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

Spotlight - - TRAVEL -

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.

Buf­falo ahead

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.

A cool-down

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

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