“Big 5” Horse Safari – South Africa

Lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino — the famous “Big 5”. I did not see lion so I will have to go back. The “Big 5” safari allows you to see two quite different areas and offers great opportunities to see game. It combines four days of riding in South Africa’s Waterberg and four days of riding in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve. The South African portion is run by Horizon Horseback Adventures and Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris runs the second four days in south eastern Botswana.

Mashatu Game Reserve elephants

South Africa’s Waterberg is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and the first four days of riding are at either Jembisa Lodge or Dinaka depending on the time of the year. We stayed at Jembisa which has the feel of an elegant private home. Jembisa Lodge is situated on its own private reserve, ‘Lapalala River Reserve’. It was certainly one of the most luxurious places we have ever stayed. Our room was a suite with a huge bedroom, large dressing room and an enormous bathroom. Outside in the gardens there is a swimming pool and tennis courts.

Jembisa Lodge

The day starts with 7:30 breakfast and the pattern is a long morning and a short afternoon with a long lunch break in between for an elaborate lunch served with drinks and wine. On a couple of days the afternoon ride stopped at a view point where “sundowners” were waiting. Some afternoons, we went on game drives or walks.

The riding from Jembisa is through privately owned game parks and usually on red tracks. This is an area of plain’s game is home to white rhino, giraffe, buffalo and the san rock art that is evidence of the hunter gatherers who lived in this area over 400 years ago. There is lots of tree cover and river valleys. We spotted a young crocodile hiding in a small pool. We had one exciting encounter with a herd of buffalo. We were galloping along a track and the buffalo were crossing the track at top speed. No buffalo horse collisions but lots of adrenaline.

rescued black rhino

One afternoon we went to an orphan black rhino sanctuary where Konita Walker, wife of conservationist Clive Walker has raised both black and white rhino. A baby rhino was rescued after being attacked by a male rhino. Her young mother was unable to defend her and she was close to death when rescued. After many months at the veterinary college she was given to Mrs Walker. The young female rhino was too accustomed to people to ever be returned to the wild. We got to do what everyone wants to do — touch and feed the rhino. Mrs Walker gave each of us a handful of pellets and the rhino took them from our hand very gently. And I confess lining up to get a second chance to feed her.

wild white rhino

The fence was quite open so we could reach through and scratch the rhino. I chose her ears edged with stiff hair. In contrast to seeing the orphan black rhino, we saw a large group of white rhino feeding peacefully at sunset in a river valley. We were in a game vehicle so we could stop and stay to watch the family groups feeding – quite a peaceful sight in contrast to the Hollywood image of charging rhinos. White rhinos have a broad square face because they feed on the ground and the smaller black ones have a beak like nose because they feed on twigs and branches.

On day 5, after an early morning ride we were driven by van to the border where we were met by Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris. Two quick stops to clear immigration and customs, and then a short drive to camp in the Mashatu Game Reserve. This area borders South Africa and the great Limpopo River flows through it. Known as the ‘Land of Giants’ for its large population of elephant and massive Baobab and Mashatu trees.

The terrain varies from thick thorn scrub and tall leadwood, Mashatu and fever trees to vast semi-arid plains with striking rocky ‘kopies’ and sandstone outcrops that jut into the horizon. The contrast in landscape between Jembisa and Mashatu is very distinct. Jembisa was greener with more foliage and Mashutu drier and rockier. The mighty Limpopo river was reduced to a few pools and the horses were determined to roll when they found a pool and a few managed it giving their riders a nice coat of damp sand and mud. At other times of the year, the Limpopo can run strongly and the landscape would be greener.

At Limpopo Valley Horse safaris the pattern is to move camp every day. Our first Mashatu camp had open-air bathrooms at the back of large tents furnished with camp beds. Day begins at 5 a.m. with tea or coffee delivered to your tent, breakfast at 5:30 and start riding at 6:30 when it is still cool. Rides are broken by a sandwich stop around 9 a.m and lunch is served when you arrive at camp. Late afternoons there are game drives or walks. There are plenty of chances for long, fast canters, zig-zagging through the scrub and along dry river beds. We were there in a dry time and often arrived at camp completely coated with red dust.

The game is amazing. On this half of the Big 5 safari, there were more animals and a greater variety of game. We watched large matriarchal herds of elephant and groups of giraffe browsing the tree line and zebra grazing the plains. Giraffe in zoos look awkward and uncoordinated but in the wild their graceful rocking horse gait is very fast. Zebra are often with the giraffes because the giraffe can spot predators long before the zebra. We were very lucky to see a leopard and a family of cheetahs. We saw the cheetahs on a night game drive. Three babies were curled up in a small depression in the grass. Their mother was off hunting and the babies had been told to stay and they did in spite of the spotlight. We watched them for quite a while and I felt that shining the light on them was intrusive but I was the only person who felt that way. Mum cheetah was not likely to come back with us shining light on her family. The warthogs run with their tales straight up and the babies are a lot more appealing than their parents. Impala, bachelor herds of eland and big troops of baboons became commonplace to us. We became quite blasé about seeing impala. And started saying things like “Oh just another impala”.

Taking photographs of game is much more difficult than it looks. The vividly striped zebras and tall spotted giraffe stand out so plainly when you are looking at them but in photographs you discover exactly how their camouflage markings blend into the landscape. When we look at some of the photos, we wonder why did we ever take that but after close examination you can discover the animals almost invisible against trees or skyline but not something that will impress your friends. (Which is why there are no photos of giraffe or zebra in this article.)

One of the highlights is Kgotla Camp an old African “boma “ which is a little like a fort or stockade with a large circle of leadwood tree trunks enclosing your sleeping cots, a fire pit and lots of tables and chairs. This “boma” had formerly been a tribal court. I am not keen on communal sleeping arrangements but I found sleeping out under the stars safely enclosed in the ancient “boma” a unique experience. A few lanterns are left out to show the way to the showers and bathrooms and outside the stockade there are big fires kept burning all night to frighten off the predators. The horses are on a highline close to the fires. Kgotla camp has an authentic “Out of Africa” quality.

In the late afternoons there were game drives or walks. On one we climbed up to a rocky little plateau for a sunset view over the savannah and searched for one of the “little 5”, the elephant shrew, and they did come out tempted by our homemade potato chips but no gin and tonic for them. Another walk featured a traditional contest of spitting dried impala dung. Not everyone tried that but the winners certainly felt they had bragging rights.

There are a few spots where a series of cross country jumps have been set up and sometimes added to by the elephants pushing down trees. The group stops before the jumps and guests can opt out, jump an easy set or a longer more difficult set of jumps.

How to compare the two halves of the ride? The South African part is easier riding, very luxurious accommodations, and great food. In Botswana, Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris seemed a bigger landscape with the sense of being in a huge natural area, more difficult riding, more game, but tents not grand bedrooms. You see game on both parts of the ride but we saw more game in Botswana.

One of the ways to judge a ride is to ask if you would go again. For the Limpopo, yes I would for sure and I would like to do their seven day Tuli Safari. For the South African part in the Waterberg, I would choose another ride. I did like it though, after all who would not like staying at Jembisa?

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