The horses with a herd of buffalo

We weave our way through a dense thicket. Unbroken spiders’ webs, knitted between tangles of acacia, sparkle with last night’s dew. My bare arms prickle with goose pimples in the morning chill. The horses scramble through a gap in the thorn scrub, and we emerge onto an open plain. A foot of dispersing mist hovers pink above the long grass. We burst into a wheeling gallop. Three giraffes scatter. For a few minutes we lollop alongside them, butterflies exhaled skyward as we force dew-damp breaths out of the grass.

Okavango Horse Safaris, founded in 1986, proudly bears the title of “the first riding safari company in Southern Africa”. Things started out a little less precisely. PJ and Barney Bestelink, a Namibian geologist and British diplomat’s daughter respectively, met while they were working in Northern Botswana. “You won’t be rich, but it will be exciting,” PJ told Barney as they began their life together. The pair started guiding small groups of guests on horseback through the Okavango Delta. Safaris were basic: makeshift tents; roll mats and stints on lion-watch at night. Thirty years later, their way of life has, in the words of PJ, become “a bloody business.” 

Safaris are split between two camps. A third fly-camp runs in the high season. Tents at the main camp stand on wooden decking and contain a solar-heated shower; beds; wardrobe and a simple desk.  A small swimming pool, the shape of a kidney bean, overlooks an open stretch of grass where Barney’s 60-strong herd of horses graze in the afternoon. Kujwana camp is a five hour drive from Maun airport. Most of the journey is spent bumping and weaving off-road through the remote, and entirely unspoilt, Okavango Delta. 

The delta, which has recently gained World Heritage Site Status, comprises 15,000 ha of rolling floodplains. The Okavango River rises in the Angolan highlands and flows southeast into the Kalahari. Here, it hits a wall of sand forcing the river to fan out into watery fingers. When the floodwaters arrive in late April, they create a lush, water-wilderness of papyrus swamps, shallow reed-beds and floodplains, interspersed with islands.  The flood peaks in June to July, attracting wildlife in vast quantities. Lechwe antelope populate the river banks and huge numbers of birds follow the flow, feeding on crustacean and insects thrown up by the flood.

I stay before the waters arrive. Riding out on our first morning, mounted on the steady Komatsu, I realise, with or without the floodwaters, the delta has a wild, pinch-yourself beauty unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s also an entirely different safari experience. With our human scent masked by an equine one, we ride right up to an enormous herd of curious buffalo. We approach elephant to within metres and pursue a honey badger at a gallop. Eventually, it spins around, livid, and cackles at us. The usual ‘clickety-click’ of a jeep-load of camera shutters is absent. With only a small saddle bag, there’s little space for a camera. Attempting to wield one along with a pair of reins proves tricky. I give up and try to take it all in. 


The day starts at 5.45am with a gentle call of ‘knock, knock’ and a flask of hot water left outside of the tent.  I get up, stir granulated coffee into a mug and get back into bed. Pure, childish excitement bubbles in my stomach. I wonder if this feeling is a throwback to being so pony-mad as a child that I papered my walls with the pages of Horse & Pony magazine and got the runs before watching the Grand National. Flicking through the guest book, I discover several references to that childlike morning feeling. Waking up with a full day of adventure ahead is exciting. It’s as simple as that.

At the wilder Moklowane camp, a day’s ride away, we sleep in open-fronted tents, raised two metres above the ground on wooden stilts. The branches of a lead wood tree curl around my balcony. Waking up in the pitch black of the African dawn, I watch orange tendrils creep blearily across the sky from my bed, weird tasting coffee mingling with excitement. We leave camp early and ride for around five hours. We break to rest the horses and eat melted One Bars and apples in the shade. We return by midday to peel off sticky jodhpurs and escape the rising heat. In the afternoon we scramble into the jeep or don trainers and walk, single-file, behind the knowledgeable Percy through the bush. Had the water been up, we’d have wound our way amongst the lily pads in a wooden canoe. We stop for sundowners and return, glowing and hazy with gin, to sit around the smoky camp fire before dinner.   

On the all-day rides to and from Moklowane, we arrive in a clearing at noon. A bush picnic has been laid out on wood topped tables beneath the trees. We eat quiche and cold baked beans and then stretch out on camp beds in the shade of a fever tree. We ride late in the afternoon and reach camp as the sky purples into evening. The disappearing sun turns the grass the colour of marmalade. This lovely routine becomes all that matters. I fall in love with my horse, Mabowa. A bright bay home-bred who grew, unexpectedly, to 18 hands. His name, meaning mushroom, refers to his growth spurt.

A Sunset Ride

I talk horses avidly with Barney. She tells me about buying ex-race horses from Zimbabwe. We discuss Arabians, American Saddle bred crosses and boerperds. Barney knows every one of her 60 beautiful horses down to the last detail. Sitting around the dinner table one night, Percy recounts the tale of a disconsolate elephant, christened ‘the washing machine.’ Crying with laughter, I look across the tablet and see PJ. The tears of mirth in his eyes catch in the candlelight. He must have heard that story hundreds of times, I think. Yet it’s still funny. Laughter here comes easily.  It’s not all floating about on a haze of joy. Idyllic as it is. An afternoon spent flicking through Barney’s annual newsletters is enough to convince me of that. Tales of hungry prides of lion, angry hippo, bush fires and equine illness highlight the sheer unpredictability of life in the wild. 

One baking hot afternoon we’re charged by an elephant. The tetchy pachyderm is guarding a waterhole hemmed by papyrus reeds. We ride too close. It storms toward us in a cloud of amber dust, bellowing. Its trunk is raised in fury, its tusks extended.  Once horses and riders have returned from the various locations to which we have galloped, we carry on, breezily. I get the impression this happens quite often. 

The African wilderness, someone once told me, is always full of hope. Hope because, out in the bush, you never know what will happen. Expectation waits on every corner. Excitement dances across the plains.  I find myself musing on this as we spend an evening by the hippo pool. We sit on canvas chairs, arranged in a half-crescent, and watch the burning sun fall into the water. We drink Gin & Tonic. The sky turns apricot. The water is the colour of dusty-pink roses. It’s so peachy-perfect it’s enough to make you weep.  Later, as we eat apple crumble by candlelight under the stars, a fat, irritated hippo lumbers out of the gloom. You’re not supposed to get in between a hippo and water. Luckily, the bulbous beast is so surprised to find a dining table bedecked with silver cutlery blocking its path that it lurches to a halt. Percy, equally surprised, leaps, with a yell, into action. The hippo rushes past and crashes into the water. There it stays, exhaling its anger in a series of loud grunts. “I hear a bloody hippo nearly ran into your supper,” says PJ the next morning. Now, that’s hope. 

Elephant; Herd Of Zebra; Fighting Hippos; Herd of Impalas

PRICES: From £480 per person per night, fully inclusive. Road or boat transfer from Maun to Kujwane, £100 pp; helicopter Maun to Kujwane, £280pp each way.
CONTACT: Tel: (+267) 686 1671, email: okavangohorse.com
NEAREST AIRPORT:  Maun (British Airways and South African Airways fly Heathrow to Johannesburg, South Africa. Air Botswana or South African Airways fly Johannesburg to Maun)




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