Louise Bell, Professional Dressage Rider & Michael Eilberg, Team GB Dressage Rider visited one of our luxury riding safaris, RAW Safaris in Botswana recently. Louise very kindly offered to tell us all about their experience, here’s her very own account of her first riding safari in Africa.
It felt like a week to get there but maybe because Michael and I were just so looking forward to getting a break from our everyday life it seemed so long? And to go on a riding holiday! Ha ha yes we did say to each other what the hell are we doing, especially as we arrived in Maun to the biggest electrical storm, a tornado and a down pour of torrential rain… did we really sign up for this?
Finally, we were on the last leg of our journey, a small aircraft flight from Maun into Motswiri camp by private plane. On arrival we were greeted by African singing and a wonderfully warm and cheery team.
We were shown our accommodation which was the most glamorous tent I could have ever have imagined! The whole thing sat on raised deck. Inside was as good as any 5 star hotel with a shower, toilet, sinks and a bed you could fit a whole family in!!
Wow!! We quickly unpacked, freshened up and went out to meet the rest of the group for our first dinner in the bush.
In the mess tent we were talked through the do’s and don’ts of the WILD! After both signing away our lives, we took a deep breath, sat in these giant leather sofas and had a much needed glass of wine to steady the nerves. Next was dinner and we enjoyed a meal I can only describe as outstanding presented to us and much appreciated by all. The food was fantastic all week and I must credit the chef/staff/management for preparing it in what seemed a difficult environment.
Sleeping was not a problem for anyone even though the wonderful noises of the frogs crocking and crickets cricketing were so loud. Only Michael had a slight problem with being attacked by giant flying beetle. This was the first of many nights of uncontrollable laughter… at Michael’s expense of course, seeing him being terrorised by what seemed to be killer bugs (they weren’t at all!) But Michael does have a wasp phobia and anything that buzzes round him seems to send him into a flap. In the end the Doom spray had to come out and we finally got to sleep and what a sleep it was.
The next morning we were woken up at 4.45am with coffee, rusk like biscuits and orange juice, delivered right into our tent. Half an hour later we were dressed and gathered round the fire at the mess tent for breakfast with everyone to discuss the morning ride and cook our toast on the fire, drink some more coffee and wake up.
Just taking in the beauty of the mornings in camp sat in a chair on the sand down by the river made us feel like we were in a John Wayne movie, it was quite fabulous!
We then walked up to the stables… yes stables!! (in the bush you can’t leave the horses out overnight unattended on account of hungry lions) Michael and I were introduced to our grooms FLOSSY and SYSTEM! Wicked names! And our horses for that day. Soon we were mounted and off we headed into the bush for our first day riding.
At this point the sun was rising and the views were like something from the movie ‘Out of Africa’, we were pretty speechless.
Well, only for five minutes as anyone who knows me can vouch for that, I can’t stay quiet for long.
Our Guide Johno took us quietly the first morning just to evaluate our riding ability and horse control (he didn’t really have a clue who we were which was brilliant) Michael had his horse on the bit straight away looking ready for competition!! (but that didn’t last…!)
Our first canter was hilarious, Carmen, the Horse Manager had been told I’d ride anything, my mount had been off for a while and just back in work, so felt the need to buck at the gallop. But I genuinely didn’t care, I was far too busy laughing at Michael in front of me as his horse was proving difficult to stop and kept putting its head between its knees and all I could see was Michael’s backside up in the air!
Out in the bush that day it was quiet on the animal front but we did see reedbuck, water buffalo and birds that can only have come from Jurrasic Park, a Goliath heron…the biggest bird I’ve ever seen – I asked if he had a friend called David – my jokes took a while to be appreciated but they all got them by the end of the week!
So this was our first day, they were easing us in gently, letting us get to know our horses, our, environment and understand how the riding works.
I think Hunting has definitely set me up for safari riding and I’ll explain why later.
Michael had been on safari to South Africa some years ago to one of their national parks but he said this was very different, totally wild, with no entrance or exit or sight of fencing, this is a place where the true circle of live exists…
The saddles were a bit different too, a stock saddle, which is a cross between western and English. It felt weird at first, but we quickly fell in love with them. They had really comfortable seats much better for long days riding and the weight of them was better distributed across the back of the horse, making it much more comfortable for them too. We stopped every morning for a break about 9, ate flapjack and apples and drank water from our cans which we carried in our saddle bags along with our cameras, sun cream and sweets. Basically the pair of us really got into bush riding very quickly and couldn’t wait for our next ride.
That first riding day was tame and we were also waiting for three more riding guests to arrive as they had missed a connecting flight so spent the night in a plush hotel in Johannesburg.
Another beauty of booking with Zara’s Planet is that as soon as they knew the flight had been missed, they quickly arranged and booked that hotel for them, beats having the stress of doing it yourself and in emergencies they are there to help at the end of the phone or on-line.
They arrived in camp that afternoon and were able to join us on the evening ride.
It was great, really relaxing and as we watched buffalo, monkeys and some kudo antelope jumping like you’d never believe, we also got to see the most stunning sunset.
Then we returned to camp to be greeted by our grooms who took the horses, we nicked back to the tent for a quick shower, refreshed, clean and ready for dinner and what a banquet is was! We sat with a great group of people, discussing our day and drinking wine. After dinner, we moved out to the fire on the sand only to look up and… OMG!!! The stars!!!! No moon at all… saw every star in the sky….followed by a shooting star display – we were blown away. We both named a few new ones too… as there was an alignment of stars that looked like a Christmas tree, it was called the Christmas tree and next to Orians belt, another three stars that I called Simons strap! It was probably some famous star but everyone thought Simons strap was funny!
The evening continued, with the bottle of Amerula melting the ice nicely and the heat from the day slowly cooling off.
Johno and Carmen told us some great stories of riding with elephants and hippo and gave Michael and I an insight into how they manage the horses with no vets at hand, they really do an amazing job.
The next morning due to it being very hot, 38 degrees, Johno wanted to get going early, so we were at 4.30 am, I was ok with that as I’m normally up at that time at home. Breakfast was at 5am and even MICHAEL made it which is impressive!
Today Carmen had decided to upgrade Michael and I to new horses. Michael had Sollie and I had Smokey, the best horses ever with hilarious personalities, we were the perfect match. We were both very happy on our horses and the other riders were all really happy on theirs too. If I was to describe riding out in the bush, it’s a lot like going out hunting; some walking, some trotting, flat out gallops and emergency stops with handbrake turns to avoid elephant holes.
Johno said we were riding over to hippo pool, we all started getting excited. On route we encountered a heard of zebra, they were quite beautiful, each one having different markings. Interestingly, they were also quite skittish and wary of the horses which I found funny. I thought they would have been more relaxed round them.
We approached an area where there is lots of water pools and around the pools where Impala, buffalo and WILDEBEEST, so cool and then we arrive. The hippo pool was full of about twenty hippo babies and everything, it’s amazing!
We stop here for our morning break taking pictures, videos and chilling for half an hour with our horses tied up eating grass. This was a special day! But as we saddle up I go round the side of this big tree only to see six of the biggest bull elephants I have ever seen! I never imagined quite how huge they are! I quickly and quietly call Michael and say “Look, look, look” He turns round and is as blown away as I am. The rest of the gang see them too. We had to keep our distance but there they were the Giants among men and as we watched they came over for a drink at the pool… and outstanding experience, I can tell you.
After that amazing morning ride, we rode back to camp on a total high with the heat of the sun beating down on us at 39 degrees, Scorchio! We had a delicious lunch and chattered excitedly about the mornings events.
Every day after lunch, it’s siesta time, which is welcomed and needed when you’re up so early. One can choose to sit by the pool, snooze back in their tent or lay on a sofa or just do what you fancy till 4pm when Tea is served, along with a big, fat cake.
After that wake up munch its back on the horse for an evening ride or a drive in the jeep or as Michael and I chose, some fishing.
Neither of us had fished before but wanted to give it a go, so we were taken by our guide fabulous guide MUSHETIE, out on the makora boat.
The boat is a bit like a rough version of the gondolas you see in Venice. Punting along with what looked like a bamboo stick, Mushetie took us to the deepest pools where we proceeded to laugh the fish out of the water.
Michael hooked one straight away and it seemed like he’d hooked a marlin, only to discover how powerful cat fish are! Mushetie taught us both how to cast and de hook. Michael had the knack and took to it like a duck to water. I gave it a go as well and managed to catch cat fish too – they are wild! It was great fun and we put them all back, apparently they taste of mud. And then we caught some bream, sadly for them they didn’t get thrown back and we ate them for dinner. Ok… Michael caught the bream… I just ate them!
So most afternoons where spent fishing and chilling by the river and laughing at me trying to walk through reeds in flip flops and laughing uncontrollably at Michael when he cast his line out only for the rod to fall apart and follow the line into the water – that was a moment I thought I’d ruptured something from laughing too much.
Thoughts do run through your mind of “We are basically sat by a river… a lion could jump out of the bushes at any time!” Although to be honest, I think I was making far too much noise for any animal to even approach, let alone consider attacking!
But we felt at one with nature and watched the kudo come and drink and the water buffalo wade through the reeds further down the river from us.
We also went out in the jeep for a drive rather than ride and we were looked after by our guide James 007! He was an awesome tracker and we all became great mates by the end of the trip. We saw large herds of zebra, antelope and more hippos’, followed by a hippo which was out grazing (very dangerous but thrilling) we kept our distance and watched him make his way to his pool where he disappeared.
Only for James to then say he could hear lions… we all looked at each other and thought… yeah right, I couldn’t hear a thing!
But half an hour later we stopped and listened… and… he was right the distant noises of a sort of mmmmmmmmmmwhooooooaaaarrr, put shivers down my spine!
We all got very excited and put our lives into James’s hands and spent the next hour tracking them down in the dark. Then suddenly… James stopped the truck… shone his infa red light and there they were… two brothers… absolutely majestic but terrifying at the same time.
They had been calling to each other and where together just mooching and spraying their territory looking for a place to sleep for the night!
We got so carried away watching them and filming them for over an hour we all forgot about the time and were late for dinner. How James found his way back to camp I will never know as he didn’t use GPS and it was pitch black. But back to camp we got where the others were waiting for us to tell them all about the night’s events!
Another amazing meal awaited us which was needed as both Michael and I were frozen on the way back in the jeep, we had just been wearing t shirts and it does cool down quite a bit at night, you really need a fleece of some sort.
After the meal we all sat round the fire where Michael was no longer unknown and our fellow guests wanted to hear all about his horses and DRESSAGE!
Michael held court all evening in fine style. I kept the drinks flowing and all our guests got to watch videos on his phone of Farouche and Donroshen (Rosie) and proceeded to make Carmen the toughest of horsewoman close to tears watching her freestyle inter 1 from Hartpury last year.
So, now the whole camp where asking the pair of us all sorts of questions about everything which was sweet.
The next day on our morning ride, we approached what looked like a paddock created by elephants who had knocked down the trees that looked like perfect jumps!! As we were in the mood for some fun, I suggested we give the horses a jump. Michael and I led all the riders astray and spent the next half hour popping over our new natural jumps. We reckoned Michaels horse would do well in jump offs, it loved to jump at speed and I actually though mine could make s super working hunter. Looking back it seemed a bit crazy to be jumping bush horses in such a remote area, five minutes where we had seen lions the night before!
We finished the mornings ride with a fantastic gallop through the never ending shallow pools of the delta and encountered some giraffe. All I can say is WOW, my goodness they are huge but they seem to spend their life in slow motion. Incredible creatures!
Later that day when we went out on our evening drive, it got even more dramatic as we found a kill.
The lions had taken down a huge water buffalo, they had left the scene and vultures had moved in. We hadn’t set our eyes on vultures since we arrived and then suddenly hundreds of them. And the smell, it was like being round the flesh house of the kennels.
It wasn’t pleasant, but this was nature at work. The carcass was a day old, James said the lions and hyenas would still be about, they weren’t finished with their meal. He said we should come back in the dark to see them in action.
We took his advice and headed back out later and there they were… two of the biggest lions laying in the long grass bellies full and looking very happy and yawning, showing us their teeth yet not even bothering about the truck and any of us thank goodness. They had no reason to be scared of us so it was magical to just watch them. Then in came an enormous hyena, nervous as he tried to approach the kill and so he should be, the lions may have been full but no other animal was having any till they were finished that night!
We head back to camp all excited about the night’s events… and had dinner – actually tonight we were driven to a nearby watering hole to find a beach banquet laid on for our arrival. A fire, candles on the table and fillet steaks on the bbq. Enough wine to sink a ship and just an all-round atmospheric evening where we all appreciated where we were what we had seen and looked up to the starlit sky feeling happy.
What an Amazing day! Amazing evening! Needless to say I slept satisfied and like a log that night!
The next early morning ride started with… THE WART HOGS! Pumba himself from the lion king and one of my favourites. Him with his sticky up tail, his wife and eight children! They are such funny looking creatures, so ugly they are comically cute, I had uncontrollable giggles just watching them in action, another wonderful sight.
This led us onto our next sighting and my favourite. We were having a lovely trot along a sandy track when Michael shouts out, Lou look and there they were, my favourite cat’s and not just one but FOUR of the most BEAUTIFUL CHEETAHS.
I had kind of thought we wouldn’t see them as it’s rare for this area, but there they were, I just couldn’t believe my eyes, yet another a magical moment. They clocked us straight away and slowly cantered off in the distance but the fact we saw them was just out of this world!
That day was our last morning ride and probably our last ride period as we decided to do a final truck ride with James that evening. But we had had the best ride ever – Michael rode Marshall who was a lead horse and for good reason, he was soooo FAST and I stayed loyal to my Smokey who I’d had such a blast with all week even if he did pull my arms out! We had an amazing long canter sometimes gallop through shallow pools almost thinking they were rivers and just being able to go at top speed yet being in control, it was blooming awesome, it felt like freedom. So often when I ride, it’s work mode, there’s a purpose, you forget the pure thrill of digging deep and getting out there for a gallop – here I could do just that, it was pure fun for both Michael and I.
Instead of going back to camp for lunch we went turned around some trees, only to discover they had brought lunch to us in the middle of the bush. It was all set out, beautifully presented, genuinely I felt like royalty, so much effort and thought.
Michael and I were pretty blown away I cannot tell you how wonderful this camp is and how well it is run and how they manage to make you feel truly welcome, like your part of their family.
We finished our wonderful lunch, rode back to camp and spent the rest of the afternoon chilling by the pool and shooting the breeze with the other guests.
That evening, we chose to go fishing before dinner. It was out last night in camp and as we arrived at the mess tent, it was a party atmosphere with all the team, drinks, singing and dancing before we sat down to another glorious banquet. Afterwards James told us African stories all night, which we lapped up and listened intently to like a group of kids hearing night time tales before bed.
Before we knew it was out final morning… which started at 4.30 am. I thought I was dreaming and could hear activity near to the camp, it was a herd of buffalo wading through the river, then some birds and some frogs and some crickets, they were so loud and then came the roar of the lions. They were really close to camp, my heart was racing, it was unbelievable. We all jumped out of bed got dressed and got into the jeep on a quest to see what they were roaring about. Michael and I had just been thinking how well we’d done keeping out of trouble, was this really the way to spend our last hours at camp! Hell yes! It was soooooo exciting! We kept stopping to hear the calls of the lions, originally we thought they were right outside the tents, their calls travel, thank god! They were actually just beyond the air strip and it turned out to be a bit of a stand- off between two pairs of brothers still around the original kill and waiting for the larger pair to move on and give them a chance for breakfast. Sadly for the two thin brothers, they eventually left hungry, but what a thrill we’d had out of it. We had been able to see in real life, how these amazing animals live, how they only kill to eat, how they mark their territory and how they spend quite a lot of time, just chilling, enjoying the sun and making baby lions.
We came across a huge herd of elephants whilst finding the lions but after a couple of days before getting charged in the truck by a female elephant, I was keen for James to keep going as I didn’t fancy going through that again and felt I had to make sure the pair of us got home in one piece, dramas over.
When we got back into camp, after such a week of sheer excitement, we were hit by great sadness. It was time to pack and leave Camp Motswiri and the RAW Botswana team.
We enjoyed our last breakfast, full English with champagne of course and then made our way individually and thanked the team and staff for looking after us on our stay.
It was time to go home, our enjoyment had to end, we had a lot of hard work to get back to………!
I cannot thank Zara from Zara’s Planet for giving Michael and I the holiday of a life-time. It took a little persuasion, we asked ourselves why would professional riders go on holiday to ride? But I get it now, this was the best way to see the game and hell, we enjoyed the riding, we found real fun in it for riding’s sake, not because it was our job or we had something to aim for or achieve, that was the beauty.
You must go and ride with RAW Botswana at Motswiri camp and you must book it with Zara or Jill at Zara’s Planet – they also take non riders and kids, so pack up the family too. It’s truly a trip of a lifetime in one of the last wonders of this world… AFRICA!
What a privilege it was to be amongst god’s creatures and for them allowing us to be part of their lives for a week!
One thing I did change my mind on, it’s actually far more dangerous here at home with the young horses than it ever was in Botswana!
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I envy you this wonderful adventure:-)