riding holidays africa

I Left my Heart in the Namib Desert

In this blog entry Abbie from In The Saddle tells us about her trip to Namibia earlier this year.

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A blog is something I do when I return from a trip, to summarise and recount amazing horsey adventures in far off lands. But I’ve been putting off writing this one. Why? Because writing a blog means the trip is over, as if stamping the experience with a definitive “The End”, and if I’m honest I don’t really want to do that.

The Namib Desert Ride is more than a riding holiday, more than the sum of its parts – fast riding, camping and long days in the saddle – it is an experience like no other. I’ll tell you all about it, and although I am sad it is over, I’m sure I will enjoy reliving the most incredible adventure I’ve ever had.

When I last visited Namibia in 2012 I fell in love with the wide open spaces, a nothingness which has to be seen to be believed. The vast plains and endless horizons seem to encourage you to take time out from everyday life and just stop, and breathe, and take it all in. What stayed with me particularly was being in the desert, the feeling of freedom above the deep red soil and below the bright blue skies. I simply couldn’t wait to get back to the Namib Desert, where mile upon mile of open space seems to call you – it has to be the ultimate place for limitless canters.

PIC 1 Endless canters

Namibia – the perfect place for limitless canters

In August I travelled to Namibia to cross the oldest desert in the world on horseback. The Namib Desert route is one of In The Saddle’s more challenging rides, encompassing a journey on horseback of some 320km from close to the desert oasis of Solitaire to Swakopmund on the fierce Atlantic coast. Ever since I joined In The Saddle back in 2006 I’ve been dying to do this ride and when the opportunity came up I literally jumped (up and down) at the chance!

Our riding group meets for the first time at River Crossing, a comfortable guesthouse on the outskirts of Windhoek. We are twelve riders in total, from France, England, South Africa and Denmark. About half the group have their own horses, but everyone has ridden for many years and all are experienced in the saddle. Our guide Andrew Gillies meets us at 17:00 for the ride briefing. After a thorough run through of ride safety and the signals Andrew will use to chance pace, we begin to relax and look forward to the adventure ahead. Over a cool gin and tonic we introduce ourselves and Andrew asks us what sort of riders we are and what we look for in a horse. Requests vary from “fast and spirited” and “fun and forward-going” to “easy to stop”. It is this information along with the details from travel companies like In The Saddle that Andrew and Telane use to allocate horses. A delicious three course evening meal and plenty of wine awaits, before early to bed after a long day of travelling.

The next day we are up early for our transfer to our first campsite at Ababis. It is a journey of about four hours and we spot oryx, springbok, baboons and secretary bird along the way. We stop at a viewpoint on the way and Andrew points out where we are going to be riding in the days to come. The incredible view heightens our excitement as we imagine the journey ahead – think of the amazing views, the adventure, the endless canters – we cannot wait! The sheer open space and lack of people will take some getting used to…whether you come from busy London or rural Shropshire.

Pic 2 viewpoint

The viewpoint – taking in the vast desert landscape

We reach camp around midday and are met by Phoebe, Telane and Kim. The team take it in turns as back-up guide, but on this particular trip we are in the very capable hands of Kim from Germany who is on her third stint as volunteer. Kim is great fun to ride with and clearly loves her forays into the wilderness of Namibia. Phoebe is a constant beacon of fun and positivity. Cheerfully waving us off each day and then racing against the clock with the back-up crew to set up the lunch spot or the next campsite whilst at the same time preparing mouth-watering meals – she accomplishes so much that we begin to wonder whether she has an identical twin!

PIC 3 Phoebe_s Food Truck

“Phoebe’s Food Truck” – always a welcome sight

Telane, biologist and wild horse researcher, is in charge of the horses’ welfare. During the trip Telane is more often found with the horses than the humans, as she carefully checks them for sore spots, lameness and other ailments. I was fascinated to hear that when she meets a guest for the first time Telane will often ‘see’ a horse. For example when she met Claire on our trip, Telane ‘saw’ Lavoca. This was a great match as throughout the week Claire rode her horse with great sensitivity and I loved seeing them at a speedy canter weaving in and out between other riders, eager to get to the front, a big smile on both their faces!

Pic 4 Claire and Lavoca Joes pic

Claire and Lavoca – a perfect match (image courtesy of Joe Davies)

Next we are given a run through of what to do when we reach camp each evening. The horses are un-tacked, allowed to roll and led to water. Then they are left to dry and are brushed off later (we usually do this whilst waiting in the shower queue). Then we can take a stretcher bed, bedroll and bag to a spot of our choice, be it beside a tree, next to the horses or close to the campfire. The bedroll (each one named after animal species such as rhino, bush pig and impala so they don’t get mixed up) is ours for the duration of the ride and encompasses a sleeping mat, feather duvet and two pillows all tucked inside a waterproof and windproof canvas swag. The duvets are incredibly warm even if the pesky east wind is blowing, although there are extra blankets to use if you feel the cold.

After a lunch of oryx skewers, stuffed peppers, salad and fresh bread it is back on the road again as we travel the 150km to the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei. Andrew tells us about the different types of dunes. These dunes at Sossusvlei differ from those in the Kalahari because they are dynamic, ever-shifting in the wind and taking on a variety of shapes. We kick off our shoes and climb Dune 45, a few of us happy to go part of the way up and then sit and take in the view, whilst others climb right to the top. It is just beautiful.

Pic 5 Sossusvlei

Karien taking in the view at Sossusvlei

Returning to camp we have time to de-sand ourselves with a hot shower before dinner. We are spoilt this evening as we are eased into camp life, for tonight we have hot running water and flush loos. There is much giggling over the ‘mini-Sossusvlei’ left in the shower by a fellow rider – how on earth did she manage to get that much sand into her shoes and still walk?! Making my way back to my stretcher after a shower I make the mistake of hanging my towel to dry on a nearby tree…only the following morning do I realise I’ve used a camelthorn tree and it takes a while to extract my towel from its fierce spikes!

Today’s the day – we get to meet our horses and set off on our desert adventure. There is Marnie a sweet grey Arab mare, Xerox the ‘photocopier’ horse, speedy Sundown, the chestnut ‘pocket rocket’ whose speed has to be seen to be believed, Titan a handsome dun gelding, fast and spirited Raven, front-runner Zarron, well-mannered Coco and my own diminutive ‘black Philip’. He was in many ways exactly what I’d asked for (small and straightforward), but he was also so much more than this; I cherished his professionalism, sweet temper and polite enthusiasm from start to finish.

Pic 6 Philip and I

Philip – the perfect gentleman

After a hearty breakfast it is time for a saddling demonstration. The horses are groomed and tacked-up with an incredible level of care, which is continued throughout the ride. After the usual first-day adjusting of stirrups and saddles we set off towards the oasis town of Solitaire about 15km away. The horses are keen, but controllable except perhaps Raven and Joe’s first horse, each having their own ideas about the speed we should be going at. At one point Joe disappears off in front at a purposeful but unintentional canter, only to double back at great speed heading straight for us. A swift bridle change makes little difference, so a horse change is quickly carried out instead – much better, and well ridden Joe. At Solitaire we enjoy a delicious lunch of quiche and salad, followed by the bakery’s famous apple crumble – yum. A further c. 15km ride in the afternoon takes us to the first of our beautiful wilderness camps, Koireb, nestled in a dry riverbed.

Over the next few days we settle into the wonderful rhythm of camp life. Literally we eat, sleep, ride and repeat. It is priceless, absolute bliss, as if you are in a little bubble where it is only your fellow riders, your guides, the back-up team and your horses and it feels almost as though your normal, everyday life doesn’t even exist.  The day begins with Zarron’s high-pitched whinny and the call of the French rooster. We wake up each morning and watch dawn creep onto the horizon, getting dressed as quickly as possible in the cool of the morning. That first cup of tea and a rusk has never been so delicious as you gather your riding gear and break down your little camping spot. Breakfast is taken around the fire, and then perhaps there is time to snatch a quiet moment with your horse before the adventures of the day begin.

PIC 7 Philip eating marmite on toast pheobe's pic

A quiet moment with Philip (image courtesy of Namibia Horse Safaris)

Each day we set off to journey through amazingly diverse desert scenery, cantering across the plains with oryx on one side and zebra on the other. We enjoy a cold Savannah cider and lunch in the shade, before setting off again for more incredible canters and gallops across the open terrain. We arrive in camp, un-tack and let the horses roll and drink, before sipping a cool G&T whilst grooming the horses. Then a quick bucket shower to wash away the red-brown dust of the desert.

Pic 8 Grooming the horses at sunset

Ganab camp – Phoebe grooming the horses at sunset

Each evening Andrew gathers us around the fire saying ‘Dearly Beloved’ and outlines the plan for the following day. Each day is different and yet filled with the same magical ingredients of good company, incredible riding and thrilling gallops; the only thing that seems to remain the same is that “breakfast is at seven”! After a delicious two course meal we go to bed each night feeling nicely weary and drift off to sleep playing ‘join the dots’ with constellations or counting shooting stars in the amazing inky-black African sky.

Pic 9 night sky courtesy of Tony Marshall

The Namib night sky (image courtesy of Tony Marshall)

One day we are doing some LSD (Long Slow Distance – Andrew’s term for a steady canter) and Andrew stops us all, saying he can see something unusual ahead. So we approach slowly and to our disbelief, there in the middle of the day is an aardvark! He is so intent on his quest for termites that he seems oblivious to our presence and we sit and watch him for ten minutes or so. We edge closer and closer until finally he spots us and darts away in confusion.

PIC 10 Aardvark

An unusual sighting – an aardvark out in the daytime

Another day we are not far from camp and during a canter, our guide takes us on a winding route through bushes and low trees as the sun starts to fade. Before we know it we are out in open ground again and in front of us, as if by magic are three giraffe. What a wonderful sight to end another incredible day in the desert (although Coco is not a fan and is still snorting by the time we reach camp!).

PIC 11 Three giraffe

Spotting three giraffe – the perfect end to an incredible day

One day the group splits off into pairs and has ‘wacky races’ along vehicle tracks which make for perfect going. A day or so later we canter across grassy plains so vividly green after the calcrete plains we have just crossed and then we’re invited to let loose, whoop it up and let loose our inner cowboys as we set off at a roaring gallop. My horse Philip is wonderful and tries so hard, but he’s not the fastest horse in the world. We set off feeling good, galloping well, but are soon enveloped in a huge billow of dust as those with more impressive turns of speak streak past us. Quite literally streaking in the case of Ben, whose wardrobe seems to be in a permanent state of malfunction, shirt undone and chest showing!

On our longest riding day from Ganab to Marble Mountain, we ride 40km before lunch and our 20km afternoon ride is one of my most memorable. The entire late afternoon ride takes us along sandy plains of perfect going and we ride towards the sinking sun,  literally riding off into the sunset – magical. During a long canter, Joe who has been part of the ‘rear guard’ until now suddenly storms to the front of the group, taking most of the others with him and setting off an impromptu cavalry charge – whoops!

It is incredible to be cantering along in the remote Namib Desert hearing only your horse’s breathing and the beat of his canter. At one point the evening light and the dust begins playing tricks on me, making it look as though the horse in front is in fact cantering towards me – eerie.

Pic 12 riding into the sunset izzys pic

Riding into the sunset (image courtesy of Izzy Crane)

On Day 6 the landscape takes a dramatic change and ahead of us lies a real challenge; crossing the Kuiseb Canyon. It was here that geologists Hermann Korn and Henno Martin went into hiding during the Second Wold War, as told in the book ‘The Sheltering Desert’. We ride into the badlands where we have an amazing sighting of a magnificent lone zebra who is really intrigued by us. Then we make a technical descent down steep terraces leading our horses on foot.

PIC 13 Descending into the Kuiseb Canyon

Descending into the Kuiseb (image courtesy of Namibia Horse Safaris)

After watering the horses and a quick picnic lunch, it is time to begin our climb out of the canyon. From the base of the canyon the climb looks impossible, but the horses, guides and back-up team are incredible as they clamber across sheer rock and make light work of the steep, rocky ascent.

PIC 14 Karen and Sundown climb out of the Kuiseb Izzy's pic

Karen & Sundown climbing out of the Kuiseb (image courtesy of Izzy Crane)

We make it to Aruvlei our next camp by mid-afternoon, in plenty of time for a fabulous sun downer in celebration of surviving the Kuiseb.

Pic 15 Celebratory Sundowners after surviving the Kuiseb

Mariette & Gill – sundowners at Aruvlei

As our adventure begins to come to a close we make our way up the Swakop River, the energy seems to change and the horses are on edge a little. Perhaps they can sense their journey is almost over? We have wonderful canters along the dry riverbed and gaze up at the rock formations on either side.

PIC 16 Riding up the Swakop River

The Swakop River – riding towards civilisation

On the way to our last stop on the trail we pause for a break under the shade of a tree and notice that the ground underfoot looks like huge fish scales, crunching underfoot.

PIC 17 Fish scales Rebecca's pic

The Swakop riverbed looks like huge fish scales (image courtesy of Rebecca Hast)

Signs of civilisation begin to appear, a house, a fence, dogs barking; it seems so strange after having been isolated in the desert for ten days.

Our final ride is bittersweet, we’ve nearly done it, but we don’t want it to end. An idea circulates about heading north when we get to Swakopmund, riding up the coast to explore Damaraland and then on to Etosha, before turning south and heading back to Windhoek. Then having a little rest and doing some washing before riding south to see the Wild Horses and then on to explore the Fish River Canyon. What an adventure that would be…shall we start planning?!

As we ride towards Swakopmund we cross a railway and a few roads, before passing towering dunes and then we catch our first sight of the Atlantic Ocean. Our incredible Namibian adventure ends with a final thrilling gallop along the beach at Swakopmund, champagne corks popping as we reach the end of the beach.

It has been a wonderful ten days, full to the brim with adrenaline-fueled gallops, wonderful company, amazing food, ever-changing landscapes, dust, sunshine, and incredible game. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried and we’ve finally fulfilled our dream of crossing the Namib Desert. As Joe put it so eloquently in his thank you speech to Andrew and the team, “we’ve ridden like hell and eaten like horses”.

PIC18 We_ve done it

We did it – arriving into Swakopmund

So there it is, I’ve finally faced it and written my blog. I now have to write “The End” and admit that my adventure is over. But what will keep me going is the hope that one day I’ll return to the wide open plains of Namibia, where friends are made, challenges are met and the memories last until the call of the wilderness becomes too strong to resist.

The End

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As well as this adventurous ride crossing the Namib Desert, In The Saddle also features other challenging trail rides in Namibia including the Damara Elephant Safari, Desert Canyons Safari and Wolwedans to Wild Horses.

If you’d like to find out more about our Namibian rides, please contact Abbie on +44 1299 272 239 or email abigail@inthesaddle.com

Categories: Equestrian Travel, horse riding, Horses & riding, in the saddle, Riding expeditions, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, riding holidays namibia, Riding safaris | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wondrous Wait a Little

Africa does tend to seep into your veins, and often once you have visited this astonishing continent for the first time, it is almost like a poison in which you feel the need to go again and again – you just need to get yet another fix of her formidable sights, sounds and experiences.

Wait a Little in South Africa certainly lived up to my expectations and provided me with my African drug, whereby horses, game and laughter were overdosed on throughout the week.

In the space of 7 nights I ticked off each and every member of Africa’s Big 5, plus countless other game and bird species – and trust me when I say that there’s not many places where you can do that easily within one week, especially whilst on horseback.

My first encounter was with the lions, and whilst riding one evening past a dam we stood to watch the crocodiles and hippos in residence. “Oh hello there” announced Philip our guide for the week. We (the guests) were so busy chattering about the ducks upon the dam and musing as to how come the crocs weren’t eating them, that we had failed to notice initially just to whom Philip was referring to. As a collective we all looked into the direction of his comment to see four lionesses watching us watching them!

“Let’s take a closer look!” said Philip and off we went, all grouped tightly behind him. We slowly made our way towards these ladies. It was such an intoxicating feeling, I was scared, nervous but also daring, the result of Philips professionalism and experience with guiding over decades. Our bravery was rewarded with 30 minutes of my life alongside these formidable felines, and if I’m honest I not sure who was the more intrigued or who was studying whom.

me with lions

After a while these ladies decided to look at us from a slightly different angle, and so we shifted our positions too and were afforded a new view. I still can’t believe how close I was to them! But my picture tells a thousand tales…

me with lion

We bid farewell and rode home before the sun dropped out of the sky – taking on the African sunset en route with a victory gin and tonic (well it had to be done surely).

My second days adventures didn’t disappoint, and within 100 metres of camp we discovered lion tracks. Did these ladies come looking for us overnight? There’s a saying about curiosity and a cat isn’t there?

But it didn’t stop there as today we met with our second of Africa’s Big 5, the elephants.

This was a mixed herd of bulls and cows, and it was hysterical to watch one of the ladies tell us in ‘ellie talk’ to “go away please”. She did this through the universal language of throwing a stick at us! I do not lie, she literally picked up a stick and threw it at us. There was no misinterpreting her meaning, and you could feel her frustration when the horses stood like rocks, ignored the sticks and didn’t move away. She then became curious as to why her bullying hadn’t worked and gradually crept closer and closer, with her trunk extended tentatively trying to touch the horses – but not quite daring herself to do it.

elli from horses

During this week you stay at Wait a Little camp for the first three nights, then at Beacon rock where you sleep beside the horses under the stars, followed by two nights at the stunning Xidulu Lodge on the Makalali reserve before returning the the homely Wait a Little Camp for your last night.

It is a wonderful blend of experiences, and after spending the night around a camp fire, sleeping next to your trusty steed and reliving a night in the life of a missionary, it is a real treat to rock up the next day to Xidulu Lodge in the neighbouring Makalai reserve. This lodge is simply stunning and overlooks a dam complete with hippos and crocodiles. In fact within 10 minutes of being there we watched Mr Crocodile take his luncheon upon a poor unsuspecting bird at the waters edge.

Having indulged in my own lunch shortly afterwards, and then taken my afternoon ‘nap’ I woke to the astonishing sight of a leopard sitting on the edge of the dam just some 50 metres away. As we were about to take afternoon tea, followed by a game drive, I hotfooted it to our guide Patson, and excitedly told him of my sighting. Off we went in search of her, and luckily just some 10 minutes later we found her (or rather Patson did) with her fresh kill.

leopard with kill1

We were so close to this our third of Africa’s Big 5, and she wasn’t bothered by us in the slightest. After filling her belly, we watched her jump up into the tree right beside us and stash the remainder of her kill in the branches. There’s something very primative at seeing half an eaten antelope hanging from the branches, and apparently this lady had a litter of cubs to feed, so we assumed that this hoard of fresh meat was for them.

Leopard in tree

The next day we came across a first for me, the endangered black rhino on horseback.

We had seen two of them upon arrival at Makalali, but we had spooked them and they were running so fast through the bush at great speed, trampling everything in their path that I hadn’t time to get my camera out, in fact gripping my reins in terror was more the truth (just incase they changed direction and ran that fast at us)!

However today was my incredibly lucky day and I was so privileged to get so close to this staggering animal – Big 5 number four spotted. We all gazed in complete silence and with absolute respect at his colossal presence, and it is with a heavy heart that we have to accept that man is capable of such monstrous widespread acts against this giant creature. Thank the Lord for the guides, rangers and protectors of this animal, the work they do is priceless and above a figure of value. Their never-ending war and efforts against the poachers, and more importantly against the instigators of these violent crimes, is invaluable and they will win of that I am sure.

black rhino1

But my experiences go on and on….

close male lion

This Majestic fellow above and below was met upon our last sundowner ride of the week!

male lion with ears

And this herd of buffalo were met upon our last morning (completing the Big 5 tick list).

buffalo

Our final canter provided us with the everlasting memory of a giraffe cantering alongside with us….

giraffe

A final word has to be given to the praise of the Wait a Little horses. Such a well schooled, perfectly behaved, brave selection is to be found at their stables. There is an equine partner to match everybody, tall and short, fast and steady, grey, black or dun. But what they all have in common is that they are all really cool during the game sightings and stand like rocks, brave and fearless. My hero of the week was a chap called Monarch (2nd in from the right), whose nickname of “Bush Ferrari” was incredibly apt. He was an adorable and competitive character that wanted to get everywhere first, and carried me steadfastly all the way, that I didn’t have to worry at any moment in time about what we would happen to come across! I adored him and that is the truth (but please don’t repeat that to my mare at home).

I’ve been rambling on so much about the game, that I haven’t even mentioned what fun riding we enjoyed. We bush-wacked around acacia trees and through Wait a Little bushes, we galloped along sandy tracks and across even terrain, we blasted down the currently dry river beds… and not one horse put a hoof-oiled toe out of place! They are an absolute delight to ride, and at sundowners in the evening you can practically see your reflection in their gleaming coats. They are the wondrously wonderful!

group picture

Visiting Wait a Little is like home from home, everyone is so friendly, such fun to be around and my only criticism is that you will gain a few more laughter lines across your face during the course of your week.

So you would think that for the time being my hankering need for the drug of Africa has been abated, but actually thanks to this wonderful trip, it has put a greater fire in my belly which is yearning to return…. signed off for the time being (Sarah – In The Saddle.com)

 

Categories: Equestrian Travel, Horses & riding, in the saddle, in the saddle, Ride reviews, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, Riding safaris, riding south africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Big Adventures on the Big Rivers Ride

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.

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“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.

who is herding who

Who’s herding who?

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.

Expect the Unexpected

A river crossing at dusk – on an exploratory ride you have to expect the unexpected

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.

3 big red cropped

The handsome Big Red

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.

This is what life on safari should be all about, wonderful company, living close to the earth and time for those quiet moments alone, just you and your horse. Big River Safari, Caprivi,

What life on safari is all about…those quiet moments alone with your horse

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.

CROP 4 who needs gps anyway (thanks to Clare and Jenn Lawson)

Who needs GPS anyway? (Thanks to Clare and Jenn Lawson for the image)

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.

This is what life on safari should be all about, wonderful company, living close to the earth and time for those quiet moments alone, just you and your horse. Big River Safari, Caprivi,

Savouring the simple routine of camp life, with great company

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.

5 beautiful Namibia at daybreak

Beautiful Namibia at daybreak

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).

6 one of many water crossings

One of the many river crossings

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.

coming home at the end of the day 2 cropped

Walking the horses the final few hundred metres into camp at the end of the day

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.

horses enjoying a cool off

The horses enjoying a roll and a drink at the end of the day

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.

8 mackerel skies cropped

Beautiful mackerel skies

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).

Although hard to believe in the 21st century these locals have never seen a horse

Many of these villagers had never seen a horse before

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”.

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The wide open spaces are unforgettable.

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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

As well as the annual exploratory ride, In The Saddle offers a range of adventurous trail rides in Namibia guided by Andrew Gillies:

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 abigail@inthesaddle.com

 

Categories: Equestrian Travel, horse riding, Horses & riding, Riding expeditions, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, riding holidays namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching up on Kenya

We had a lovely visit yesterday from Gordie and Felicia Church. It was great to catch up on news from Kenya and plans for the safaris ahead.

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Gordie & Felicia visiting In The Saddle, Shropshire

Felicia told us all about their much-loved safari horses. As she talks about them her eyes sparkle; they are very much part of the family.

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The horses are fit and raring to go, ready for upcoming safaris.

The horses are turned out at night in 4000ha, which means they are completely unfazed by the wildlife such as buffalo, who share their grazing.

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Fearless in front of all kinds of game.

Their safari tents were already top of the range but Gordie told us they have been completely replaced for 2016 so any of you going on safari are in for a real treat.

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A riding safari with Gordie & Felicia is synonymous with a good dose of luxury!

We also learnt about the success of the Mara private conservancies which offer superb game sightings without the crowds associated with the Maasai Mara Reserve.

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Great game sighting, without the crowds sometimes associated with the Mara.

Gordie reminded us that every day, wherever you ride, you are riding amongst wildlife – whether or not you travel during the wildebeest migration.

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Fabulous game sightings each and every day.

Non-riders or those just wishing to take a break from riding have their own fully fitted safari vehicle with a professional guide and so have amazing opportunities for wildlife viewing and photography.

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See the wildlife from a different perspective.

There is still space on the 8 night safaris starting 11 July, 21 July and 18 September. Don’t forget that the Kenya safari price is all inclusive of internal flights, road transfers and all concession fees.

This truly is a wonderful place to ride. Looking forward to a great few safaris ahead!

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If you’d like to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact the office on 01299 272 997 or via email rides@inthesaddle.com

Categories: Equestrian Travel, Horseback safari in Kenya, in the saddle, riding holidays africa, Riding safaris | Leave a comment

Meerkats to Moonlight, in the Kalahari

The Kalahari makes you feel very small in the grand scheme of things as everything around you is larger than life and endless. The Makgadikadi Pans stretch out in front of you into infinity, and you would think you were on the surface of the moon except for the scorching desert heat – this magical space holds no sounds at all, no noise whatsoever – just the sound of the blood running through your own ears.

Yet despite being in such a magical and desolate space it is teeming with wildlife; here you see the zebra racing their own shadows during the golden African sunsets; here you meet the Meerkat families; here you learn desert survival skills from the indigenous Bushmen and follow in the same footsteps of missionaries such as Livingstone. Here you get to canter by moonlight on the white salt crusted plains underneath the black-velvet African sky studded stars;  here you enter the Africa of storybooks.

The great zebra migration

The great zebra migration

I have been in the Kalahari for just two hours and now I am sat in the saddle, just as the vast round orange sun is setting on the horizon watching a dazzle of zebra set off at a gallop, stirring up the dust as they go. But this is a really unusual sight, like an illusion. The sunlight mixed in with the airborne dust particles, meant that I was looking at zebra racing their own upright shadows. The dust had turned their shadows the correct way up, so it appeared as if the shadows were also zebra and running alongside them, overtaking them as they ran past us. I have never seen shadows do this before and it was a ‘goose bump’ moment, and probably never to be repeated, as it would be hard to replicate the light. Simply stunning! This perfect evening was rounded off by discovering a set of chairs and a drinks box. Toasting the zebra shadows with a sundowner overlooking the pans as the last of the light faded. What a perfect first impression to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in the Kalahari.

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My goosebump moment!

You stay at the delightful Camp Kalahari, with lovely spacious tents, poster beds and a vast oak dining table. The food is so delicious and plentiful it is a challenge to finish it all, so you certainly will not go hungry.

During the day it seems hotter here when compared to other African destinations, not sure why, maybe the white salt pans reflect the heat and sun, plus there is very little breeze to cool us down. But luckily we ride in the early morning when it is cooler, and are in the shade of the mid-day sun enjoying lunch by the time it gets really hot. The horses are a lovely bunch of well behaved and kind, generous souls. I was lucky enough to ride four of them during my stay and each horse was forward going and willing in his work. They were all incredibly sure footed over all terrain and I think that they enjoyed their gallops as much as we did.

Camp Kalahari

Camp Kalahari

Halfway through my stay we set off to Xau Xai fly camp. On the way we pass through quite different terrain to the Pans themselves, riding past woodlands and parkland with long open plains where we could gallop and push on a bit.

En route we stopped for a break at Chapmans Baobab, this is acknowledged to be one of the largest trees in Africa and could easily be seen from a great distance on the horizon.

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This is me riding proving I rode on the same path as some of histories great missionaries

Settling into the foundations of this famous tree, David Foot your guide for the week makes the tree come to life by retelling the tales of missionaries such as Livingstone and Chapman who had visited this tree, and their journeys through these parts. He conjures up images of the past by elaborating upon and retelling stories and experiences that their wives and children had to undergo during these arduous journeys by Ox cart across the Kalahari. He describes the hardships that they encountered over the years, all of which have been documented within their diaries at the time. He ends the tale with descriptions of their deaths during the journey, and the accuracy of his descriptions of how it must have been for them during these times brings a real sense of history to the ground you are riding upon.

Spot the human hiding...

Spot the human hiding…

At fly camp you get the chance to meet the Kalahari meerkats, and so with an early start you set off to find them. The ‘sleepy dust’ from your eyes is soon blown away as on the way we enjoy some great canters on the plains.

The meerkats are not quite awake yet, and we occasionally see one pop his head up above ground, look around, decide it is too cold and retreat back underground again. We only had to wait about 15 minutes and then the whole troop decides to emerge… they have babies too! A family of 9 in total, 4 babies and 5 adults.

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Imagine that the first thing you see in the morning is me! At least he didn’t run away…

We watch them stand upright to warm themselves, all facing the sun warming their bellies (like soldiers on parade) and then off they go never stopping, foraging for food along the way, each adult feeding the babies in turn. Such teamwork, the adults would dig up grubs and bugs etc. and then eat one themselves and the next was always without fail diligently passed to the babies. Each adult had a ‘kid’ to look after and their charge would follow them the whole way waiting for their treat.  We walk with them, watching them dig for food and feed. They cover a good distance and are habituated well so that they do not fear our human presence. You can get really close, and if you sit still long enough they will often climb up you and use your head as a lookout tower.

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Having spent the morning with the meerkats we decide to head onward with our horses to the Pans themselves. The surface at the edge of the Pans is perfect for a good blast and WE ARE OFF. Everyone fires off, and we are all flat out. My horse for the day is an older experienced gentleman, who is usually a quiet back up horse, and after about 20 metres he decided that a gallop is far too much effort and slows himself to a steady loping canter (I had been warned he would do this, so I didn’t expect him to win the race or keep up). Everyone disappears from view galloping into the distance, and I am left loping on my horse on my own in the middle of the pans. Utterly wonderful. In the middle of nowhere, empty as far as the eye can see, just emptiness and the sound of my hooves on the crusty salt in in a three beat stride. What a magical moment just loping quietly along,  never once worrying about where the others were or trying to speed up or slow down to trot, my boy just kept his steady pace and rhythm. When I caught up with the others still blowing from their gallop there were smiles all around, but I still believe I had the most secretive and enchanting moment out of us all.

Later after the heat of the day we set off for a quite ride with horses, onto the pans in the sunset. The silence of this area is so great that if you close your eyes you can hear only the sound of the blood in your ears and nothing else. There can not be many places left in the world without any ‘white noise’ at all. We wandered and stood, wandered a bit more, quietly meandering along into the pans salty surface.

It goes on and on and on, such a unique environment

It goes on and on and on, such a unique environment

By now the sun has set but we carry on into the dark, just looking at our very own moon shadows of our horses marching along. David points out various stars including Venus and Orions belt, which can all be seen so clearly. Towards the end of the ride we pick up a steady canter and in the moonlight we are just loping along quietly at the edge of the pans in the darkness of the night with the ground lit up by the moon, the cool air making a refreshing change to the heat of the day. It’s been a long but magical day, from Meerkats to moonlight.

David taking advantage of the African evening sunset, to get some piccies of my lovely ride for the week, General.

David taking advantage of the African evening sunset, to get some piccies of my lovely ride for the week, General.

On the last day I was lucky enough to meet the bushmen trackers of the Kalahari. This rural tribe took us for a bush walk and gave a very detailed insight into their survival techniques in this very harsh landscape and heat. They showed us how they hunt for scorpions, and clean the scorpions inside your own mouth to temporarily paralyse them. They talked us through the plants around us and how they use them for healing cuts, medicine, even which tubers to dig up for liquid quenching refreshment when no water can be found in the Kalahari. They show us how they set traps to catch birds for meat, and proudly talk about their lion encounters, showing us the scars on their bodies from arguing with a lion over who was to claim the carcass of a Kudu. The Bushmen won apparently.

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They also showed us their poisoned arrows from the guts of a worm larvae. This poison can only be collected in their spring, and can only be used once on an arrow, but is so strong it will kill anything.. Women and children are never allowed to touch the arrows, only the men, and I can understand why if they are that deadly.

I did ask how old the chief was and was told he was 98 years old. I don’t quite believe that, but then they probably don’t use a calenders and diaries or have birth certificates, so how would he know? Maybe that’s the answer to our age obsessed culture, not to count the years and to just live simply and happily gaining memories along the way. The Kalahari certainly gave me memories that will stay with me forever, a unique environment, that is surprisingly breathtaking!

Ostrich certainly can kick up the dust - they are seriously fast!

Ostrich certainly can kick up the dust – they are seriously fast!

If you want to find out more then call Sarah at In The Saddle on +44 (0) 1299 272 234 or email sarah@inthesaddle.com

 

Categories: Equestrian Travel, riding botswana, riding holidays africa, Riding safaris | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

News from Namibia

Preparations are well under way for the month-long Epic Safari in Namibia – the very first of its kind.

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The Namibia Horse Safaris team are busy preparing the 70 horses required for this incredible ride. Vehicles are already beginning to transport 45 tons of food, water and equipment in readiness. The horses will require some 28,000 litres of water during the safari – that’s a heck lot of water in a desert environment!

The Epic Safari route will run from Damaraland in the north to Lüderitz in the south.

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The first leg of the journey will include mystical Twyfelfontein with its famous rock engravings, the incredible landscapes of Damaraland home to desert-adapted elephant and the forbidding Skeleton Coast.

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Next the group will cross the oldest desert in the world, the Namib, from Swakopmund on the coast to the Namib Sand Sea of Sossusvlei.

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On the final leg of the trip riders will journey from the beautiful Wolwedans reserve, over wide open landscapes and remote plains until they reach the coastal town of Lüderitz. Here the adventure comes to an end.

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What an amazing sense of achievement the riders and guides will feel dismounting at the end of this Epic Safari having covered an amazing 1,000km on horseback!

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Will any other trip ever compare to this unique adventure? Memories of this Epic Safari are sure to last a lifetime.

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There is just 1 place remaining on this ultimate adventure. Are you intrepid enough to take up the challenge? If so, please contact Abigail@inthesaddle.com or call us on 01299 272 997.

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Categories: Equestrian Travel, Riding expeditions, riding holidays africa, riding holidays namibia | Leave a comment

News from Kujwana

Kujwana in the Okavango Delta is looking really amazing at the moment. Game is hiding around every corner and the landscape is vibrant shades of green after the rains.

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Kujwana main camp has seen many improvements over the last 12 months.

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A lovely new pool went in last year and there are now two gorgeous Riverside Suites for those who would like some added luxury.

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Some of the young horses have been out and about, getting used to their surroundings. These two homebreds, Bongo and Africa are doing really well with their training.

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There are many elements that make Kujwana special, but one of the things that really makes it stand out is that not only do guests stay at Kujwana main camp, but there is also the chance to go to Moklowane for a few nights as well. The long adventurous ride between camps with a sumptuous picnic lunch en route is an experience not to be missed. At Moklowane you stay in treehouse style accommodation with amazing views out over the Delta.

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Camp manager Duncan Over is working hard keeping things running smoothly. Many of you may have met Duncan at our Riding Holidays Show in December. You can read more about him here: Meet the Guides – Duncan Over.

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Categories: Equestrian Travel, Horses & riding, in the saddle, riding botswana, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, riding kujwana, Riding Okavango Delta, Riding safaris, Travel advice, Travel news | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Meet the Guides” at The Riding Holiday Show – Annie Waterer from Ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya

Continuing with our meet the guide blog, here you can read more about Annie’s life as a riding guide at Ol Donyo Lodge – you will be able to meet Annie at the Riding Holiday Show on 12 December 2015.

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1.    How long have you been guiding at Ol Donyo Lodge?

I have been in the beautiful Chyulu Hills for just over 2 years now.

2. here did you guide before this?

I started in the Maasai Mara straight out of University. It was a unique opportunity to work in one of the most diverse wildlife destinations in the world with a very experienced company.

3. How did you get into guiding? Was there someone who inspired you?

Accidentally! It was never something that was even on my radar until I arrived in Kenya and fell in love with its wildlife, scenery and people. Both my parents grew up in Kenya and my grandparents still live in Nairobi, so although my childhood was spent in sunny Suffolk it had a distinctly Kenyan theme. Riding safaris into the local forest were a regular event with sundowners on the estuary and “bundu bashing” through the bracken! Horses have always played a big part in my life – I started at Pony Club and competed in both Eventing and playing Polocrosse, until specialising in the latter in my mid-teens. Polocrosse is an up-and-coming  fantastic high speed horse sport that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to play all over the world. So the combination of horses and my passion for the natural world made the step in guiding actually a very simple one.

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4. If you hadn’t become a riding guide, what was your Plan B?

I studied Biological Sciences at Bristol and I was supposed to return from Kenya after a couple of months to start teacher training – as you can tell that never happened!

5. People coming on a riding holiday often think you have the ideal job – what do you love about it? And what are the downsides?

I love that the Acacia forests and the open plains are my office, that the traffic I encounter on my way to work is a browsing elephant on the road. And to be able to be there with guests and see their reaction when they experience some of the magic of this beautiful country and its wildlife for the first time.

It is not the kind of job that you can just walk away from and go on holiday without a care though. The responsibility for the horses health and well-being is solely mine and being in such a remote area with limited access to a vet, there is always some part of my mind that is on the job and worrying about something or other!

6. If your favourite horse was a human, who would he/she be and why?

Zulu, a 15hh grey Boerperd gelding. He knows what I’m thinking before I do!

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7. What can you not live without (when guiding or just generally)?

My camera, my dog Swala and a hot shower at the end of the day!

8.    What has been your most memorable riding holiday week?

It’s too hard to pin it down to just one, but I would say that any ride with one of the bull elephants in the area is special. When they know that you’re there and accept your presence, it’s a truly humbling experience.

9.    How do you relax after a day in the saddle?

Walks and sundowners with friends and the dogs.

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10.    What advice would you give a 21-year-old who wants to train for your job?

See the world outside your given box as much as possible, experience what you can and be interested in everything. Learn to talk to and find common ground with anyone! And do as much as veterinary work experience as possible.

11.    Where do you go on holiday?

I have the longest “to go to” list you have ever seen, and that’s currently still just Africa! I have a lot of exploring to do.

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Thank you Annie for some fantastic images and another amazing article. Olwen and the team look forward to seeing you in a few weeks’ time.

You can meet Annie from Ol Donyo Lodge at the Riding Holiday Show in London on 12 December 2015. Space at the venue is limited so you must obtain a ticket in advance. The event takes place at the Royal Overseas League in SW1 just off Piccadilly from 10 am to 6 pm.

38 different riding destinations will be represented at the Riding Holiday Show. All part of the In The Saddle portfolio of worldwide riding holidays.

Categories: Equestrian Travel, horse riding, Horseback safari in Kenya, Horses & riding, in the saddle, in the saddle, Riding at Ol Donyo Lodge, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, Riding safaris, The Riding Holiday Show, Travel advice, Travel news | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Meet the Guides” at The Riding Holiday Show – John Sobey from Macatoo, Botswana

Continuing with our meet the guide blogs here is another talented and popular guide, John Sobey from Macatoo –  you will be able to meet John at the Riding Holiday Show on 12 December 2015.

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1.    How long have you been guiding at Macatoo?    

We started Macatoo back in 1995, so it is over 20 years now.

2.    Where did you guide before this?

Before Macatoo I was based in Maun, Botswana doing mobile safaris (1993-95), as well as guiding in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia. I have also guided on horseback in Kenya and Tanzania.

3.    How did you get into guiding? Was there someone who inspired you?

For as long as I can remember I had always wanted to live and work in Africa, so guiding seemed to be the natural route to take.  Also I knew more about horses than cars so horseback guiding was really the only option for me! I first went to South Africa, but soon realised that Botswana was the only place offering the true wilderness that I was searching for.

4.    If you hadn’t become a riding guide, what was your Plan B?

I have no idea, there was no Plan B!

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5.    People coming on a riding holiday often think you have the ideal job – what do you love about it? And what are the downsides?

There really is so much that makes the job amazing, not least because guiding in the Okavango is always different, it’s never the same. High water, low water or no water, the seasonal variation is never-ending. That is why I came back to the Delta out of all the other locations. The down sides are you cannot watch enough rugby (but given England’s recent performance perhaps that’s a plus….?!).

6.    If your favourite horse was a human, who would he/she be and why?

My favourite horse was ‘Ambos’, a 16.3hh Hanoverian. He was an amazing powerhouse of a  horse but was the perfect, trusting lead horse. He would lead in to any problem without question. Who would he be if he was a human…that’s too tough a question to answer, but probably somebody brave!

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7.    What can you not live without (when guiding or just generally)?

I couldn’t live without the open spaces and the wilderness, it’s what I’ve become so used to now.

8.    What has been your most memorable riding holiday week?

There really are so many memories, its hard to choose. Galloping alongside a herd of giraffe and zebra with Sir  Mark Todd was not bad!

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9.    How do you relax after a day in the saddle?

With a book or newspaper back at my tent overlooking the floodplains.

10.    What advice would you give a 21-year-old who wants to train for your job?

I would say don’t think that it it’s going to be easy; there are no quick routes. You will have to be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up, but the end result will be worth it.

11.    Where do you go on holiday?

Holidays are few and far between, but where possible I try to get out to visit other camps and lodges in Botswana to learn more and get more ideas. After being out in the bush for long stints it’s also nice to just to relax and spend some time at home.

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Thank you John for some fantastic images and another amazing article. Olwen and the team look forward to seeing you in a few weeks’ time.

You can meet John from Macatoo at the Riding Holiday Show in London on 12 December 2015. Space at the venue is limited so you must obtain a ticket in advance. The event takes place at the Royal Overseas League in SW1 just off Piccadilly from 10 am to 6 pm.

38 different riding destinations will be represented at the Riding Holiday Show. All part of the In The Saddle portfolio of worldwide riding holidays.

Categories: Equestrian Safety, Equestrian Travel, horse riding, Horses & riding, in the saddle, Ride reviews, riding botswana, Riding expeditions, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, Riding Macatoo, Riding Okavango Delta, Riding safaris, The Riding Holiday Show, Travel advice, Travel news | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paradise in Mozambique – Africa, but not as you know it

In this feature, Kim Simkins tells us about her recent trip and why we should all be adding Mozambique to our bucket list.

Where are you going? Where is that and why on earth would you want to go there?

Those are the two questions I was most frequently asked when I merrily told everyone I had booked a riding holiday in Mozambique!

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I was desperate for sunshine and some serious relaxation before the worst of the Christmas and winter blues set in. Limited time and dates restricted my options somewhat. In The Saddle talked me through various options and I bit the bullet and booked ‘African Paradise’. I thought it unsuitable for my usual holiday partner in crime, as she had been ‘beached out’ on previous riding trips. However, she was feeling about as desperate as I was for a break and decided that she would join me anyway.

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So the two musketeers set off into the complete unknown without too many expectations, third world after all?! We tucked away the bottle of duty free gin in our bags, praying that just maybe they might have heard of tonic in such a far flung and remote place!

We laughed as the pilot announced the weather was warm but raining. We decided that it really didn’t matter and we were going to enjoy ourselves regardless! The tiny airport at Vilanculos gave us our first insight into African philosophy, i.e.  how many men and how long it takes to stamp a passport! It was great to eventually get through somewhat dishevelled and exhausted and to be met by a warm and friendly whirlwind in the form of Mandy Retzlaff!

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We were whisked away and driven to a lovely lunch at Archipelago Lodge, a wonderful setting, overlooking the beach, palm trees and azure blue sea. We felt a little guilty that we had eaten the awful airline sandwich, and didn’t feel we could do lunch justice! A lovely cool drink and a refreshing sea breeze suddenly made us feel human again. We were swiftly  taken to our wonderful lodge to freshen up before meeting the horses, the stars of the show.

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Rachel had read  Mandy’s book ‘104 Horses’, the incredible story of how Mandy and Pat Retzlaff had been forced out from their farm in Zimbabwe and had rescued their horses and set up a new life as a safari business but with countless hardships and disasters along the way. It was humbling to meet such wonderful people who had been through such awful experiences and yet maintained their boundless enthusiasm for people, horses and life in general!

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The yard was buzzing with activity, horses tied up, beautifully groomed, and saddles lined up at the ready. We were the only residential guests for the week and we were introduced to various horses who Pat thought would fit our requirements. He explained their characters and we were given the choice of who we wanted to try. ‘If you don’t like one, we can try another, and what sort of saddle and reins do you like?!’ Really, now that’s new on us, and we have done a lot of these trips!

So we climbed aboard the skylarks, I got a very cheeky and characterful little horse called Brutus who thought he would just test me out for size and then decided that as I could ride, he would agree to my demands – and proved to be an absolute gem through the week! Rachel settled on Black Magic and we tested out our steering and brakes in the school before setting off on our first ride to the beach, accompanied by Pat and Donna (one of the volunteers).

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The tide was high but there was still enough beach to follow the edge of the tide line and admire the lovely white sand, countless small fishing boats and lots of birds. We had a leisurely test ride enjoying the wonderful sound of the waves lapping on the shore, and feeling the wind in our faces as the light gently faded and we splashed along the waters edge in the dark. The long flight now seemed forever ago and we were caught completely in the moment.

After a good night’s sleep, I was woken by the dawn chorus of the kingfisher in the tree outside. I watched a fantastic sunrise and the parade of local women balancing baskets on theirs heads as they walked along the beach; the men setting off on their fishing trips out to the sand banks on their dhows. The sound of people singing drifted up as they pulled in their nets and paddled their boats past the bottom of the garden.

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After a sumptuous breakfast, we set off in high spirits under blue skies and African sun on our first adventure riding to the Red Dune. The  tide was out and a glorious beach stretched out in an endless expanse all the way to the horizon. The horses were full of enthusiasm but not at all silly and the hard sand was perfect for some fabulous extended gallops along the beach, side by side. There was such a wonderful sense of space, emptiness and freedom, more than I have experienced anywhere else (and I have ridden all round the world). Our only instructions were to stick to the hard sand for the sake of the horses legs and to avoid ropes and anchors in the areas with boats. ‘Stop when you reach the blue boat you can just see in the distance and I will catch you up’, said Pat. Fishermen were dotted at intervals along the beaches, painting and maintaining their boats which were high and dry until the next tide, they glanced up and waved as we went by.

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The bird life was amazing, especially busy at the waters edge. Flocks of sandpipers, whimbrels, egrets and cormorants took off en masse as we splashed through the puddles of water left amongst the wave rippled sand. The colour of the sky and the clouds was reflected like a mirror in the pools and the mud crabs scurried for cover into their holes as hooves thundered by.

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We were met at lunch by our ground crew and the horses were given a well earned break whilst Mandy refreshed us with re-hydrating coconut water and then force-fed us more amazing seafood than we could ever have dreamt of eating in one sitting, all washed down with the wonderful Casal Garcia, a semi-sparkling white wine. Wondering how we would ever manage to get back on a horse after such a large lunch, we were helped back into the saddle and galloped on to the amazing orange Red Dune! A steep canter up the shifting sand dune was rewarded with a stupendous view of the whole area, sea and sand banks. The colour of the water and sand spits was amazing and gave you a whole new perspective than that down at sea level. It was almost a disappointment to have to leave the viewpoint to ride back along the beach.

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Time for a swim in the pool in the afternoon and a swift gin and tonic (yes Mandy had found us tonic!) before dinner and an amazing and sociable evening dining with Mandy, Pat, their friends and volunteer. A great board game afterwards, lots of laughter and swapping of stories and talk of the rest of the weeks plans, finished off by a glass of wine on our verandah and a bar of Dairy Milk (Mandy, you really are amazing, you think of everything!) What a wonderful end to a perfect day!

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The rest of the week was a delightful series of varied beach and inland rides, visits to the local markets and fishing villages. Mandy and Pat are walking encyclopedias, so knowledgeable about the history, culture, flora and fauna of the region. We had a lovely authentic lunch cooked in the fishing village with its thatched huts and bright red flamboyant tree. Then we watched the children sing and dance for us before giving out pens, pencils and books. Their excited faces and smiles were so worth the ride out there. The horses were also very happy as they love the fresh coconut pieces and refuse to leave until they have all gone,  Brutus was in seventh heaven, his ears were so pricked, it was untrue and I was mugged until my pocket was empty!

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Visiting the other islands in the archipelago was amazing, stunning empty white sandy beaches reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe. Pink shore crabs patrolling the surf, wonderful snorkelling with multi coloured fish and beautiful sand dunes towering above a thousand shades of blue water. The view from the top of the dune on Bazaruto was a breathtaking 360 degree panorama and well worth the climb. The ride on Benguerra was quite different from the mainland, although Tequila didn’t quite manage to steal my heart like Brutus had!

The canoe trip along the river was wonderful, sitting back and being paddled amongst the purple water lilies on flat calm water, the peace broken only by the flapping of herons and other waterfowl that we disturbed! A lovely glass of chilled white wine whilst watching the setting of the sun, was amazing but the paddle home in the dark with the fireflies flitting overhead and glowing like little fairy lights actually made me cry! It was magical and emotional and a memory that will stay with me forever.

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Mandy and Pat are some of the most gracious and wonderful hosts we have ever come across, nothing was too much trouble. Their passion and enthusiasm despite the hardship is inspiring and they showed us an Africa that we never new existed, beautiful in its own way but real (warts and all). Food and accommodation could not be faulted, third world it most certainly was not. However you need to go with an open mind, a sense of humour and a willingness to let go of our obsession with time. Love it for what it is!

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The horses are the key to the whole story here, they were wonderful and gave us everything we asked for and so much more. The Retzlaff’s made us so welcome, we came home completely relaxed and rested. Mozambique was the perfect remedy and we have vowed to return! Anyone who doubts the merits of this wonderful country should think again and give it a go, I am sure Mandy and Pat would love to share it with you and I am sure you will be as captivated as we were!

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