In my opinion, the best view in the world is that through a horse's ears! Indeed, every horse rider has at some point indulged in the fantasy of riding through the African bush and seeing wild animals in their natural habitat from horseback. In my time, I've surfed through plenty of 'safari riding holidays' websites before a look at them. To me, prohibitive prices were a forceful reality check that meant such adventures were consigned with a sigh to the 'if only' file in my imagination.
When researching conservation projects for a forthcoming career break, I was amazed to find one that would enable me to fulfil this near-enough life-long dream whilst contributing to wildlife preservation in Africa. It isn't a cheap option, but the money that might have bought me a few day's safari holidays can give me a four-week experience here and, more importantly, help preserve the wildlife I'm keen to enjoy. The African Conservation Experience (ACE) website offers the Hanchi Horseback Conservation Experience Project, for which the blurb states: Set on a vast reserve in the rugged and wild bushland of the Limpopo Province of South Africa, from horseback, you will assist in the habituation of white rhino and disease-free buffalo. The horse's sensitivity makes them ideal partners in traversing the bush and reserve management, ensuring the game is less stressed and, by nature, alerting you to young and elusive animals. It was a no-brainer and a clear-cut case of Hanchi. Here I come!
Met at the Alldays rendezvous, slightly disorientated and exhausted by the journey, I climbed into the front of a Land Rover for the bumpy ride to the property that hosted the project. The 40-minute drive took us down a dusty red-dirt road and across two adjacent properties through their fortress-like gates into Jurassic park-style fencing.
My sense of excited anticipation grew as we got deeper into the bush, but I could not have imagined a more idyllic sight than the one that greeted me. As my arrival coincided with the approach of dusk, the first impressions I had of Hanchi were of a herd of majestic gemsbuck (oryx) galloping across the dirt road silhouetted against a glorious sunset. They are the most stunning of antelope – although also the ones least likely to oblige by standing still for a photo; never mind, I won't forget that first sight of them; it's forever etched in my memory. Animals just seemed to burst out of the bush from everywhere: kudu with great spiralling antlers, waterbuck with their distinctive white rears, impala and wildebeest – I felt I should pinch myself; this location far exceeded my expectations; I couldn't wait to get stuck in.
Hanchi had its rhythm; what happened each day was dictated by the particular conservation demands of the project. It might be patrolling the fence line to check it was secure and there were no hints of poachers attempting to enter the property; another day, we might try and track cheetahs in areas that were inaccessible to vehicles or go and inspect the nervy sable and roan antelope to monitor the condition and check for any new arrivals.
The rains were very late, but we had a couple of apocalyptic thunderstorms that shot hail and rain horizontally into the tin hut I was in when I first arrived at camp. The following day, it was the Hanchi team that was able to access the rain gauges to check how the much-needed water was distributed across the property. You can't take a vehicle out immediately after such downpours. The ground is slippery, and cars can damage the fragile environment. Horses' feet are much more friendly to the terrain than vehicle tyres.
However, whatever else was going on, the horses always needed to be fed, watered, mucked out, paddocks poo-picked and so on. The herd is managed following principles of natural horsemanship. The stable yard has a lovely, relaxed atmosphere. To my relief, it is immediately apparent that the horses are very much loved and treated as the individual personalities they are. (One of my greatest fears pre-booking was that I'd arrive and find myself stuck somewhere where the horses weren't adequately cared for; here they were.) Some practices could seem haphazard or a bit unconventional to the untrained eye, but open your heart to this! The horses find their way in and out from the paddock to the stables and back again, sometimes taking a detour to snatch some particularly tempting morsel of grass; head collars are optional. Horses are allowed (within reason) to pause and graze the bush during rides – it is one way to increase their intake of greenery; there was no grass left in their paddocks when I was there. All are ridden on a long rein but are responsive when needed.
Whatever equine husbandry task you are engaged in, the resident warthogs are non-negotiable companions. These three were left orphans due to poaching, so they were hand-reared, then, when old enough to be independent, released from their boma (enclosure) to run the property but opted to hang around the stable yard. In a commendable but utterly fruitless attempt to avoid losing their wild animal status, they were labelled 'one', 'two' and 'three' rather than given names. That was never going to last, and I later learned they have now been named Cheeky, Hairy and Floppy – each has a story behind its name, but that's for another time.
No one told the pigs (as we came to refer to them) that they weren't supposed to become too mutually attached to the people around them. They are constantly carrying out their improvements on the stable yard (dust bowl here, mud bath there, rearrange the tack room or maybe just open this handily left bag of horse nuts when the chance presents itself) and have no grasp of the concept of personal space either for horses or people. I learned you cannot look at a warthog without smiling and that their presence and perspective can enhance any adventure. Forget swimming with dolphins; romping with warthogs is the way to go. It has to be the ultimate natural therapy panacea. I have never laughed as much as I did playing with the warthogs en masse, and it gave a whole new meaning to the concept of 'getting up close and personal' with the wildlife!
There are so many memories of riding out that it seems a travesty to pick just a few. The riding is for a purpose, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. We always kept our eyes peeled for porcupine quills, and one day, we came across what seemed to be a whole mine of them, presumably the aftermath of an encounter between a leopard and a porcupine; we can think of nothing else that could have resulted in such a jack-straws like a pile of sacrificed quills. There was the day we took the horses to the white dam for a swim, which was intrinsically wonderful. Still, with added amusement caused by the seemingly inevitable rolling of Empire, our volunteer coordinators led the horse in the water and white clay. It left them both coated from head to foot with inch-thick mud. Inherently funny, of course, but with exquisite added value caused by Empire dropping to his knees when Elisa turned round in the saddle to remind us that our mounts might try and roll to be aware of it!
On the way back from this adventure, we came across two slumbering cheetahs sleeping in the shade of a bush just metres from the track; the word 'awesome' doesn't come close as an adjective to do this sighting justice.
We searched for ostrich eggs (there was a problem with nests being raided by hyenas on the property, so it was agreed that any left in a disturbed nest would be retrieved and incubated at the house); we gazed up at the giraffe, who stared down at us, and we gazed down at leopard and hyena tracks in our path. Then there were the more tender moments, too; I was lucky to be on the property just as newborns arrived. We saw a tiny zebra hoof print on one of our routes and paused for an 'aha' moment, enjoying the thought that we were in the same vicinity as a perfect new foal, joining the herd of animals for whom the property was home.
We didn't ride every day; sometimes, horses needed to be moved to grazing or tracking the resident rhino in a vehicle took precedence. This fluidity suited me; it meant you could take advantage of a breadth of experiences and learning opportunities across the property. I had the chance to join night drives and observed the unmistakable but seriously weird aardvark in action in the circle of a spotting lamp.
It was also on this project I had my first sighting of rhinos. There are two on the property, and they are significant. Until then, I'd been disappointed we'd been unable to find them from horseback. Having seen them, I was pretty relieved we hadn't! Two of the riders did at one point, which was a bit daunting. Cupcake and Petal (the rhinos have such quaint names to throw any would-be poachers off the scent if volunteers are overheard discussing them) became curious about the horses and their riders and started to follow them. Thus, the trekkers became the trekked and hastened home before it became much too close for comfort!
Ant and Emma, the driving force behind the projects, always involved volunteers in anything unusual that might be happening, whether that was the arrival of a serval, an opportunity to see some orphan bat-eared foxes at their vet project, or a day out at the Alldays Annual Watermelon Festival –now that was an experience too. Let's just say that after seeing Emma in action at the tug-o-war, don't be fooled by her delicate demeanour; you mess with her at your peril!
The unexpected animal encounters and the apparent thrill of riding in the bush amazed me. I didn't enjoy finding a baboon spider in the loo, but it was an experience. Who knew a monitor lizard could climb a tree or a leopard tortoise swim? I have filmic proof of both. There was also absolute joy in meeting new people, finding out new things, and having an honestly priceless experience. I came home skint, but with memories that money can't buy!
This is not the same as a riding safari holiday; volunteers are there to serve the project conservation goals, not vice versa. If you want to go galloping through the terrain on a horse handed to you tacked up and ready to go and enjoy more luxurious accommodation, then this is not for you. But if you want to get to see Africa over some weeks and do so with equine companionship whilst in some small way helping to conserve the habitat and wildlife you have come to enjoy, then maybe this is one way to achieve that goal.
Be aware that on this project, rides are generally at walk and in single file. This is the safest and most effective way to navigate the bush. If the lead horse should encounter a black mamba (which has happened, though not to me) or a hole left behind from aardvark excavation, it can take evasive action, and others follow. In the heat of an African summer, you don't want to go faster than you need to. Horseback fence line patrols have to be carried out calmly so you can see what work is required. If you track or monitor potentially flighty wildlife, you can't afford to crash through the undergrowth. Horses in single file give a less intimidating silhouette than horses being ridden abreast from one another.
These details are essential if you are to see anything at all, let alone the more elusive species. It's all very worth it, but you will also find that you can soak up the atmosphere much better at this pace. More importantly, if you, like me, are blessed with a project coordinator of Elisa, who was happy to share her expertise and like-minded volunteers, you will also learn a lot and have many laughs along the way. Riding out together for hours over four weeks, we talked extensively, taking in both 'cultural exchange' and flights of fancy. Did you know there is no word for 'please' in Finnish? Well, that's another story…
Lucy Marris, ACE Volunteer