Megan Barrett, ride consultant for Equitours, describes her latest international equestrian adventure: a three-phase African safari from the saddle.
When I was younger I played a game with my family, deciding what each of us would do if money were no object (I was a working student at the time and my choice was, “have a horse farm and do NONE of the work”). My father’s response was, “I’d take my girls to Africa,” an answer I thought of late in 2015 when it was decided that I would travel to Southern Africa for Equitours to go on a few of the trips we sell there.
Travel to exotic locales is undeniably an incredible part of the job, but one that I try to plan for with low personal expectations – of course I want the trips to be wonderful, because I sell them and I want to sell wonderful things, and of course I want to have a good time, because, duh, I’m a human being and we like to have good times, but I also understand that I am there in a professional capacity and the priority is not my own personal enjoyment or fulfillment of familial dreams. However, had I had the audacity to create a personal Africa dream list inspired by my father’s idea, my trip there would’ve ticked off the items one by one:
- Swim with horses
- Canter with giraffe, zebra, and cape buffalo
- See lion, cheetah and leopard
- Jump wonderful horses over mopane trees downed by elephant
- Watch the sunrise from bed
- Hear the sounds of baboons, hyena, hippo and countless birds from camp
- Enjoy sundowners with hippos
- Feel totally safe – and happy!
I spent time in three separate locations, which was truly fantastic as they were each different and contributed unique aspects to the overall experience.
Horizon Ranch, South Africa
I was collected directly from the Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport after a 16 hour flight from Atlanta and driven three hours straight to the first piece of African paradise. Horizon Ranch is a small private reserve which can host riders of any level and they offer a wide array of equestrian focused activity. There’s no big game (elephants, wildebeest, cats, or rhinoceros) so it’s a relatively safe environment to still see lots of antelope, zebra and giraffe.
As a smaller reserve you ride along fence lines and farmland often, so you don’t necessarily get a soaring, wide-open and wild feeling, but you do get to be a part of authentic Africa – riding down sandy roads to the local village and visiting the school, being serenaded by the choir to which ranch staff belongs while enjoying cocktails at sunset, visiting the beading workshop on the farm (and perhaps buying too many bracelets, browbands, dog collars, belts… but I wouldn’t know anything about that…). The magic of Horizon is its totally welcoming and comfortable atmosphere, with friendly staff who are completely and genuinely focused on the well-being of their horses and guests. The accommodations and food don’t hurt either.
The ranch is located beside a large dam and reservoir, and the horses graze out free on the reserve (they are all brought in twice a day for feed), making for a lovely view of water and horses with the wonderful sounds of horses, hippos and birds. I stayed in a rondavel close to the water’s edge and absolutely loved my little home, with total comfort, privacy and luxury with the sounds of wildlife outside and the pool and lodge only a few steps away.
I was awoken at 6 AM with a knock at the door to indicate breakfast would soon be served, and then went riding right after. This was a schedule that would be the norm throughout my time in Africa: relax, eat, ride, repeat – it doesn’t get much better! In addition to game rides around the reserve and fast-paced gallops through fields and over logs to town, we also played polocrosse and western games and swam in the reservoir. My horse was a swimming expert and I was totally grinning with giddy delight the entire time we were in the water.
Tuli Safari, Botswana
It was a 3 hour transfer by road from Horizon Ranch to the Tuli Safari; this combination of Horizon and Tuli is what comprises Equitours’ African Explorer ride. The beauty of this particular itinerary is that it allows you to experience different country – the contrast from Horizon was apparent from the first moments on horseback in Botswana, with the wide open, acacia-dotted countryside that gave me the feeling of wild Africa and a true safari by horseback.
Here you must be an experienced rider, as the days and canters are long, but the horses are absolutely rock-solid. Never have I had the pleasure of riding such a well-educated creature on the trail – these horses are all trained and many compete in eventing, making the sport of jumping logs a piece of cake (I have a complicated relationship with jumping, but the trustworthiness of these horses made the experience a simple question and one of my definite favorite moments). The horses were totally steady around game and well-accustomed to their job.
The game you see here is just incredible – we were surrounded by elephants, hyena, baboons, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe… the list goes on. It was here that I saw cheetahs: on a game drive after the sun had gone down, we found them be spotlight, and then the next day found them again lounging together in the heat of the sun. I was so impressed with the staff and particularly the guides on this ride; it takes a special person to combine amazing riding ability, in-depth knowledge of flora and fauna, nerves apparently of steel with the possibility of dangerous game and a friendly and personable demeanor. I completely trusted our guide and happily followed him anywhere, whether on horseback, on foot or in the vehicle.
Our tented camps were comfortable and convenient, and the two nights under the stars within a former tribal court was a special experience (including having to occasionally dodge the activities of the families of vervet monkeys in the branches overhead).
Okavango Delta, Botswana
The last leg of the trip was a 10-night stint in the Okavango Delta. This involved the most elaborate travel arrangements: I took a flight to Maun from Johannesburg and from there the outfitter arranged transfer by helicopter to camp. The conversation in my head went something like this: “No big deal. This is what you do. THIS IS MY FIRST TIME IN A HELICOPTER, LOOK AT THE BUFFALO DOWN THERE OMG OMG WHO AM I.”
The wild game experience increased in intensity throughout my trip, as here we had elephants literally strolling around camp and encountered herds of buffalo, a leopard and rhinoceros all by horseback. The delta is a totally different part of Botswana: the flooded plains allow for a profusion of vegetation, and with it just about any southern African animal you want to see. In addition to the resident elephants, there were lechwe antelope, giraffe and monkeys all sauntering in view of our camps. The camps we used were permanent setups and as comfortable as possible – I would not have imagined having en suite plumbed bathrooms, electricity at night, a charging station and even Wifi out in this wildlife mecca.
We spent most of our time at their base camp where the horses are kept year-round, but also spent three nights at the other camp, where the open tree-house tent allowed for some sunrise viewing from bed. In addition to the amazing views, the sounds of baboons calling and the nighttime critters were incredible.
I rode mostly homebred horses, descended from the owners’ Saddlebred stallion to create what they termed “Botswana Warmbloods.” I loved their size, and they were very comfortable to ride. The horses were also well accustomed to game, having spent their life on the delta, and reacted more strongly to the Francolin birds taking flight from near their hooves than when a leopard burst from tall grass towards and by us – with a deep roar I’m not likely to forget.
From horseback, we also followed a mother and calf rhinoceros and a pack of wild dogs – certainly some of the most exciting and fun riding experiences I have ever had. In addition to this undeniably adventurous activity, there was also plenty of down time – lounging by the pool and in the rivers, enjoying sundowners with the hippos and eating delicious meals with our hospitable hosts.
I ended my trip with a sense of relief and satisfaction that everything had gone smoothly, the Equitours guests with me had had a good time and I had learned an amazing amount of information about Southern Africa and our trips there. It also left me looking forward to my next trip – as now that I’ve had the engaging and exciting experiences that I hadn’t dared dream about, I will certainly want to go back.
Megan Barrett is a ride consultant for Equitours Horseback Riding Vacations , having previously split her time as a wrangler at the Bitterroot Ranch and a high school history teach in New York State. When not living the exotic life of travel on trips, she’s a desk jockey at the office in Dubois, Wyoming, where she also luckily has plenty of time to ride her real-life horse, Fax, a confused Quarter Horse/Paint/Thoroughbred/Arabian.