African Horse Safari, Part 2: Big Cats

Practical Horseman's managing editor Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore tracks big cats and rides her first cross-country course on horse safari in Botswana, Africa.
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Practical Horseman's managing editor Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore tracks big cats and rides her first cross-country course on horse safari in Botswana, Africa.
Adult lion in Mashatu | All photos © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Adult lion in Mashatu | All photos © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

I nearly forgot to breathe as I sat in the Land Cruiser watching a pride of lions working on catching dinner less than 20 feet from me. Two female lions used their sharp claws to dig out an unlucky warthog while the large male lazily kept an eye on the younger lions playing and resting nearby. We started the day with a morning predator drive with Mashatu project manager and researcher Andrei Snyman.

With our guide Elvis at the wheel and Andrei riding shotgun (that would be on the left side of the vehicle in Botswana), my chaperone Paul, his brother-in-law Map Ives (who drove in from Maun the previous day) and I watched Andrei use his tracking equipment--an antenna-like device wired to a radio--to listen for signals from the various animals in the reserve who wore tracking collars for research purposes. Elvis drove to the top of a ridge, and we immediately picked up a strong signal that we were close to the pride. This wasn't much of a surprise as we'd heard them from camp overnight.

Andrei Snyman tracking lions at Mashatu |

Andrei Snyman tracking lions at Mashatu |

Following the signals (Andrei moved the tracking device around and the stronger beeps from the radio direct us), Elvis showed us why four-wheel drive Land Cruiser is essential as he expertly maneuvered it through dense brush, over large, sharp boulders and up and down very steep dry river bed banks. Our tracker, named Morgan, stood on the back of the vehicle giving Elvis instructions for the safest path. Within a few minutes, we found the pride in the shade of a tree. Elvis turned off the vehicle, and I sat mesmerized.

Lion cub in Mashatu |

Lion cub in Mashatu |

This is a situation where you really need to trust your guide to correctly read body language of the animals. I quietly took photos and video while Andrei talked about this particular pride. The lions were comfortable with us there--they were used to the vehicle, and we were an extension of it, he explained. I couldn't tell you how long we sat there; it could have been 10 minutes or it could have been an hour. I was captivated watching the interactions among the family members: The females were digging, alternately chiding the youngsters if they got too close. One cub rubbed against his father, while his sibling rolled on his back playing with the lower branches of a Mopani tree like a domestic house cat.

One curious cub picked his way down the embankment toward the vehicle. Perhaps we were his version of a safari--or maybe he was evaluating the potential for his next meal. He sat no more than 10 feet away, observing us while his mom and aunt kicked up loose dirt as they worked to flush out their quarry. The ladies didn't seem to be in much of a hurry, digging for a few minutes then resting or wandering around the hole. While I could have stayed and watched them for hours, our window for tracking another predator was closing as midday approached when the animals would be less active in the heat. We later learned that this pride had been successful in their kill.

Heading back to the ridge where we got a signal on the lions, Andrei changed the frequency to a collared leopard. Almost immediately he got a faint signal. It became stronger as the leopard's movements led us through even more difficult terrain than we'd covered earlier. Just as we were closing in, a flat tire--probably punctured by one of the sharp rocks--stopped us. We had a tea break on the tailgate while Elvis and Morgan expertly installed the spare.

Leopard in Mashatu |

Leopard in Mashatu |

Leopards are much more elusive and skittish than many of the other animals tracked in the reserve. They move around mostly in the cooler mornings and evenings and can cover a lot of ground. With the tire fixed, we picked up the signal once again, blazing trails through the dense bush to follow it. Finally we caught a glimpse of him walking quickly through a clearing in the distance. It was a fleeting sighting, but I was able to capture a couple photos of him.

Refreshed after lunch and a nap at the lodge, we again hopped in the truck with a tired Elvis for the drive to the stable for our afternoon ride. I reflected on how lucky I was to have seen both lions and a leopard in one day.

Once at the barn, Louise, the barn's owner and manager, pointed me toward an older long-legged pinto with one blue eye. I was thrilled to see Frankie (short for Frankenstein) outfitted in a lovely St?bben all-purpose saddle. Louise was kind enough to let me ride in her personal saddle after my discomfort in the Australian stock saddle the previous day.

LVHS stable |

LVHS stable |

Our guide West, Louise, student Kate, Paul and I mounted up and headed into the bush. After a 20-minute hack, we arrived at the cross-country course that Louise had built out of logs and some fences she had constructed. Louise took the lead at a canter, and the rest of us followed like ducklings. My heart pounded as we headed toward each jump--I'd never ridden cross-country jumps in my life, save for some small logs blocking our path on trails. But Frankie took care of me, adding an extra stride or even just coming to a stop and stepping over the 2-foot obstacle if he felt I was leaning too far forward or not pushing him on enough. Louise disappeared around a corner; we followed, jumping down a small bank. I was grinning ear-to-ear as she pulled up her horse. We gave the horses a short breather and then went again, incorporating even more jumps. I never envisioned I'd go around a cross-country course in my lifetime (it violates my "don't jump anything that doesn't come down" rule), but this was a blast! Who knew I'd travel all the way to Botswana for my first cross-country school?!

As we drove back to the camp, I was plotting my first event once I returned home. Perhaps my cross-country "colors" will incorporate giraffe or leopard prints.

More Journal Entries
Part 1: Bush Magic | Part 3: Delta Dreaming | Part 4: The Elephant in My Living Room | Part 5: Hidden in the Trees | Packing and Contact Lists