Wild about Africa Five safari alternatives

 

Go there:No TV, telephones, internet, outside world; just you, a horse and a whole lot of nature. Safari by horseback is the only way to go, writes Holly Hunt

'WHENEVER I want to find giraffes, I start to canter and nine times out of 10 we run bang into them," announced Jane our guide with an enthusiastic smile. She then whirled her horse around and off we set, cantering through the African bush.

The thought of running bang into a herd of animals three times taller than my own mount and capable of kicking a fully grown lion to death did cross my mind as not the most intelligent of morning activities, but at that stage, it was out of my hands. Sure enough, as we rounded a corner in the path, a startled female giraffe brought us to an abrupt halt.

Unusually, she was alone. She stood about six metres from us holding up an obviously painful hoof. "This old girl looks like it will be her last season," Jane said sadly, "left behind by the herd. Pity there's no lions here to take her down . . . it'll be a slow death, but there's not much we can do about it."

"Bloody glad there's no lions, I don't want to be taken down just yet," a London man mumbled to me out the corner of his mouth.

Such moments as these made me think that horse safari is an experience everyone should have on their list of holiday dreams. I know what you're thinking: not all our pockets are that deep or our riding that good. But it is possible to ride with big game in spectacular landscapes for the same price as a good skiing holiday and you don't have to be Lester Piggott either.

My hosts, Horizon Horse Safaris, are based on one of the oldest family farms in South Africa's Waterberg Mountains: Triple B Ranch. Renowned for its diversity of plant and bird life, the Waterberg has recently been declared a Unesco biosphere reserve. The ranch operates as a working cattle, game and crop property and offers over 20,000 acres of superb riding country.

Shane and Laura Dowinton, both originally from the UK, opened Horizon as a small horse safari operation more than 15 years ago. They now have a herd of more than 70 horses and attract guests from all over the world.

AS WE FIRST walked into camp my boyfriend, let out a contented sigh. Half-a-dozen scantily clad women lounged on sunbeds, soaking up the sun during their afternoon siestas. The majority of clients on horse safaris are women. So if it's horsey single ladies you're after, this is a gold mine. Of course, the horses and good food aren't the only reason these girls flock here. In the business they call it khaki fever: the irresistible attraction of nature-loving, sun-tanned male safari guides. And Horizon has a few of those, too.

Horizon caters for a maximum of 10 guests, so no matter when you visit, it will always feel like an exclusive experience. The relaxed family atmosphere was immediately obvious on our arrival. We were told to help ourselves to a cold beer while one of the guides sat on the couch strumming a guitar.

There are three double rooms in the main house and three luxury, spacious en-suite thatched rondavels, each set slightly away from the main house, allowing you an air of complete, decadent privacy. Our lodge overlooked a lake fringed in white water lilies that was often frequented by a family of hippos.

But it is not the lodge or the food that is the main focus of Horizon; really, it's all about the horses, and it shows. I rode a different horse every time we went out°, and each horse I was given was responsive, forward-going and a pleasure to be on.

"Many lodges have horses to ride," one of the guides explained. "But the difference here is this is a riding establishment with a lodge attached. It is the horses that make Horizon and without them there would be no Horizon."

Over afternoon tea (and a delicious orange cake), we met Shane. Genuine and welcoming with twinkling blue eyes, Shane practices natural horsemanship or, as the general public refers to it, "horse whispering". He has reared and trained most of the horses at Horizon.

All grades of rider are catered for and with a ratio of seven horses to each client, they have the luxury of matching the right horse with the right rider. Horizon also offers a wide variety of riding options, making it one of the most varied and action-packed vacations in the world: trekking, cattle mustering, polocrosse, cross-country jumping, western pony games, safaris and riding lessons.

There were only six guests on our first safari ride: a Dubliner who was working for Concern in Sudan and her German friend; a high-flying couple from London who had momentarily escaped the crumbling financial markets; and my boyfriend and I. We were introduced to our horses and given a little pep-talk on their characters before heading into the bush.

Our first sighting was of a kudu's pair of delicate pink ears and spiral horns poking up above the thick bush. We passed zebra and warthogs as our minds slowed down to the pace of the bush. "Riding is so therapeutic," I heard the London lady sigh.

So much so, it turned out, that tongues loosened and life stories poured out. By the end of our afternoon ride, I knew more intimate details about my fellow guests than about people I've known for years.

There were no hot towels or trays of chilled champagne to welcome us back to the lodge, as you have in some safari operations; here it's all about the horses. So we unsaddled our rides ourselves, rubbed them down and turned them out. Horizon is not about pampering; it's about riding. You're going to get your hands dirty and your limbs will ache, but that's part of the attraction. Dusty and sweaty, we watched the sun drop behind the mountains over stiff gin and tonics.

The next day, Jane took us on a ride to Sunset Lake. Jane is a passionate horsewoman and a very knowledgeable guide. I have a minute attention span but Jane had a way of weaving a tale that kept me captivated. We learned of plants that can be used as insect repellent, how to tell between male and female fish eagles and how to know we were near water by listening out for bird songs.

AS WE MADE our way across fields of heavily scented rosemary with a backdrop of purple mountains, I heard the best testimonial possible from the back-up rider. It transpired that she was a guest who just kept coming back. "I've been here dozens of times," she told me. "I was fed up with my job in England, so I asked Laura and Shane if I could do their three-month volunteer programme. They said yes, I arrived and never left. I feel this is where I was always meant to be, on a horse in wide open spaces."

And she is not the only one. More than 70 per cent of clients at Horizon are return visitors who come back year after year. There are even clients that live in London and own horses at Horizon.

By now, there will be a new swimming pool under the shade of the giant syringa tree (truck loads of beautiful slate were arriving for its construction while we were there), but we had another way of cooling down: swimming in the lake with our horses. My mare, Jade, wasn't so sure about it all, but after some gentle encouragement I was clinging to her mane with all my might as we surged through the water.

Over a pre-dinner drink that evening, the lady from London enthused about her experience; "It really is great value for money, delicious food, comfortable rooms and . . .", she lowered her voice in mischievous glee, " . . . my husband's Blackberry doesn't work here, I'm so delighted."

There are no televisions, no newspapers, and no mobile-phone reception. So if you are looking for a break from the rest of the world this is the place to come.

Sitting on a horse with the sun on your back, the wind in your hair and the sounds of the African bush all around you is a moving experience. Wild game are more relaxed around horses than cars, allowing you to get much closer to them; sometimes we were even able to gallop alongside zebra or giraffes. With no glass or metal barriers, or sounds of roaring engines, you feel part of the raw wildness of the African bush. I guarantee that once you've stared into the eyes of a wild African animal from the saddle of your own horse, you'll want to do it again and again.

• Prices start at €225 per person per night (pppn). The best time to visit Horizon weather-wise is during the South African spring (August- October), but you can visit at any time of year. The hottest season is summer, from November to March.

• The rainy season extends from late November to January, with short showers in the late afternoon, and an occasional evening thunderstorm.

• There is a low season coming up from mid-January to the end of February, when rates start from €188pppn (May and June are also on offer with low-season prices).

• Horizon only accepts guests over the age of 12.

• Horizon offers a three-month volunteer programme for experienced riders over the age of 25.

• For more information, see www.ridinginafrica.com.

FIVE SAFARI ALTERNATIVES

African Horseback Safaris(www.africanhorseback.com) Okavango Delta Botswana. This is where Prince Harry spent his gap year and is a haunt of the British Olympic eventing team. Come here for a luxurious and exhilarating experience of Botswana's spectacular Okavango Delta. You need to be an experienced rider and getting into the Delta is costly (transfers from the nearest town into the camp are €153). Prices from €336pppn in low season (January-April, November- December) to €458pppn in high season (August- September).

Fish River Horse Safaris(www.horsesafaris.co.za), Eastern Cape of South Africa.This is a unique coastal bush experience on the Sunshine Coast for a fraction of the cost of other safaris. Prices start at €115pppn (Includes luxury BB).

Mozambique Horse Safari(www.mozambiquehorsesafari.com, www.benguerra.co.za), Vilanculos coast of Mozambique. Ride on a castaway island along vast stretches of empty white beaches off the coast of Mozambique; stay in ultimate barefoot luxury. I've been assured by a recent visitor that it is a fairy-tale experience. Rates for Benguerra lodge on Benguerra Island start at €455pppn. For a slightly cheaper option, Mozambique Horse Safaris (who run the horse safaris for Benguerra) can organise trips from €275pppn. Air transfers not included.

Ants Nest Waterberg, South Africa (www.waterberg. net). Slightly more luxurious that Horizon, with masseuses, honeymoon chalets and dedicated pampering. Caters for children. Prices range from €208-€254pppn.

Bhangazi Horse safaris(www.horsesafari.co.za), northeast South Africa. Set in the St Lucia National Park, this horse safari boasts the highest bird count in all of Africa and the chance to ride with big game, view turtles breeding and dolphins swimming in the surf. You sleep in elegant colonial tents, each with their own veranda and en-suite bathroom. Prices from €213pppn. Bhangazi also offers a less-pampered safari option starting at €100pppn.

• You can fly from Dublin to Johannesburg with British Airways (www.ba.com), South African Airways (www.flysaa.com), Air France (www.airfrance.com) and KLM (www.klm.com). Horizon is an easy two-and-a-half hour drive north of Johannesburg International Airport. You can choose to make your own way by hire car, or Horizon can arrange for a private transfer.