The Limpopo Valley, Botswana, July 2011

Part 6

Having had a fabulous week of lodges, tented camps and safaris by vehicle, now it was time for the highlight of the trip.  We were going on a seven night mobile safari, riding through the African bushveld with the Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris.  We would cover most of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, riding horses to places that vehicles could not go.  On the Tuli Safari, we would camp in a different place every night, and travel about twenty miles each day.  We had really been looking forward to this portion of the trip, and could hardly wait to get started.
On arrival at Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris, we were greeted by Louise, who owns the business (along with her husband Cor), and by the stable manager Saskia, a friendly blond woman from Germany.  Getting there mid-day, we learned that they had been expecting us much earlier; apparently there had been a scheduling miscommunication, but we were really glad we hadn’t missed the morning drive.      
Before long the other guests arrived, a French family.  Pierre and Chantal seemed very nice, but did not speak very much English.  They were accompanied by their daughter Pauline, who was 23.  She spoke excellent English, and was very outgoing and friendly, with a great sense of humor.  We learned that it was to be just the five of us guests on the riding trip, along with the staff.
There was a boma, right by the high bank of the Limpopo River, where lunch was served.  Having just had brunch before coming we were not really hungry, but somehow we managed to eat again.  Then we stood by the riverbank, looking down at the Limpopo for crocodiles, and watching the birds in the huge tree by the boma – a green pigeon was nestled amid branches.


      Leaving our luggage to be transported to camp by truck, we went along to the stables to meet our horses.  They had a big open stable with no side walls, very airy, with fans for the horses.  The paddocks had fences over 12 feet high with electric wires on top, to keep the lions out.  There were schooling rings, with dressage letters and jumps.  
Saskia showed us around; her true love of the horses and the African bush was immediately evident.  We met our guide for the trip, West, and Mooshi, the backup guide.  Both were from the Limpopo area, and they were very friendly.  Upon learning where we were from, West sang Almost heaven, West Virginia . . . apparently this is a well-known song in Botswana.  The horses were of a variety of breeds and sizes, from large Draft crosses to the small hardy Boerppherd horses from South Africa.  All of them were in good flesh and looked well cared for.  
Saskia introduced us to our horses; mine was a big 17 hand bay Thoroughbred/ Shire cross named Lancelot, nine years old.  Jineen’s was a smaller 15 year old chestnut called Roscoe.  We all mounted up and rode out through the gates, walking quietly across the flat plain near the river.  West led the group on a big bay draft cross, and Mooshi brought up the rear riding an attractive grey.  Saskia rode a flighty bay that she was bringing on the trip for training.  Louise rode out with us as well.
After about half an hour, we stopped for the riding test.  We had been assured when we signed up for the trip that it was only for experienced riders, and we had filled out an extensive survey on our riding ability.  The test was to be sure we could handle the horses at speed in the open, which was important for safety when riding in the bush and encountering potentially dangerous animals.  West instructed us to individually ride a huge triangle:  We were to canter straight away from the group, then turn left and gallop faster on the second side, and then turn back and return to the group at a collected canter.  Mushi demonstrated, riding a triangle of several hundred meters.  The horses were beautifully schooled and we all completed the task with ease.  Pierre was the least experienced rider of the group, but he was athletic and suitably mounted, and passed the test with no trouble.

     We rode across the bushveld – it felt good to be on the back of a horse after a week without riding, and Lancelot was very responsive.  We alternated between a sedate walk and a lively canter; never trotting at all.  This surprised us, but Saskia explained that with the range of rider proficiency on these trips, cantering tends to be easier on both the horses and the riders than trotting. 
The first thing we noticed was how much closer we were to the thorn bushes now.  Care had to be taken to avoid them, and by the end of the week my riding breeches were somewhat worse for the encounters.  The area we were crossing was dry and barren, and though we were paralleling the Limpopo River, we were not close enough to see it.  Every time we cantered the horses’ hooves sent up great clouds of dust, which caused Lancelot to cough.  The sun, getting low in the sky, cast long shadows of the horses and riders as we rode along the top of a reservoir dam, waterless now in the dry season.


      It was Pauline’s first time to Africa, and this was her first day in the bush.  She was bubbling over with delight, her effervescent personality shining through.  ‘Whhaaaa!’ she would exclaim excitedly at every animal sighting, seemingly the French equivalent of ‘Wow!’
A hornbill landed on a nearby branch.  “Ah, Zazu!” Pauline exclaimed.  Most of her knowledge of the African bush seemed to be based on watching the movie The Lion King.


     Here and there a wildebeest rested in the shade, along with a scattering of impala.  A few zebra watched us go by, and we saw a pair of ostriches.  We passed a troop of baboons, who called out raucously as we went by.  Several warthogs wandered among the sparse bushes – Pauline was excited about encountering another Lion King character, “Whhaaa!  It’s Pumbaa!”  A kori bustard was flying; it was the first one we had seen off the ground, surprisingly graceful in flight.
After riding for about two hours, we were nearing Two Mashatus Camp, where we would be staying for the night.  We were having a nice long canter when we came up suddenly behind a herd of elephants, spooking them and inadvertently chasing them right through the camp.

     Our home for the night was Two Mashatus, a semi-permanent camp among the trees near the river.  A small open-sided, thatch- roofed rondoval with table and chairs provided the dining area, and another furnished with sofas and a bar served as the lounge.  Two huge Mashatu trees towered over the camp (hence the name), their spreading branches offering shade and shelter.  A large termite hill stood at the base of one of them, almost as tall as the rondoval roof.  A campfire burned in the clearing in front of the dining area.


      A small path through the trees led to the tents, which were set on sturdy wooden platforms, several steps above the ground.  Our tent was very comfortable; big enough for two beds and nightstands.  It had a little verandah out front, and a bathroom with running water in the back. The water was from a borehole (well), and we were told it was safe to drink; we did so with some trepidation but no ill effects.  The tent platforms were permanent, but the tents themselves, along with the beds, toilets, tables, chairs, and all the furniture from the rondovals, were completely packed up after each use, and taken on to the next campsite.
As we rode into camp and dismounted, we were met by the grooms.  We helped them untack, and then let the horses roll in the sand.  The horses were then tied to a picket line, where water buckets and full hay nets awaited them.  We had Sundowners drinks in the lounge.

     The staff for the ride consisted of our guide West, the back-up guide Mooshi, three grooms, one truck driver (who also helped around camp), our cooks Grace and Martha, and Saskia, who would be riding with us.  Pretty good ratio; nine staff to take care of five guests!
We learned that the horses would be tied to a rope line or to trees each night, and a portable electric fence would be set up around them, run off of a solar powered battery.  This is not to keep the horses in, but to keep the lions out!  A campfire is kept burning near the horses all night.  The guides and grooms take turns on night watch in one hour shifts, sitting by the fire and making rounds with a flashlight every 15 minutes. 

     We had an excellent dinner in the rondoval, and were given a short briefing.  They emphasized the main rule:  Whatever happens, whatever you hear, don’t go out of your tent at night!  The staff, on the other hand, sleeps in beds out in the open near the horses, outside of the electric fence, unprotected.  Saskia told us that a few nights earlier she had woken in the morning to find fresh hyena tracks all around her bed; after that she had taken to sleeping on top of the truck.
We were also told that we should not wander around camp on our own during the daytime, because lions, leopards and elephants often come into camp.  Saskia said that they had left large hay rolls here for the horses the week before, but the elephants had eaten them.
West escorted us to our tent after dinner.  Although it was warmer than it had been on previous evenings, we were still happy to find hot water bottles in our beds.  We went to sleep listening to the soft ‘whoop, whoop’ of a hyena calling in the night.

July 18 
One of the staff woke us at 5:30, bearing cups of tea.  We had listened to the animal noises throughout the night.  The hyena had come much closer, his inquisitive rising-pitched whoops seeming to come from just outside the tent.  We had heard the high-pitched yipping of a jackal serenading the stars – or perhaps calling the hyenas.  We heard the harsh barking call of a bushbuck – it sounded like something much larger and fiercer.  At dawn a loud aggressive clamor of raucous voices signaled the start of the baboons’ day.    

     We dressed in warm layers and had a light breakfast of cereal and toast by the campfire.  We were ready to ride at 6:30.  The grooms had the horses tacked up and waiting for us, and we used a small termite hill as a mounting block.  It was very quiet as we rode out, watching the sun come up through the trees.
We went in a single file line, with West in the lead, a rifle strapped across his back in case of emergency, and a bullwhip on his hip.  Mooshi brought up the rear, also equipped with a whip.  We walked quietly for a good while, and then had a nice long canter.  We were much warmer while riding, and soon I was shedding layers and stuffing them in my saddle bags. 
In the midst of a canter, West brought us to a sudden halt; we had almost run into the back of a huge bull elephant.  ‘Whhaaaa!’ exclaimed Pauline with wonder.  A quick change of direction and we were off cantering again.  A jackal trotted across the plain in the early light, coming in from a night’s hunting.  A huge saddle-billed stork waded at the edge of a water hole, his bright yellow and orange bill in bright contrast to his black and white plumage.  We passed a group of giraffes, babies at their sides, moving across the plain with their long slow-motion strides.  As they crossed the roadway in front of us, I struggled to convince Lancelot to stand still enough to photograph them between his ears.

     On horseback you can get much closer to some animals than you can in a vehicle, and not as close to others.  We were able to ride quite near to warthogs, kudus and eland.  A huge herd of impalas ran across, just in front of us.  Several hyenas, sleeping by the riverbank, were unconcerned by our approach.  On the other hand, much to our surprise the zebras would not let us anywhere near them on horseback.


     Mid-morning we stopped for a snack beside a small river, tying the horses beneath an immense Mashatu tree.  They were well used to the routine and were content to stand quietly, munching on grasses or leaves if any were within reach.  Pierre’s horse, Galahad, never needed to be tied at breaks; the huge gentle draft cross wandered loose near the others, browsing on the mopane trees.  We had noticed that most of the horses had specks of white in their coats over their backs and hindquarters; Saskia told us they were caused by the bites of the tsetse flies.  We were thankful to be there in winter when there were no insects.
Mooshi handed out cheese biscuits for the riders, but the horses were disappointed because the apples had been forgotten.  We sat on the high riverbank relaxing; we could see a crocodile at the edge of the water below us.  After resting for half an hour we remounted and rode on.
We watched a herd of elephants from a distance – they had several young babies with them.  We wanted to go closer but the guides wouldn’t let us; they told us that elephants are very protective of their young, and can be very aggressive if approached too closely on horseback.  We were given instructions on what to do in case of an elephant charge; we were to reverse direction and follow Mooshi away promptly – meanwhile West would stay behind and crack the whip to try and avert the charge.  Fortunately we never had to put it to the test.

     We rode into Jwala camp, set up on the bank of the dry Jwala River, a little after one in the afternoon.  There was a table and chairs beneath some large trees, with a campfire nearby.  Along the dry creekbed our tents were set up, the same ones from Two Mashatus, but without the platforms or bathrooms.  A small loo stood right behind the tent, consisting of a toilet seat on a wooden platform over a hole dug in the ground, surrounded by a light frame with a tarp around it for privacy.  A bucket of lime sat next to the toilet; you could scoop some in after use to avoid odor.  
The grooms were waiting for us.  We helped untack the horses and led them to a sandy spot to have a roll.  As water was a scarce commodity the horses were not washed down, but a good roll in the dust would absorb most of the sweat, and later when they were dry they would be thoroughly brushed.  The horses were superbly looked after for the whole trip.
The horses were given a bucket of water and a full hay net, and our lunch was waiting for us.  This was to be our pattern for the next week.  We would be on the horses early each morning, usually by 6:30.  Once we rode out, the grooms and driver would completely break down camp and pack everything in an old horse van.  Tents, furniture, our luggage, toilets, water tanks – everything was packed up and moved, and no trace was left behind except for a hole in the ground where the toilets had been.  The campsite would be left as nature had made it.  The staff would drive the truck on to the next campsite, and in the early afternoon when we rode in, the tents would be set up and lunch waiting for us.
The elephants joined us for lunch!  We were just sitting down to eat when two of them wandered past the camp, browsing on trees along the creekbed.  A little while later, about ten more walked by in the bushes less than a hundred yards away from our tent.


     When you are covered in dust, there is nothing like a good bucket shower.  First water is heated on the fire, and then a bucket of warm water is hung up by a rope, above a shower stall made from a tarp.  Definite incentive to lather and rinse quickly.  We relaxed under the mashatu tree, looking through some wildlife guide books that travel with the camp.

     Later in the afternoon West took us out for a bush walk.  He carried the rifle and the bullwhip.  He told us that sometimes they have to crack the whips to chase animals away, but only on the rarest of occasions have they needed to fire the rifle in the air to avert an animal charge.
West showed us how to identify animal tracks in the fine dust that covered the ground.  We could easily recognize the big round footprints of the elephants – their paths were everywhere, and in places we could see the marks made by their trunks dragging the ground.  West taught us how to distinguish between the tracks of the different cats.  Lion prints are the biggest, with three distinct lobes on the back, and no claw marks.  The leopard tracks are similar to lions, but smaller.  Cheetahs only partially retract their claws, so their prints show claw marks.  We saw prints from giraffe, ostrich and hyenas.  Porcupine tracks were recognizable by the quill marks in the dust.  There were baboon prints like tiny hands – it was mildly disturbing how much they looked like babies hands.
Mooshi coiled his bullwhip twice around the outside of an elephant footprint; he said the circumference of the print, multiplied by two, equals the height of the elephant.  This didn’t seem like it would be nearly enough, but when he stood up on a stump and uncoiled the whip, holding it high above his head and letting the end dangle to the ground to demonstrate the height of the elephant, it was well over nine feet.  Just a medium sized one, Mooshi said.
We climbed to the top of a knoll and looked out over the plain.  A mother giraffe and her baby stood looking back at us, and elands grazed nearby.  We watched the sun set, painting the sky in vibrant hues.  

     Returning to camp, we fed the granola bars we had brought for emergency rations to Lancelot and Roscoe.  Chantal’s horse had come up lame in a hind leg; Saskia treated the injury and arrangements were made to return him to the stables and get a replacement.  
We had an excellent dinner; like all the meals on the mobile safari, it was cooked over the campfire by Grace and Martha.  After dinner we sat around the campfire and told stories, and finally went to bed around ten o'clock. We fell asleep listening to the calls of jackals and hyenas, and the hooting of owls nearby.  
I had an accident with the loo in the night; I tripped in the dark and knocked the whole frame over with a resounding crash, cutting my hand in the process.  Mooshi heard the noise and thought the hyenas had gotten me.

July 19
We got our wakeup call at 5:30, and it was the warmest morning yet.  We rode out along a river, one of the few we saw that actually had surface water.  We followed the trail in and out of the trees, crossing the river several times.  It was beautiful and peaceful.  The day before I had been a little tense from not knowing what to expect, but this morning I was starting to relax and really settle into the rhythm of riding through Africa. 


     I rode in the front with West; this was better for Lancelot, who coughed badly whenever we cantered from the clouds of dust the horses’ hooves kicked up.  Mooshi had left camp early, leading the lame horse back to the stables, and Chantal rode Mooshi’s grey.  Saskia brought up the rear as back-up guide.  West admired my zebra-print gloves; he thought I had gotten them just for safari, but actually I wear them every day riding at home. 

     I have been lucky enough to travel to many different parts of the world, and one of the things I find the most interesting about that is the opportunity to learn about different cultures and customs.  West told me a lot about the way of life in Botswana.  He said he was engaged to be married, and his fiancé works in another camp as the chef.  He had already paid her family 9000 pula (about $1200) for dowry.  The Batswana (plural for Motswana) people count their wealth by the number of cows they own – cows are equal to money.  When a man wants to marry, he must pay a dowry to the bride’s family, either with cows, or with money to buy cows.  The bride’s father sets the dowry price, depending on the family’s status in the community, and on the desirability of the match.  The average price for a bride is eight cows.  The minimum wage in Botswana is 780 pula, or about $110, per month.  I don’t know how much a cow costs.
The Batswana are incredibly family oriented, and without permission from the parents a marriage will not take place.  The ability of a couple to have children is considered of first and foremost importance, so it is customary that an engaged couple will have several children together before they marry.  The Botswana government gives free land to citizens with the condition that they develop it in some way within two years, by building on it, fencing it, or planting crops.  West had acquired a small farm under this program and was working to develop the land.
West also told me a little about the politics of the region, and it confirmed what I had learned by reading before the trip.  Botswana is one of the safest and most stable countries in Africa.  Its government, economy and currency are more stable than most, and it has done a better job conserving its natural resources than many of its neighbors.  Unlike most of the countries on the continent, it does not have a history of dictators and civil war.

     We continued along the river for a good part of the morning.  We saw several skittish zebras and a couple of wildebeests running.  Riding under the trees, we saw a huge nest above us, made by hammerhead birds.  A goshawk flew overhead.  We passed kudus, elands, warthogs and a pair of steenbok.  Several giraffes made their stately way across our path.  
We stopped in a grove of trees for the morning break.  We posed for photos on the twisting roots of a huge tree, and investigated animal tracks in the dust.  There were the small handprints of baboons, the large tracks of ostriches, and signs that a family of lions had passed this way.  Mooshi caught up with us, bringing a fresh horse for Chantal to replace the one who had gone lame.  We snacked on cheese biscuits, and the horses were happy because the apples had been remembered this time.  


     Leaving the river, we set off across a barren plain.  Being winter and the dry season, the bushveld was mostly brown and somewhat barren.  In places it seemed harshly desolate, but the animals did appear to be in good condition.  Saskia told us that in summer when the rains come, the whole area is transformed to green, and the grass is tall and plentiful.  She said that summer is the most beautiful time of year; but the downside is that it gets extremely hot, and the insects are voracious. 
The ground was rough and rocky, so we rode at the walk all morning; at one point we dismounted and led the horses over a particularly treacherous section of the path.  It was very dry and dusty, and game was sparse.  The sun shone warm on our backs.  We crossed a high ridge crowned with huge old baobab trees.  We had noticed that we rarely saw small baobabs; this is because the elephants love to eat them, and with the increased elephant population in Tuli the saplings don’t stand a chance.  From the top of the ridge we could see for miles.  West pointed out a distinctive pair of rock formations in the distance, and told us that was where we were heading.
Eventually we reached better footing and had a long canter.  We came to a boundary fence with a veterinary control station, where we walked the horses through a vat of disinfectant to guard against foot-and-mouth disease. We followed the road across some privately owned land, stopping at a water hole so the horses could drink.  
We crossed dry rugged countryside, reminiscent of the American southwest – I could imagine Indians appearing at any moment.  The weather had turned quite warm; I was in short sleeves, and even Jineen was down to two sweaters.  Eventually we came to the two huge rock formations which we had seen in the distance from the baobab ridge.  We rode through the narrow cleft between them.  We learned that the larger of the two formations is called Mapungubwe Hill (Tswana for Place of the Jackals), and there are the remains of an ancient city and tribal burial ground on the top.  West told us that it is believed that anyone who goes up there without permission from the tribal elders would be cursed, and would not get out alive.  But Mooshi had gone up there, without knowing better, and he seemed to have survived so far.

     We came to the Motloutse, a wide river which at this time was completely dry.  Riding down the steep bank onto the sandy flats, we saw a herd of about twenty elephants down the river from us.  West led us along the riverbank until we got nearer to the herd.  We wanted to ride closer to them but the guides were cautious, saying that elephants can be quite unpredictable, and will sometimes charge aggressively with little warning.  We respected the fact that the guides are careful not to approach animals in a way that will disturb them or interfere with their routine.  We watched them from a distance, but after a while the elephants became wary of our presence and hurried off downstream.
As we rode up the bank out of the river, Jineen saw some blue feathers on the ground, from the wing of a lilac-breasted roller bird – Mooshi dismounted to get them for her.  A bit further on we stopped to collect some porcupine quills.  
We could see lion tracks in the dust; they often follow trails and roadways – the paths of least resistance.  The air was filled with the constant sound of chanting doves.  We could smell the sweat of the horses, the dust of Africa, and the musky scent of animals unseen.  On the back of a horse, we were no longer observers, but rather participants in this amazing journey through the African bush.

~ Continued on next page ~

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