Seeing the world by horseback is nothing new for veteran equestrian Susan Davis. The Houston caregiver-agency owner has been riding and traveling for two decades, often in the company of her college roommate and travel buddy Nancy Broadbent.
Previous excursions took the two friends and their families to Italy and France, among other destinations. But when Nancy brought up the idea of an equestrian safari in Africa, Susan balked. She’d always been intrigued by the idea of going on safari – but in a more controlled way.
“I always wanted there to be a heavy-duty vehicle between me and any carnivorous animal,” she recalled, laughing.
Nonetheless Nancy prevailed, and the pair found themselves booking a nine-day border-crossing ride with Equitours, a company they’d used years before on a wilderness trip in Wyoming. And so on a golden September day in 2010, they found themselves on a private reserve in the Waterberg Mountains of South Africa, saddling up for the ride of a lifetime.
After 20 years of riding, Susan is quite comfortable in the saddle – but eight 6-hour days on the open savannah and the African bush was like nothing she’d ever experienced.
“Riding here in the States, you go out into an arena, you jump or you do dressage and you’re in one little area, or you do trail rides,” said Susan, whose mare, Seminole, is boarded at Horse and Hound Stables in Pearland. “There, you are very exposed. It makes you think twice about what you’re doing; you’re in an area where anything can happen, very, very quickly.”
The first four days were at Dinaka Game Reserve about three hours from Johannesburg. Here the wide-open Serengeti-like plains lent themselves to long no-holds-barred runs.
“We’d be at a walk most of the time, but several times during the day the head guy would say let’s go for a run – and boy, oh boy, you’re galloping not just for five or 10 minutes, you’re galloping for a long way before you rein in.”
Their guides taught them an important lesson: a grazing animal is a relaxed animal. This lesson would serve them well, and it applied not only to their horses, but to the elephants and rhinos they met along the way as well.
On the first full day of riding, they saw a crash of rhinos grazing in the distance, and their guides angled off toward them.
“They lined up like a row of ballerinas, and we all took turns having our photos taken in front of them,” she recalled. “They were just looking at us and snorting, while the horses happily grazed.”
Soon it was time for the transfer to the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, where they would go on a moving safari, camping out in the bush in upscale tents their support crew would motor ahead and set up for them each night.
Days would find them galloping across the bush or gazing in wonder at wildebeests and zebras, impalas and steenboks, a veritable open-air menagerie. Evenings would find them riding into their well-appointed camp, “sundowner” cocktails ready.
In Botswana the terrain was different, with more trees and undergrowth. Here they found themselves approaching herds of elephants, which had to be treated with caution. The guides were intuitive and knew when it was safe to approach.
“If they turn around and look at you and walk toward you, you can assume they’re asserting their territorial dominance and you want to wander off. You do not want to run, ever,” Susan said. Here in the bush, they could only canter in areas where the guides were reasonably certain there were no large animals.
The horses they rode at both locations were mostly the local Boerperds, bred for stamina and strength, “superbly trained – very calm, willing and athletic. And did they love to run!”
“I’d heard friends say it’s a life-changing experience, and I think it was true,” she said. She was touched by the pride the African people feel for their abundant wildlife and for the care they take in preserving it. She was also moved by the extreme poverty and the peoples’ efforts to rise above it. Above all, though, it was the experience of being on safari.
“It’s like shedding your culture, your heritage, nearly all the amenities of civilization and stepping back in time. People need to go and experience Africa for themselves.”
Packing for Safari: Less is Best
Packing light is essential for any safari, even more so for an equestrian safari. As you prepare to enter the Third World, you might be compelled to pack all the comforts of home so you won’t find yourself without something that you might need. Don’t do it.
In the first place, you don’t know how long or far you might have to carry your own suitcase over terrain unsuitable for wheeled luggage. In the second place, tour staff will have a lot to deal with beside your luggage, and on a mobile safari, every extra pound matters. So only bring what you can fit into one small suitcase or duffel bag.
“No divas allowed,” Buzz traveler Susan Davis warned. “Don’t even think of bringing a hairdryer.”
Bruce Whittaker of African Safari Journals (www.african-safari-journals.com) has put together a first-rate website with a complete packing list and detailed information to help you prepare for any safari.
For equestrian-specific packing information, Darley Newman of Equitrekking Travel has an excellent piece on her blog at www.equitrekkingtravel.com/index.php/blog/entry/packing_blog_post/.
Susan’s packing list for riding gear is included below:
1. Appropriate clothing: Neutral earth colors like olive and khaki are key; black and dark blue can attract biting tsetse flies in some parts of Africa, white gets dirty quickly, and bright colors will make you very conspicuous to wildlife. Think in terms of layers: temperatures can range from blazing hot to surprisingly chilly. Bring rain gear, swimming gear, socks and underwear and a good, breathable hat, ideally with a strap to keep it from flying away in the wind. And don’t worry about dressing up – no one does it.
2. Riding gear: A helmet, breeches or comfortable riding pants, short riding boots and half chaps and gloves. Tall riding boots are not recommended.
3. Personal items: Travel documents, bug spray, flashlights, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera, batteries, binoculars, flip-flops or sports sandals for around the camp; a lightweight travel towel; biodegradable soap; hand sanitizer; pocket knife; toothbrush and paste; travel-size shampoo; lip balm; razor; feminine-hygiene requirements; pen/pencil and small notebook or journal; string/rope; small compass; earplugs and/or earphones; plastic bags for trash, muddy shoes, etc.; book to read during down time. Check to see what type of electrical adaptor or converter you’ll need to recharge your camera batteries when that is possible.
4. Health and first aid: band-aids and moleskin, vitamins, motion-sickness tablets, antiseptic cream, anti-diarrhea medicine, rehydration salts, allergy medication, enough of any prescribed medication to get you through the trip and copies of your prescriptions. Some people like to bring a basic antibiotic just in case. Malaria medication will probably be necessary where you are going; check with your tour operator to be sure.
Horseback Safari Companies: A Roundup
This is not by any means a complete list, but here are a few to get you started. Study itineraries to get an idea of which one is right for you. You may also wish to request references.
Equitours: Buzz travelers Susan Davis and Nancy Broadbent have used this company for several riding vacations and have been consistently happy with it. With more than 30 years in the business, Equitours calls itself “America’s oldest and largest horseback riding vacation company.” Equitours offers riding tours in 30 countries, including six countries in Africa. The Border Crossing Safari in South Africa and Botswana is now $3,780, with a $640 transfer fee. This tour has a minimum group size of 2 and maximum size of 8. www.ridingtours.com.
Equestrian Safaris: Founded in 1988, this company offers horseback treks in South America and East Africa. Their eight-day Kilimanjaro ride crosses the Tanzanian bush and over into Kenya, so you will need visas for the two countries. Group price varies with number of people; $3,370 for groups of 5-8, up to $8,425 for two riders. Transfers are included. www.safaririding.com.
Redlands Equestrian: This UK-based company offers a unique option: taking your own horse on holiday. (Or you can use the outfitters’ horses.) Besides a variety of UK riding tours, they also offer rides in Africa, Asia, Australia and North and South America. Africa tours include Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia. Their nine-day Big Five Safari tour is comparable to Equitours’ Border Crossing Safari and costs $3,640 plus $494 for transfers. www.redlandsequestrian.com
Equitrekking: Inspired by Darley Newman’s Emmy-winning Equitrekking travel TV show on public television, Equitrekking Travel also features international and U.S.-based trekking vacations. Its 10-day South Africa and Botswana ride has options that range in price from $2,075 (low season, basic accommodations) to $3,028 (high season, upscale accommodations). Transfers not included and also range in price depending on how many are traveling. www.equitrekkingtravel.com