Thrills, Chills, and Mortal Danger: Just Another Day on Horseback in the Okavango Delta

At the African Horseback Safari camp, the day begins at 6 am with coffee and biscuits in your tent. At 630 we all meet at the main camp circle for breakfast, toast and coffee warmed over the open fire. At 7 am we move to the barn and mount up for the morning ride. On today’s ride there are a total of 6 horses, four guests, Jose and Nuria (from Spain), Doug (from Canada), myself and our lead guide Bongwe and our follow up guide Bernard.

The Macatoo camp has 40 horses in their stable.

 We ride out of camp and almost immediately are wading through water chest deep on the horses, lily pads gently bobbing in our wake. The water rises and falls, sometimes dry land, sometimes wading through more lily pads.

Our first canter is over a marshy area, but not deep water. The first two hours of the ride are fairly quiet. The highlights are the canter, a leopard kill in a tree and four wildebeests. We ride past the airport, and have another canter alongside the runway. Eventually Bongwe stops and says “The rainy season starts now. Put your cameras away.” He isn’t kidding. We canter along a road that is under at least one foot of water. Lesson learned here is, don’t follow too closely. At times it feels as if a garden hose is being sprayed in my face and I can barely see. It is fun and exhilarating. The horses seem to really enjoy the run and are not anxious to stop. After our water canter we slow down to a walk and wind our way through marshy areas, past termite mounds and again to dry land. We stop for a break of apples, shared with the horses. Back on horseback and we still have not seen an abundance of game. We see Impala now and then and a Reedbuck, but not a lot. Finally our luck seems to be changing as we spot some giraffe. We follow them casually for a bit and then we open up onto a marshy plain and see some zebra. Walking a bit further, Bongwe’s horse begins to act up, unwilling to continue ahead. Then the smell hits us, the scent of something dead. Bongwe looks down and finds lion tracks and says “These are fresh.” He looks intently around. There is evidence of a kill, but nothing on the ground. He thinks it was a small meal and suggests that maybe the lions are still in the area and still hungry. Then the giraffe and zebra stand at attention, looking in the same direction. Suddenly they turn tail and run. Bongwe looks closely in the direction of where the giraffe and zebra were looking and spots the lion. We are being watched. We all see it, in full view, and very interested in the six antelope like creatures standing less than 50 meters away. Bongwe says he sees four lions, but I only see two. Bongwe very calmly and quietly starts giving us instructions, “Do not let the horses run”, he motions to his left, “keep moving and keep me between you and the lions.” As we start to move slowly in the direction Bongwe has indicated, the lion crouches and takes two steps towards us. I’ve seen enough nature programs to know we are being stalked. Within seconds, several intense emotions surge through me; elation at having seen the lions from horseback, and fear when I realize just how close we are and that we look like prey. Bongwe urges his horse forward directly towards the lion, waves his arms, and yells “Hey! Hey!” The lion hesitates. We continue our slow and controlled walk away from the lion as Bongwe and Bernard stand their ground. Bongwe carries a rifle, and has on each ride. We wonder if he would use it. The lion stays transfixed on the horses as we slowly increase the distance between us. As we make our way to safety, we turn and see the lion still very intently watching our progress. We eventually feel the distance safe enough to breathe a sigh of relief. In our minds, Bongwe is a hero. To Bongwe, it is just another day at work. He tells us if he had not advanced on the lion yelling, it would have charged. We ride back to the barn, hoping to avoid any more lions.

The lion we encountered on horseback. This photo was taken from a jeep after we had returned safely to the barn.

At lunch it is all we can talk about. Janet, one of the guests and rider Doug’s sister, had been out on a game drive that morning and had seen that pride. There were seven lions in the pride. Jose asks Bongwe “What would we have done if the lion had not stopped?” It is a very good question. Bongwe says we would have stood our ground. “If you run, you are prey.” Jose asks if he would have used the rifle and Bongwe tells us that the rifle probably would not have stopped the lion. The rifle, I think, gives a false sense of security.

Back in camp we gather in the common area before lunch.

Lunch at Macatoo.

 We have lunch and then I ask if we can drive out and see where the lions are now. A new guest, Marcello, rides with us. The lions have not moved, and we find the pride relaxing in the same shady spot. We see where we were on horseback as we sit in the jeep very near the lions. It is much closer even than it seemed earlier, definitely less than 50 meters. The afternoon rides go out at 5 pm, and last for two hours. There is no cantering on the afternoon rides, just a relaxed walk and trots. In addition to the morning riders, we also have Janet and Marcello. Off in a different direction from the morning, we are now in a more wooded area.

It is scenic and relaxing. We see impala and a Fish Eagle. Thunderheads are off in the distance, and I mention to Jose that I hear distant thunder. A short while later Bongwe gives the sign for elephant and we grow silent and stop. There is a large elephant feeding off to our right in the trees. Bongwe takes out his wind tester and puffs a bit of ash into the air. We hear trumpeting, but not in the direction of the elephant we see. We are upwind of the trumpeting, and have walked into the middle of a herd, unseen amongst the trees. We slowly retreat and look for the source of the trumpeting. It is not hard to find it; the large matriarch of the herd has spotted us and wants us to leave. Many elephants emerge from the short trees, waving their trunks as they smell us and try to identify what we are. The matriarch keeps pace with us as we back away. We continue the retreat and she advances, trumpeting and flapping her ears. Bongwe says “She is not a happy girl.” She keeps her eyes on us as we turn and backtrack out of the herd.

This elephant was "...not a happy girl."

 When safely away, I think to myself that this elephant encounter was a very good reminder that this is not a ride in the park. Even though the evening ride is the “easy and relaxed ride”, you never know what you will run into. We head back to camp and a wonderful dinner. Every day here at Macatoo is a new adventure, and every night is a dinner party.

Bongwe, our incredible guide.

The Okavango Horseback Safaris was featured in Peolwane,  The Inflight Magazine of Air Botswana in July 2010.

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One Response to Thrills, Chills, and Mortal Danger: Just Another Day on Horseback in the Okavango Delta

  1. I wasnt able to go out with the regular group because of my early flight time so I went on a private ride with Wabongwa Bongwe Makate African Horseback Safaris head guide. My chaperone Paul had left the previous afternoon to spend time with his family in Maun before heading to Durban South Africa for Indaba Africas largest travel trade show so I was on my own..I enjoyed the one-on-one time with Bongwe having an opportunity to ask a million questions about his life in Botswana the flora and fauna of the Okavango Delta and the many challenges that come with horse care there. I was fascinated watching Bongwe use all of his senses to track When we spotted African buffalo tracks in the sand he gently waved his hand in front of his face capturing the scent riding on the slight breeze in his palm.

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