Lyn Hughes rounds up cattle, swims with crocodiles and has a close-up encounter with giraffes - all from horse-back in South Africa's little-known Waterberg Plateau
“Get yer kit off!” yelled Laura.
I surveyed the scene before me, eyeing the bank where Shane said he had seen a crocodile basking on his last visit. On that trip they had been able to paddle across, but the rains had swollen the dam and there was nothing for it but to swim. So I hung my shoes and socks around my neck, but deciding to spare the others the sight of my wobbly thighs, I pulled my legs up as high as I could, and urged my horse forward. The cool water started to soak through my jeans, but I was more concerned with holding on tight and keeping my balance as my mare splashed across, taking it all in her stride. On the other side I looked back and grinned, knowing the others had to follow, and sat back in my dripping saddle to savour the scene all around me. There was no doubt about it, horseriding in Africa is different.
My travels through Africa beforehand had generally been on four wheels, with the occasional two-footed excursion. But I’d always fancied seeing Africa from horseback, so when I got an invitation to visit a working ranch in one of South Africa’s undiscovered corners I reached for the jodhpurs and headed south. And that’s how I came to be swimming on horseback across a flooded dam, looking over my shoulder for crocodiles.
I was a guest at Triple B, a working ranch in a remote corner of South Africa that is turning to tourism to supplement its income as a successful cattle stud. In the past few years South Africa has become increasingly popular with foreign visitors, and many parts of the country are making a good living out of tourism. Triple B lies in a beautiful, and undiscovered corner of the country – a vast plateau known as the Waterberg, less than three hours north of Johannesburg, and yet unmentioned in the guidebooks. Billed as the nations ‘best kept secret’ I was doubly keen to explore this new frontier as well as get a chance to sample African life on the hoof.
I was met at the airport by Charles and Nina Baber, the owners of Triple B, who told me of their set-up on the drive back to the ranch. What I had pictured as a fair sized farm was more like a town – the ranch is home to some 600 people, with its own school, crèche and church. Guests have a choice of accommodation, and I was staying for my first couple of nights in a cottage next to the family home. But there wouldn’t be much time for lazing around for I was there to join in the day-to-day activities of the ranch; in true City Slicker fashion I was going to try my hand at cattle mustering. The Babers have bred a good looking but tough brown cow, called the Bonsmara, that can cope with the harsh conditions but apparently produces superb meat. Being a vegetarian I took their word for this.
Shane from Guernsey and Laura from Bristol run the ranch’s horseriding operation and it was Shane who fetched me at 6am the next morning in his pick-up. With his bright blue eyes, wiry build, and a hat that seemed to be permanently attached to his head, he looked, appropriately enough, just like Alan Ladd, star of many an old western including the classic Shane itself. A former rodeo rider and horse breaker, he has fallen in love with the region, and as we drove along he pointed out the cattle, the birds and a roguish-looking jackal.
At the yard I was met by a torrent of friendly dogs, and a bunch of seemingly identical horses. “Most of them are related to each other,” explained Shane. He introduced me to the one that was to be my trusty steed. Diana is a 15.1hh, 10 year old bay mare; or in non-horsey speak she’s a medium-height, middle aged, brown haired lady. And a true lady she was; slightly snooty at times, but with almost perfect manners – not even passing wind in public. Tracy, the fun-loving Kiwi assistant, explained that Diana was given her name because she was Charles’ favourite horse... although there had been a recent suggestion that they change it to Camilla.
It didn’t take long to saddle up and with the tune to Rawhide running through my head, we set off for some serious mustering. We followed tree-lined sandy tracks, spotting the occasional antelope, and stopping to listen to the chattering of some monkeys, before coming out into a large open pasture, with far reaching views over rolling hills.
The herd was small, just over 30 cows, most of them with young calves. One had given birth in the night and so we left her undisturbed, but gently moved the others down the field. The pace was sedate – I whooped and hollered at first, but it became apparent that a gentle “Move along ladies, pleeease.” was just as effective with these matrons. However, we still had to have our wits about us, as no sooner did you take your eyes off them, then there would be a bid for freedom... or at least a dive behind a nearby tree. Moving though the field we also had to watch out for holes made by aardvarks – secretive animals that come out at night to hunt termites, and whose burrows are everywhere. These can be a nuisance, with even the most bush-wise horse or cow sometimes falling into them.
It was getting on for 10am when we got back to the trailhouse, and we devoured a massive brunch that was one of the best I’d ever had. I was surprised not to be saddle-sore and put it down to the comfortable western-style saddles with their padded seats.
I’d been impressed by how much the horses seemed to enjoy the mustering. Shane explained that every horse herd has a hierarchy but that whatever their status in it, they feel superior to the cows. So even the meekest horse can make a superb cattle herder.
Horse psychology is applied as an every day part of the operation and I went to watch Shane ‘work’ a new horse, a beautiful, but very highly-strung grey Arab mare that had already been christened ‘The Hell Bitch’. Her previous owner had tried putting a saddle on her, and she had responded by rearing over backwards. Shane knew that it was going to take time to rebuild her trust. “You can’t teach a horse when it’s frightened – instinct takes over and it wants to flee.” As the mare trotted around the little corral he talked constantly to her, until at one point, when he took a few steps back, the mare followed. “At first they see me as a predator, like a lion. You’ve got to turn your relationship to being that of a partnership, part of the herd.” Having built some trust in those 20 minutes he called it a day and let her gallop off to rejoin the others.
I learnt a lot on my first experience of mustering and soon got the taste for riding through the wide open farmland. Now I was ready for a taste of a wilder Africa.
There is a trend in South Africa for wealthy business men and conservationists to buy up ranches and turn them into private reserves. Put several of these ranches together, through the co-operation of like-minded owners, and you have a conservancy. The Waterberg Conservancy already consists of around 400,000 acres of private reserves, and my next adventure was a two-night pack trip onto one of these.
Our small party included Emma and Chris from London, and a Swiss couple, Silvia and Koni. We were each issued with a pair of saddle bags to pack our gear in along with a waterbottle and a pair of hobbles. Meanwhile, a pack horse was loaded with the tents, food and cooking equipment. Finally the horses were doused with a tick repellent, but I was a little surprised when Tracy came up to me brandishing a can of spray to give me the same treatment.
We set off in the heat of a gloriously sunny afternoon and an hour later reached the dam where I took my dip. Once across we entered the reserve and immediately were into bush – a striking contrast to the rolling farmland that we had left behind. I tingled with anticipation as Shane explained that we were likely to see wildlife, and were to keep calm and use arm gestures if we spotted anything. There are no lions at present in the area (there are plans to reintroduce them) and so the only possible danger was from some bad-tempered rhino, but I still felt the excitement of being exposed to nature.
Within minutes we spotted several impala and then a magnificent kudu. It was difficult to refrain from shouting out with excitement. The track headed gently upwards between rocky outcrops and past a diverse range of trees and plants. It was a wonderful experience to be going at a speed where we could spot all these things, but I was no mere spectator. High up, with 360 degree vision, I felt not only in touch with the environment but a part of it. “This is the way to see Africa!” I thought.
As the shadows lengthened we reached the perfect spot for a camp; a grassy clearing set a few feet above a river. The horses were hobbled and contentedly grazed as we struggled with tents and, joy of joys, airbeds. A couple of thick canvas bags were filled with water and hung from a tree. “That’s the bathroom,” announced Tracy with a smirk, before picking up a spade, “And this is the loo. Any tree will do, but do make sure you bury everything.” Meanwhile, a fire was going, and it wasn’t long before we were relaxing and chomping on beer bread that had been cooked in the embers. I fell asleep that night to the sound of a frog chorus from the river, accompanied by Koni’s harmonica.
I was awoken early the next morning by what sounded like a fierce carnivore crunching its prey outside my tent... But it turned out to be Diana munching grass. I stuck my head out to be met by a dreary grey sky and a cold wind. The weather had changed and was now reminiscent of home. After breakfast we headed up to the wilds of an open plateau which seemed more like Exmoor than Africa – until what should have been red deer on the horizon transpired to be wildebeest. They snorted and bucked around in concerned circles as we approached. As the sun showed its face we dismounted and used the horses as a shield to try and creep closer. I couldn’t help thinking that we cut a ridiculous sight but the animals seemed to relax a little, and as our eyes got used to the surroundings, we picked out other creatures around us – a veritable Who’s Who of the antelope world, as waterbuck, impala, gemsbok and hartebeest took it in turns to look us over.
As the sun retreated again behind the clouds, we headed back towards the camp. At first my senses were still alert to every movement and all of us jumped when we startled some wildebeest on the path. But as we neared the camp we relaxed, not expecting to see anything else. And then Koni, who was riding ahead of us, turned around and frantically signalled that he had spotted something. The hairs rose on the back of my neck as we fell silent and edged the horses forward. There, just a hundred yards away was a small group of giraffe – one male and four females. The horses stared at them, ears pricked forwards, but otherwise stayed calm. The giraffes looked at us, presumably rather curious as to what these weird four-legged-two-headed beasts could be. After a while they turned and we followed them slowly down the path.
After a while they stopped in a thicket of trees, and started eating. We paused on the path, just ten yards away. The bull looked coolly at us, not at all perturbed. I was awestruck by his size as he towered above us – he must have been at least 15 feet high. I had seen giraffe before from the confines of a jeep, but this was a completely different experience.
The females were shyer but just as inquisitive, peeping at us from behind the bushes. One of them stuck her head out and looked across, then lowered her head still further, as if she couldn’t believe what she saw. If she’d had hands you felt that she would have rubbed her eyes in disbelief. But she wasn’t perturbed and soon resumed feeding, and after a few precious minutes, we reluctantly turned away and headed back to camp.
The wildlife had whet my appetite, and back at the ranch I got talking to Ant, son of the Babers and an ardent conservationist himself, who offered to take me to the nearby Lapalala Wilderness, a large privately owned reserve. Started by a couple of conservationists, Lapalala has a superb reputation for its rhino projects, and sections of it are open to the public.
We we were met by Clive Ravenhill, the reserve manager, and he took us out in his jeep. As we followed the rough tracks through the hilly terrain he scanned the dense bush for wildlife. We paused to watch a pair of hawk eagles soaring in circles above us, and as we carried on caught tantalising glimpses of wildlife through the trees: baboons, kudu, zebra and warthogs. But we didn’t stop since Clive had heard from his trackers of a special sighting ahead.
We rounded a bend to see some jeeps parked by the track, and lurched to a halt beside them. “We go on foot from here,” announced Clive. I had no idea what to expect, and we walked in complete silence, until we saw, on the far side of a thicket, half a dozen rangers standing casually around. Clive pointed ahead – there, just 30 yards away and camouflaged amongst the vegetation, was a rhino and its baby.
Punyana is a 12-year-old black rhino and her name means “little one” in Zulu. No doubt the name fitted when she was young but she looked rather formidable as an adult. Surprisingly for a black rhino, she seems to tolerate the presence of humans, but I still checked for the nearest tree while we edged forward towards them.
Her 10-month old baby, Ralachichi, lay unconcerned while Punyana’s ears flicked backwards and forwards, monitoring every sound. Clive occasionally called out to her to reassure her. He explained that her eyesight was very limited but her sense of smell and sound were highly developed. An hour had passed by the time we moved away, dazed by the experience.
After the thrill of Lapalala it was time for my last ride, and a wonderful one it was as we cantered along the fields and tracks – though it didn’t quite go to plan. We set off for an adrenalin-pumping gallop up a long sandy track. Unfortunately Emma fell off and, in avoiding her, my horse, Diana, turned on the proverbial sixpence. I, however, could only manage the equivalent of a 50-pence-piece and so flew gracelessly out of the saddle and landed in the dirt next to Emma. We brushed ourselves down and laughed as I spat the sand out of my mouth. Laura was mortified: “People never fall off,” she claimed, which didn’t help my bruised ego or equally bruised backside.
That night Ant threw a farewell braai – a South African barbeque. Friends and guests packed into his new thatched boma, warming themselves around the blazing fire. Inevitably the conversation turned to how I felt about the Waterberg. “There’s a saying round here,” I heard through an alcoholic haze, “that once you’ve stood on this earth you’ll want to return”. “Well, Lyn’s actually swallowed the earth,” laughed Shane, “so she’ll definitely be back.” I rubbed my sore backside and joined in the laughter. “I’ll drink to that,” I cried. “Bottom’s up!”
The Waterberg mountains: The Waterberg area is situated 2.5-3 hours north of Johannesburg. The area is malaria free and no precautions are necessary. However, it is worth taking a good insect repellent as protection against ticks.
When to go: Riding is available all year and each seasons has its pros and cons. The seasons are the reverse of Europe. In winter (June, July, August) the days are warm and clear, but nights can go below freezing. Summers are hot and when rain is most likely. The autumn months (March, April, May) are considered particularly pleasant.
What to take: Shoes with a small heel are best for riding. A broad brimmed hat gives protection from the sun. Comfortable trousers that won’t rub when riding are a must – leggings or jeans are generally fine. Nights can be surprisingly cold so do take warm clothing as well.