South Africa- A Week in the Bush

by Marta Goldsmith

We gathered on the pool deck overlooking the lake for our gin and tonic “sundowners”. It was our first evening at the ranch, after a full day of riding out into the African bush. As we sipped our drinks, we heard the roar of the giant bull hippo, which spends most of his evenings in the reeds across the lake. But on this evening, he chose to swim across to the mud dam, just a couple of hundred yards from where we stood. As we watched, he lumbered out of the water and up to the crest of the dam where we could see his full length and girth, almost too massive to be real, before he waddled over the dam and down into the grass on the other side for an evening of grazing.

Horizon Horseback Adventures in the Waterberg Biosphere of northern South Africa is the ideal place for riders of all levels to get “up close and personal” with African wildlife. Located in the middle of a private game reserve, the cozy lodge, surrounded by stucco and thatched-roof guest cottages, serves as the base camp for day rides into the bush. My daughter, Sophie, and I spent a week there this past December, happy to leave winter behind for the perfect, blue-sky days of the South African summer. With a capacity of only twelve guests, each day’s ride is tailored to the interests and skill levels of individual guests.

Each morning, after an early breakfast, we would meet up with our carefully selected mount for a ride out. With over 60 well-trained horses, each guest felt comfortable and well matched to their horse. Our daily rides included wandering through the bush along the miles of sandy trails, as well as plenty of trots and canters when the terrain allowed. In the course of the week, the knowledgeable guides helped us track down kudu (a large antelope with stripes across its back and haunch), African grey monkeys, zebra, blesbok, warthog, giraffe and, that most dangerous of African wildlife, the hippo. Each day, we would return to the lodge before the heat of the day for lunch and a few hours of relaxing before tea and our afternoon rides.

“Who wants to learn to play polocrosse this afternoon?” asked Horizon guide, Jace, over lunch on our second afternoon at the ranch. Polocrosse, he explained, is a game that combines polo and lacrosse, played on horseback with racquets and a soft rubber ball. The racquets have handles about three-feet long and nets about six inches in diameter and four inches deep. Most of the guests, including Sophie and me, were up for the new experience. After a bit of instruction and practice at the polocrosse field, six of us – three on each team – lined up for the toss in. After many misses, I finally was able to pick up the ball in the net of my racquet. I galloped down the field with Sophie, on the opposing team, rapidly coming up on my left to ride me off. As I approached the goal, laughing so hard I had trouble keeping my seat, I was suddenly aware of Jace’s whistle…. again. “You have to pass the ball to your teammate, as you cross the mid-field line”, he remind me once again. It was one of several rules that I couldn’t seem to remember. But my teammates were tolerant, as they were all learning along with me, and we were there for the fun, more than the score. After an hour or so of active play, we headed back to the ranch for our sundowners, a pleasant dinner and an early turn in, exhausted and happy.

Polocrosse is one of several activities that Horizon offers, in addition to the morning game rides. During the week, we also rustled cattle, played western games – including barrel racing and slaloming on horseback -- and visited a nearby village to see local crafts. The staff was always thinking of ways to make our stay special and memorable. Late one morning, for example, as we were returning to the lodge after an unusually hot and dusty ride, we turned a corner on the trail to discover that the staff had set up a Bush Brunch, which consisted of a full breakfast, cooked over an open fire and laid out, lakeside, for our enjoyment. We dismounted, dined and then washed off the dust and heat with a swim in the lake with the horses before heading back to the lodge.

“What would you like to do on your last ride?” our guide Kate asked us on the final morning of our stay. It was cool and lightly overcast, after a soaking rain the night before. “Go look for giraffe,” I responded immediately. While we had been out every morning for a week, we had caught only a brief glimpse of one lone giraffe. So with Sophie on her favorite mount, M’Voula, and me on Gun Metal, we headed out. Soon, we came across some giraffe tracks, easy to see because of the recent rain. We followed them up the hill and through the brush for a while, but with no success.

Finally, Kate said, “The best way to find a giraffe is to stop looking.” So off we headed up the sandy track for a good canter. Sure enough, within a minute, Kate pulled her horse up short and we followed suit. There, not fifty yards away, was a family of five giraffes, including a baby of about five months. We quietly circled around them and watched them graze on their favorite thorny acacia trees for several minutes. They seemed unconcerned by our presence, perhaps because the horses’ grazing area is not too far away. As we headed back to the ranch to finish packing and say our goodbyes, Sophie and I felt that our week in the bush was complete. We could head home with memories and stories to get us through the remainder of the cold winter and the time until we can take our next horseback adventure.

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