Out of Africa, into nature

Riding in the Okavango Delta.Botswana
Riding in the Okavango Delta.Botswana
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THE mention of Botswana tends to bring a smile to the faces of people who are fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. “Ah yes, will you be going to Gaborone?” they say knowledgeably. The country’s capital is the home of Mma Ramotswe, proprietor of the famous agency, and her husband, Mr. JLB. Maketoni.

The book’s characters and these gentle stories have helped to make this peaceful country better known. But there is much more to explore than Gabarone and we are embarking on a quite different adventure.

It turns out to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Our destination is the Okavango Delta which is on the northern edge of the Kalahari desert and is the only inland delta in the world. The delta is formed by the Okavango river spilling out into the sand and this ready supply of water attracts a huge variety of wildlife.

The journey there is no mere hop and a skip. From Johannesburg we fly to Maun, the nearest airport to the delta and from there in a small, eight-seater plane flown by a very youthful looking pilot, to an airstrip called Cement. There is a bumpy journey by jeep and then the last lap is by boat to our camp.

This is a safari on horseback, the most thrilling way to explore the delta and get close to game. Our stay begins with a short talk about what to do in case of emergency (do not leave the guides) and the various hand signals that will alert us to the different animals.

And before we can get too nervous, we are heading out for an early evening ride and a taste of what will be in store for us over this varied terrain of floodplains, marshes, wide open spaces and wooded islands.

Over 40 horses are stabled at the camp at Macatoo and it is the job of Motamedi Manyema, known as Mod, to match riders with a suitable horse. They range from thoroughbreds and Anglo Arabs to Kalahari-Arab cross-breeds and Namibian Hanoverians. There are even two huge Percherons proving to be quite at home splashing through the water.

All are fit and sure footed as we soon discovered on our first ride into the bush. There is always a lead guide who carries a rifle and a guide who rides at the back, for safety – his job is to lead us out of trouble if any situation looks dangerous. Our first encounter with elephants seemed a bit too close for comfort but Motsugi, or Mots, our guide, assured us all was well and the fact that they were flapping their ears and looking menacing was simply their way of cooling off in the heat.

Further encounters during the week were rather more hair-raising when we got close to breeding herds but we never needed to make a quick getaway.

Being on horseback proved to be the best possible way of viewing the different game, from elephants and stately moving giraffes, to shy zebras, antelopes, warthogs, wildebeest, red lechwe, kudu and buffalo. A herd of buffalo passed us at speed one day in a great cloud of dust.

The guides were expert at tracking the animals and on two or three memorable occasions we came upon groups of giraffe and were so close we could canter alongside them over the grassy flood plain.

In other areas we rode through clear streams, sometimes with the water coming up to our knees and in others we had long, wet, splashy canters through shallower water. The horses seemed to enjoy this as much as we did, splashing and soaking us as they hit the water. Then it would be time to stand quietly and watch some of the wildlife nearby. There might be storks about to take off or kingfishers hovering and huge, sea eagles circling overhead.

At other times, on dry land, Mots would stop to point out the footprints of a hyena or a lion or the remnants of a carcass. An elephant skull and other bones remained where an old elephant had died and other members of the herd still return there to mourn.

To avoid the worst heat of the day, we started out every morning at 7.30am to ride for four hours. We always stopped for a break to have a drink and a snack but the guides were careful to keep watch in case we needed to move off quickly.

Those of us not used to getting back on board from ground level kept an eye open for a handy log and often a termite mound proved useful. A fellow rider, who was used to a rather smart riding establishment in Surrey, couldn’t wait to tell them back home about that alternative mounting block.

Back at camp we learned to watch out for the resident elephants which included a mother and baby. One afternoon they spent a happy half-hour on the edge of the water just outside our tent, the baby learning to take a mud bath while mum watched on.

We had visits from a family of baboons, the babies having great fun jumping on the roof of a neighbouring tent and then sliding down. The adults seemed to be screeching at them, at which point we decided to retreat inside the tent. Little bushbucks also often wandered by, snacking on leaves and fallen berries.

It took a while to get used to the various noises at night. The frogs made a terrific racket and there was a huge amount of splashing on a couple of occasions. That, we were told later, was probably a hippo. Somewhere, out in the darkness, was the distant but unmistakeable roar of a lion.

We were advised not to worry if the elephants came near the tent, they wouldn’t trample on it as to them, it looked like a solid building.

We weren’t so sure about that, (their eyesight isn’t all that good) when one night an enormous elephant spent sometime munching on the branches of a tree overhanging our tent, his vast presence obvious through the mesh at the back of the tent.

On another occasion, two elephants came past, shaking branches and making a rumbling noise as they ate. We watched as they delicately picked up nuts from the ground and chewed contentedly.

All too soon it was time for our last morning ride. It had been a memorable week in so many ways and we ended it with an exhilarating canter through the water alongside a herd of giraffes.

As we made our way back to the stables, our horses ambling along as we took in the view for the last time, a zebra walked quietly across our path.

These shy animals usually take flight but not this time. What could have been a better way to say farewell?

Getting there

Botswana is a landlocked country, bordered to the South and South East by South Africa, to the West by Namibia and to the north and north-east by Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Kalahari Desert covers roughly two-thirds of the country. Botswana has set aside a large percentage of land for national parks and game reserves.

The Okavango Delta, the Jewel of the Kalahari, forms where the Okavango river spills out forming palm islands, grassy flood plains, mopane forest and clear streams. The highest water is usually between May and September.

Air Botswana flies from Johannesburg to Gaborone, Kasane and Maun. A number of companies operate within the delta and for or more information contact In the Saddle, tel. 01299 272 232.