Horses in Africa
By Oriane Lee Johnston
Several years ago I googled “Africa + Horses + Volunteer” and found myself travelling solo to Mozambique for two months. I volunteered with Mozambique Horse Safari on the shores of the Indian Ocean, billed as “the best beach riding in the world.” That first trip from my home on Vancouver Island was a big leap for someone who had taken up riding later in life. It was also the beginning of a relationship with horses and Africa that continues to this day. The story unfolds in three places…
The fiery red morning sun rises out of the Indian Ocean as we mount up on the beach. Four volunteers, including myself, have fed and groomed the horses together with Pat and Mandy Retzlaff, co-owners of Mozambique Horse Safari. The incredible story of how the Retzlaffs have rescued over 100 horses from the farm invasions of Zimbabwe and taken them into Mozambique is told in Mandy's book, One Hundred and Four Horses, which is now available from Harper Collins.
The Mozambique shores of the Indian Ocean are billed as “the best beach riding in the world.” Photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston
We are riding to the fishing village, my favourite route, which means most of the day will be spent on horseback. We travel south on sandy paths through the crops and villages inland from the coast. After a midday feast of seafood, local vegetables, and tropical fruit, we’ll return northbound on the huge expanse of low tide beach.
Pat rides in front, giving the cues for changing gaits depending on the footing and the proximity of crops and villagers. First in line behind him, I feel in synch. Rounding a bend at the canter, avoiding low hanging branches while simultaneously keeping Viper, my horse, out of the millet crops alongside the trail, I feel in a flow.
Coming over a rise, the lushness and jungle greenery further inland beckon us into an atmosphere of sensuality. A thicket of shoulder-high grass leads us into a serpentine stream, a carpet of lavender-coloured water lilies brushing our stirrups. The heat, the fragrant air, and the rhythm of our riding induce a pervasive sense of peace and well-being.
After the satisfying home-cooked lunch, we make our way, one by one, down the red cliffs toward the vast reaches of the beach. Viper is swift and sure-footed. Riding down the steep, soft sand trails is thrilling, as if we are ski-dancing. Out on the open sand, each of us finds our own pace, mindful of the others. Some of us are speeding along the water’s edge, others meandering through the mangroves, but all six of us eventually wind up at the distant stables and our evening “chores,” which can hardly be called such after this glorious day!
Swimming on horseback in the Indian Ocean was one of the writer’s most memorable experiences in Mozambique. Photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston
The most memorable experience with the horses happens one afternoon when the tide is high. Down on the beach, Lukah, the African groom, has boosted me onto Spice Girl. Riding bareback with only a rope halter, I feel much more at home than in the English saddle and stirrups. The horses love walking in the water and easily respond to our cues to go deeper. The silky warm water on my bare feet is pure pleasure. The joy of riding into the ocean fully clothed is intensified when Spice Girl seems to lift off the bottom. Holding onto her mane I swoon, unprepared for the exhilaration of her buoyancy as we swim.
During my stay in Mozambique, Pat has been preparing me for a wildlife safari on horseback in neighbouring Zimbabwe, something I hadn’t imagined being able to do!
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Bloomer, the young park ranger, packs a Cobra SMG 8 mm in his saddle holster. “I am here to protect you,” he grins, hand on the firearm. James Varden, safari head guide at Varden Safaris, has a Colt Python handgun and a Winchester rifle — one for loud noise, the other for business. Janine Varden, safari co-director, is unarmed. Steven Hambani, head groom and tracker, carries a braided bullwhip, for noise only.
In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, the horses and riders travel along paths trodden by elephants through the thick bush. Photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston
We’re on a 33 kilometre ride to a new camping site today, having set out shortly after sunrise. Our tented camp will be moved by the kitchen crew with the pick-up truck. Nine of us are single file on horseback; James leads on his strong buckskin gelding, Munhondo, whose thick black mane and tail shine in the early light. I am riding Manini, a big, dark bay gelding, wide girthed and comfortable. The horses are surefooted and trained for the wilderness, their instincts honed by encounters with the animals of Africa. We’re riding not on footpaths made by humans, nor trails etched by horses, but on tracks trodden by elephants through the thick bush. We come across the elephants from time to time, always stopping to make way for their traversing. Most captivating is their bath time at the watering holes, our horses motionless and hyper-alert while we riders, beaming or teary, are profoundly touched by the pachyderm families at play.
Watching the elephants’ bath time in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, is a profoundly touching experience. Photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston
This morning we are tracking two lions. Silently we ride forward on the red dirt track. Coming up toward a small watering hole, Hambani’s hand goes up. Softly I hear, “Look for a patch of yellow in the green brush.” Oh my god, I see her! One lioness. There will be cubs and a big male too. Oops, something shifts, subtle and intense. We are no longer observers but the observed, watched by a predator of humans, but also and more particularly, of horses. James, beside me, suddenly commands, “Go! Now!”
Instinctively I hug Manini forward with my legs, fast. The nine of us on horseback are one lightning wave of motion racing through the dense bush. Breathless with exhilaration, some long way down the track, we stop in a small clearing of grass, horses snorting and blowing. Bloomer rides over to me, grinning, “That was a real good encounter!”
Later on in the afternoon, James is in command with compass and GPS in hand. Bushwhacking we call it in the west coast forests of Canada. Here in Zimbabwe, it’s bundu-bashing. I’m glad for my hard hat, though the Zimbabweans sport a more romantic look with brimmed African safari hats for sun protection.
The giraffes in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park look over, curious about the horses and riders passing by. Photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston
By the time the bush opens onto magnificent grassland, everything is gilded with the glow of late afternoon light. I see something curious on the other side of the watering hole. Manini and I step up lightly beside James and I wonder aloud whether the zebras would flee if we come close. James simply nudges Munhondo toward the striped herd and I follow alongside. The zebras carry on grazing, swishing their tails, and eyeing us as if we’re not strangers, just newcomers today in the vast expanse of African horizon.
I know that James is one of the most knowledgeable and personable guides in the country. In seven days we’ve ridden with giraffes, marveled at elephant herds, kept company with zebra, and sighted kudu, wildebeest, eland, and sable. We’ve seen a puff adder snake up close, flap-necked chameleons, billions of insects, and myriad resplendent birds. We’ve found the intact body of an old leopard, its coat still shiny. Our safari has been supported by Janine Varden, too. Her natural way with horses, the African camp crew, and guests is genuine, warm, and down to earth. I knew I’d be back!
Mavuradonha Wilderness, Zimbabwe
Indeed, a year later I returned to Zimbabwe, this time to the northern wilderness bordering the Zambezi River Valley. The Vardens offered an opportunity to explore on horseback the “cultural landscape” of the Mavuradonha Wilderness, one of the last intact pristine areas remaining in the country. Documentation and preservation are imperative here. Poaching has all but decimated the wildlife, and mineral mining operations are encroaching, putting the legendary Raffia Palms Botanical Reserve at risk.
The Mavuradonha Wilderness is one of the last intact pristine areas remaining in Zimbabwe. Photo: Oriane Lee Johnston
The arrival on horseback to Varden Safaris’ base camp is a stunning initiation into a spirit-filled region unspoiled by transplanted villagers, deforestation, or safari vehicle roads. An earthscape of open flat vlei, monumental rock faces, waterfalls, river crossings, and wildlife saltpans. The red earth literally sparkles everywhere, evidence of the mineral treasure below. “Cultural landscape” is a new and fascinating term to me, defining a marriage of natural history and archaeology with anthropology, sacred sites, and traditional community life practiced now in the 21st century.
Guided by Shona horsemen, I photograph rock paintings of zebra and kudu, trance dancing, and elephant hunting. We see an entire rock face covered with ochre and brown handprints, evidence of indigenous life ten thousand years ago, here in its place of origin. The rock surface is a shamanic portal where spirit mediums communicated with the unseen world, and is still held sacred today.
Horse ranger Douglas Chinhamo guided the author safely and surely through the Mavuradonha Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston
Horse ranger Douglas Chinhamo, riding in front, turns to me. “Did you hear the hyena last night? It was making noise about 9 pm. Look! Here are the tracks.” As I gaze down from the saddle he continues, “I made a ceremony last evening to ask the spirit medium to show me that we are safe and protected from the wild animals, because you, Oriane, are still my responsibility.”
When I ask why the other guide for shorter-stay clients carries a rifle and he does not, Douglas replies modestly that he is not certified to carry a weapon. Then he looks directly at me, “I make prayers to my ancestors to keep safe in the bush. No danger will come to us then.”
I blink. Douglas continues, “The spirit medium for our village takes the form of a hyena, and he circled the camp when I finished the ceremony last night to show me we are still protected.”
On the soft ground beside my horse’s hooves I see the hyena tracks – two of them actually – right beside the footprints of one lone giraffe. I chuckle softly and whisper, “Good morning,” to the unseen hyena.
Zimbabwe has the highest concentration of rock art on the planet, and the department of National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe is currently working toward Mavuradonha Wilderness becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo: Oriane Lee Johnston
It is enthralling to learn firsthand that Zimbabwe has the highest concentration of rock art on the planet. The department of National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe is now working toward Mavuradonha Wilderness becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. Once heritage status is formalized, animal restoration can begin in earnest, supported by the “zero impact” of wildlife safaris only on foot or horseback.
It dawns on me that I’ve been the sole foreigner in camp most of the time, a mid-life white woman at that, riding with Shona horsemen, eating sadza by the cooking fire, sitting in sacred places on the land. The welcome mat is out for anyone with a sincere desire to ensure that Mavuradonha remains a self-sustaining cultural landscape; our being there acknowledges its value and brings revenue for horse-related necessities such as mounted patrols to deter poachers and prospectors.
Experience Africa on Horseback!
In my experience Zimbabwe is safe and hospitable for travelers with an itinerary – the Wall Street Journal recently endorsed this view as well. In the capital city of Harare, Borrowdale Country Manor is my base — a secure, comfortable guesthouse with private stable and riding arena on the grounds. The 2014 dates will include the acclaimed Harare International Festival of the Arts, and I invite you to join me in these African adventures that bring us to life, to wild life.
To learn more, please visit the author's website at www.orianelee.com.
Main article photo courtesy of Oriane Lee Johnston - The Varden Safaris' horses are trained for the wilderness, their instincts sharpened by encounters with the local wildlife in Zimbabwe.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.