Limpopo

 

The guide spurred his horse forward: “Let’s Ride!...And try not to let any big pussy cats spook the horses.” There’s nothing as thrilling as galloping through the African bushveld and, as I felt my horse surge underneath me and the wicked acacia thorns began to whip past my thighs, I gratefully delegated all responsibility for our welfare to my faithful steed. If either of us was in danger of getting �?spooked’ it wasn’t Strider.

 

We had travelled like this for much of the morning - whenever the rocky savanna and network of gullies allowed - once covering three miles in a few breathless minutes. But this time the trailmaster called us to a sliding halt and, even as I reined in, I was squinting into the sunlight ahead to see what the hold-up was. Then I made out the bulky shadows of a group of elephants ransacking the mopane trees and I realised with a shock that I could have ridden straight into that wall of grey flesh and curving ivory before I had noticed anything. I was suddenly aware of how effectively the world’s largest land animal can hide itself!

 

But I already knew that this remote corner of Botswana was capable of �?hiding’ the largest elephant population on private land anywhere in the world. From an open-topped Landcruiser I had already counted ninety-five animals in a single huge herd...and I knew that many more youngsters would have been hidden from view in the long grass as they followed the matriarchs towards the sunset. They were a remnant of the great herds that once roamed the Limpopo Valley and they have earned Mashatu Game Reserve the title of �?Land of the Giants.’

 

But as we held our horses in line and watched the group that was shredding the mopane branches, we were yet to realise that our path was blocked by of one of the region’s largest herds! This isolated part of Botswana, known historically as the Tuli Enclave, has remained almost unchanged since the pioneer columns blazed its trails in the late 1800s. As we had saddled up for our four-day �?patrol,’ at the Fort Jameson stables of Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris, I felt like a raw recruit preparing for a Boer war skirmish.

 

Our trailmaster, Steve Rufus, was a qualified ranger and riding-instructor and an experienced bushman. Steve’s love of horses came from a childhood spent on a ranch in the Zimbabwe bushveld and eight years lecturing on equine studies at Pretoria. A tour of duty during the �?bush war’ and a reputation as a champion three-day event rider suggest that Steve would have been a match for all but the most hard-bitten Fort Tuli trooper. On our first morning we rode eastwards across the rocky savanna among herds of zebra, wildebeest and impala before turning south to follow the Pitsani (Little Zebra) River. The ruins of Bryce’s Store, where one of the more decisive shoot-outs took place, and the Boer gun-emplacements on nearby Commando Kopje helped to enhance the feeling of timelessness that is the essence of horseback travel.

 

Just as the heat (and our, as yet unaccustomed, rumps) were becoming uncomfortable we rode into the Pitsani camp where Steve’s assistants, Joyce and Sam, had already unloaded the back-up vehicle of fresh local produce and eskies of G&T - without which no safari would be worthy of the name. Full of delicious bush pizza (and a ration of �?Tom Collins’ that would have done Hemingway justice) I slept soundly...until, just before dawn, I was jolted awake by the cough of a prowling lion. He seemed to be in the bushes on the other side of the stream and for a while it seemed that we could almost hear him breathing. The horses stamped and pulled nervously on the pony-line.

 

But we couldn’t let him interrupt Joyce’s fresh-baked blueberry muffins and the sun had already dried the morning dew when we saddled up and headed in the opposite direction. Though the lion remained hidden the day’s ride was unforgettable for other sightings: three hundred impala �?pronking’ in the early sunlight – warming up for another day on the run; a herd of giraffe lolloping away on willowy legs; warthog piglets scampering, squeaking, with tails held stiff and high - like little dodgem cars; kudu; ostrich; jackal; monkey; bushpig; hyena; baboon...

 

Even amongst these �?everyday’ Mashatu sightings there were highlights. As we spread out to canter across the savanna a herd of wildebeest - duped by their own instinct for safety-in-numbers - galloped down to join our �?stampede’! They would stay alongside us as long as we made no noises or movements that distinguished us from our horses. Once we were also joined by a bachelor herd of eland bulls and, when we were forced to return for one of our fallen comrades (whose horse had posted him through an unfeasibly small gap in a battered acacia tree), they looked back, as if to say: “why’ve we stopped?!”

 

Then there was that daunting elephant blockade. In an effort to find a safe thoroughfare through the herd we trotted cautiously along a dry riverbed but the horses’ constantly twitching ears alerted us to elephants feeding beyond the ledge above our heads. Steve scouted ahead and, just as he approached a gully that intersected our track, a young bull came charging down, pumping his tree-trunk legs to gain the momentum that would push his impressive bulk back up the opposite bank. Our horses spun around, whinnying - anxious for flight.

 

The enthusiasm with which Strider tackled the near-vertical walls of these gullies was a testament to the bumper-sticker on the back of Steve’s saddles: �?Best 4x4xfar!’ I knew that he could outrun an elephant...but I wasn’t too confident about my chances of still being with him when he’d done it. So, for once I refused to defer to Strider’s experience and, hearts pounding, we continued up the riverbed. By the time we arrived, two nerve-racking hours later, on the other side of that pachyderm minefield I was ready to concede that a horse-safari in �?The Land of the Giants’ is not for the novice rider...but, then again, six prancing horses and a charging bull elephant in a dry riverbed does make for a pretty steep learning-curve!

 

Photo courtesy of Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris here

Kalahari

 

Twenty thousand years are all that it took for the San Bushman to learn to live off the ‘fat of the land.’ With nothing more than a pair of eland skin slippers, a bow and a quiver full of surprisingly spindly arrows they could travel vast distances.

 

 

 

I was all set to take on the Kalahari too, but I would do it on my terms. I was travelling light 21st century style. With just a Britz Toyota Hi-lux 4x4 safari vehicle, fitted with long-range fuel-tanks, ten-gallon water containers and a high-level exhaust (in the unlikely event of floods). At night I would sleep out, as nature intended. With just the flimsy walls of an Eezi-Awn predator-proof roof-tent between me and the Kalahari night.

 

 

The coffin-sized ‘chilly-bin’ on the back seat was full of enough steaks and beer to ensure that my guide, Bart Vandepitte, and I wouldn’t be reduced to eating raw mopane worms or sucking gritty water out of grated roots. Taking everything into account I figured that I was immune to just about everything. Everything but death by donkey. “The donkey is the most dangerous animal in Botswana,” Bart warned me as we drove of the old frontier town of Francistown and overtook a row of the little carts that are known hereabouts as Kalahari Ferraris.

 

In his years as a safari guide Bart has stood up to his share of elephant charges and face-to-face stand-offs with lions but, during the course of more than a million off-road miles in southern Africa, he’s built up a lot of respect for the humble donkey. “Hippos and crocs attacks might be more glamorous,” he said, “but donkeys are responsible for more deaths in this country than any other animal. They’re the greatest menace on the roads.”

 

So we headed towards the Kalahari, dodging donkeys, until we turned off the desert highway and began to steer a seamanlike course straight into the ocean-like expanses of the great Makgadikgadi Pans. Eventually a rocky ‘island’ rose up as a rare blemish on the almost featureless horizon. Climbing to the peak of this kopje, I stared out over a great pale-grey wasteland that sparkled with mirages, like ghosts of the great inland sea that once covered these immense saltpans, along with most of northern Botswana.

 

Still it was almost impossible to imagine that just a few hours drive to the north of this desert landscape lay the Okavango. One of the great attractions of Botswana lies in this stark contrast; where else can you find one of the world’s greatest deserts and its largest inland delta in a country the size of France? By now my kopje was throwing a long shadow across the pans so, keeping an eye out for whichever leopard counted this as his territorial headquarters, I went back to the security of my roof-tent.

 

The next morning the mirages were still there and late-season thunderclouds far out on the pans had me wondering against all odds if there really was water out there. But this is a region that is famous for its mirages and we were heading for its illusionary epicentre, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Bushman knew better than to trust the visions of sparkling lakes that materialise on the cracked earth, only to dissolve again as you approach, but there are stories of flocks of migrating pelicans that have been lured off-course by the treacherous phantom-lakes of Deception Valley.

 

Water is a commodity that will remain precious here long after the CKGR’s legendary diamonds have finally been discovered, mined and forgotten. For eight months of the year the hills and valleys here are burned the colour of a lion’s hide and even the great predators are forced to suck scant moisture from desert melons.

 

What little rain is released by the clouds often evaporates even before it reaches the ground but the desert nights are as cold as the days are hot. After sunset we piled logs on our mopane-wood braai and watched the hungry jackals skulk in the shadows, sniffing at our steaks. Further out on the pan we could hear an occasional roar that warned us that the East Side pride was on the march…and that they too were still hungry. In the early hours I was awakened by something and stuck my head out of my tent in time to see the lithe form of a hunting leopard stalk past our camp.

 

Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one of the most evocative and peaceful safari destinations in the world. Far from the game-drive traffic-jams of other reserves we sat at night around our campfire and commented jealously on the owners of the only other fire that we could see on the far horizon. That ‘fire’ turned out to be further off than we thought when two nights later we realised that it was actually Jupiter. We were after all totally alone with the endless canopy of Kalahari stars to ourselves.

 

The Bushman believed that every speck in that glittering sky was the soul of a hunter. Despite their spirituality, and the support of their gods, life for them must have been far from the ideals of Van der Post’s noble hunter in his Garden of Eden but they had somehow carved a living out of the desert. The white man and more powerful tribes had certainly offered them no retreat from increasingly remote Kalahari pans…until they forced them out for the last time.

 

But we were privileged to come and go and, in a day or two, we would make a tactical retreat and follow the old Kuki cattle-fence to cool sheets and warm baths at Deception Valley Lodge. Then it was back on the highway…and once more into the realm of the fearsome donkey.

 

Photo courtesy of Deception Valley Lodge here

Madagascar

 

Culture shock comes quickly in Madagascar. Even as the plane swooped over the outskirts of Antananarivo I was scanning streets of red-clay houses and emerald patchworks of paddy fields for an image that would confirm my arrival in Africa. As a dilapidated Citroen taxi shuttled me onward into the capital, swerving around rickshaws and garishly painted carts drawn by hump-backed zebu cattle, I struggled even more against the illusion that I had landed in the Far East. Even the taxi driver’s fine-boned, café-au-lait features only served to confound my efforts to convince myself that this was Africa.

 

Since Madagascar first sailed away from the African continent over eighty million years ago, the 250 miles of fierce currents that make up the Mozambique Channel’s have done more to insulate the island than the entirety of the Indian Ocean. The intrepid Indonesian sailors who were the island’s first settlers have left their legacy everywhere: from the pirogue outriggers of the reefs; to the stilted huts that evolved on other, distant islands to withstand the tropical monsoons; to the ecologically disastrous slash-and-burn agricultural system that may have driven them from their homelands in the first place.

 

They also brought their own complex religious beliefs that revolved around a fear of supernatural spirits and a respect for the dead. Mysticism and, to our eyes, superstition still govern every important stage of rural life in Madagascar, but in no other area are they more important than in the question of death. ‘A house is for a lifetime but a tomb is forever’ the Malagasy point out and there can be no worse fate than exclusion from the family tomb. For many, the duties of burial, re-burial and the famous ‘bone-turning’ ceremonies (along with the accompanying cattle sacrifices and feasts) are the paramount obligation of the living. In some areas 80% of income is spent on the ancestors…but these ‘investments’ must be made if the living are to continue enjoying the protection of the dead.

 

The Malagasy as a whole (and particularly the powerful Merina and Betsileo tribes of the high plateau) are descended primarily from Malay-Polynesian pioneers who arrived within the last 2000 years. But there are now eighteen main tribes, each with their own unique cultural and ethnic backgrounds. On the southern scrub-pastures and cactus deserts, there are Bara and Antanosy people who would not look out of place in the Mozambique of their forefathers, while along the eastern coast there are the Antaimoro (keepers of sacred texts written in ancient Arabic script) and the Antambohoaka whose bloodline dates directly to the Arab sailors who knew Madagascar as Gezirat Al-Komr - the Isle of the Moon.

 

You can waste a lot of time shifting Madagascar from Asian to African pigeonholes, and back again, before you come to accept the fact that the world’s fourth largest island is at once a combination of many things…and an island continent in its own right.

 

By Mark Eveleigh