The sky was just beginning to lighten as my alarm roused me at 4:45 a.m. Normally I'm not a morning person, but jet lag and excitement for my first day riding in Botswana made it easier than usual to get moving so early. I donned my breeches and riding sneakers, grabbed my helmet and half chaps and shrugged into my fleece jacket as I set out to meet my group for breakfast. April in Botswana is similar to April in Maryland--except that Botswana is heading into winter. So mornings and evenings can get chilly, particularly when traveling in open four-wheel-drive vehicles.
At breakfast I greeted my chaperone Paul Swart of Natural Migrations in Bend, Ore. Paul organized the trip for me in conjunction with the Botswana Tourism Board and was accompanying me for most of it. He grew up in South Africa and had been a guide in his home country as well as in Botswana, so I knew I was in good hands. We met our riding companions for the day--two young women from southern France. They were staying in a satellite camp in the Mashatu Game Reserve, part of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. We were staying at the Main Camp.
Mashatu is located in the easternmost part of the country where Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet. The Tuli Block is bordered in the south by the Limpopo River, which I had crossed to enter the country the previous day. It definitely was not by any common means of transportation: Paul and I--and our luggage--arrived by cage, with half walls created from welded mesh grates, a metal roof and a wood floor, suspended over the river on a cable. I lifted my camera to my eye as our attendant on the South Africa side of the crossing called across to her colleague a half mile or so to the Botswana side to have him turn on the cable's motor to carry us across. I clicked away at the scenery to take my mind off dangling 20 feet up from possible death by crocodile. It was at that point I knew I was in for the adventure of a lifetime.
Elvis, our driver and guide, who had met us at Pont Drift when we arrived (yes, his name really IS Elvis--full name Othusitse Elvis Ramogale), gathered Paul, the two French riders and me into the Land Cruiser and drove 45 minutes to Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris (LVHS), near where we entered Botswana. I learned quickly that travel is generally discussed in terms of time, not distance. You don't say, "It's a 10 kilometer drive." Instead, "It's a 45-minute drive." This is because of the conditions of the mostly unpaved roads and other considerations--like a herd of elephants or impala that might be blocking the way. Most roads in Botswana are just two tracks of sand worn into the grass from sparse vehicle traffic. This is a nice contrast to the rush-hour congestion on metro Washington, D.C., highways, but you'd better be with a seasoned driver who has water, extra gas and spares on board. In other parts of Botswana, like in the Kalahari Game Reserve, we never saw another vehicle on the three-hour drive into and out of the park. And cell phone reception is found only in the cities and sparse small villages.
As we pulled into the stable yard, we passed through the gate of an imposing 7-foot-tall electric fence that encloses the stables and paddocks. This level of security is essential to keep out lions and other predators that would LOVE a quick and easy dinner! I met Louise Carelsen, the owner and managing director of LVHS along with her husband Cor. Louise is a British/American dual citizen who competes in dressage and eventing when she's not entertaining guests or caring for horses. We filled out our paperwork and got a rundown of the signals the guide might use while riding--the most important of which was a raised hand in a waving motion, which means "canter" and a raised open hand that means "stop."
My mount for the day was Albany, a nearly black Boerperd--a local breed known for its sturdiness and good temperament. The other horses at the stable were Thoroughbreds, warmbloods, draft-crosses, Appaloosas and more. Riders at LVHS can go on static rides, like we were doing--leaving and coming back to the stable the same day--or they can do a mobile ride that travels from camp to camp, usually over the span of a week. Riders leave in the morning, the staff pack up your tent and luggage and transport it to the next camp where it's set up before you arrive after your day's ride. I met two Americans, Bambi and Sue, who were on a mobile riding safari with LVHS, a trip donated by Paul for a horse show fundraising raffle. Sue was the lucky winner and brought Bambi who had just finished treatment for cancer. The friends were bursting with excitement and enough energy to run power in the camp as they told me about their wonderful horses and guides and the food. All three of us teared up as Bambi recounted how the previous night her guide cut a lock of her horse's tail and braided it into a hatband, adding in beads and other trinkets as a souvenir.