Hock Deep in the Delta – Getaway Magazine

Article from Getaway magazine, March, 2004


People who like walking say that on foot is the only way to experience the wilds. Obviously they don’t ride horses, they haven’t galloped with girraffes or diced with Zebras. Combine some wonderful horses and one of Africa’s best wildlife destinations and an Okavango Horse Safari beats diesel fumes. – By Robyn Daly (and Ebo the horse).

There was a methodical swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh not quite as deep as the sounds of an elephant making a channel crossing,nor as frivolous as the rustle of red letchwe feet fleeing through the floodwaters. Swooshing horses’ legs in deep water was accomanied by the odd thwack as a wet tail flicked against a hindquatre to dislodge a fly. The steady rhythm of the walk was occasionally broken as horses paused to pluck a water lily or snatch at a tuft of reed grass. All around us the water was glassy still and the deep colour of the horses’ eyes straight from the source.
The swoosh faded as the last horse emerged dripping from the water. Soft shkwick, schkwiks could be heard as hooves sucked on mud. The sound dissolved to faint thuds on firmer ground. Then silence. We stopped besides a herd of giraffes.

In the early morning before the cicadas strike up on their violins, the silence in the delta is so deep you can almost hear the water evaporate. The grind of giraffe molars on thorns was as loud as if it were happening in my own mouth. Gulliver wasn’t smoking his socks on his travels: I swear I could hear my horse, Ebo, talking….
EBO: Hey Lamu, what do you call these giant Houyhnhnms* again?
Lamu turned his wise head towards the younger Ebo: Giraffes. But they are not
Houyhnhnms, look at their feet. And they have four stomachs.
EBO: They are tall as trees.
MASHUSHU (FROM WHERE HE WAS GRAZING A LITTLE WAY AWAY): Hey Ebo, what sound does a falling giraffe make if there are no Houyhnhnms around to hear it?

Ebo blinked his long – lashed eyes and put his head down to graze. The stocky Mashushu could be quite insensitive.

From the first sniff Ebo gave me in the pink glow of a sun that’s about to rise, it was clear he was a kind, gentle horse. A five year old bred in Zimbabwe as Indian Justice for racing, he was brought to Okavango Horse Safaris in 2002 for a career change and a new name. It is the story of most the trail horses. Looking around the selection, owners Barney and PJ Bestelink have an eye for a good horse. There is every shape, size and colour, and all sorts of temperaments to suite different guest personalities, but the horses are sensible and obviously well – adjusted to their trail lives. They also seem to enjoy their jobs: they’re always keen for a run with zebra’s and when its time for the long water gallops that characterise riding in the delta, they plunge through the malapos (floodplains) with ears pricked.

This is not something PJ & Barney just stumbled upon; it’s taken nearly 20 years since their first delta ride in 1986 to hone and perfect trail riding in a wilderness that has many pitfalls for horses. As the first people to bring horses into the Okavango, they were met with hoots of derision from locals and lodge staff.

“They’ll never survive’ people would tell us” said PJ one evening at Moklowane Camp round a log fire spitting orange stars into the darkness. But this didn’t stop them. PJ bought Barney a three – year old Arab stallion and a bargain load of horses. Then they set out from Maun to ride north to their home at Guma Lagoon near the top of the delta’s panhandle. “We were so disorganised, ” laughed Barney. ” We didn’t have a night watchman and none of the horses were trained. PJ had aerial maps of the delta and we used them to find our way”. Madness. You’d say. But PJ has had a history of running expeditions off the seat of his pants. He’s explored the delta from top to bottom and back to the top again. When he arrived from Namibia in the early 70’s he ran expeditions on a shoestring, selling adventure tours into the Okavango wilderness. He’d put his finger on the map and say ” that looks good.” Of course it would be fantastic because everywhere in the Okavango Delta is magical and there’s adventure and surprises around every bend in the rivers.

It would seem PJ approached Barney in a similar adventurous spirit. When he met her the first thing she asked him was: “Can you ride?” “I said’yes’,” said PJ, adding another log to the fire. “I new if I told her the truth she wouldn’t give me a second look” Next he set about discovering that the hardest thing about learning to ride is the ground.

Today there’s no trace of hope – and – a prayer trail operations of early years. Okavango Horse Safaris operates over two adjacent concession areas (NG29 and NG30) Bordering the Moremi Wildlife Reserve, which offers 2500 square kilometres of glorious free riding. PJ and Barney know every square metre of the area, probably better than we know our own back gardens.

Base camp is Kujwane (meaning baby hippo), a comfortable tented camp on the banks of the Xudum River. This is where a 10 – day safari begins. After a few days, everybody rides out to Mokolwane Camp, northwest of Kujwane, on the matsibi river. Depending on the movement of game and the water, there may also be a couple of nights at Kiri fly camp in the permanent water part of the delta. For the most part you have your “own” mount, though there is a fair bit of swapping and resting as no horse can endure 10 days on the trot. Similarly, guests don’t have to do all 10 days – though many choose to – there’s an option of joining the first or second half of a safari on a five day plan. This is what I did, though I would have happily signed up for the 10 days…or the rest of my life.

The country side is endlessly interesting. Being at the fingertips of the giant water hand of its water arrives with considerably less urgency that it does upriver, yet from one day to the next the landscape can change, either a dry area will be submersed or a floodplain will be sucked dry. It is estimated that 98% of the water vanishes into thin air through evaporation.

Accumulating during summer rainfall in the Angolian highlands, the floodwater travels about 1000km before entering Botswana at Mahembo. There the inflow would sustain the water needs of both England and Wales, at around 11 thousand million cubic meters a year. By the time it reached the riding concession it’s mid autumn and the plants and animals have long forgotten summer thunder showers and most of it has already gone.

But for the flood waters the delta would be endless savannah as hot and as harsh as the Kalahari that surrounds it.
On excursions from Moklowane camp riders on safari were reminded of this by the intrusive presence of the sand tongue which licks out between the Xudom and Matsibi rivers. “Sometimes the game dissapears in there,” said PJ as we gave the tongue a wide berth on the long ride back to Kujwane base camp. “Then we have to go in. It can be extremely hard on the horses and riders.”

The horses flicked an ear of uncertainty towards that area, where the sand is thick and heavy on their muscles and cicadas shriek hysterically. On the sand tongue side, the vegetation was yellow-brown and in places still showed traces of hunting fires. The sand was parched silver grey, a wall of heat surrounded the pnting tongue. But on the water side, sometimes not more than 100metres away, all was green, the giant fans of Mokolwane palms (Hyphenae petersiana) waved from their perches on small islands. The lagoons were like thoughtful eyes, fringed with long eyelashes of grass reeds.

At some point, however, we had to cross the tongue to reach Kujwane. PJ found the shortest route. About halfway we stopped under the sparse shade of terminalia trees.

“Time to half picket,” said PJ. As I loosened Ebo’s girth and tied his lead rope to a branch with a quick release knot, I was sure Ebo was starting up a conversation with PJ’s horse, Lamu. But it’s hard to be certain.
EBO: Shoo. I was getting weak at the hocks there. I’m sure my human has put on a few feed sacks worth of weight.
LAMU: Yes, that’s the problem with tourists, they go on holiday, do nothing all day and expect to eat as though they had to carry us Houhnhnms across the sand.
EBO: Ooh, look, my human has boughts some pony nuts. She’s sweet.
MASHUSHU (UNGRACIOUSLY): You think that of everyone who brings you food.
EBO: Well, wouldn’t you? Lamu turned away to rub his nose on the broken edge of a branch of the tree to which he was tied and said, to nobody in particular: Hmm, that Ebo, he’s a good fellow. Coming along nicely.

An average day’s riding is about 30kilometers , not lasting more than about 5 hours. The exceptions are moving days, which are a little longer, but still leisurely enough for a swim in one of the lagoons. Swimming is done well away from the horses – just in case there is truth in Gullivers Travels and the Houyhnhnms tolerate us humans only because we have cloths on and don’t look like naked, uncouth yahoos. Thoug I suspect they know a thing or two and are too kind to show us up.

PJ’s early expedition days have taught him where crocodiles lurk. But still he had a hard time convincing me nothing was going to lurch out the shallows and grab me by the bikini. Eventually the water was to inviting to resist. We wallowed in the shallow water holes , squirting each other with the yellow bladderwort flowers. There’s a knack to it, but if you get the yellow flowers just right between your fingers, the little water pistols have a surprising firing range. All to soon it was time to mount up and complete the ride into the Kujwane base camp. The first thing Barney did when she returned was catch up on the horse news with her assistant Kate. Then each horse was inspected from head to toe.

For Barney and her husband PJ, the delta was made for horses. It is not, however made for beginner riders. It’s a serious trial requiring a competent level of horsemanship and fitness. But if you can ride well, and like PJ, Barney and all their clients, the horse madness has addled your brain, it is wild and thrilling. I hunkered over Ebo’s shoulders, my bottom in the air as if I were s jockey for the Emir. Ebo’s long legs stretched in front of him, his shoulders opened up, both our eyes were blinking from the spray of water. We were up alongside the lead horse – he is too well trained and mannered to pass – but he only needed a signal, the slightest increase of pace, a squeeze from my legs, and he’d stretch further. With each stride his front feet shattered the glass surface of lagoon water sending splinters spiralling into the air. My heart was in my mouth. It was pure joy. And it sure beat walking.