Alexander Matthews hops onto an invigorating alternative to the conventional bush breakaway.
I hate game drives: I hate bumping up and down a gravel track, trapped in a noisy vehicle for hours seeing everything at a safe remove until you’re eventually let out for an anaesthetising sundowner and a handful of peanuts. The more time I spend in the bush, the more I hanker after being completely immersed in it. Hands down the most exhilarating way of doing so is when you’re in the saddle – as I discovered on a recent visit to Horizon Horseback Safaris in the Waterberg, biosphere reserve just several hours from Johannesburg, South Africa.
I arrive just in time for tea and scones on the verandah, before donning helmet and gaiters and heading to the mounting post to saddle up. Nervousness flickers through me as the mare is led to me — it’s been years since my last ride.
I needn’t have worried though — as we walk in single file past the neat stables into the bush she proves to be an easygoing gal. Nina Koerber, a German volunteer, has indicated the various hand signals – for “Slow down”, “Stop” and “Aardvark hole!” (there’s a few of those to watch out for). She’s made sure I’m sitting comfortably, that the stirrups are the right length, and shows me how to grip the reins in one hand.
What a ride! Watched by zebra, impala and kudu, we progress from walking to trotting. Then it’s time to canter. I marvel at the fluid, powerful grace of it – I’m flying, copper leaves and branches feathering out over me, dust caught in the sun’s sloppy descent. We reach a rocky outcrop. Bushy hills ripple away from us to the horizon; I can’t spot a single building. We dismount for sundowners — a G&T and snacks, while the kitchen staff who have arrived in a bakkie gather to sing gospel songs that seem to soar up into the glowing sky.
Back at the lodge, I shower and change in my spacious, thatched quarters before wandering with a torch through the cool grounds to the dining room. A massive fire spits and flickers in the grate. Ravenous, I tuck into a hearty stew at the communal table with the other guests.
The next few days unspool with a gentle predictability — scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast on the stoep, a morning ride, then lunch (delicious quiche, or salad and kebabs) in the sun close to the dam. A lazy afternoon of reading and writing is followed by tea before the sunset ride. There are more than 90 horses here, and they’re all different — some are more stubborn, others responsive and quick. As the head guide Kirsty Evans says: “Some horses you can be a passenger on; others you have to ride.”
It’s a beautiful additional dimension to the safari experience — instead of being a passive observer of the bush, you are a part of it, having to navigate its narrow paths with care. This consideration in turn makes you more attentive: you notice more, in other words. You won’t encounter lion or leopard here — but there’s still heaps to see: the flat hovels carved out by porcupines, the spray of a male hippo dung on bushes. As you traverse the sides of koppies, you’ll marvel at the surging candelabra euphorbias dripping their toxic red berries; as you saunter past dams and waterholes, you’ll most likely spy sunbathing Cape clawless otters, or wallowing hippos and crocs. I get up close to a pair of unperturbed giraffes munching leaves high above us, and spy an eland half-hidden in the trees.
For my last night, I ride up to Camp Davison — perched atop a koppie about a half-hour’s ride from the lodge. I’m shown to my tent: there are two bunk beds, and on the other side is a screened-off bathroom area replete with bucket shower and flushing loo.
After the evening ride, I settle down in a director’s chair by the blazing fire. A new moon curls over in the thickening dusk. Later, as we tuck into braaied steak in the dining tent, we hear the lions rumble from a neighbouring property. I sleep blissfully.
In the morning, I ride back to the lodge with the same horse, Spice — a plucky, strong beast who I’ve been told loves swimming as much as I do. His saddle unsheathed, I meet him at the edge of the dam. At the time, both of us are happily oblivious to the hippos lurking on the other side. I clamber onto his bare back, jabbing his sides so that he marches forward. It’s late winter and the water’s freezing, but we take the plunge anyway. I exit ten minutes later, soaked and triumphant and dizzyingly cold. Somehow it’s a fitting end to this invigorating bush breakaway.
Horizon Horseback Safaris is in the malaria-free Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, about a three-hour drive from Johannesburg. Rates start from £165 (approx R2900) per person per night (adults) and £138 (R2500) per child per night (16 years and younger; under 2 stay free). This includes accommodation, all meals and beverages including wines and spirits, all riding, guided bush walks and laundry.