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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading “Big 5” Horse Safari – South Africa
From the rolling open grasslands of Argentina, up through Andean steppes, fording rivers, through great forests, over a wind-swept pass and down into lush green Chile – it is a unique experience. The ride is run by Jane Williams of Estancia Huechahue and starts out from Huechahue near San Martin de los Andes in Argentina’s Patagonia and ends up near Puente Barras in Chile. It is nine days of riding long hours.
We went a few days early to have some time to ride at Huechahue. Days on the estancia are dependent on the guests’ wishes and whatever work is going on. We chose to accompany the gauchos’ rounding up cows and calves and helping to vaccinate the calves, or at least chase them into the pens. We passed on the castrating part. It is a wonderful landscape to ride through looking for cattle in wide open grasslands punctuated by stony cliffs and canyons. We carried traditional cattle slapping implements – I have no idea what they are called. They have a wooden handle and a short leather blade or strap and you use them to hit the cattle, slap your boot or saddle to make a loud noise or even on occasion to encourage your horse. Day two I abandoned mine. Cattle work is often not fast riding but we made up for that after we left the cattle and had lots of good canters on the way home. One day we spotted a wild boar family with parents and 10 or 12 tiny babies. The babies are very cute with their little tails straight up in the air but their parents are not nearly so appealing. Another day we saw a group of Guanacos with tiny wooly babies.
There are several cliffs that have caves. One day’s ride took us to see caves that were first used for native burials and then Christian burials. It is surprising to see the crosses in the caves marking Christian burials. Another older burial cave system has no remains left at all. It is reached by some very careful crawling through narrow tunnels. Our guide went ahead and lit candles. It was an amazing site with the flaring candles illuminating the rock walls.
When the rest of the group arrived, we spent the first two days at Huechahue and tried out several horses to decide which equine companion we wanted to ride across the Andes. It was difficult to choose. The horses are Argentian Criollos or crosses and are incredibly fit. I hated choosing but was told firmly that I could only take one. Day three we started on our adventure riding out across the grasslands towards the white cone of the Lanin volcano.
The tack is functional rawhide rather than polished leather. The saddles are based on a McClellan tree and covered in sheepskin, very comfortable. The horses are very well looked after. They are unsaddled at lunch time, their backs rinsed with a bucket of water and they are usually turned out or tied where they can graze. The lunch breaks are long so humans and equines get a chance to have a siesta. Sometimes the lunches come by van and on other days they are carried in your saddlebags. On saddlebag picnic days, I usually tried to avoid carrying the wine or the horse food and grabbed the bread and the plastic cups. I am sure my horse appreciated that. The lunches are delicious but they do emphasize meat. This is not a ride that caters for vegetarians.
Camping is not for me but I knew that I would love the riding so I decided to brave the six nights of camping. Not only did I survive, I thrived on it but I must admit that the camping was pretty comfortable. Our first night out on the camping part, we rode into camp to see a white linen covered table of drinks beside a roaring fire. The tents were comfortable and the sleeping bags warm. Our camp sites were beside rivers and the hardy swam and the timid bathed timidly using our washing up bowls to pour water over ourselves. The turn down service was a plastic wash up bowl, a small towel, a packet of Kleenex and of course a wrapped chocolate. Continue reading Across the Andes – Argentina to Chile
This is a great ride for sightseers – people who want to see the countryside from the back of a horse. It is not really a ride for those of us who love to ride. Careful planning has gone into the itinerary to show guests the diversity of Uruguay from irrigated rice fields, rolling grasslands to strangler fig forests and miles of magnificent deserted beaches. However the riding seems less important than the sightseeing. One surprise was the flatness. I had read that Uruguay was flat and was still astonished by the flatness. You can see forever. The only “mountain” was a small hill outside of Montevido, proudly pointed out to us on a city tour.
The style of riding is to move every two days from one hotel or estancia to another, usually by van, and then ride from that location rather than riding a long distance trail. Riders change horses several times. Sometimes they are the horses of the estancia and at other times they are supplied by a local resource trucking the horses from place to place. This makes the ride feel quite different from a long distance or inn to inn trail. On long distance trails, riding the same horse, you get to know your horse partner, and at the end of the trail you have a feeling of accomplishing a journey together. The trade off in Uruguay is that you see more places.
The horses are local Criollos or mixed breeds not large animals. The tack is gaucho style tack. In trying to describe the Uruguayan gaucho saddle, the best I can come up with is imagine a leather bareback pad with a fleece cover and a set of stirrups hung far forward sort of straight down from the pommel. Forget things like knee rolls, a saddle tree or a deep seat. Some of the group managed fine with the saddles, most of us had a few adjustment problems. My saddle slipped a lot. I remember cantering down the beach trying to tell our not very fluent English speaking guide that my saddle was slipping. She kept smiling at me and saying “ Good good, you like your horse!” I gave up on that and cantered up to the Spanish speaking guide and pointed at my saddle and that worked, perhaps helped by my distinct tilt to one side. Who needs words in riding? The saddle pads were torn up bits of foam mattresses. When a new one seemed necessary the guide ripped off another slab.
At one of the estancias, English saddles were offered and I thought wonderful but English saddles have to fit the horse. This saddle was way too narrow for the poor horse and I felt I was sitting on a steep slippery slope. I had to ask for my dreaded gaucho saddle back. There might be a lesson in that — better to go native or should that be stick with the devil you know? Continue reading Uruguay Atlantic Coast Ride
Fast riding on wide open grasslands without a road or house in sight just cattle, deer, guanocos and the occasional rhea on the skyline. So far after 30 rides, this is maybe my favourite one. Patagonia is a vast area partly in Argentina and partly in Chile bounded by the Andes on the west and a desert on the east. Settlement started in the early 1900’s with Europeans buying vast estancias of thousands of acres and there is still a self sufficient frontier like feel.
After two days at Huechahue, you ride to two other estancias staying two nights at each and then one night in the town of Junin. The two estancias are quite special and both have the feel of private homes. The first Estancia Cerro de los Pinos a 20 kilometre ride from Huechahue has been recently redone and it is very elegant. It felt like an 8 star hotel. Rooms are enormous – more like suites – and the managers create a house party atmosphere. Meals are elegant and the cuisine is sophisticated European style starting with tea when you arrive, through cocktails and appetizers to dinner. Lunch is often a picnic.
On our first trip there, my husband Ben and I were the only two riding one day and we rode into a grassy clearing ringed with apple trees in bloom to find a small wooden table set with china and crystal and a chef waiting to cook our steaks. It felt a little odd to have four people waiting to serve the two of us but we decided just to go with the flow and enjoy the luxury. The second estancia is Estancia Collon Co which is a refurbished estancia home and was equally luxurious and the food was wonderful. For these two places, the effort to make people truly feel like a guest in their home works amazingly well.
The horses are strong and sensible, selected for performance rather than appearance, and they have amazing endurance. Many are locally bred Criollo or part Criollo. One day you ride the horses from Cerro de los Pinos to give the Huechahue horses a day off. The saddles are either English at Cerro de los Pinos or Huechahue uses a McLellan style army tree with sheepskin on top. These are a bit like a western saddle without the horn. The double layers of sheepskin make a very comfortable but quite high seat. It makes a 14 HH horse feel like 16HH when you are swinging your leg over the saddle. Huechahue tack is rough rawhide not the polished leather you might be used to at home but it works. The style of riding is western neck reining. Tacking and untacking is done for you. Continue reading Ride Across Patagonia