This is my entry for H on the A to Z Challenge series.
As mentioned in a previous blog, I started my first ever African adventure in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. My friend Chris and I would meet the rest of our tour group in Botswana, so we had three full days in Zimbabwe to ourselves to plan any events that we wanted. After walking into town from our hostel (we were the only two guests there), we decided to book an afternoon horseback ride through Victoria Falls National Park. We barely made it back to our hostel before the truck arrived to pick us up and took us to the stables where we would begin our ride.
I have been around horses much of my life. My older sister is an equine nut, and when I was younger I would follow her around to the ranch she had a horse at. She was into barrel racing back then, the country roots in Alberta Canada are quite strong. As she got older she moved to equestrian, something her daughter does now. I was never skilled enough to go into any sort of competitive activities on horseback, but I am comfortable on the back of a horse and even learned how to mount one without a saddle (Yes, it was to impress a girl). But moving on.
After a brief discussion with the proprietor of the stable, it was decided that I should get a horse for a more experienced rider – as the other people on the trip were not as comfortable on a horse as I was. “He’s a wonderful ride,” she told me as I patted his head, “but a bit of a bastard when he wants to be.” Great. Hopefully he kept his bastard ways to himself when around anything out in the bush that could kill me.
Our ride started out slow. We would head down towards the banks of the Zambezi, and then curl back towards the stables, possibly passing one of the rare sections of open plains where we could let the horses out at full tilt, if we were so inclined. My boy behaved well that ride. We saw two big vultures only a few minutes into the ride, and before we had returned to the stables we had seen four different types of antelope – the bushbuck, the kudu, the impala, and the waterbuck. If I hadn’t have known this before, I would have learned a valuable lesson that day – do not hope to get a photograph while on horseback. He will be calm the whole time, and then just as you’re about to press the shutter button, he’ll decide to shake his head or sway one way or the other and your excellent photo will not be so excellent.We had planned to either do a bungee jump or gorge swing one morning, but seeing as Chris enjoyed the horseback ride so much, we opted to go back one more time instead. When we visited Zimbabwe the country was pretty much at low point in its history. Mugabe and his cronies had de-valued the money so much, made things so expensive and difficult to buy, that tourism was at an all-time low. We walked into the activities centre in town and had our choice of anything we wanted to do. We could stay at any hotel in town. We didn’t have to make a single reservation at any restaurant. All told, in the four days we were there, I spent 4.3 billion Zim dollars! We were getting about 65 million Zim dollars to one US dollar – but still. A small bottle of drinking water cost 180 million Zim so that should put things in perspective for you.
I was back on the same horse, but today he must have skipped breakfast because he was not in a good mood. Even though I tried to keep him apart from the horse in front as we rode the narrow trails, he would scoot up closer and nip at the horse in front. It didn’t matter what horse was riding in front either. My boy just wanted to be, well, a bastard. I actually got to take him a full throated gallop, stretching his legs and letting out some aggression, but he still carried on with his mischievous ways. I had a camera around my neck, but I seriously was not expecting to snap any photos.
About 10 minutes after our gallop, we were lazily walking through the bush when the lead rider told us to stop. We sat motionless. There was little breeze but you could hear the leaves rustle. But not all of them. No, only the leaves in one area. We all turned to our left and awaited instructions. The words said back at the stables still fresh in my ears – “the horses are used to the animals they see out there. They will be fine.” Mine twitched a bit. He was still fired up. I was about to whisper some profanities in his ear when a smile spread across my face. A large lump of grey just ambled through the trees.
I had seen an elephant the previous day, as I canoed down the Zambezi, but it was from the other side of the river. Now here I was, maybe 100 feet away from one of the iconic African animals. I had seen them in zoos, of course, but nothing could prepare me for this moment. This is what I came to Africa for. He was joined by two others, the three of them unperturbed by our presence. They munched, pushed over trees, strolled along repeating the same process. My horse’s ears twitched rapidly, his eyes never leaving the first elephant that came through the bushes. I sat in awe, camera in hand, half incapable of pressing the shutter button down to snap off a photo.One of the horses whinnied, it could have been mine. I don’t really know, I was dreamily looking elsewhere. The big elephant stopped his foraging, turned to face us. Still around 100 feet away, even the most inexperienced rider would have enough time to turn his horse and scamper away if necessary. We sat there staring at each other – me with bewilderment, him with eons of years of evolutionary memories stored inside him. His ears folded out beside him, sticking nearly straight out. I knew what this meant – he was letting us know just how big he was and who was in charge here. This is what they do before a mock charge. If he had pinned his ears back against his head and tucked in his trunk, I would have been more worried. Instead we sat and watched him show us how big he was. When he was happy we had received his message, the ears folded down, he turned, and the three of them lumbered on. My heart finally started beating again.
Before the ride was over we had ridden past a small herd of buffalo, another one of the Big 5 animals. The buffalo is also the most unpredictable and often the most unstable. It has no tells, to put it in poker parlance, and it always has the same expression on its face. I posed for a photo as my guide waiting for one of them to get into frame behind me. The elephant didn’t scare me; the buffalo certainly did. My horse wasn’t too happy either, but I managed to keep him relatively still during the experience. Happy with his photo of me and the buffalo, I finally got to ride off, the buffalo less than 20 foot away.Note – I have no idea where half of my photos from this trip are – including me and the buffalo.
We stopped to watch one last elephant on our way back to the stables, our second ride so much more rewarding in terms of animals than our first ride. Back at the stables, Chris and I finally managed a high-five, and the German girl who joined us with her husband kissed us all she was so happy. Bouncy happy, like Tigger.I have seen hundreds of elephants since that day (I have been extremely lucky and for that I am grateful), many of them much closer, much bigger, many newly born and youngsters, and much more active, but that day will always have a special hold on me. I could hear them well before I saw them. You can sense the wisdom they have. Every line and crease on their skin tells a story. And it still amazes me to this day just how easily an elephant can hide in the bushes. It shouldn’t be possible. But then again, as a kid I never thought I would get to see one in the wild – certainly not from horseback. Some days I just have to pinch myself.