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Safari Report: The Ride Home: Okavango Horse Safaris

Cantering through the shallows of
the Okavango

As 28 sets of hooves splashed through 2 feet of crystal clear water, I stood up in my stirrups at a lively canter and looked over my shoulder and beheld an unforgettable sight. An extended line of h

orses, of all colour and creed pounding through a mirror calm expanse of an aquatic paradise, the ‘Okavango Delta’!

This was the fourth year that a handful of privileged tourists were able to ride approx. 200 miles from south to north of the world’s

biggest inland Delta, the Okavango. This hand shaped Delta, situated in the north of Africa’s flattest country, Botswana, spreads its life giving fingers into the Kalahari desert, ironically covering an area as large as Switzerland, with a height variation of 60 metres.

Barney and PJ Bestelink have operated horse safaris in the Okavango Delta for the past 16 years. Their riding safari concession covers an area of over 100,000 acres in the south west of the Delta. This game rich area is home to large herds of elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, lechwe and numerous predators.

At the end of every safari season Barney and PJ move their herd of horses north, back to their farm on the western edge of the pan handle. This swollen channel feeds the whole Delta from June onwards with floodwaters from the Kavango River, whose headwaters rise in Angola, over a six hundred miles away!

Four years ago they decided to commercialize this long and adventurous journey back home with past clients. It was such a hit that this once in a year experience has become booked up two years in advance.

Viewing buffalo from horseback
  Imagine a trip on horseback for eight days before seeing your first fence, encountering lion every day, but two. Up to three large herds of buffalo in an hour, over 40 elephant in a breeding herd, disturbing their reflections as they slowly crossed a wide lagoon in the rich afternoon light. Skies that were filled with thousands of storks, egrets, geese, ducks, cranes and pelicans. Riding up to hyena, surprising a young leopard, cantering with over 500 wildebeest and zebra! The only tourists we came across were on our first day, eight of them all squashed up in a bouncy land rover, while we individually steered our own living 4 x 4s, trying not to appear too pleased with ourselves! Sounds to good to be true? That’s how we felt as we waited for the dream to end, luckily it lasted eight good days and nights!!!

The Okavango Delta is an Eden of large expanses of water whose surface is scattered with colourful water lilies. Narrow channels, lined by papyrus reeds and water figs which act as roosting sites to the multitude of birds that inhabit this crown jewel of Africa. Large sand spits covered by majestic ebony trees and massive groves of vegetable ivory palms whose fan like heads rustle noisily in the October winds. The shallow waters are home to thousands of red lechwe who graze on the aquatic grasses. The reed beds offer cover to the secretive Sitatunga antelope and the large islands are feeding grounds to over 30 different mammals.

Our group of riders were to be as diverse as the various breeds of horses which made up the herd we were to ride home for their well deserved break. Our human herd consisted of two Brits, a Dutch couple who had returned for their fifth year in a row, to ride with Okavango Horse Safaris. A pair of German girls, an American tour operator, a Zimbabwean equine vet and the staff and grooms who were also looking forward to being put out to pasture for the next few months.

This epic journey, was to take eight days, travelling in a northerly direction for 120 miles as the Wattled Crane flies, because of the terrain and exploring days we were to ride over 200 miles. Each time we moved north, our camp was driven ahead by a fleet of rugged four-wheel drive vehicles and equally rugged drivers. A full-tented camp with showers and loos was set up before our arrival by a highly experienced team of enthusiastic and dedicated staff members, who had served with OHS for many years. They ensured that our every comfort was catered for after a long day in the saddle.

We spent 2 nights at each campsite, which gave us the opportunity to spend a full day exploring our new areas with the horses and on foot. Each day that we moved further north, the habitat would change and so too, the various animal and bird species.Our herd of 28 horses was made up of anglo arabs, thoroughbreds, saddlebreds and boer perds. Every shade of grey, chestnuts, dark and standard bays and a dun added colour to our group. Each day we were allocated different horses to ride. Most of us felt quite disloyal, as each time we were on a new mount we would say, “this is definitely the best horse I have ridden on safari so far!” Such was the standard of horses, a hard act to produce.

Our tack was in as good a condition as our horses! English saddles and Australian Wintecs, were covered by comfortable seat savers.

There were not enough riders for the herd of 28 horses. Each day that we moved closer to their farm, up to eight horses would run free only encumbered by head collars. It was a joyous sight to see eight riderless horses cutting through the orderly ranks of their 20 mounted friends, bucking and kicking in mock ecstasy as they roamed free to pick their own course through this wild and beautiful water wonderland.

One day we rode for 9 hours before crossing our first vehicle track. Because the Okavango has so much water, vehicle access is severely restricted. With our horses we could visit places that no vehicle or boat could get to. It was such an enriching feeling in this modern age where the world is so explored and developed, to be able to enjoy vast expanses of wilderness, offering interaction with large herds of animals and thousands of aquatic birds, knowing very few humans had ever been where we were!

On horseback we were able to get incredibly close to elephant, giraffe, zebra and buffalo. The animals were quite unphased by our presence. If they ran off, we cantered after them. We felt so much a part of nature, no fume producing vehicle or boats to entomb us as spectators of this wild and natural area, instead we were participants of the environment, individuals, guiding our own four legged friends through channels, across shallow sheets of water and around the edges of the forested sand islands.

On our first day of trekking north from their permanent base camp, Kujwana, where the horses had been based since the beginning of the safari season in early March, we encountered the herd of 40 elephant we had enjoyed the previous evening, over 60 giraffe in scattered herds and a male lion and his four wives who kept an interested eye on us from the elevated position of a sandy coloured termite mound, reaching out of the sun burnt yellow grasses.

Little did we know that the following morning when we set out on a six-hour hack to explore the area we would encounter a pride of 10 lionesses as the first animals of the day? After an exhilarating gallop for a mile through knee deep water, which had us, drenched from head to boot we found a large herd of majestic bull elephant, peacefully feeding among a big stand of Moklowane palms. We spent nearly an hour with these humbling animals who showed no alarm or aggression at our presence. They allowed us the privilege of sitting close at hand and watching their natural behavior in an area as untouched as it was 1000 years ago! The horses were totally unphased at our close proximity to these 6 ton, long nosed, bizarre looking mammals, they were pleased of the opportunity to catch up on the days grazing! As we rode back to camp for lunch, we surprised a leopard, caught unawares in the open green plain. In a flash of liquid gold, she was back in the seclusion of the surrounding thicket.

And so our adventure continued, the comradrie grew each day among our group and so too, for our faithful, well schooled horses.

Resting with horses

Why are you lying down? I am the
one who has done all the work.

As we moved north, encountering no other tourists, we realised how privileged we were to see one of the most beautiful places left on earth, teaming with wildlife from the back of an animal we all had developed a lifetimes affinity for.

Some afternoons we would go out on game walks, approaching the various animals on foot, discussing plants, dung and some of natures ‘bush secrets’. There were a number of keen bird watchers among us and healthy debates occurred on various LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). We were to see over 160 species of bird. Other afternoons were spent on game drives or enjoying wallows in cool clear pools, welcome respite from the hot October days.

Our longest day in the saddle was when we covered a distance of over 35 miles, over 9 hours in the saddle, punctuated by an amazing lunch, which appeared from an assortment of saddlebags.
We marveled at the way PJ seemed to know our whereabouts. To us each island looked the same, but for 28 years the Okavango has been his backyard. As well as PJ knows this vast paradise, so too does Barney know her horses. She respects each one with equal affection; there are no short cuts in her life when it comes to their well being! Meticulous care is given to their saddles, gel pads and numnahs, ensuring the horses don’t develop saddle sores. Lame or sick horses were quickly noted and a comprehensive medical kit, strapped behind her saddle, came into instant action.

Horse and rider at sunset
  Each night as we enjoyed a restful sleep between sheets on comfortable camp beds, our herd of horses were tethered close by. It was a soothing sound as we lay in bed and listened to them snorting and chewing while guards kept a watchful eye to ensure the horses safety from unwelcome predators.

By midday of the eighth day, the habitat had become drier. In place of expansive areas of shallow water and greenery were vast open areas of well grazed, tan grasses, covered by hundreds of zebra and wildebeest. The scene resembled a mini Serengeti, all that was missing were the squadrons of mini buses!

An unforgettable grand finale was played out as we cantered for a mile and a half alongside a mixed herd of over 500 zebra and wildebeest. The dust our horse’s hooves kicked up mingled with theirs. At the time I was riding Mashushu, (meaning fishing spear in Setswana) a well put together light grey homebred, sired from their herd patriarch, a saddlebred stallion and out of an anglo arab mare.

He had certainly become my favorite horse of the five I had ridden during our safari. Soft in the mouth and nimble of foot, made cantering next to this massive herd of wild ungulates, like floating on a cattle egrets feather in a gentle African breeze!

That afternoon as we rode through a gate in the “Buffalo Fence” a sad realisation overcame us, we knew an experience we could never have imagined was coming to an end! We had become more attuned to our surroundings and had been given a glimpse into a way of life that the early hunters and explorers to Africa had relished for years and often, lifetimes!

The horses and staff had come to the end of a busy safari season! The following day the horses were loaded onto a large 7-ton truck and driven home in relays to Guma, Barneys and PJs farm on the edge of the biggest lagoon in the Okavango Delta.

Horses at sunset
  What a sight to see them unload and roll in the lush green grass that would be their home of rest and recuperation over the next four months!

There can be no other equine experience to rival this ride through so much natural wilderness, masses of game, multitudes of birds, amazing meals, comfortable and scenic camps and as in the words of Ki Hayman -Joyce “I rode 9 different horses and enjoyed them all!” What more could one want?

Other Horse Safari Reports
>The Migration in Masai Mara, Kenya
>The Ride Home in the Okavango, Botswana
>Okavango Horse Safaris, Botswana

Sample itineraries
>10 day Okavango Delta, Botswana
>10 day Mara, Kenya
>10 day Laikipia, Kenya