in style. Aping the picture in the glossy brochure – the one that sparked my concerns about my horsemanship – we take off on an exhilarating 10-minute canter herding zebra and wildebeest. It’s electrifying: the speed, the dust, the grace of the horses and the game. We’re all thrilled, and I feel fully in control. I’ve bonded with Quito and my worries have vanished.

The answer to the second question is more subtle, and it’s Sarah who provides it. As we’re leaving the camp to return to the airstrip, I mention that we’re bound to have left something behind. “Yes,” she says, “two horses” – and she bursts into tears at the thought of going.

I knew this had been a special experience for me, and now I fully understand how special it has been for her, too, every other impression is overwhelmed. The darkness of my last visit has finally vanished. These have been magical days, and from now on, my thoughts of Botswana will be golden.

* Chris Ryan was a guest of Ride World Wide