In this blog post we hear from In The Saddle guest Sarah Grant, who was part of an intrepid group of riders who undertook the adventurous Big Rivers ride in June 2017.
This exploratory ride journeyed into the Caprivi strip, Namibia’s tropical paradise whose borders are determined by several big rivers. The charm of this area is that it is a corridor for game moving between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. This extraordinary area of biodiversity is in contrast to Namibia’s normally arid landscape. In summer the floodwaters spill out over the riverbanks onto the wide open plains of Linyanti and Liambezi, much like the Okavango does in Botswana.
“We are riding alongside a wide stretch of water somewhere in the Caprivi, North Eastern Namibia, shortly before sunset. It’s the first day of the 2017 Exploratory Ride, an annual ride that Andrew Gillies of the Namibia Horse Safari Company runs each year, to explore somewhere new in the vast nothingness that is Namibia. It’s a chance to go somewhere that no one has gone before on a horse, but be prepared for the unexpected…
Back to the first day. Setting off from our first camp on the Kwando River, we’ve had a happy day getting used to our horses (mine, Big Red, is an honest, friendly red chestnut gelding, quite powerful and a bit cheeky), getting used to each other (a group of 11 riders from 6 different countries, all of whom have ridden with Andrew at least once and in some cases many times), and getting used to two constant features of the ride – the many herds of cattle herded by the local ethnic groups, with their rather fearsome horns, and the crowds of excited children, who follow us shouting with excitement at seeing 15 riders and 19 horses suddenly appear in their village.
Now, with the sun slipping close to the horizon, I am secretly thinking: shouldn’t we be at camp by now? Time for sundowners perhaps? “No problem,” says our guide, Andrew, consulting the GPS, “it’s only 5km away.” Until we find a wide water channel, inconveniently placed between the camp and us. With virtually no daylight left, and no way round, the order is issued: “Swim the horses across! Bring the old campaigners first!” I’ll be the first to admit, swimming a horse I don’t know across a channel that may or may not have crocs in virtual darkness is not my perfect idea of an end to the first day, but there was nothing to do except point Big Red at the river, and hope for the best.
We did all make it across, and we made it to our camp, tired, soaking wet but high on the adventure of it. Red usually crosses the Namib Desert, but he swam across that channel like it was second nature, and earned my respect and gratitude. We spent the evening futilely trying to dry boots and blankets around the fire, and cheerfully recounting the adventure.
This is my first Exploratory Ride with renowned guide Andrew Gillies. I went on the Namib Desert ride last October, which was an incredible, unforgettable experience. Only a few months later I’m back for more.
The Exploratory Ride goes to a new area each year, although there is a recce trip some months before by vehicle. So when the ride heads off the road, it really is across open country, navigating by landmarks and GPS. You do need to be prepared for things to not go according to plan. When Andrew and Phoebe did the recce trip in November 2016, they found the Linyanti floodplains full of buffalo. When we got there on the fifth day of our trip, the floodplains were covered in three metre high reeds, towering over our and the horses’ heads. We spent hours pushing through them. Andrew had to resort to the simple navigation technique of standing on his horse’s saddle to try and see where we should be going.
Andrew & co are fantastic at these rides. They have an amazing back-up team that bring food and water (for horses and humans) plus tents and bed-rolls and loos and showers and many other comforts for life in the bush. On most of the Namibian rides you sleep under the stars, but on this ride we had tents due to riding through areas populated with large predators. The horses were guarded by night, with their picket line surrounded by the rest of the camp and fires which were kept going through the night in lion areas.
Camp life is refreshing in its simplicity. I wake each dawn to the sound of the horses on the picket line calling for their breakfast. My first thought is to get coffee (I’m addicted), which never tastes better than from a metal mug with a rusk as the sun rises. Breakfast is in the circle of camp chairs around the fire before grooming my horse and taking it to where the tack is stored on a long tarpaulin, secretly hoping to get some help from our guides, Andrew and Telane, as I find the saddles so heavy.
We are riding about 30km a day, from the start at the Kwando River to the final camp at Mutoya on the Zambezi. The going varies, between long stretches of open bush (or ‘veldt’), small areas cultivated by the locals, scrub, floodplains and woodlands. There are many shouts of ‘holes!’ (belonging to aardvarks) and ‘thorns!’ (the ‘wait a little bit’ bush). Where we can, we make up distance by doing some of Andrew’s famous LSD – Long Slow Distance – at a steady canter along the road shoulder. There can be anything from elephants or zebras crossing, to villagers greeting you, to lorries sounding their horn right by your horse (thank you Red for only shying a bit).
When we reach camp, the first thing is to see to the horses. They are un-tacked, allowed to roll and taken for water. Then they are put on their allocated place on the picket line and fed.
Later they will be groomed and fed again, and Andrew and Telane, will do the ‘ward round’ to check for any sore backs or other ailments. Once they are seen to, the bar will be open – G&Ts (with ice, even here) and Windhoek beers all round. Then find your tent, have a shower, have some delicious food that is incredible considering where we are, and chew the fat until bed.
The joy of these rides is the freedom. It’s hard to put into words the immense nothingness of Namibia. It’s beautiful. Seeing it from a horse you have time to take in the huge mackerel skies, the vivid greens and yellows of grasslands and bush, the belts of trees on the skylines, the blue of the water channels. You have time to talk and bond with your fellow riders, and time to think and let the city life of home recede.
There was also the local life to see. In the Caprivi, life is harsh on this unyielding land, with the challenges of living with elephants and lions, and the clash of old and new cultures. We had a talk from Lisse Hannsen of the Caprivi Carnivore Project about how to ensure conservation and humans can co-exist.
Horses are a rare sight here and the leader of one village begged us to stop until the whole village could see the horses (he got a ride on Andrew’s horse).
There are many other tales from this trip I could write about – galloping through water (someone got a ducking), trucking the horses home one day with the riders sitting on top because we couldn’t make the full distance before dark, the time Big Red decided a short cut through a thorn bush was a good idea – but perhaps the best thing to do is go to see for yourself the immense nothingness that is Namibia. The best way to see it? From the back of a horse, of course”.
A huge thank you to Sarah for writing this wonderful account of her adventures in Big River country. What an incredible experience and a huge well done to you and fellow In The Saddle guests Clare Anderton, Nicole Appert, Clare Lawson and Jenn Lawson for completing this challenging ride.
If you’d like to experience some more of their epic adventure, then check out Namibia Horse Safaris’ video from the ride here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbCR4xTuI7w
Namib Desert: A challenging 300km journey across the oldest desert in the world to Swakopmund on the coast.
Damara Elephant Safari: Fast riding through the vast and spectacular landscapes of Damaraland, tracking elephant and rhino along the way.
Desert Canyons Safari: Explore the open plains of the Southern Namib and see the famous Fish River Canyon.
Wolwedans to Wild Horses: A breath-taking journey taking you from the great dune sea of the central Namib to Klein Aus Vista near the home of the Wild Horses of the Namib.
For more information or to book your place please contact Abbie on +44 1299 272 239 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org