When people talk about riding in Botswana the Okavango Delta is the first thing that comes to mind. The annual floods bring a wealth of game to the area and turn it into a green oasis teaming with life. I’m told that it is also great fun cantering through the flood water!
I hadn’t been to Africa at all until December 2018 when I was invited to attend BTTE, which is a now annual travel and tourism expo in Kasane, followed by a post tour with one of our suppliers. The trip was massively subsidised by the Botswana tourist board, so I jumped at the chance to go. December is of course hot in Botswana, but I love the heat, so this didn’t bother me at all.
After some confusion at Johannesburg airport about whether or not I was supposed to collect my bag, and then a delayed flight to Kasane, which is apparently a regular occurrence with Air Botswana, I arrived at Kasane airport with my fellow expo-goers and was taken to my accommodation, the Chobe Bush Lodge, which was fantastic – my room was enormous with a huge bed, walk-in shower and balcony (although you had to keep the door shut to stop the monkeys coming in!)
The expo itself was interesting enough, but there were very few riding establishments there, so I took advantage of some free time and went over to Victoria Falls for a few hours, which is easily accessible from Kasane and most hotels will organise days trips for you.
The highlight of the expo was being invited to Elephants Without Borders, where I got to hang out with 3 orphaned elephants who are being rehabilitated to go back into the wild. The charity only rescue elephants who have been orphaned through human intervention, for example poaching or man-made bush fires, and it was a very humbling experience hearing about the work and dedication that goes into saving them.
But the real reason for my trip was the riding, and I couldn’t wait for the expo to finish! I met up with Kirsty, who was taking myself and two other ladies on the post-tour, and we headed for the Kalahari for two days riding. Camp Kalahari is about a 6 hour drive from Kasane, but we kept ourselves amused by chatting and ‘wildlife-spotting’; I couldn’t believe how many elephants we saw on our way into the concession, just hanging out at the side of the road!
I knew riding in the delta was going to be amazing, which was what we were going on to do after the Kalahari, but nothing prepared me for the Makgadikgadi salt pans. December is in the middle of the migration, where thousands upon thousands of zebra cross the pans to head north. It is also the dry season, so you are left with a massive expanse of white, salt-like desert, broken up by pockets of green islands. The salt bed is perfectly flat, meaning you can gallop for miles without fear of disappearing down a meerkat hole.
The horses we rode were sensational; big, strong, yet responsive, and are clearly well loved and looked after. On our first day arriving in the pans we were taken out by jeep to see a family of five cheetahs. Having never been on safari before I couldn’t believe how close we were getting to dangerous game. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable, pointing out birds and plants and explaining a little bit about each one.
The camp was very comfortable, and the 5am wake-up call with coffee was much appreciated! The riding needed to start early due to the heat, so we would be in the saddle by 6am. Our first morning’s ride took us to a colony of meerkats, and we spent a good hour just watching them run around, chase each other, and catch and eat frogs. One even climbed onto Sabine’s head!
That evening after sundowners we were taken out by jeep again to see a large Kalahari male lion. Again, I couldn’t believe how close we got to him. He just lay dozing while we watched from mere metres away.
After arriving at the camp the day before we had been informed about the resident elephant George, who liked to hang around camp and drink out of the swimming pool. That night I was woken up in my tent by the sound of something heavy moving through the bush. George then came up right outside my tent window to munch on a tree. I sat up in my bed and just watched his outline in the dark, close enough that I could’ve put my hand out and touched him. It was such an amazing feeling, only having a tent canvas between myself and a huge bull elephant. I even held my breath in case the sound of my breathing scared him away. I was mesmerised. After 5 or so minutes he moved off to find more grub, being surprisingly graceful as he headed off.
After 2 amazing nights in the Kalahari desert we hit the road again for the Delta, stopping for lunch in Maun on the way. We were driven to the buffalo fence where our horses were waiting for us. We mounted and headed off in the direction of camp, and within about 10 minutes had a hippo run at us! It wasn’t a charge, he had been fighting with another male in the water and was running away and we just happened to get in his way. It was still very exciting though! The horses knew to get out of the way and our guide blocked the path between us and the hippo.
The delta was a completely different environment to the pans; greener, wetter and much more shrubbery and trees. We saw baboons, a family of elephants, giraffe, zebra, buffalo and lots of hippos.
The whole experience was incredible, and one I will never forget.I didn’t see the delta during the flood season, which I understand is sensational, but out of the two destinations I rode in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans won hands down. There was a vastness to it that I have always associated with Africa, and despite it being a desert there was so much game, both dangerous and non-dangerous. Of all the places around the world where I have been lucky enough to ride it has been my favourite. I’m not sure what will top it!