For this latest installment of our Saddle Up, we’re lucky enough to have snuck a glimpse into a travel journal that will blow. your. mind.
Erin Harriott has just returned from a horse riding safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana and her account of this adventure is immersive, inspiring, adrenaline-filled, otherworldly, and just downright jaw-dropping. Buckle up, globetrotters!
‘Do you want to go horse riding in Botswana?’
In early 2018 my partner, Timothy, and I began entertaining the idea of a holiday in Africa. It was over dinner one evening when Tim popped the question, or at least the question any horsey girlfriend dreams of their partner asking, ‘Do you want to go horse riding in Botswana?’
Tim had only ridden a horse a handful of times at that point and I wanted to clarify exactly what he meant by his proposition, although in saying that, I also didn’t need to be asked twice. So I eagerly called Kate…
Less than a week after Tim asked me, we had ride dates and flights booked, and a little over a year to get Tim from absolute beginner level to being confident and competent enough that he could ‘gallop out of trouble’, as per the rider experience note on the ride fact sheet. Perhaps the only way to describe Tim’s introduction to riding was ‘baptism by fire’! Learning on two of my three horses, a former spirited 2* eventer and a reliable old Thoroughbred schoolmaster, Tim quickly learnt to hold on! Good thing Tim has an adrenaline seeking ‘need for speed’ and a sense of humour. The story of how we took Tim from enthusiastic beginner to skilled and competent is a whole other story in itself – let’s just call it a ‘steep learning curve’ – but back to Botswana.
Fast-forward to September 2019. With our bags packed and enthusiasm levels as high as any international traveller heading for the holiday of a lifetime, we boarded our flight for South Africa. Having enjoyed the pleasantry of the Qantas Business Class Lounge prior to departing, the 14 hours in economy was bearable only due to the excitement of what was to come and the view of Antarctica from above. Arriving in South Africa, we spent a week in Cape Town and a couple of days in the wine region of Franschhoek.
By the time our 5am alarm sounded on Tuesday the 8th of September, I was already wide awake with excitement. Arriving in Maun, Botswana, two things immediately hit me as we disembarked the plane: firstly, the intense heat and secondly, the glare off the white tarmac. The airport, currently under construction, had two shipping containers forming the entry tunnel into the customs area. With minimal airflow through the tunnel, it was a hot wait in line until we reached the customs desk. For future Globetrotters, it’s worth learning from our mistake. On the customs form, for ‘address while in Botswana’, we wrote the Okavango Horse Safari (OHS) Lodges, noting we would be riding between camps, because the name of the base camp had slipped my mind. Unfortunately, customs weren’t prepared to accept that answer and requested a lodge name or address. With zero WiFi access, I thanked my past self for having the foresight to screenshot the email from Laura with the contact numbers of the ride company. It wasn’t what the customs man wanted, but short of an address, he agreed to call the contact number and have them provide it. So, for ease of clearing customs, I recommend knowing the name of the base camp, Kujwana.
Having cleared customs, day one of our horse riding trek could commence. We were greeted by the OHS representative and assisted to the helicopter for our transfer. Our pilot, Michael, delivered a safety briefing and before we knew it, we were up, up and away. The helicopter transfer was a spectacular way to commence the riding section of our holiday. The game viewing began in the air, with elephants and giraffes dotted across the scenery. As the helicopter landed, the camp vehicle arrived to collect us.
Upon arrival, the ladies performed a traditional African welcoming song, which was a lovely addition. After the camp introduction/briefing by the camp manager, John, and a quick snack it was off to our lovely fixed tent for a break before our orientation ride at 4pm. From the balcony of our tent we had an excellent view of a breeding herd of elephants retreating to the shade of the nearby trees. I summoned Tim from the tent – like a kid on a sugar high, I was buzzing at the sight of the elephants. Tim, having been to Africa a few times, attempted to match my enthusiasm with a nod of excitement from the bed.
Tingling with anticipation for the afternoon ride, we made our way back to the common area and met the other guests. We learnt that some of the guests loved the OHS and Botswana so much that they had been coming for 20 years! You can’t ask for a better review of a holiday than repeat business for 20 years straight! We were given a quick briefing about the horses and ride safety by the lovely Australian stable manager, Molly, and then we went to meet the horses. We were told that the horses we had for the orientation ride would be different to the ones we were assigned to for the rest of the week. The excitement in the air and vibe among the guests was contagious. It didn’t take long to realise that for many of the guests this was their happy place, a home away from home.
With everyone mounted, our guide, Rodgers, gave us an overview of what to expect and how to handle the situation should we encounter a lion, then we were off. Within the first hour on the horses we had seen elephant, hippo, impala, kudu, zebra, wart hog, wildebeest and buffalo. The highlight of the orientation ride was watching three male elephants sparring at the waterhole. The sheer power of an animal that size is something you have to see to truly appreciate. The orientation ride certainly had enough excitement between the game viewing and Tim’s horse having a lapse in concentration, forgetting he had four legs, resulting in both Tim and his horse getting acquainted with the ground. Although it looked nasty, neither were any worse for wear! Tim landed in a sandy part of the track and got away without a mark on him, although his unintended stunt riding became quite the conversation starter among the other guests.
At 6am the African sunrise shone through the tent, and right on cue, one of the camp staff arrived with a flask of hot water for tea and coffee to be enjoyed while we dressed and prepared for the very full day ahead. With strict instructions to be mounted and ready to ride out at 7am, the ride group assembled at 6:30 for breakfast, some of us a little perkier and more accustomed to the early start than others!
Tim was first to mount up and as the groom led the bay Friesian x Boerperd mare, Daenerys, to the mounting block, it can best be described as love at first sight! Not a massive horse, she stood just over 15 hands high and had just the right amount of cheekiness to keep Tim on his toes, although she had a face that could get away with murder…
I was then shown to the long-legged and elegant Utende, a six year old bay mare with some serious attitude. She had confidence plus and was only too keen to test her authority in the partnership. We soon came to an understanding that she wasn’t the first mare I had negotiated terms of agreement with, and very quickly came to like one another. I appreciated her spark – she was an absolute delight to ride and very comfortable.
With the other riders mounted on their steeds, Rodgers led the group out into the morning sun in search of the inspiring African wildlife. Not long into our ride, Rodgers raised his hand into the air, indicating the ride to halt. Just ahead of us we saw two big elephants throwing mud onto themselves in preparation for the heat to come. Rodgers explained that while elephants are relatively calm, they can be quite aggressive and dangerous if they feel threatened. We maintained a distance of roughly 30 metres between us and the waterhole. For our first up-close encounter with the wildlife, it was almost comical that we all forgot to take photos. The group sat in silent awe of the elephants going about their day. It wasn’t until Rodgers suggested that we move on shortly that we all started photographing the elephants.
As we rode on towards the picnic location, the scenery and landscape kept evolving. From flat grasslands through to sandy barren vulture territory, there was plenty to see. I was temporarily immune to the increasing temperature of the sun, too focused on taking in the environment around me. Just before we reached the picnic location, we found the point that the floodwaters had reached. Because it really wouldn’t be a riding trek if at least one person didn’t get wet, Daenerys took the opportunity to cool off. Without warning, no pawing or splashing, she ever so gently eased herself and Tim into the water. Despite the cries from Molly and Rodgers to kick her, Tim had to bail off the side to avoid becoming entirely soaked! Daenerys was quite proud of her efforts, simply shaking off the excess water and looking at Tim as if to say, ‘Well, you said it was hot’.
Fortunately for Tim, lunch was set up an easy walk from where he and Daenerys had gone ‘swimming’! By the time we had enjoyed our lunch Tim was bone dry again, although a little muddy and a tad smelly…
The intense heat of the midday sun kept us and the horses from venturing out from the shade. Because the OHS team run a well-oiled machine, camp beds were whipped out for us to all have a midday snooze under the cool of a tree. Having set lunch by the water, we were able to enjoy the sight of the many animals and their young cooling themselves while resting, reapplying a fourth layer of sunblock and enjoying a drink of choice, my personal favourite being the gin and tonic. At 3:30, Percy, our camp manager for the Mokolwane camp (Mok for short) where we’d be staying for two nights, called for us to have any last tea, coffee, etc and then advised us that the horses were ready and waiting.
As Rodgers lead us into the dimming heat of the afternoon, we were spoilt with various animals emerging from the shade. Following Rodgers at a canter, we started to gain ground on a herd of impala. As the horses and impala sent water high into the air, Utende decided she was having far too much fun – the resulting outcome of her enthusiasm was some one-handed stunt riding as she popped in four convincing pigroots and bucks. Having been eventing for some time and used to horses being unable to their excitement, I was unfazed by Utende’s extroverted enthusiasm. Just for fun, Tim’s little mare joined in and had her own ‘yee-ha’ moment. Noting that all’s well that ends well, there was much laughter induced thanks to me and Utende’s ‘joy ride’. Taking this as an indication to pull up to give the horses a moment to calm down, and so that Tim’s saddle could be repositioned post-rodeo show, Rodgers halted the ride near some hippos who were enjoying the long-awaited water.
What came next on our adventure-filled ride was something I will remember for a very long time. Rodgers manoeuvred us around a massive herd of buffalo, and as the herd started to move off, we lined up with them and cantered alongside. The buffalo herd was so big it was like being next to a road train. Moving six abreast and easily a kilometre in length, it was quite incredible to watch these animals move through the area, the dust cloud often concealing the beasts. As the last of the herd passed, Rodgers said we needed to make camp, so we set off at a trot and enjoyed many more zebra and elephant sightings along the way.
Upon arrival at camp, we helped untack the hroses before handing them over to the grooms. Rodgers informed us that at this camp, guests are not allowed to walk around unescorted, even during the day. The Mok camp is open and animals routinely wander into the area. Rodgers explained, ‘We have an elephant here who frequently comes into camp. He will just come straight up to you,’ to which one of the guests replied, ‘Oh, so we can pat him?’ Rodgers, realising he hadn’t articulated his point properly, further explained, ‘No, he’s an angry elephant – he will stomp you into the ground.’ Safe to say there was no further explanation required, and no one was walking around camp without a staff escort!
The Mok camp was a delight. With spacious fixed tents and a beautiful dining area overlooking the waterhole, there was always something to look at. There is something quite special about enjoying a glass of wine post-ride and having the game viewing continue from the comfort of an armchair.
If you haven’t already, perhaps now is a good time to top up your wine glass or refresh the tea pot, because day three was exceptional from start to finish, with plenty of heart-racing, adrenaline-pumping moments.
Our day started with the standard 6am wake up, ready to mount and ride at 7am. Having been looking out since day one for a close encounter with giraffe – well, closer than the birds eye view from the helicopter – Rodgers all but promised that there would be giraffe today, and he definitely delivered! The giraffe started appearing on the horizon 20 minutes into the ride and they kept getting closer, under the trees or mixed among the zebra herd. I told Tim before we left Australia that I didn’t mind if we didn’t see a lion or all the big five, so long as we saw giraffe! After riding along at a walk next to a single male giraffe for a few minutes, I jokingly turned over my shoulder and said to Tim, ‘Well, we can go home now’.
As we were trotting along the grasslands, we found the same large herd of buffalo we had seen yesterday. Rodgers slowed the ride to the walk, then he quietly instructed us to halt about 30 metres from the large herd so everyone could get photos. We had been standing near the herd for a few minutes when one of the male buffalo broke away from the herd. Rodgers responded immediately to what was about to happen, but for the rest of us it was a delayed reaction as the male buffalo charged us! Utende and I noticed the threat simultaneously. I swiftly pulled on the left rein and turned Utende in the opposite direction. She didn’t need to be told twice and as we turned, she launched into gallop and hauled us away from the buffalo. I saw Daenerys responding to Utende’s flight and following suit. I could hear Rodgers shouting behind us. Unsure whether he was shouting at us to stop galloping or at the buffalo, I turned and saw that the other horses had hightailed it away, leaving Rodgers and his brave lead horse, Bintang, staring down the buffalo. With the support guide covering us, Rodgers and Bintang bravely stood between us and a really, really angry buffalo. The big bull stomped his front hoof, challenging Rodgers. Rodgers didn’t hesitate and with expert skill, he simply pushed Bintang towards the buffalo, carefully and slowly. As the buffalo snorted and shook his head, Rodgers roared at the beast, who gave one last parting grunt and turned back to his herd.
With everyone still astride their mounts, our heart rates and shaking hands proof of the situation that had just unfolded, Rodgers rode toward us. He asked if everyone was okay, and when we all nodded, he simply said, ‘Good, let’s leave the buffalo for now.’ Tim’s voice from behind perfectly summed up the moment: ‘Guess they weren’t kidding when they said you had to be able to gallop out of trouble.’ The nervous giggles from the group confirmed everyone had survived our too-close-for-comfort encounter.
As everyone regained their composure post-buffalo charge, Rodgers pointed towards a hyena in the grass. The female hyena curiously stared at us. Unsure if we were friend or foe, she lowered herself into the long grass, disappearing from sight. What happened next was definitely the highlight of my trip! Rodgers spotted a herd of zebra with four giraffes among them. As we were trotting along, the zebra started moving off, assuming that if we were running something was probably chasing us. The giraffe took action and before we knew it, we were cantering at most 20 metres away from zebra and giraffe. It was exhilarating being that close to them. I can’t accurately put that experience into words – it’s simply best experienced for yourself. On horseback, you become one with the other animals. Their acceptance of you in the environment is remarkably different to their behaviour when the safari truck rattles past.
Having had plenty of excitement for one morning, Rodgers declared it time for morning tea, or apple break, as they call it. Munching on our green apples, we discussed the action-packed morning, with special mentions going to Rodgers’s artful management of the buffalo situation. After sharing our apples with our horses, we remounted and headed towards the floodwaters, near where Daenerys had taken Tim swimming the day before. At one point when we were about 20 metres off the waterline, Rodgers pointed out a submerged hippo, only her eyes sitting above the waterline. Less than a horse-length later, Rodgers also pointed out the croc sunning itself on the other side of the bank. Right on cue, as the hippo and croc were being pointed out, Utende spooked. Certain the croc was going to eat her, she was convinced that getting in front of Bingtang and Rodgers was the best course of action… I had other opinions about the matter, but much laughter was had by everyone when we realised that what she had shied at was a bird flying out from a tree – although if you ask her, that bird looked an awful lot like a croc.
As we rode along, Rodgers pointed to the ground: ‘Fresh lion tracks,’ and sure enough, as big as the horses’ hoofprints, were lion tracks. Judging by the tracks, it was a sizeable male who had been roaming the area recently. Utende having just returned to a calm state of mind, Rodgers called ‘hold tight’, which basically means he’s spotted something that may spook horses. He wasn’t wrong. A cheeky baboon was crouching low in the long grass, and at the opportune moment, it sprang up, sending horses and riders at pace in every direction. Fortunately, Rodgers’s warning gave us just enough time to grab mane or saddle and everyone ‘held tight’. When we realised it was a baboon that had spooked the horses, we all had to laugh (and breathe a sigh of relief!) given the other potential animals that may have pounced on us from the long grass, like the giant male lion.
The baboon concluded the day’s entertainment from horseback, and we enjoyed an otherwise calm ride back to camp. All in all, it was a wonderful ride that truly captured the heart of safari from horseback.
At this point I’d like to highlight the importance of undertaking this adventure with a highly skillful and experienced guide. Rodgers’s expert understanding of how the horses and the wildlife perceived each other’s interactions and mannerisms meant we were never in harm’s way. So, while there were a few thrills that make for grand stories upon our return home, Rodgers’s top priority was always guest safety and horse welfare.
For the rest of the afternoon, the horses had a well-earned break grazing and relaxing under the watchful eye of their grooms while we headed out for our first game drive. Tim geared up with the proper SLR camera, then we met the others at the truck. Percy, the camp manager, was guiding (driving) and Rodgers was tracking. We were on the prowl for an elusive lion, the owner of the tracks spotted on our earlier ride. Although no lion ever showed up, we had plenty to enjoy with two giraffes meandering in front of the vehicle, and then a male hippo presenting his size and dominance in full force. Due to the dry conditions the hippos were being particularly protective of their territory. The male hippo gave an impressive display of his jaws and teeth to make sure we knew he was prepared to fight. Obviously, we had zero intention of taking on the hippo, so we moved further down the floodwaters, where we enjoyed our sundowner drinks before the mosquitoes crashed the party.
On the way back to camp the African Wild Cat presented itself. While the others marvelled at this thing in the distance I was completely confused, searching the horizon for a large feline, until Tim pointed to the small and somewhat unimpressive animal sitting in front of the termite mound. For future reference, the African Wild Cat is about the size of a domestic house cat. It wasn’t a lion, but hey, at least we had a cat viewing!
We were advised that after dinner we would be partaking in a new experience that PJ, one of the owners, had only recently completed. As the second group of guests ever to attend the Platforms, I felt quite privileged to be afforded the opportunity to literally sleep under the stars, on a platform in a tree in the middle of Botswana. It’s not really an experience you get on your standard camping trip. The drive out was treated as a night game drive, and with Percy back at the wheel and PJ tracking, we were once again hot on fresh lion tracks. As we bumped along in the back of the rover a lion appeared in the headlights, lying proudly in the middle of the track. A silence, only induced by an animal of such sheer power and perfection, fell over the vehicle. As Percy moved the truck around so as not to blind the lion with our headlights, we were able to experience the true size of the lion, who seemed entirely unconcerned by our presence. We had been watching the lion for several minutes when in the distance came the call of his brother. His roaring response vibrated through my chest. Moments ago he had been completely non-threatening, but his roar was a swift reminder that he was king of the jungle for a reason. Watching the brothers reunite and gently rub their foreheads together was quite emotive. Even at the top of the food chain, the need for companionship was evident. Spotting the male lions and hearing them roar into the quiet night was a standout memory of the trip.
When we arrived at the Platforms, we were greeted by the calls of a leopard. Despite our attempts to find him, he evaded our sights, but continued to purr through the trees as we enjoyed a hot beverage under the full moon. Sleeping on the platforms was glorious – being high in the trees under the stars, it was so perfectly silent, the only noises the gentle calls of animals in the distance.
The next morning, the early sunrise woke us – and to a truly spectacular sight. Laying low in the grass beyond the campsite was a young lioness. Under the careful instruction of PJ and Percy, we moved closer to where the lioness sat. We had been viewing the beauty in the grass for about five minutes when things got a little interesting: apparently, to a young lioness with limited exposure to humans, we looked like a great breakfast option. In a hushed voice, PJ ordered us to start retreating, slowly and as a group, back to the truck. As we took steps towards the truck, the lioness kept approaching, when Percy spotted her friend in the trees off to the right. Percy told us to keep calmly retreating while PJ picked up a stick. At this point I did consider that we were about to become the news headline, ‘International Tourists Eaten by Lions’. PJ started banging the stick against a stump, making enough noise to confuse the two lionesses long enough that they decided this was going to be far too much effort. They sulked back into the grass. With everyone safely in the truck, we set off in pursuit. We followed the lionesses all the way back to the water seep, watching them play fight with each other along the way. Because we were running late for our own breakfast, eventually we had to leave the lionesses to their day and head back to Mok.
On an absolute high from the lioness encounter, day four was off to an excellent start! There was much to discuss over breakfast, but the heat of the day was coming and we had to get moving, as we were returning to Base Camp. The ride from Mok to the picnic location had us assigned to different guides: Boy as the lead and Lesh as the backup. We saw plenty of impala and kudo. Boy gave detailed information on the birds flying overhead and fun facts about the different tree species we were riding past. My favourite was the grey lourie, also known as the ‘go-away bird’, whose call warns others of danger. After our apple break under the shade of some trees, we set off for the picnic location. It was the hottest day so far at 38 degrees Celsius, so we were all looking forward to a cold drink. Unfortunately, a twist of fate added an extra 40 minutes to our journey. Although the riding was pleasant, with more giraffe sightings, the heat was intense, and with little or no water left in our bottles it was a joyous sight, spotting the crew truck in the distance. Despite the long and hot morning, the horses were absolute troopers, not wavering in responding to our aids.
Once we had settled in the cool of the shade, drinks in hand, lunch brought with it a whole range of elephant encounters as we enjoyed our food near a newly established water bore. It was like playing chicken on Elephant Highway, with multiple elephants strolling past metres from the picnic site. Only one was cause for concern, flapping his ears and looking like he might want to join the picnic before PJ encouraged him to take the alternate route through the trees.
I was relaxing on my camp bed when Tim rolled over and said, ‘You know, we could quit our jobs and move to Botswana.’ I did a quick mental check for any reason why we couldn’t, and falling short of good ones, the self-control required not take the suggestion seriously was beginning to wane. As much as I had fallen madly in love with Botswana, half of my heart was still back in Australia with Khan, our three year old Malamute puppy who was currently counting the days till our return. I can safely say Khan was the only reason we boarded our flight home!
That afternoon, two of the riders in our group elected to truck back to camp, so Molly and one of the grooms joined our ride back – and what a wonderful ride it was. Our guide, Boy, got a radio call notifying him of African wild dogs nearby, so of course, we went in search of them. We found the pack, which had 11 puppies. The adorable little pups were far more excited by our presence than their mothers. As we marvelled at the cuteness of the puppies, Boy explained that the adult dogs are Africa’s most efficient hunters, with an 80% successful kill rate, compared to the lion’s success rate of 30%. Eventually, Boy suggested it was time to leave the pack and we started riding back in the direction of camp, only to be ‘chased’ by the puppies, who were having a wonderful time leaping through the grass pretending to hunt. The puppies followed us for a few hundred metres before their mother summoned them back. Having survived being chased by the dogs, we set off at a canter and held pace, only easing to navigate holes and thorn bushes. With the temperature backing right off, it was a beautiful dusk ride back to camp.
With everyone exhausted from the long, hot day, dinner was quiet and uneventful, although tasty! Full and happy, it was an early night for everyone in camp. Tim and I had been in bed for some time when the local ‘pool boy’, the name given to the elephant frequenting base camp and draining the pool, started snacking on the tree right outside our camp. He’d been munching away for some time when a giant shadow crossed in front of our tent. Pool boy, deciding he had an itch that needed to be scratched, took the liberty of employing our balcony as a means of dealing with is itchy spot. Rubbing himself against the balcony, he made the whole tent shake. It was quite the experience!
As we all gathered around the morning campfire, Molly announced that we would have new horses today as the ones that took us on the three day trek to Mok and back were now on a week’s leave. With as much anticipation as we’d had earlier in the week, we headed to the mounting yard to greet our new horses. Tim was shown to Waterford, a beautiful Clydesdale cross who was only too pleased to have Tim aboard. A stunning 17-hand Thoroughbred was my new mount; Sea Swell and I were quite at home with each other.
The final ride was delightful, with my favourite giraffe encounter: a family with Dad, Mum and two calves. They were completely unfazed by our presence, letting us get within mere
metres – as close as Boy would allow us to go, noting that giraffe can kick in any direction and have a kick powerful enough to kill a lion.
It was a beautiful way to conclude the riding section of our holiday. We spent the afternoon repacking our bags and enjoying the raft of animals strolling through camp, most notably Pool Boy, who was engaging in a great game of ‘chase me out of camp’ with the staff, which was a great source of entertainment.
The last day at camp concluded with an afternoon game drive and a glorious bush dinner set deep in the Okavango Delta with no light other than the candles and the campfire. Although there was an air of sadness that our riding trek was concluding, there was much talk of people’s intended return trips.
The next morning we made our way down to the campfire and enjoyed a hot breakfast. With the other guests returning to their rooms to finish packing, Tim and I wandered over to watch the horses being turned out for grazing. Daenerys spotted Tim and, with great intent, broke from her herd to come to Tim and nudge him with her muzzle. It was as if she was also farewelling a new friend. She stayed with Tim for a few minutes, insisting she had earned one more rub behind her ear. With a parting lick she turned back to her herd and cantered to catch up with her friends. For Tim, no African wildlife encounter would top that. He was grinning ear to ear – his parting cuddles with Daenerys had made his week.
It took a mere 24 hours before Tim and I started planning our return to Africa in September 2021, as we were lying on pool beds at our next location. I rolled over, and with a huge grin on my face, I said, ‘So do you want to go horse riding in Botswana?’ to which Tim replied, ‘Definitely, but this time we’ll do the full 10 days.’
– A HUGE thank you to Erin for sharing this INCREDIBLE account of her Okavango Delta ride – I don’t know about you, but I’m just about ready to run away to Africa tomorrow!