Horseback Safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta
Follow Unicorn Trails client, Danielle Mann's, adventure on a once in a lifetime experience horse riding in Botswana's Okavango Delta
My Safari Adventure in the Okavango
A horse riding Safari had long been a dream of mine after having seen iconic images of long, fast canters across the Delta’s floodplains, and now we were here! Touching down in the dusty town of Maun, gateway to the Okavango Delta, I had made it to my dream destination, Botswana. My love for Africa had started years earlier. Nothing can touch the magic of riding through the bushveldt at sunrise, the sun low on the horizon bathing the land in warmth.
The Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta in the world. It has a vast network of water channels and an open floodplain. The annual floods offer incredible horseback game-viewing experiences. Now officially a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Delta is one of the world’s premier wildlife conservation areas. Because of its position, unique seasonal floods, and national park protection, the delta supports large concentrations of both permanent and seasonal game and currently boasts the largest remaining elephant population in the world.
On our first night we stayed at the Royal Tree Lodge in Maun before flying out to the Delta the next morning. Our friendly driver met us at the airport to escort us across town to the lodge. Royal Tree Lodge is a small and welcoming place to stay. The lovely accommodation, a large safari tent on wooden decking, was just what we had hoped for; spacious, comfortable and tastefully decorated. After lunch we met up with David Foot of Ride Botswana who keeps some of his safari horses here when he is not out riding in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.
We were lucky enough to get an evening ride in before our early morning departure the following day. In the soft light of late afternoon we rode out into the reserve to view giraffe, zebra and herds of oryx with their calves close by. The sure-footed horses were a pleasure to ride and looked after us well. After a sumptuous dinner we settled down for the night, and after the excitement of the day, we were asleep as soon as our heads touched the pillow.
On Our Way
We headed back to Maun airport early the next morning to pick up our Cessna and fly out to Motswiri in the north of the Delta. This was a novelty in itself as we had never flown in a light aircraft before. The flight takes about 30 minutes and allows you to witness the vastness of the Okavango Delta. Our ‘aerial game drive’ revealed herds of elephant marching across the grasslands and large numbers of buffalo grazing. A remarkable experience.
On arrival we were met by Carmen, the Horse Manager at Ride and Walk (RAW Safaris) and were driven the short distance to Motswiri Camp. We were met by Mossie, the Front of House manager, who guided us through the routine of camp and showed us to our beautiful tent overlooking the spillway. Glass of wine in hand, David and I sat on the deck and looked out at our stunning view. Two kudus were cautiously making their way towards the water’s edge. Moments later two elephants emerged from the bushes and headed straight for the spillway where they paused, drank deeply, and then rolled. A few more elephants appeared and soon there was a whole herd luxuriating in the cool water. It was a fantastic sight that we felt very special being able to witness. It was like an official welcome to Botswana.
RAW Botswana take their walking safaris just as seriously as their riding safaris, so is a great place for non-riders and avid riders alike. A group of walkers arrived in camp while we were there and reported wonderful game sightings with their guide, James. RAW Botswana is the brainchild of Kate Holmes, who has worked in the industry for many years and has created a haven with a truly stunning location, superb horses, fantastic staff and plentiful game.
Watching a large elephant herd frolic and relax made me all the more keen to get on horseback for some closer viewing. After a delicious lunch and a swim in the pool it was finally cool enough to head off to the stables for an evening ride. I instantly clicked with my horse, Tomahawk, a spritely little Boerperd, full of character, stamina and personality. It was love at first ride. David had a Namibian Warmblood called Roman; they too were paired expertly and got on very well.
The remote location of this camp means that faster, more challenging riding takes place in the morning, and the evening rides are for tracking animals, photo opportunities, taking in the scenery and of course, admiring the incredible Okavango sunsets.
On our return it was time for G&Ts and canapés around the campfire. Dinner was a delicious candlelit affair right on the spillway. Being an ‘open camp’, where game wanders freely, you are escorted back to your tent at night. As we approached the small path down to our tent there was a subtle rustle in the bushes to our left, closely followed by three enormous elephants quietly meandering up the path from our tent and crossing a few feet in front of us to disappear into the darkness of the bush. These are the things one never forgets.
Our visit was in October, the hottest time of the year in the Okavango, with temperatures often in the high 30’s, so a 5.30am wakeup call with coffee in our tent followed by a light fireside breakfast ensured we were mounted and cantering through the bush before the heat of the day set in.
The wind was up that morning, making the animals agitated and huddle in the denser Okavango foliage for protection. Towards the end of the morning ride we happened upon a large elephant herd and quietly approached to have a closer look. Gareth, our excellent lead guide, could determine their behaviour even from far away. We were within 20 meters of them when a young bull elephant separated himself from the group and headed in our direction, his trunk high above his head, trying to catch our scent. The rest of the herd started to move away and it was at this point that the bull elephant began to make his way towards us.
Calmly and quietly, with our hearts in our mouths, we were lead at a walk out of the Mopane trees by Carmen. The horses were incredible. They knew something was up but they stood their ground and continued to walk calmly away while Gareth stayed behind to lead the curious elephant away from our group. I must admit for a second I had been quite nervous, but the guides were very professional and immediately diffused the situation with effortless competence. Still, what a rush of excitement!
After lunch and a siesta, we took the boat out on the spillway to see what game we could find. On the Selinda Spillway we witnessed great herds of antelope, buffalo and zebra grazing and drinking just feet away from us. As the waterway widened and the sun began to set we rounded a corner to see at least a hundred elephant on both sides of the spillway lazily foraging in the warm glow of the sun. We turned off the engine and sat mesmerized, watching the interaction with each other; matriarchs to 4-month-old calves, all enjoying the refreshing water. Although elephants have poor eyesight, they gradually became aware of our presence and slowly retreated. When we were sure it was safe we hopped out into the knee-deep water, popped open a bottle of champagne and toasted Botswana, the Okavango Delta, and all her magical creatures.
It was on our return, with the moon beginning to rise over the camp, that James radioed in to report a sighting of Wild Dog. I had never seen Wild Dog out of captivity, and considering one pack can travel 75km in a day, I knew that the chances of actually seeing them were slim. But I was desperate to see them so a plan was made over dinner to spend the rest of our stay tracking them.
The following morning we started the search, checking their favoured vegetation and drinking pools first. The vastness of the area lent itself to some long canters, but the Wild Dogs were being elusive and I was beginning to feel downhearted. Suddenly James radioed in that he had found the dogs on the airstrip. We head off immediately and on arriving found a pack of about 16 of these magnificent animals lazing in the sun. We managed to get within a few meters of them and spent a wonderful time watching the youngsters playing and sparing with each other. This was a highlight of my trip and I knew how lucky I was for the experience.
Our next stop was a 20min Cessna flight south to Okavango Horse Safaris. OHS, as it is lovingly referred to, is owned and run by the charismatic couple, PJ and Barney Bestelink. Namibian born PJ studied geology and it was this that originally brought him to Botswana. Barney learned to ride in Kenya and has competed in events around the world. She has a wealth of veterinary knowledge which is essential for operating horse tourism packages in such a remote location.
The main camp, Kujwana, immerses one in the true essence of the Okavango. On the banks of the river Xudum, the camp offers spacious Meru tents set beneath the shade of ancient trees. A fully-stocked bush bar, a large dining tent, and tree house overlooking the river make up the main area of the camp. It is inviting and viscerally African. Okavango Horse Safaris offers 5, 7 and 10-night horse safaris. On the latter two you have the opportunity to visit their northern camp Mokolwane. Some guests were currently riding back from there and had stopped for a picnic, so David and I were driven up to meet the group at the lunch spot. David had decided to give riding a miss for a couple of days, but they kindly took a chestnut Arab named Aqaba up for me so that I could ride back to Kujwana in the afternoon with the rest of the group.
Aqaba was a veteran of the horseback safari and had seen and done it all. When I say ‘seen it all’, I should mention that Aqaba was blind in one eye and this made for quite a funny incident on the ride back. About an hour into our journey, in the glow of evening light that left the long grasses golden and the waterways sparkling like gems, we came across a large bull elephant. We approached, following our lead guide’s, instructions. It is usually best when viewing game from horseback to let the horses graze around the game as it puts them at ease. Aqaba knew this rule well and, with his blind eye to the elephant, lowered his head and started to chomp happily at the lush grasses. Despite my efforts to draw attention to the fact that there was a great big elephant standing to his left, it was not until we were proffered a loud warning from the elephant did he realise his proximity to the animal. He shot off like a rocket but a few lovely canters settled him again.
A final splash across the floodplains brought us into camp as the sun went down behind us. G&Ts were immediately served and we all flopped around the campfire in anticipation of dinner while swapping stories about our day’s Okavango adventures
While we were chatting a rather large unexpected guest came into view just next to the camp’s bush ablutions. He stood there chewing slowly on a branch. PJ calmly wandered over to the elephant, stood a few feet away from it for a moment, and then returned to the campfire saying “oh, he’s fine”. Such is the life in the depths of the Delta.
That night we had our own visitor at 2 am. David and I woke up to the sound of munching close to our heads. Through the mosquito net window above our bed we could see an elephant, possibly the one from earlier, happily chomping on the tree beside our tent. He was easy to see in the light of the full moon and we watched soundlessly, holding our breath, excited and nervous all at once. As he ambled past our tent, a giant eye moved past so close we could see the eyelashes. He moved around to the front deck and stood for a moment bathed in moonlight. Then he was gone. Another magical moment in the Okavango!
My beautiful grey Arab, Zulu, started my morning with a lively and fun ride and showed a healthy confidence amongst game. There were reports of leopard sightings, so all eyes were focussed on the trees.
Non-riders are well catered for, and David was taken out by highly professional guides on bush walks, jeep safaris and even a spot of fishing! After lunch PJ drove us to the northern camp, Mokolwane, for a night under the stars. The landscape changed the further north we travelled with huge palm trees proliferating the landscape. After 2 hours of crisscrossing dusty tracks and deep water, our trusty Land Rover reached the banks opposite Mokolwane Island. Two morokos were waiting to ferry us across to the camp. Riders on the longer safaris reach this spot and swim their horses across the river. Halfway across the river there was an explosion of water and we were joined by an inquisitive hippo who stared at us with what seemed bemused interest. With a calm word from PJ, our ‘captain’ Abu, picked up the pace and we all made it safely across. A previous group had left earlier that day, so that night we had the camp all to ourselves.
To describe Mokolwane as atmospheric doesn’t do it justice. It is a more rustic and traditional bush camping experience. Guests sleep in solidly built tree houses with large, walk-in tents with en-suite amenities. Apart from the canvas canopy and mosquito net over the bed, it is completely open to the elements. I was smitten! It was exactly how I had always imagined camping in Botswana should be.
We settled on the deck with a couple of beers and drank in the magnificent views as the sun set on the water.
After a delicious three-course dinner we settled around the campfire listening to PJ’s stories about his time in the bush and adventures on various horseback safaris. Again, being an open camp, we were escorted back to our tents for the night and were soon ensconced under the mosquito net listening to the night sounds. We were awoken a few times by, what we suspect were, Vervet monkeys using the canopy as a trampoline.
We awoke just before the sun rose. In Botswana, the sun rises and sets within minutes. I lay in bed watching the rich red colours flood the landscape followed by a golden glow in the treetops until the veil of darkness lifted revealing the sparking Matsebi River.
Off to Macatoo!
Today we were off to African Horseback Safari’s Macatoo Camp, north-west of Mokolwane. Out helicopter picked us up early and after a quick 15-minute flight we were greeted by the camp manager, Katie Hodges. As the morning ride had already departed, she settled us into our tents and organised a boat trip around the waterways for us.
The Okavango Delta attracts over 400 species of birds, including African fish eagle, Pel’s fishing owl, crested crane, lilac-breasted roller, hammerkop, ostrich and sacred ibis. The aquatic life allows for a rich and varied diet as these rivers are teeming with fish. Ornithologists, twitchers and part-time bird-watchers will be thrilled by the variety of bird species on offer.
After a break to watch a large pod of hippo we encountered an enormous elephant that was making its way across the marshes towards our waterway. Due to their poor eyesight he was nearly upon us before he realised we were there and so, startled, he wafted his ears, stamped at us and trumpeted his annoyance very loudly. He then walked a short distance down the bank and crossed purposefully in front of us, keeping an eye on us as he passed. I had been in the Okavango Delta over a week now but these heart-in-the-mouth adrenalin surges were still as enjoyable as ever!
Back in camp we were regaled with tales of the group’s morning adventures; galloping with giraffe and fleeing grumpy buffalo, all of which whet my appetite for our evening ride.
Like Motswiri, evening rides are only walk and trot for safety reasons. Macatoo uses this time to try out the horses they have in mind for you for the faster, longer morning rides. I was given a grey Arab named Phoenix. David, who stands at 6’1”, was particularly happy that Macatoo’s stable included a number of taller horses, and was paired with a 16.3hh bay Freisian X Saddlebred named Brandberg. We set off on another memorable ride experiencing encounters with a giraffe family and their curious youngsters and groups of elephant going about their business.
As the sun began to set we were just pulling up from a trot when we saw a vision before us; a long table complete with white linen table-cloth, candelabra and silver cutlery, set up in the middle of the Botswanan bush. Our shocked faces made Katie smile as she came to greet us off the horses with G&Ts.
While we chatted and munched delicious canapés the horses were taken back to the barn for their own, well-deserved dinner. Tonight we were to enjoy homemade pizza…made in a hollowed-out termite mound, a great party piece! I can honestly say that Macatoo pull out all the stops when it comes to showmanship.
Once back at camp the drinking and frivolity continued into the small hours as Riana, the sales & marketing manager, rallied the troops for a few rounds of Jenga.
Macatoo pay close attention to detail and take note of the things you like. I happened to mention to Riana that I loved jumping. Next morning, before breakfast, she took me off to the barn where waiting for me was Casa, a 17hh ex-showjumper from Belgium, along with Gareth, our guide, ready and waiting on his horse. Katie, Riana and Cloudagh, a volunteer, accompanied us the short distance to some very fine jumping ground; an area laden with ‘fallen’ trees, courtesy of the elephants.
A quick warm-up and then we were away, jumping various obstacles while our paparazzi snapped and snapped on my behalf! Casa was amazing, an incredible jumper with a real passion for his job; this horse just wanted to jump and you felt it come up through his body. I felt like a kid again, grinning from ear to ear…this was the ultimate highlight of my trip, I wish one could capture ‘that feeling’ forever so you could return to it. The closest I have is my inane grin in the photos I now cherish
After breakfast I made a quick change onto Phoenix (as Casa was a favourite of a guest who had requested him for the ride out) and it was off into the bush again in search of game and gallops! We covered a lot of ground that morning; when the floodplains open out you can enjoy long gallops through the water, smaller horses like mine leaping and splashing, enjoying the cool, refreshing spray as the hot sun beats down.
We arrived at our lunch spot on horseback. Today we were being entertained in the tree canopy! We climbed the wooden ladder into the treetops and were greeted with flutes of champagne and a delicious meal. With full stomachs, we were driven back to camp to spend the heat of the day having a siesta or lounging next to the pool.
By late afternoon the heat had died down and I was back in the saddle. I had a lovely little local horse from Maun called Star, and David, a Namibian Warmblood named Ebony. This was our last night in Botswana so our mood was subdued, but the incredible light of early evening soon lifted our feelings. There is nothing quite like an Okavango sunset.
We tracked giraffe, watched a large hippo pod for a while and then came across a small herd of relaxed elephant. We watched them from a respectful distance as they interacted with each other before returning to camp.
That evening a new weather front was coming in; the wind was up and lightning flashed menacingly across the sky. We were all seated at a large table outside the Mess Tent watching for any sign of the first rains of the season. You could smell it in the air; that rich petrichor scent of damp earth, but sadly for the land, only a few drops fell that night.
The next morning bought low cloud cover; perfect weather for lion we were told. We had yet to see lion on our trip and were due to leave Botswana that very morning after the ride, so this was our last chance!
The game were quite agitated; Reedbuck sprang out in front of us as we cantered through the tall grass and zebra fled for the shelter of the trees. We stopped to watch a large herd of cantering buffalo from a distance. There was definitely something in the air.
After a close encounter with an elephant while we were making our way back to camp, a voice came across the radio. They had found lion on a game drive. We immediately followed the directions of the guide and suddenly there they were, beneath a leafy thorn bush.
Silence fell as we gazed into the amber eyes of a lioness and her pride; they were quite calm, probably resting post-kill, and silently observed each other for a short time before it was time for us to leave or we would miss our plane!
We had been exceptionally lucky to see this on our last morning and I don’t mind admitting that on the drive to the airstrip I did have a little cry. It had been such a whirlwind trip; such adventure coupled with such luxury.
It is incredible that these horse safari camps are able to operate at all in this unforgiving wilderness, let alone create such opulent environments with unsurpassable service levels. The horses at every camp were loved and well-cared for. I thank all the horses and the amazing staff for giving my husband and I the experience of a lifetime.
Waking up to the call of the hornbills and the chatter of the monkeys is magical. It is a world far away from my life at home, yet something about the Okavango resonates so strongly with me, that I am compelled to return one day.
Photo Credits: Danielle Mann
For more formation on Horseback Safari’s in Botswana please contact:
01767 600 606
Adapted by Andrew Knapp from Danielle Mann’s account of her horseback safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta for Unicorn Trails.