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
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
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
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
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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