Free Reign – The Sunday Times

THE SUNDAY TIMES – 5 November 1995


Going wild in Africa, Christine Walker rides alongside zebra and wildebeest in Botswana.

The flesh flapped obscenely from a jagged wound under his chin. One eye was swollen shut and just below the other, a 2in horizontal tear was dragged open by the weight of his cheek. The outer ligament in his right leg had been bitten through.

Tubu’s job was to guard the camp and he did so with calm and restraint – except when it came to baboons. Maybe it was their sneaky inquisitiveness that got to him, but as far as Tubu was concerned, the only good baboon was a dead one. That morning a man-sized specimen had evened the score a little.

“Luckily,” PJ concluded, “the group from Paris hadn’t left camp yet and three of them were surgeons. They’ve done a good job on Tubu, but we’re still bloody worried about him.” I had met PJ Bestelink just an hour earlier, when he brought his open-topped four-wheel drive to a halt at Gumare airfield as I was pulling my bag out of a Cessna. A tall, wiry streak of energy in his late forties, PJ has operated riding safaris in the Okavango Delta with his wife, Barney, since 1986. He seemed to have taken that morning’s gruesome events in his stride, but I was beginning to feel queasy: I had never been on a safari before, let alone one in which transport is by horse and every flank is exposed.

It was mid-April, a time when much of the 50km journey from the airstrip to camp would normally be undertaken by mokoro, or dug-out canoe. But the autumn rains had failed and the flood waters from Angola had yet to arrive. Our “road” was a deep sand track, and as we bounced along we had to dodge and duck from the inch-long thorns of the overhanging acacia trees. Soon we had left even the flimsiest traces of human activity behind and, in the soft light of dusk, the dry flood plains were beginning to fill with game emerging for the evening’s passeggiata. A couple of immature giraffe paused in their neck wrestling to watch our bumpy progress; a hyena seated firmly in our path glared crossly before slinking off with the sad bad grace of the ugly; a herd of wildebeest stood stock still, staring, before ducking their heads, lifting their tails and racing off purposefully to nowhere; impala entered stage right, leaped across our path and disappeared gracefully into the bush; warthogs trotted self-importantly by, tails at 90 degrees to the ground. (“They have to close their eyes against the tall grass,” PJ explained, “and because they’re so fat, their skin’s too tight and it pulls their bloody tails up.”)

The Okavango rises on a plateau in southeast Angola and tumbles through a 1,500ft drop before it hits Botswana. There, the sudden even gradient causes it to divide into a maze of channels. Rivers and flood plains dotted with mopane forests and palm islands. The Bestelinks’ camp nestled among the dense vegetation of one such island, which, instead of rising gracefully from a watery world, erupted from 18,000 sq km of drought-stricken plain. It was easy to see why Tubu had had difficulty in keeping the baboons at bay; I did a quick mental roll call of other beasts whose curiosity would be unhindered by the need to negotiate water. There were elephant, hyena, lion, buffalo, crocodile, leopard …

As PJ brought the jeep to a halt, a slender woman, hair in a ponytail, long legs encased in well-worn jodhpurs, emerged from the darkness to greet us. This was Barney, one-time jockey to the Emir of Bahrain from whom, at the age of 10, during her father’s posting as British ambassador there, she had won several bareback races. She gave me a whirlwind tour of camp – at its heart an amphitheatre of canvas seats around a leadwood fire, where two guests from Britain, Rupert and Veryan, were sipping pre-dinner G&Ts; behind them the dining tent; to its right the kitchen (with a primitive earth oven from which the most sophisticated dishes would be produced), the Bestelinks’ tent and the horses’ stable – before leading me off to my own tent and a shower.

Later, I made my way by torch light back to the dining tent, where a hurricane lamp threw the stooped figures of PJ and Barney into sharp relief and nearly tripped over a dog lying quietly on a mattress placed inside the entrance. It was Tubu. Barney looked up: “Are you squeamish?” she asked.

“No,” I lied, “Would you mind helping us, then?” As she busied herself with antibiotic powder, and I concentrated on doing as I was asked without being sick, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even seen a horse yet. That was tomorrow’s hurdle.

My first mount was Linyanti. Barney introduced us as she supervised the horses being led from their night-time stabling to graze on the plain. “Does he spook?” I asked abruptly. I needed to know. To get ready for this safari, I’d spent countless Saturday mornings riding with my friend Fiona who keeps a couple of frisky horses in Hertfordshire. The county may not readily invite comparison with the Okavango Delta, but those horses took off if a pheasant so much as broke wind, let alone cover and I was, frankly, traumatised.

Linyanti, Barney assured me, was as steady as a rock. And so we set off. Rupert and Veryan were both experienced riders and I stayed as close to them as was possible without actually sharing a saddle. But I was beginning to feel more confident – humming snatches of Delta Dawn during the quieter moments and progressing to Ride of The Valkyries as we broke into a canter – when Barney held up her hand to indicate that we should stop. There was a hyenas’ lair nearby she wanted to investigate; she made it sound like a treat. Just as we were establishing whether or not it was occupied, a sudden surge of horse muscle signalled that, indeed, it was. Happily, the bolt died almost as soon as it began; Linyanti had been the first to spook.

That initial ride was relatively short – 90 minutes or so, during which Barney could check out her latest client. But most days we were in the saddle for four to six hours. Mornings began with a wake-up call – a gently spoken “knock knock” outside the tent to signal that the basin on the veranda had been filled with hot water. By 6 find here.30 the horses had been led onto the plain for mounting. Tack was always fitted personally by Barney – English style with snaffle bits and a sheepskin or saver underneath the saddle. (From Giza to Hyde Park, I have never come across tack of such consistently high standard and so well maintained. As with everything concerning the welfare of the horses, the discipline was rock solid.)

Anything seemed possible as we ventured from camp. PJ, the only one to use an American saddle, the better to accommodate both his rifle and his riding style, would scan the landscape, while Barney explored the edges of an island apparently unconcerned by what might leap out of it. They communicated constantly with each other – often by just a glance or a word.

There was little conversation, just the creaking of saddles, the dawn whoop of a hyena, the shriek of a go-away bird, the warning bark of a baboon, the flute duet of the swamp shrike and his mate, the low rumble of elephant, the strident call of the red-billed francolin.

This was the best time of day for giraffe: their colouring blended with the golden light of dawn so that, like the Cheshire Cat, they seemed to emerge slowly from their background. Having spotted one, you quickly realised there were another eight or nine standing watching you with rapt curiosity, until the glorious moment when, with one accord, they cantered smoothly away.

After about half and hour or so, PJ would light his pipe. The day had begun.

Linyanti and I hadn’t really hit it off on that first ride, and so I was switched to Quito: “You’ve got the bloody Rolls there, ” PJ approved, and he was right. Rescued by Barney from the rough care of lion hunters, this sturdy little half-arab roan had the gait of a magic carpet. Cantering along a soft and sandy stretch of the plain one marooning, we rounded an island and caught the tail end of a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest indulging in an early run. Almost before PJ had signalled for us to follow, Quito was doing his level best to overtake the lead. This was the moment to justify the entire trip: the smells, the light, the heat, the sounds, the indescribable elation of riding a good horse well, and the awareness that we were a few of only a very few more humans at large in this massive delta where no road or flight path nurtured.

By about 10am the sun would be high and hot and we would find a shady island, half-picket the horses and stretch out on the ground before continuing our circular ride back to camp for lunch, to the obvious and heartwrenching delight of Tubu. He was able to walk a little now and would follow Barney around, stiff-legged, his eyes shining with fathoms-deep devotion.

Lunch was always followed by a siesta, than a walk, or another ride – perhaps to investigate some recent elephant spoor. Sunset, like dawn, is unfailingly magical in the delta, as the game regroups after a hard day’s hiding from the sun. Returning to camp one evening, we came across a large group of tsessebe in a pool of light between two shadowed islands. Some were playing, others were niggling, others simply standing round being part of the scene. It was a curiously intimate moment, but intruding on horseback felt like no intrusion at all; by sharing some of the risks of life on the hoof, you seem to earn the right to its pleasures, too. Having said which, the combustion engine does have its place – most enjoyable on a night drive, equipped with searchlight and a cooler box full of beer, gin and tonic water. Our game count one nights was: kudu, Pels fishing owl, spring hare, spotted-necked otter, crocodile, hippo, porcupine, impala, civet, genet, caracal, African wild cat, giraffe, wildebeest, reedbuck. But no lion. And as the days passed, despite all the tempting horseflesh in our company, we failed to spot one, although we frequently came across lion spoor. There was, however, one occasion when it seemed that nothing but 30 metres of dust separated me and the real thing.

We had moved to fly camp. Three days into the safari and with the party swelled by four new arrivals (all with horse-intensive backgrounds), the decision was made to explore fresh territory. Guests, guides and groom reached the new camp by horse – breaking the day with a picnic lunch. Other camp workers went on ahead by Jeep with tents, kitchen equipment, temporary showers, etc. And Tubu, of course – carefully placed on a makeshift bed so that he wouldn’t be badly jolted.

At fly camp, there is no stable to shelter the horses from predators. Instead, a sort of washing line is erected to which the horses are hitched by a block-and-pulley system, which gives them freedom of movement, including the ability to lie down. The Bestelinks employ a permanent night watchman, Kenneth – with Tubu out of action, this was even more essential. That night I heard rustle.

I ordered myself to switch on the torch. It was uncanny. Right bang in the middle of its beam were two spots of gleaming light. Eyes. And they were moving – slinking, actually. I almost screamed. Instead, I raced over to Kenneth and then screamed. In seconds, he had reached the Jeep, activated its flood light and fixed the eyes in its beam. Together we watched as they stayed immobile for several minutes then slunk off. The next morning, Barney reacted in a very satisfactory way: “let’s go and examine the spoor” – and we all trotted, literally, off. PJ, who has the advantage of speaking Sestswana, was more pragmatic. “Let’s ask Kenneth.” It was like waiting for an exam result: “civet” was the verdict. Oh well. Our return to base camp marked the end of my adventure with the Bestelinks. As I was helped into the truck with my luggage, and I said my final goodbyes to Barney and PJ, Tubu struggled up, still less than whole, but it was clear that he would be all right. He wagged his tail and emitted a small encouraging bark. He was the gentlest of dogs, except when it came to baboons.