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  Safari Report: Okavango Horse Safaris, Botswana
Framed between my horses smooth white ears was the stately form of a majestic African elephant. As the bull moved closer to inspect these unusual looking zebra his massive body no longer fitted between my erect equine sights. His rounded belly now bulged on either side of the fine Arab ears, while his raised head, tusks and trunk filled the gap between. Suddenly the elephant was in full view, for me to behold his imposing presence, as my horse, a homebred, Arab cross American Saddler, now bored with yet another elephant sighting lowered his head and tore at the lush green grass at his feet.

It was incredulous to sit aloft an unfazed horse and enjoy a close encounter with this huge, grey animal, who’s long and shapely vegetable stained tusks surrounded an up curled, scenting trunk. The setting was staged to the sound of horses munching contentedly on the lush rich grasses of the Okavango while opportunity presented itself.

A small group of us had flown from various countries to the sublime beauty of the Okavango Delta, an aquatic gem magically embedded in the dry sands of northern Botswana. This was the highest level that the life giving waters of the earth’s largest inland delta had been in 12 years. Eight of us were seated on full-blooded 4 x 4’s. A variety of well-schooled and much loved horses, owned by Barney and PJ Bestelink who operate and own the longest established horse safaris company in Southern Africa. With PJ’s wealth of knowledge gleaned from 32 continuous years of safaris in the Delta combined with Barney’s unmatched dedication and understanding of her herd of 54 horses, it is no wonder that this is one of the premier riding holidays to be found anywhere.

During our six days stay in this scenic and animal rich wilderness, we never encountered a single human that wasn’t part of their small, friendly and well organised staff. There were no power, railway and telephone lines, tar or gravel roads, villages, farms, fences or sign of man. Our senses were allowed to feast on a kaleidoscope of multi coloured birds and flowers, a variety of perfectly formed wild animals in their hundreds scattered across the endless expanses of grasses; red, orange, yellow and lime green, waiving in a welcome spring breeze.

This was to be my fourth visit to Okavango Horse Safaris, this time though, with a special addition for me; my 12 year old daughter who had been pleading to come for years. I had been apprehensive in the past to bring her to pursue her love for horses and the great outdoors. As an overcautious parent I had worried about her not being strong enough to control her horse if we found ourselves in an unplanned situation.
It is difficult to describe how endearing it was to watch her follow Barney like a shadow as we cantered for long periods along well used elephant trails. These ancient highways wound their way along the periphery of the channels and lagoons which make up so much of their 2500 square kilometre concession within the Delta. I watched from behind as her ponytail bobbed rhythmically and her smile seemed to meet at each ear.
She rode three sprightly little Arabs and a 16-hand thoroughbred with ease and passion. They were not at all like riding school ponies that are often devoid of individualism. Each of us rode at least three horses during our five-day stay, every single rider so happy with each mount that we were reluctant to change. Yet each time we were presented with a new horse, it wasn’t long until the fond memory of the last horse began to wane by the comfort and responsiveness of the new mount.

Each morning at the break of dawn we were greeted by a cheerful voice as tea, coffee and biscuits were placed on the veranda of our comfortable safari tents. Within half an hour we were clutching our second cup of coffee around the flickering flames of a welcoming camp fire as we compared nocturnal noises. We were only metres away from the edge of the still, glass like waters of the Kudjwana Lagoon, reflecting the soft pastel colours of the dawn sky. After a light breakfast of assorted cereals, fruit, porridge, toast and rusks we mounted in time to enjoy the suns fiery globe, cresting an expansive horizon. It was a welcome sight on three mornings when all our senses were instantly awakened as we swam our horses across lily covered lagoons to our waiting saddles and dry clothes on the opposite side. These had been poled across by makoro (fibreglass replicas of dug out canoes). There were yells of shocked delight as our horses backs submerged beneath the water cooled by a chilly night. We straddled our horses bare back, one hand clutching a fist of mane the other a knotted rein.


My daughter aged 10 swimming a channel on Mexico
  While drying off and changing into our jodhpurs, chaps or leggings our horses were saddled up by smiling staff, amused at the human spectacle they had just witnessed. For the next few hours we explored a postage stamp piece of the Okavango Delta from the elevated position of our horses. It was incredible how close we could approach all the animals, which showed no signs of fear or stress. The upright silhouette of this two legged beast that had persecuted them for centuries was broken as we sat astride a colourful collection of Arabs, Thoroughbreds, Boerperds and Saddlebreds. The water loving red lechwe were plentiful as were zebra, wildebeest, tssesebe and impala. What a thrill to canter alongside the slow motion gait of a lone giraffe or to feel, taste and smell the dust of a zebra herd, only metres in front of us as we chased at a playful canter.

After two hours we would dismount, cross stirrups and lead our horses. This was to give their backs a rest and stretch our legs. We didn’t have aching backsides thanks to excellent tack and the comfort of saddle savers.

After mount up, we set of for another few hours of cantering, trotting and walking along game trails through a variety of habitat. From the soft Kalahari sands shaded by gnarled camelthorn acacia forest we would enter a treeless expanse of shallow channels and lagoons fringed by shoreline birds and waterfowl.

Our riding was punctuated by an orange and chocolate break which always seemed to arrive at an opportune time. Our horses were tied in a half picket, stirrups pulled up, girths loosened and nose bands released. These stops were always in a scenic area, offering the elevated view of a shaded termite mound. Before setting off again saddles were moved forward, coats checked to ensure there was no saddle rub. The lack of saddle sore scars is testimony to the care and attention given to Barney and PJ’s most important assets. The ride would then loop back to camp arriving at around 1:00 pm with a group of ravenous riders and horses. Both were well fed within minutes. Our variety of well prepared and wholesome meals looked far more appetising than that of our faithful mounts who are generously fed at dawn, noon, dusk and midnight.

During the afternoons we were taken out on game walks, poled in mokoros, planed along narrow channels by PJ in the motorboat to bird watch, fish and enjoy the unblemished beauty of this magnificent area. Game drives retuned beneath the powerful beam of a spotlight, searching out the reflective eyes of those fascinating creatures that inhabit the secretive cover of darkness.

Ten minutes into our makoro trip we were treated to a cheetah feeding off its impala kill. This spectacular sight was accompanied to a display of six bull elephants who playfully splashed, dunked and submerged their black pachyderm bodies less than a hundred metres away.

On the second morning we rode off to Kiri Camp, one of two fly camps, half a days ride from Kujwana base camp. From this secluded little camp we rode out daily to explore a new area and different habitat, home to large herds of animals. Although a smaller and more rustic camp we still wanted for nothing. The days dust was washed of by hot bucket showers beneath a star studded sky. Spacious tents offered comfortable beds covered with clean sheets and duvet. Colourfully dressed camp staff served delicious meals.

Our ride home to the base camp for our last night took most of the day. As we entered the deep shade of an extensive ebony grove we were staggered by a table spread with an appetising picnic lunch, spread from end to end. Stretcher beds were made up for us to point ten toes to the sky during the midday heat. Late that afternoon as we approached camp, we were treated to our longest and most exciting swim with our trusty steeds, while PJ kept watch for crocodiles and hippo from a nearby motor boat.

The highlights for me? There were many. One of the most important was the high calibre of horses we were all provided with. Then on our first day PJ noticed a tree draped thick and heavy in vultures. As we rode up eleven hyena guiltily appeared out of a thick clump of red and orange grass. They were feeding off a freshly killed zebra. Our horses were reluctant to go in too close; they could smell the strong stench of blood and opened gut. I could feel the pounding heartbeat against my left calf as I urged my silver grey towards the kill. It was surrounded by whooping and cackling hyena who resembled crazy court jesters in their spotted coats and bloodied faces. All our horses reversed back a few paces as a flock of vultures noisily flew up from the rapidly diminishing carcass. A bold hyena ran off with a striped foreleg while another gave chase. We spent close on 30 minutes enjoying one of natures wild spectacles, all from the elevated comfort of our loyal, hard working 4 x 4s that gave each of us the opportunity to be individuals. Not all bouncing around in the back of a mechanical 4 x 4. Possibly the most special of all for me was to hear my daughter mention that the horse safari with Barney and PJ had been the best experience of her life!

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