On a riding high in Africa

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iol travel dec 6 Mashatu Game Reserve

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Elephants at Mashatu Game Reserve. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Gabarone - The usual form at hotel check-in is an admiring look at the contemporary design concept, a quick glance at the in-house technology and an initial perusal of the room service menu. Here, it was a brief introduction delivered under canvas to the protocol when confronted with a threatening herd of elephants or a lion.

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man, said Winston Churchill, and a horse-riding holiday proves that. Think of the world s most spectacular scenic destinations and the top-drawer equine travel company In The Saddle will inevitably have an establishment there.

A 12-hour flight to Johannesburg and six-hour drive north to Pont Drift brings you, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River , at the border of Botswana.

A 4x4 lurches down into a dry river bed and careers up the other side to deposit you at the palm-thatched headquarters of Limpopo Valley horse Safaris.

Flutes of cool, crisp apple juice are handed round before lunch in the shade.

And a with a light dusting of red desert sand, you are transformed from tourist into a traveller. It’s hard to describe just how liberating it is to lock up your passport, cash, credit cards and digital paraphernalia, and mentally throw away the key.

I pulled on an earthy-coloured riding kit and was introduced to a handsome bay horse by the name of Rhodes. He was very different from any horse I had ever ridden, but it is essential to travel with an open mind. Rhodes rode rough, but no terrain was too treacherous and very soon I was happy to trust him with my life.

At Limpopo Valley, the horses are tutored in an equine drill a week of schooling in preparation for carrying a new rider, then a week out on safari rewarded by a week of rest.

The result is a string of versatile, sure-footed and well-mannered horses.

I was taken by surprise to learn that trotting had been deleted from the repertoire of paces, so we went from an energetic walk straight into what Disraeli described as the cure for every evil the canter!

Imagine sitting in your favourite armchair and rocking across the immense, remote savannah that is Mashatu Game Reserve, home to at least three of African wildlife’s Big Five stars - the African elephant, lion and leopard -along with an extraordinary supporting cast featuring cheetahs, giraffes, ostriches, wildebeests, hyenas, jackals, warthogs, porcupines, tawny eagles, crocodiles and hippos, to name but a few.

The indigenous mashatu tree is vast and canopied and a favourite haunt of the python and vulture, while the nightmarish baobab tree looks as if it’s been planted upside-down.

So, with our constant and fearless guides West and Impho setting the pace, we rode into the sunset towards our first base camp, Two Mashatus.

In the space of 24 hours, the simple things we take granted as essentials, such as electricity and running water, were replaced by flickering candlelight. At the ring of a cowbell, hot water to shower in was delivered to your tent.

Given that we were in deep-est, darkest Africa, it was nothing short of a miracle to hear our cook, the magnificently named Mighty, take us through our full and varied dinner menu while we savoured a South African merlot.

Our safari party consisted of an American professor, Steve, who was treating his daughter Alyssa to this holiday as a graduation gift, 12 years and two children too late. Alyssa had done some showjumping, while Steve’s riding was rusty Western-style. Becca from New York perched short-reined and rode daintily European.

In The Saddle devotees Ben and Judy, from Saltspring Island, Canada, travelled with their own endurance riding equipment light stirrups, jodhpurs with ded seats, padand ventilated crash helmets. Unbelievably, this was their 44th holiday on horseback.

This group had chosen the Lim-spectacular popo Lodge Safari from the selection of expeditions on offer as it takes you on a progressive ney, joursampling a selection of lodges. Traditionally, a safari is under canvas and that is where we started and finished, under the canopy of Two Mashatus camp.

A 5.30am cup of tea was a welcome start to the day. Fresh fruits and porridge made for a sunrise breakfast, and by 7am, in the cool, still silence of the ing, we were in the saddle.

No animal call, morn-footprint or dropping went unidentified by West, our ride leader, or by Impho tracking behind, using a sequence of whistles and the crack of a bullwhip to communicate with each other.

But that was just the start of it. Between them, they spoke an array of languages, mixed cious gin-and-tonic sundowners on the evening game drives and were well versed in dinner-party conversation.

They managed to deal with our eccentric requests, from removing unwanted geckos to finding lost contact lenses and providing Marmite, with less humour and good grace.

Some facts about Botswana you might not know:

Relent it is about the size of France and is one of the few African countries with a stable currency. We also learned the sap of the Euphorbia candelabra can cause blindness and hallucinations and giraffes are short-sighted, as we discovered when taking them by surprise cantering alongside a loping herd was one of the many unforgettable memories to bring home from these seven days. That and riding beside a dazzle of zebra.

From dawn to dusk, we gathered red dust and experiences. Pulling up mid-morning under the shade of a mashatu tree, I shared an apple with trusty Rhodes and realised that I was going to miss Botswana.

Sure, the lodges were lovely, with panoramas from rocky outcrops or riverside vistas and ing pools, cool-but it was something simple about the rhythm of the day spent in the saddle and living this close to nature.

How do we know which direction we are riding in? I asked. Direct the white-back sparrow-weaver nests on the west of a tree, replied Impho.

Forget the world of satnav and Google Maps. Let s face it: that’s all you really ever need to know. - Daily Mail

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