My first horse ride in Africa on safari in the Land of the Giants
by Darley Newman
Awaking during our first day on safari in Botswana, I found that it’s really hard to get out of bed in the crisp morning air and definitely not shower weather. When cozied in a warm bed, you have to craft a careful escape route. Mine involved reaching as far as I could for my fleece jacket and putting that on while my bottom half stayed under the covers and then grabbing socks, and my riding pants, which I stuck under the covers for a few minutes before swiftly lifting the covers and getting dressed as fast as possible.
If you are traveling to ride in Botswana during the winter (May to October) bring layers for sure and maybe even some gloves and a warm hat. I have my riding gloves, but could have used some winter gloves on colder mornings. Luckily, hot tea awaited at breakfast and then the warm body of my horse.
My horse ride today would be our first day of filming with horses, and I hoped Cor, who runs Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris on the Mashatu Game Reserve, had paired me with a nice, patient horse. He did. We started our ride through an area with rocky outcroppings. The Northern Tuli Game Reserve, which includes the Mashatu Game Reserve in eastern Botswana, is one of the largest privately owned game reserves in Southern Africa. This area is called “Land of the Giants” by many because of its larger than life natural attractions. The riverine woodland and marsh landscapes are traversed by large herds of elephant and dotted with huge baobab trees. The baobab, beautiful trees whose branches are thought by many to look like a series of underground roots, has been called “the upside down tree” in local legends.
Limpopo Valley Horse Riding Botswana
The Mashatu Game Reserve, where Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris operates, is home to diverse wildlife as well, including elephant, kudu, waterbuck, steenbok, warthog, and the cats — lion, leopard, cheetah and hyena. I thought that I knew the animal kingdom well, but would find myself saying, what animal is that, as we encountered more and more diverse animals on our trek. It’s an amazing learning experience just to explore here.
As we rode by a variety of local plants and foliage, Cor and his team spotted a herd of zebra in the distance and we stealthily rode towards them. The hard part about what we’re doing in Botswana is that we are not only taking a horse safari, but also filming it. Not only do we need to wear safari colors to blend in with the environment, but our team is working to capture the essence of a horse safari, where being on horseback allows you to get up close to animals – closer in many instances than you’d be able to on foot or in a noisy vehicle. Our film crew, however, is traveling in a vehicle and many times, for safety reasons, can’t get out and walk around. We don’t want them to be eaten! This makes filming challenging.
Greg Barna, Equitrekking’s Director of Photography, in Botswana
On each shoot, we work to introduce the horses to our film equipment, so that they do not perceive Greg and Chip with their cameras as predators. Often, we ride close to the camera or Greg gets down low to get a shot of our hooves kicking up dirt.
After our horses were used to the film crew, we approached the herd of about fifteen zebra and wildebeast and Cor described the herd dynamics.
We were situated with the film crew in their vehicle, us on horseback in the distance and then further out the zebras. It was amazing to be so close to this wild herd. I’d been excited to come to Botwsana to film and explore, but also a little nervous. It was a real rush to be standing and observing the animals from this position on my horse.
As we continued onwards, David, another riding guide and native of Botswana, called out to us to stop. We were riding through a sandy patch by a rocky outcrop. He jumped off his horse and picked up a tool from the ground that he thought may date back to the Iron Age.
Also on our ride, we were able to do some fast and sustained canters. Honestly, it was one the longest canters I’ve ever done. Cor says they can do even longer ones. The terrain is flat and mostly compact dirt footing loosely dotted with shrubs and small trees. We wound through this on horseback. I followed behind Cor, my legs starting to feel the burn after the first morning’s ride.
At home, I ride once or twice a week, but also mix in running, biking and other sporty activities. Nothing compares to riding though, and prior to the trip I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle spending six to eight hours in the saddle each day, as this is what we do many days of filming. I sort of have to try to match the fitness of a riding guide. I can tell you that I was sore the first few days, but after that got used to it.
Riding back to the stables, we passed through a vast open area of tall grass, perfect for a lion or big cat to hide and await prey. We also did a long canter through an area of open dirt and shrubs that tested my two-point position. We passed herds of impala and saw a giraffe. That was all just in the morning ride.
Giraffe in Botswana
Midday gets warm and really sunny, even in winter. It’s also quite dry here, so while a family of baboons hung out by the stables, we gave our horses a bath and cooled off ourselves with some much deserved lunch. It was a nice first ride and introduction to the diversity of Tuli.