A luxury horse safari in the Okavango Delta – and a close encounter with a lion

Clare Pedrick is a British journalist based in Italy. She is also a qualified guide and runs the Umbrian riding holidays offered by Unicorn Trails


A luxury horse safari in the Okavango Delta – and a close encounter with a lion

We had been riding for less than 15 minutes on our first day at Macatoo Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta when we had our first sighting of a lion. It was striding ahead purposefully in the long green grass, before moving towards an African ebony tree where it slumped down to savour some respite from the heat of the already powerful African sun. This was my introduction to a horse safari in the Okavango Delta!

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Looking out for Game – Macatoo Camp

Scanning the timeless landscape of grassland punctuated by acacias, date palms, giant termite mounds and the elephants’ favourite mopane trees, our guide Bernie had been alerted to the lion’s presence by a herd of impala, whose heads were erect, their ears pricked, as they stared nervously in the lion’s direction.

Not long afterwards, the sight of tens of vultures circling in the sky, with several more perched in a dry leadwood tree, signalled the presence of a recent kill. A hyena streaked off into the distance. Approaching slowly, we came across the remains of a buffalo and the strong smell of rotting flesh, which masked the perfume of dry sage that normally pervades the air on these plains.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Buffalo herd on the move – Macatoo Camp

The Okavango Delta, in northern Botswana, is teeming with wildlife, and anyone lucky enough to ride in this vast and spectacular wilderness has a good chance of seeing a huge range of animals, often up close, including elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, lechwe, jackal, monkey, hyena, mongoose, warthog and the predators – leopard, lion, cheetah and wild dog.

There is much debate about the best time for a horse safari in the Okavango Delta. Come between June and September and you will be rewarded with the spectacle of the flood that spills over from across the border in Angola, bringing with it the life-giving waters that make this one of the most biodiverse hotspots on the planet. Come in February, as I did, and the ground will be much drier, but there will be opportunities for fast-paced riding on fit and willing horses, and plenty of wildlife to spot from the saddle or from the back of a jeep on one of the game drives that are often on offer.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Macatoo Camp – twin tent

A Typical Day at Macatoo

The day starts early in the Okavango Delta, At camp, guests are wakened at 6 am by one of the tent ladies, who bring tea or coffee to your bedside. Then there is time for a light breakfast before you are up in the saddle for a four-hour ride, to make the most of the coolest part of the day, when the wildlife is still abundant. This ride generally offers opportunities for long canters, and the excitement of not knowing which of the many species that roam this 500,000-acre expanse you will encounter.

Another shorter evening ride is usually slower, with time to take photos of the animals as they emerge from the shade, against a backdrop of warm colours and long shadows before the onset of twilight.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Elephant encounter – Macatoo Camp

You need to know what you are doing to ride at Macatoo. There are calmer horses for the less confident, and forward-going ones for those who like more speed. But everyone needs to be able to gallop out of danger, as we did one morning, when a bull elephant charged us as we watched a herd of around 20 females, including their babies, which ranged from six months to a year.

As ever, Bernie was ready, having monitored the body language of the only male in the herd. The back-up guide led us off to safety at a brisk gallop, and we all regrouped when the danger had passed. “It’s important to watch how the animals are behaving, to keep safe, but also to see what else is going on around you,” Bernie told us.

It was getting hot now, and time to start heading to a shady spot to take a break. But somewhere in the middle distance a shape sprinted across in front of us. It was a leopard, which had been disturbed by our presence, leaving a freshly killed impala that we found soon afterwards. The leopard would be back to fetch its prize once we were gone. These are the encounters that make a horse safari in the Okavango Delta so memorable.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Macatoo Camp – Pure Luxury

Attention to Detail

The service and attention to detail at Macatoo are impeccable. The accommodation is in sumptuously furnished safari tents, with wooden floors, real beds and en suite bathrooms. The camp’s mess tent is furnished with comfortable armchairs and leather sofas, with plenty of books and a well-stocked bar and fridge that you can help yourself to, though more often than not there is someone around to pour you a drink.

After one long morning ride we found ourselves stopping at a tree house in the bush, where we were welcomed with a glass of champagne and served lunch overlooking a herd of zebra grazing peacefully below.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
The Treehouse – An exciting overnight option.

Guests with a taste for adventure can swap their tent for a night in the tree house, accompanied by a guide to keep them safe. My friend and I did just that, drifting off to sleep as we gazed at the myriad stars through the tree canopy, intermittently awakened by the growling of a leopard which excitingly – albeit disconcertingly – had decided to spend the night directly beneath us. These are the joys of a horse safari in the Okavango Delta.

The birdlife of the Okavango Delta can be every bit as spectacular as the four-legged animals on the plains around Macatoo. In the space of an hour on one morning ride, we witnessed ten or more ostriches running across the plain, a brilliantly coloured woodland kingfisher, a fish eagle and a huge eagle-owl, and a flock of spur-winged geese taking off from a waterhole, as a brown snake eagle soared overhead.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Basking Crocodile

At another waterhole, a group of hippos wallowed, while a crocodile sunned itself on the banks, and several more could be spotted in the water, only their distinctive bulging eyes visible as they surveyed us and our horses.

The wildlife in this part of the Okavango Delta knows no boundaries, and despite a fence around the camp perimeter to keep out the larger animals, there are constant reminders that this is the real deal. After dinner each night, guests are escorted to their tents by one of the staff, but animals can and do intrude at any time of day. On one occasion, a cobra made an unwelcome appearance at lunch, before being seen off by raucous birds that were watching it from the trees.

A Wild Encounter
Slightly further afield, our first canter on our last long morning ride was abruptly interrupted when we inadvertently came across a pride of seven lions. We were still at a safe distance, but as we slowly moved away, a young adult male left the group and headed in our direction, alternately walking and trotting, pausing now and then in the long grass to watch us. Resisting the temptation to break into a canter, we quietly obeyed our guide’s instructions to keep our pace to a steady walk. Any faster, and the chase would be on.

AHBS Game Giraffe 1

The distance between us was closing now, and still the lion strode towards us relentlessly. At 45 metres, Bernie announced he was going to fire a shot in the air, and told us to dismount, in case our horses were startled. Alarmingly, the lion kept on coming. Another shot rang out, and thankfully this time the lion stopped. A few minutes later the safari jeep arrived, driving slowly towards the lion and herding it back towards the rest of its pride, while we remounted and continued our ride, greatly relieved, but also excited to have had such a close encounter.

After five days of thrilling riding and wildlife sightings, it was time for the final drive to the small unpaved airstrip where a twelve-seater plane was waiting to take us back to Maun, watched by a herd of elephants playing in the waterhole just a stone’s throw away. Unsurprisingly, many of Macatoo’s guests return, sometimes again and again. The young woman who travelled on the 30-minute flight with us was on her third trip. It was almost certainly not her last, she told me. And nor, I suspect, was mine.

horse safari in the Okavango Delta Macatoo Camp
Early evening at Macatoo

Click here for more information about riding holidays at Macatoo, and other horse safaris in the Okavango Delta,

Clare Pedrick is a British journalist based in Italy. She is also a qualified guide and runs theUmbrian riding holidaysoffered by Unicorn Trails





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