We came upon the lions suddenly. Three half-grown cubs tumbled away into the scrub forest while two big female lions spun to face us. They dropped to their bellies, no more than 50 yards away. We pulled up our horses and stood still, watching the big cats as they watched us. Then the nearer lion launched herself.
In a single motion too fast and smooth for my eye to compute, she was up and racing at us while I stood and watched in amazement like a deer in the headlights. (Article continues below)
"We're leaving now," my companion Steven said, wheeling his horse around. He cast a glance back at the onrushing lion. "Quickly," he said. "Quickly!" Then we were racing away, dodging thorn bush, leaping ditches, heading for the open flats. Ahead of me, Steven glanced back again, and the look on his face told me the lion was closing. He unfurled the bullwhip he carried, and it cracked like a rifle shot.
"That stopped her," he shouted, looking back again, but we kept galloping anyway until we were sure we'd left the lions behind.
"That's quite enough excitement before breakfast," I said as we pulled up. I rubbed the neck of my good, fast horse with considerable gratitude. Steven just laughed.
"Sometimes I'm accused of chasing the wildlife," he said, "but as you see, it's the other way around."
This was my introduction to Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris -- wildlife safaris on horseback in southern Africa, just where the Shashi and Limpopo Rivers meet and mark the boundaries between Botswana on the one hand and Zimbabwe and South Africa on the other.
We were riding on the Botswana side in an area called the Tuli Block on the Mashatu Reserve, the largest privately owned wildlife reserve in southern Africa. It's famous for its dense concentration of wildlife, including all three big cats -- lion, leopard, and cheetah -- and especially elephant. The herd, estimated at 1200, is one of the largest single populations on conservation land in southern Africa.
My companion and host was Steven Rufus. An all around horseman, Steven was a horse breeder and a top competitor, taking colors in eventing and carriage driving for his native South Africa before he moved to Botswana to start his safari operation. He's a big man and a bold rider, cheery and unflappable, and thoroughly at home with the terrain and wildlife. A fast hand with the bullwhip, he's just the guide you want to ride with in this extraordinary country.
Steven told me later that being chased by lions is a rare event. He believed they were actually after his dog, a big gangly Rhodesian ridgeback named Enzo, who had tagged along on our pre-breakfast ride. I'd come out of season to scout the Limpopo Valley Safaris and so had the privilege of riding out alone with Steven and the appetizing Enzo. That sudden flight may have been unusual, but it explained without my having to ask why the Limpopo rides are advertised for experienced riders only.
We got back to Jameson's Camp at midmorning, just as the day was growing seriously hot. Breakfast was set out in the gardens of the old homestead that serves as base camp for the safaris, and then I was on my own with plenty of time before our next ride, scheduled for late afternoon.
From an elevated hide at the edge of the property I watched as woodland kingfishers and huge monitor lizards visited a waterhole. I strolled to the paddocks to rub a few friendly faces. I took a cooling dip in the plunge pool and snoozed through the midday heat in my modest wooden bungalow -- one of five under the trees set . Then it was time for tea in the garden, and about four o'clock we set off on another 3 l/2 hour ride.
That's the standard scenario for what Steven calls the "Limpopo Safari." Riders stay amid the comforts of Jameson's Camp -- usually for a week -- and ride out as I did for 3 or 4 hours every morning and evening. (The saddles used are a streamlined variation of the Australian stock saddle: cushy, but stripped down for the trail.)
There's a school program for riders who are short on the experience, skills, or confidence needed to ride in open country where they just might have to outrun lions or aggressive elephants. They can work in the ring with instructor Louise Carelson, and when they're ready to join the ride, she will go along to coach. Many riders take this unusual schooling opportunity to make the transition from arena to all-outdoors. And many return a second or third time for the ultimate adventure: the week-long "Tuli Safari."
Tuli Safari riders spend only one night at Jameson's Camp, taking a warmup ride along the dry Limpopo riverbed to make sure they're well mounted on the horse Steven has chosen for them. The next day they set off across the flood plain, riding among plentiful browsers and grazers -- impala, zebra, wildebeest, eland, giraffe, and waterbuck -- to make tent camp in the mopane scrub forest along the Jwala River, one of many Limpopo tributaries that lace the Mashatu Reserve.
The next day they learn something of the rich history of the area as they traverse granite outcrops to camp at Zeedenberg, an old coach stop on the pioneer route from Pretoria (South Africa) to Fort Salisbury, Rhodesia -- now Harare, Zimbabwe. Covering about 30 kilometers per day, they then follow the Zeedenberg Trail, ride through battlefields of the Boer Wars, camp beside rivers and waterholes, and climb a towering sandstone escarpment for an unforgettable view of the Reserve, laid out far below, under an African sunset.
The drill calls for an early start each day on a 5-6 hour ride -- including some gallops that cover many kilometers -- to the next camp where there's lunch, rest time, and usually a late afternoon bush walk with a naturalist guide. Add in lots of good food cooked over an open fire, spacious tents, and the occasional camp with real showers and you can imagine a certain reluctance to hand back your horse and go home.
About those horses: It would be hard to find a string anywhere that's any better, or better cared for. There were 42 when I visited, all carefully chosen or bred by Steven Rufus for temperament and durability. They represented the best of southern African breeds, such as Boerperd and Basuto, famed for their hardiness and ability to thrive amid the area's heat, drought, and carnivorous insects and animals. And many were crossed with Thoroughbred or warmblood lines, like a group of handsome black Thoroughbred/Shire crosses Steven had just acquired for training.
That training is careful and thorough, and between safaris, all the horses are sharpened up in the school. There's no doubt they know their job well. For that close encounter with lions, I rode a South African Boerperd -- literally "farm horse" -- a stockier version of the American Quarter Horse with the same sensible mind and, luckily, more mileage to the sprint.
The terrain of the Mashatu Reserve is as open and inviting as any I've ridden around the world. It stretches from the lush forest along the Limpopo, where leopards lurk in the broad-branched mashatu trees, across the open plains of the valley to the rocky escarpments rising in the west. It makes for riding that's varied, interesting, sometimes challenging, memorable, and just plain fun.
We got up a good steady canter on the open plains, and the hoofbeats signaled dozens of impala, zebra, giraffe, and wildebeest to join the race. When we pulled up after a good long run, the giraffe -- far ahead -- looked back as if to ask, "Well, what was that about?" The impala and zebra loped off, but the comical wildebeest ran to us and cavorted around the horses, loping in their curious lopsided way. They seemed to be having a high old time, and like me, I guess, they didn't want to quit.
For more information and bookings, check the websites: www.lvhsafaris.co.za/ or www.mashatu.com. You'll see there's lots for a non-riding partner to do on the Mashatu Reserve. And it's easy to get there. I flew South African Airways to Johannesburg with connections on Air Botswana to Limpopo Valley Airfield. (See www.flysaa.com) For advice and help with all your travel arrangements visit www.onsafari.com.