Land of the giants

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

The guide spurred his horse forward: “Let’s Ride! . . . And try not to let any big pussy cats spook the horses.”

There is nothing as thrilling as galloping through the African bushveld. As I felt my horse surge underneath me and the wicked acacia thorns began to whip past my thighs, I gratefully delegated all responsibility for our welfare to my faithful steed. If either of us was in danger of getting “spooked” it wasn’t Strider!

We had travelled like this for much of the morning – whenever southern Botswana’s rocky landscape and network of gullies allowed – once covering three miles in a few breathless minutes. But this time we were brought up short just as we emerged once more into the glare of the open savanna. As I shot past the trailmaster’s extended arm I was still frantically trying to rein in and there, dead ahead, in the shade of a bulky mashatu tree was a group of elephants. Two babies, just a few weeks old, huddled close to the legs of their mothers while their big brothers blustered nearby. The crackle of ripping vegetation to our left brought my attention to another young bull, half concealed by the acacia. I realised that I could have ridden straight into that wall of grey flesh and curving ivory before I had noticed anything and for the first time I was aware of just how easily the largest land mammal on earth can hide itself.

The 75,000 acres of pristine African wilderness through which we were riding are able to provide ample cover for the largest elephant herds on private land anywhere in the world. Mashatu Game Reserve’s 700 elephants are a remnant of the great herds that once roamed the Limpopo Valley and it is with good reason that the reserve has been called “Land of the Giants”.

While they are not habitually aggressive, the elephants of Mashatu have historically enjoyed an isolation that has kept them unhabituated to horsemen and a breeding herd like this was at its most unpredictable. We were yet to realise that that our path was blocked by over 100 hyper-protective parents and older siblings . . . each weighing up to four tonnes!

I quietly turned Strider back to where my four companions were already neatly lined up on the trailmaster’s left. He had specified this formation so that, if necessary, he could wheel his horse around to the left at the same time as slipping the high-powered rifle from its scabbard under his right leg. “I’m happy to say that I never had to use it in self-defence – but if it’s called for it would be nice to know that none of you are between me and whatever is charging!” he had said. I agreed wholeheartedly; if ever I find anything charging me I would be delighted to be able to use Steve Rufus as a human shield!

A childhood spent on a ranch in Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills, a tour of duty in the “bush war”, eight years lecturing on equine studies at Pretoria and a collection of trophies from three-day event competitions are enough to suggest that Steve might have been a match for all but the most hard-bitten old-time Fort Tuli trooper. This remote corner of Botswana, known as the Tuli Enclave, has remained unchanged since pioneer columns blazed its trails in the 19th century and as we saddled up for our four-day “patrol” I felt like a raw recruit preparing for a Boer war skirmish.

“I’m in touch with the game vehicles by radio and I’ll try to avoid any known predator territory,” – Steve’s bushranger terminology enhanced the feeling that we were about to enter hostile terrain – “but if we run into lions, we bring the horses together to present a united front. We hold them, with their heads towards the cats, until somebody backs down . . . And it won’t be us.” There seemed to be a general air of confidence among my more experienced fellow riders that I had difficulty reflecting. It was a sobering thought as we rode out of the Fort Jameson stables (characteristically named after the whisky) that for the duration of the next four days I would probably be the easiest meal ticket in the entire Tuli Enclave!

The only regular transport that ever crossed this country was the mail coaches of the Zeederberg Line, in the 1890s. Their own four-day journey – from Pretoria to Bulawayo – was a tough one and so many horses were lost to African horse-sickness that, in a unique experiment, zebras were used to haul the coaches. The small herd that watched us with nonchalant curiosity as Steve led us in a loop a few metres over the trail may have been descended from those less fortunate Zeederberg zebras.

“At this moment we’re in the Tuli Circle,” Steve said when the last horse had crossed the northern rut of the trail, “and therefore we’re all temporarily illegal immigrants in Zimbabwe!”

Even as a relic of those frenzied days, when the colonial powers were carving up the continent along manmade gridlines, the perfect 180-degree arc of the Tuli Circle is a bizarre feature on the map. It seems that there was an epidemic of lung disease among the Botswana cattle in 1891 and the British, in what was then Rhodesia, ruled that the neighbouring herdsmen must keep out of earshot of the Fort Tuli cannon. The territory within this 10-mile radius became known as the Tuli Circle.

In the early afternoon, just as the heat – and the saddles – were becoming uncomfortable we rode into camp near the Pitsani (Little Zebra) River where Steve’s assistants Joyce and Sam had already unloaded the back-up vehicle of fresh local produce and the ice-boxes of G&T, without which no safari would be worthy of the name. Joyce is a Motswana woman who trained as a cordon bleu chef at one of the elite lodges in the Okavango Delta. She has transferred her already impressive talents to a traditional campfire potjie with astounding success and is very quick to put the trailmaster in his place on the (not too infrequent) occasions that his internal GPS malfunctions and the “pioneer column” arrives late for dinner.

While the menu and the camping accommodation – with z-beds in large dome tents, dining furniture, hot bucket showers and long-drop toilets (with bowls and seats!) – are the perfect blend of luxury and bush atmosphere, this is far from a budget holiday option. Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris are part of the low-volume/high-cost tourism policy that it is hoped will benefit the 39 percent of Botswana that has been earmarked for conservation. Exclusivity has its price but there was also a thrill to the realisation that we were the only riders in an area the size of Belgium!

Steve slept between the fire and the pony-line where the horses would alert him to the presence of a predator, but a recent occurrence had persuaded him to advise his guests to stick to the tents. The previous week he had woken to find a hyena chewing his boot. Hyenas have the strongest jaws of any animal in Africa and have been known to chew anything from saddles and backpacks to cooking pots and spare tyres.

“Lucky it didn’t run off with your boot,” I laughed.

“Bloody lucky,” he agreed, “I was wearing the bugger!”

My own night was punctuated by the cackle of hyena, enjoying its joke, and the shriek of a baboon that had possibly just become leopard-fodder. Shortly after dawn, as we ourselves dined on blueberry muffins and fresh bread rolls, the cough of a lion echoed chillingly from beyond the stream at the edge of camp. He remained unseen but the morning’s ride was unforgettable for other sightings: 300 impala pronked in the early sunlight – warming up for another day on the run; a herd of giraffe lolloped away on willowy legs; warthog piglets scampered, squeaking, with tails held stiff and high – like little dodgem cars; kudu; ostrich; jackal; bushpig; baboon . . .

Even amongst these “everyday” sightings there were highlights. When we spread out to canter across the savanna, isolated groups of zebra and wildebeest, duped by their instinct to find safety-in-numbers, would swing down from the rock kopjes on which they grazed to join us for a gallop. Once a bachelor herd of usually shy eland bulls, the largest of the antelopes, galloped alongside us until we had to return for one of our fallen comrades whose horse had posted him through an unfeasibly small gap in a now shattered acacia tree. The eland looked back, visibly confused, as if to say, “why have we stopped?”

And, of course, there was that daunting elephant blockade.

Eventually we slid into a dried riverbed that might offer a thoroughfare but the horses’ constantly twitching ears alerted us to more elephants feeding just beyond the ledge above our heads. Steve scouted ahead and, just as he approached a dusty gully that intersected our track, a young bull came charging down, pumping his tree-trunk legs to find the momentum that would push his impressive bulk back up the opposite bank. He was moving too fast to even notice us but the horses spun on their heels, nostrils flaring, anxious for flight. The enthusiasm with which Strider tackled the near-vertical walls of these gullies was a testament to the bumper sticker on the back of Steve’s saddle – Best 4x4xfar! – and I knew that he could outrun an elephant . . . but I wasn’t too confident about my chances of still being with him when he’d done it. So, for once, I refused to defer to Strider’s experience.

By the time we arrived, two invigoratingly nerve-racking hours later, on the other side of that pachyderm minefield I was ready to concede that a horse-safari in “The Land of the Giants” is not for the novice rider . . . but, then again, six prancing horses and a galloping bull elephant in a dry riverbed does make for a pretty steep horseback learning-curve.

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