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Managing a horse riding safari in Botswana - as you do

My steed 'Shongololo' and I turning tail from an elephant charge

I'll set the scene. It's June 2018. My Welsh partner Adam and I were at a crossroads. He was out of working visas in Australia, I was plum out of them in the UK. He had just finished converting an enormous, 250-year-old stone barn on a Welsh hill into his dream home (for a later post). I had given up my TV reporting gig to be with him. Conundrum. Where to next? We tossed around a few ideas. Sherpas in Everest? Too tall. Surf instructors in Portugal? Can't surf. Hipsters in Berlin? I can't grow a beard and neither, really, can Adam. We sent out a few inquiring emails to friends of friends, asking them to keep their ears peeled for a potential positions for a couple of misfits. I wrote Adam's first ever CV (surely an impressive record at 31) that included chainsaw sculptor, extremely amateur bull rider and abseil instructor. Surely a resume of that calibre warrants an unlimited job supply?

Two dapper kids with lots of teeth. Who wouldn't hire us?

Then a fateful email popped up in my inbox. A friend of a friend had heard of a camp in the Okavango Delta looking for hired help. They might even be desperate enough for us. Cue excited squeals and a quick google to see where the Okavango Delta was. Turns out it's in Botswana. An email or so later led to a Skype date with the owners which led to a date locked in, a plane ticket to Johannesburg and two hearts beating in trepidation and excitement. Good lord, this was actually happening.

I had never been to Africa - in fact it hadn't drawn me in as it has to countless others, wooed by its romance, potential and brutality. I had always harboured a quiet fear of its unknown, its vastness and also, lions. This was a huge big old long jump out of my comfort zone. We didn't know a lot about the job description or our day to day expectations. But we watched a David Attenborough doco on the Delta, so felt confident we knew all there was to know about the area. We took a deep breath, packed up our home in Wales, put the new-beaut-barn up for a rent, put all of our khaki clothes in a bag and set off.

Ou horizons expanded in Africa

We flew to Johannesburg then onto a tiny domestic plane to the dusty desert town of Maun - the gateway to the Delta. Everywhere I looked there was a riot of colour and busyness; tiered seated safari jeeps rumbled through the manic traffic (the driving-license-holders to cars-on-the-road ratio doesn't really stack up in Africa) tourists stumbled around in their camouflaged kit so new it still had its packaging creases, safari guides with their wrinkled thousand mile stare, scuffed caps and tanned calves striding confidently. We met our boss Barney and climbed aboard her jeep, taking out of town, bumping three hours along a multitude of sandy tracks out into the heart of the Delta. I had no idea how Barney knew where she was going; the tracks were like a warren, twisting through the thick scrub. Whilst there were elements strikingly similar to my Australian home, there were some big differences; mainly the herds of elephant we would drive past, their trunks in the air like periscopes, flapping their ears. It was so otherworldly my brain didn't compute. Our jeep would grunt and snarl through the thick sand, while Barney professionally navigated the bridges, made tentatively from sand bags and poles, submerged below the surface of deep pools of water.

Being poled along the river in a mokoro, a traditional canoe. I may look calm but my inner control freak is doing a frenetic salsa, listening to the bellows of a 'bloat' of hippos, terrifyingly close to our vessel.

Arriving in camp, we stumbled through the huddle of staff waiting to greet us and help carry supplies. Kujwana camp is a series of pole and canvas tents with an alfresco dining area, equine area and staff village, out in the open in the bush. Animals walk through the camp, especially elephants walking their well worn tracks or itching to get to the delicious nuts that clustered in the branches of the trees surrounding the camp fire. Wild dog sometimes run around the periphery, chasing the majestic Kudu antelope that graze the short green grass nearby. There have even been the thick, well pronounced tracks of a lion, padding around the border of the electric fence which is erected at night around the stables.

Everything in camp is transported by truck from Maun - from horse feed and human food to diesel and building supplies, as well as the constant rotation of staff, a complete tangle of logistics and juggling. With 51 staff, 64 horses and up to 20 guests helicoptering in and out of camp, the breadth of the job was - and is - astounding. It was a jump into the deep end and we were paddling furiously right up to the hour we left.

Doing yoga with friends in the sitting room of my safari tent

It turns out our CVs couldn't be more ideal for the job. Where else would you need to be able to ride a horse, teach yoga, drive a tractor, respond to emails, work out staff rosters, chase elephants out of camp, talk at length over an enormous range of subjects to a diverse high-end clientele, take a horse's temperature, have a keen eye for hospitality detail and pour wine over a candlelit three-course-dinner? The Hilton, eat ya heart out.

Swimming our horses across the river - the boat went ahead to scare off the crocs. This is MouMou, a five-year-old homebred.

Camp owners Barney and PJ Bestelink were the first to start horse riding safaris in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and are absolute veterans of the game. There isn't much they don't know about the business, and their stories of living in the bush are unparalleled. Having sundowners with them as that iconic red sun sunk behind the spindled moping trees, soaking up their stories, was magical beyond belief.

Being in the saddle, seeing Botswana through a horses ears, is utterly glorious. The adrenaline buzz is extraordinary, cantering after giraffes through the flood plains, standing to attention near a grazing herd of elephant, galloping among zig zagging wildebeest. On horseback you are part of the tapestry of the landscape and dare I say it, at one with nature. Cliche alert! The wildlife look at you curiously but aren't alarmed - if standing upwind, they think you are simply another animal, your horse grazing quietly.

Barney and PJ guide their guests, with an incredible viewing of a herd of impala. Photo credit: Brad Bestelink

There were times that were very tough. I was a serious chicken at the start, gripping my torch feverishly on our walk back to the tent (we lived near the horses) my torch light jittery as I looked for animals hiding in the shadows. It turns out Adam is a walking feast for mosquitos and we spent many a night hunting for the humming bastards in the tangle of our mozzie net - as the Dalai Lama said, "If you think you are too small the make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito". The hours were long, from dawn till well into the night, watching guests didn't stumble in the camp fire. Heat drugged siestas were a god-send - TIP: When sleeping in 40 plus heat, wet a cotton wrap (or a kikoi as they call them in Africa) and wring it out then lie it over your body. It is actual magic in garment form.

But the experience expanded the blueprint of who I am. I grew so brave, and did things with relish I thought I would never be able to do mere weeks earlier. Adam and I realised we can trouble shoot with a strong partnership, managing challenging situations and people when standing shoulder to shoulder. While only there for three months, the people we met, scenes we encountered and life we lived and breathed is now etched on my soul. I dream of Africa with a yearning, shadowing the sighs and thoughts of millions who have been encircled, however briefly, in her ravaged arms. Botswana, we'll be back.

Have you been on safari in Botswana? Have it on your bucket list? Share your experience below, I'd love to hear from you. For your own experience of a lifetime visit Okavango Horse Safaris or for a lot less planning talk to the adventure aficionados and safari specialists at The Classic Safari Company.

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