Safari on horseback
Nashörner, Antilopen, Hyänen und Paviane bekommt man in Südafrika auf einer Safari der ganz besonderen Art zu sehen – vom Rücken eines Pferdes. Von LOIS HOYAL
ADVANCED AUDIO PLUS
Do you remember that scene near the beginning of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park, when giant, long-necked brachiosaurus peacefully graze on the top leaves of a tree, much to their onlookers’ surprise? I am reliving that scene right now. Of course, there isn’t a dinosaur in sight. But directly in front of me stands a herd of huge, graceful and mind-blowingly beautiful giraffes happily chewing away on some treetops. My mouth falls open. I am speechless with wonder.
The giraffes stand among the trees in front of us, happy in their herd and busy grazing. We move closer to watch them enjoy their morning feed.
The largest giraffe, clearly the dominant male, throws a questioning look in our direction. We must meet with his approval or aren’t considered a threat, for no matter how close we are, he simply returns to the more important business of chewing his cud.
Mixed in among these elegant creatures is a small herd of zebra, including a foal, already showing the distinctive black and white markings. I am here with my own little herd: my husband, Barnaby, and my two daughters, Eleri, 11 years old, and Aeronwy, nine. For the next week, our knowledgeable guide, Moses Skosana, will be leading us around the African bush on horseback.
Feathering our nest
We’re a long way from home: in the Waterberg, a UNESCO biosphere reserve in northern South Africa’s Limpopo Province. We’re spending five days at Ant’s Nest, a luxurious bush camp in a 12,500acre private game reserve that is rich in wildlife. Here, 90 horses live alongside the wild animals, including rhino, buffalo, leopard, wildebeest, mongoose, baboon, jackal, aardvark, hyena, porcupine, impala and what seem like every type of antelope known to man, including rare Livingstone eland and sable. Elephants and lions are excluded, Moses tells me, as these could be dangerous for horse and rider. Too right, I think to myself.
It’s our first full day and we are still getting used to the heat, the expansive landscape and the sheer wildness and otherness of it all. For the animals, though, this area of harsh beauty is home. Luckily, the horses here don’t spook when they encounter other animals. And the wildlife recognizes you only as a harmless horse, not as a horse and rider, when on horseback, Moses explains. This allows you to observe the wildlife from up close.
“It’s not a good idea to stand up in your stirrups or wave your arms about, though,” Moses tells me, and I’m happy to take his word for it.
After walking for a long time, we increase the tempo. “Are you ready for some yee-haw?” shouts Moses, as his horse breaks into a canter. My horse, Tongabeze, whom I call Tongababy, also begins a steady canter, not even slowing when a herd of zebra crosses the track in front of us. “Zebra crossing!” jokes Aeronwy.
Never have I cantered for so long, around bends, up hills, red dust flying up from the horses’ hooves the entire time. Brightly coloured birds fly overhead: there are some 300 varieties in the reserve.
After an energetic five kilometres, we slow down to a walk again. Tongabeze nickers quietly as we leave the track and ride into the heart of the bush. The local bushveld, an area made up of low thorn trees and bush, has acacia and baobab trees as well as thorny shrubs.
“Watch out you don’t get any African tattoos,” calls out Moses, referring to the thorns around us, ready to scratch. Tongabeze, looking around, pricks his ears and turns his head in the other direction. Moses thinks there might be animals up ahead, so we change course. As we make our way among the thick shrubs, Moses shows off his knowledge of local plants.
“Crush and smell,” Moses tells us, as he hands us various leaves, such as wild mint and lavender.
He shows us how to put together an essential bush survival kit: leaves to clean our teeth with, thorns to be used as toothpicks, leaves to wash with, raisin-like fruits to enjoy and leaves to eat when we have an upset stomach. I try to memorize a few, although I’m sure that if I ever got lost in the bush, I would be hopeless.
Tongabeze’s ears prick again. Soon, we see why. Up ahead, buffalo are giving us the evil eye. I look at their bulk and curved horns and realize these are not animals to mess with. Moses says we need to keep a respectful distance. We move slowly along until they run off, surprisingly fast and agile for their size.
After this sighting, “it’s time for some more yee-haw,” Moses decides. We canter off along the dusty track at high speed until Aeronwy’s horse tries to overtake Moses and his mount. I have visions of my youngest daughter disappearing into the bush by herself. Thankfully, Moses immediately slows us down to a walk. He makes sure we’re in a single file and have our horses under control before giving the sign for another canter.
We put on the brakes once more and take a breather. With loose reins, we walk on slowly as Moses shows us botanical points of interest. We learn to distinguish animal tracks from each other: the inverted heart shape of the impala; the dog-like print of the hyena; the small hand-like track of the baboon and the huge, heavy, three-pronged hoof of the rhino.
We also learn that there’s more to dung than meets the eye. We watch dung beetles busily roll balls of dung a dozen times their size across the track: these will be buried and used as food. We stop at a pile of rhino dung, which serves as a communal rhinoceros toilet site. The reserve is also a conservation site for white rhino, which are threatened with extinction. We learn that rhinos communicate with each other by using chemicals in their dung, informing their fellows about a rhino’s age, gender and whether it’s ready to mate. Who needs social media?
Moses reports that some of the rhino dung appears to be fresh. Excited, we follow the rhino tracks until we’re rewarded with the sight of rhino grazing. Their armoured bodies and upturned horns make them look like they have been shipped here from a time long ago. More dinosaurs, I think to myself. I keep a respectful distance from rhino mum and daughter, but Tongabeze pulls his head down to graze, unimpressed by these proud beasts.
My heart is still beating wildly as we pull away and head towards the lake, the final destination of our ride today. But just before we get there, Tongabeze starts to tense and snort. After his calm reaction to the rhino, I panic about what could lie ahead. A leopard? Or a venomous snake? I get off my horse and, with shaky legs, I lead Tongabeze towards the other horses, riders and guides at the lake. Tongabeze snorts again. I am by now officially scared.
My fear soon turns to laughter when I see what my otherwise fearless horse is scared of: a plastic washing basket and a flowery-patterned bag. These don’t belong here, and in my horse’s eyes, appear more dangerous than an adult rhino protecting her young.
The basket and bag serve a good purpose, though — they contain towels and a change of clothes for our swim today. Like us, the horses need to cool down, so the idea is to swim bareback on them. After a quick change of clothes, Barnaby walks purposefully into the lake on a horse that loves water. Eleri rides a horse waist deep into the water and swims around. Aeronwy also manages well, smiling in delight. It’s my turn. One of the guides, nicknamed “V”, helps me up. “Either he’ll want to go in or he won’t. It depends on the day,” V tells me of his favourite horse.
This is definitely an off day. My horse circles around and around as I try to lead him deeper into the water. It’s difficult not to slide off. V takes the reins and helps me until the horse swims for a short while. “That’s it, though. I’ve done my job for the
day,” the horse seems to think, and heads back to dry land. Even so, I’ve done it: another one to tick off the bucket list.
At least there aren’t any crocodiles in this lake, unlike the next one we visit. This time, I’m riding on Zulu, the head of the herd, and “a legend”, I’m told. Sure enough, Zulu is relaxed, sure-footed and so competent that I can literally sit back and enjoy the ride. Zulu draws the line at crocodiles, though. He observes two baby crocodiles partly hidden underwater and remains where he is. I like baby animals, but I don’t trust these two, either.
The crocodiles belong to Craig Robinson, one of the managers at Ant’s Hill, the sister lodge to Ant’s Nest where we’ve moved for the next four nights. The young crocodiles have recently escaped, but Craig promises to catch them soon and take them home. “Otherwise, swimming with the horses would no longer be on the agenda,” he says.
Room with a view
Ant’s Hill sits spectacularly on the edge of a cliff, and the vista of the Waterberg wilderness stretches on forever. We see monkeys at play in the trees and a giraffe in the distance eating a leafy meal. Snakes and lizards run in and out of the rocks, which no doubt appeals to Craig, a reptile expert and enthusiast.
Much to the girls’ delight, Craig offers guests a snake and reptile talk one afternoon. I must admit that I’m scared of snakes. That said, Craig’s informative talk encourages even me to touch a python and cautiously observe a boomslang. When he gets out a puff adder, though, I instinctively pull away. The girls meanwhile happily handle snakes longer than they are, although they’re allowed to get close only to the non-venomous ones.
Craig is knowledgeable not just about snakes. He also has encyclopedic knowledge of other wildlife, which he happily shares with us. We join him to find out about Ant’s sable antelope breeding project, which, after starting with a small number in 2001, has developed into a well-established herd. We watch as the team move young sable antelope bulls to another enclosure. The idea is to prevent fighting and inbreeding, and to protect these handsome endangered animals.
Paul Huber, the resident vet, darts young bulls one at a time from the front seat of our 4 x 4 vehicle. This, he tells me, is less stressful for the antelopes than being caught in nets. Once the bull is down, Craig places protective covers over its scimitar-shaped horns and holds it down. It’s not out for long, getting back to its feet minutes after being transported to another area of the reserve. Paul’s wife, who manages the sable conservation programme, measures the horns and helps her husband give the animals deworming and anti-tick medication. The couple’s baby watches, balanced on her mum’s hip or from her car seat.
It’s just another day in a world that is so different from ours, but somehow quickly feels like home. Our riding safari could be called a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I don’t see it that way: I know I will come back as soon as I can.
A rare site: rhino on the track, directly in front of the horses