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07

Aug 2017

Two tips to avoid a riding holiday nightmare.

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

1) Seasons
Going to your dream destination can turn into a nightmare if you choose the wrong time of year. So before booking your riding holiday make sure the weather conditions are right.

We see dates advertised for April in Kenya (heavy rain); June and July in Patagonia (snow and the ‘roaring forties winds’) and Christmas in Peru (sub-zero temps and snow) which are all evidence that someone hasn’t done their homework, or hasn’t experienced the ride themselves. Large countries can be particularly confusing: for example Brazil, the Amazon in the north (and in the northern hemisphere) has completely different seasons compared to the Rio Grande do Sul in the far south (southern hemisphere). You don’t want freezing temperatures instead of the sunny weather you had in mind. In the middle of Brazil lies the Pantanal, a zone of change between the rainforest and grasslands. If you choose to go riding to the Pantanal in November or December, make sure you’re a better swimmer than rider (The Pantanal is totally below water from end October till March). Some destinations, such as the Okavango in Botswana, are particularly confusing because there are several factors at play (local rainfall, rainfall in the mountains in Angola and the local level of the water table).

Sun or Rain? No guarantees but aim for the right season

Sun or Rain? No guarantees but aim for the right season

2) Destination knowledge.
Does the person speaking to you really know their stuff? Sending somebody on a trail ride is not the same as sending someone to a holiday resort. A trail ride will be your most fantastic holiday if the local organization is professional. Websites can make all sorts of promises, but there is absolutely no substitute for first-hand experience. Is the local organizer more motivated by your money, or genuinely interested in making your dream come true? Who is the trail guide actually going to be?

Go for it! If you’ve never ridden overseas, but have saddle-hours under your belt, then do it! It’s a real pleasure to see how things are done somewhere different: the breed is different, the tack and stable management system will be different, even the knots used will be different. But the end result will be the same as home, a well-mannered, forward going horse and a fantastic riding experience.

 

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21

Jul 2017

5 Steps to the Top of Kili

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Traveller's Tales /

Kilimanjaro viewed from the town of Moshi

Kilimanjaro viewed from the town of Moshi

With careful planning and a bit of training, the summit of the world’s highest free-standing mountain is entirely within your grasp. Here are 5 top tips to help you get there.

Take your time
Trekking Kili is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most of us – so take your time to make a plan. Dismiss any itinerary of just 5 or 6 days for the ascent and descent; that’s far too quick to enjoy the scenery, enjoy the company of your guide and to give your body a chance to adapt to the altitude.

Route choice is crucial: the longer your route, the better you will acclimatise, increasing your chances of summiting. Whichever route you chose, walk slowly (your guide will see to that!). Stop for pics and to look at your surroundings and appreciate the ever-improving view.

Go with a reliable company
There are dozens of operators out there: pause and check-out precisely what’s included in your trek pack. We have been working with our guides since 2004 and have a 100% success rate with them. That means everyone who has set off on a Kili trek with Venture Co has summited. That’s not a bad record! They even got me to the top to celebrate my 50th birthday!

Local care
Make sure your trek company takes proper care of their mountain crew. Even these days you see porters trekking in flip-flops or bare feet. That really is inhuman. Caring for trekkers is of course crucial, but the mountain crew are just as important. Before you book ask how experienced the guide is: our guides have summited hundreds of times! Our crews have proper footwear and mountain clothing.

Fuel up!
You will be burning a shed-full of calories, so eat plenty at meals and drink more water than you think you want (a hydration system such as Camelpack is essential). Take track snacks such as energy bars and the handy snacks sold in places such as Cotswold Outdoors. These are best to buy in the UK. Locally you can buy nuts and dried fruit. Boiled sweets are also good.

Get fit before you go.
Many treks around the world allow you to get fit during the trek. You put yourself at a huge disadvantage if you hit the slopes of Kili out of shape; get fit first. Wear-in your boots and gear and get those legs pumping. And in the words of Cool-hand Luke “Get your mind right”! Make up your mind that you are going to summit. Full stop. And on that last day as you battle up the slope think about why you’re doing this rather than what you’re actually doing.

Two final comments:
• Take a camera you’re familiar with and that’s compact enough to fit into an outside pocket.
• Summit day starts at about 2 a.m. so time your trek to coincide with the full moon. It makes it all an especially magical experience and saves your head-torch battery!

So whether you’re planning to join a group climb, a charity climb or tackle Kili solo give us a call and we can make the right introductions.

Amazing glaciers on the summit of Kilimanjaro

Amazing glaciers on the summit of Kilimanjaro

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26

Jun 2017

Self-drive in Africa & South America

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

For the independent traveller looking for adventure in Africa or South America it’s been very tricky or impossible to find a) a reliable vehicle and b) an affordable one. Venture Co is pleased to announce that we can provide self-drive cars and 4X4’s throughout sub-Sahara Africa and throughout South America.

Malawi and Zambia, for example, are perfect countries for this popular holiday option. Driving is on the left hand side of the road and your UK driver’s licence can be used for a period of up to 3 months; that would be a long holiday!!

Fully-equipped 4X4 ready to go

There is a choice of vehicles at your disposal from saloons to full-equipped 4X4’s complete with pop-up roof-tent. I began my working life as a driver/guide in Africa and can offer advice about the most suitable vehicle to use and assist you in route planning if needed. We can even suggest camp sites and hidden-away spots that aren’t in the guidebooks. We provide the necessary backup for you whilst in the country as part of our service.

The same applies in South America and in 2017 our most popular route, would you believe, is a trail around the Atacama in the far north of Chile: stunning country, engaging culture and absolutely beautiful scenery.

In India I think you are better advised to hire a car and driver. Driving on the sub-continent remains a dark art and it’s much more relaxing to sit back and let someone with local know-how interpret the rules of the road.

To give you an idea about prices you’re looking at about £120 for a good saloon and perhaps £250 for a top of the range 4X4, fully equipped with camping gear. Rates are per day.

I think the 4X4’s are particularly good value for couples or even two couples: they come with rooftop tent and bedding, all the catering equipment you need for independent living including gas cooker and a gas light, car fridge / cooler, water jerry can, high-lift jack, spare wheels and unlimited mileage. All you need to do is turn up! No lodge fees, no guide fees and you’re completely independent! It’s not for everyone of course, but if you enjoy setting your own pace, going where you please and stopping when you like, then a self-drive holiday is a realistic possibility now.

Crossing Borders
In South America there’s no problem crossing from Chile to Argentina, for example; additional documentation is required, but it’s either free or comes with a nominal charge. In Africa it’s also possible to combine 2 or 3 countries and the additional doc’s are about £150 per country. The thing to remember with both continents is to try to return the vehicle to the same place you started. One-way hires can become a bit pricey.

None of these suggestions are written up on our website because no two itineraries are the same. Do please call us and we can get the wheels turning.

Access to the Atacama Desert is easy nowadays.

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23

Jun 2017

Gorillas in Uganda – Bargain!

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Uganda Wildlife Authority clarifies gorilla tracking fees
In response to Rwanda’s hike in gorilla permit fees last month, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has issued an open letter guaranteeing to keep rate at current levels (600$) till mid-2019.

The letter is addressed to the Association of Uganda Tour Operators and UWA has made it clear that Uganda’s gorilla-tracking permit fees will not be raised as had been rumoured. If you’d like to see the full letter please just ask, and we can send it as a pdf.

Silverback pondering life

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22

Jun 2017

Best Beach Rides

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Splashing through shallow surf is a real blast; the horses love it and beach riding always puts a smile on a rider’s face. Here are 4 rides you may not know about.

Iceland black-sand beaches (5 days)
You don’t immediately associate Iceland with a beach ride and it’s true, you can’t swim with your horse, but you can pound along the beach. Or should I say tölt? This quote from a rider this month says it all, “I’ve fallen in love with tölting and Icelandic horses. It’s so much easier than trotting!”. If you want to extend this ride with a day’s whale watching, take a look at Sea horse

Whale watching

Whale watching on the 1-day “Sea Horse” trip

Spain Pyrenees to Mediterranean (6 days)
This one’s a little more civilized! We still use all paces but ride Andalusians (all geldings). The stable has a choice of 70 horses so we’re guaranteed to find one right for you. Stunning Catalonian countryside, gorgeous farmhouse accommodation and excellent home-cooked food. What’s not to love! Most of this ride is through the national park, but it ends on the Mediterranean beach and a salty swimming opportunity.

Morocco’s Barbary Coast. (8 days)
Cheap to get to, totally different to life in the UK and a stunning coastline. This was our first ride in Morocco and has been popular year after year, it’s a classic. Sometime we do it back-to-front and box the horses down the coast to the end point, and ride home. The reason is to add a little zest! The horses know where they’re going, as they generally do, and get the scent of home in their nostrils, so the pace get quicker as you near home. The firm wet sand along the Atlantic coast is perfect for making progress! And by the way, we ride Barb stallions, which are the Ferraris of the equine world; all that controlled power! Awesome!

Namibia
You don’t really associate Namibia with beach riding, but this ride across the Namib Desert ends when you reach the Atlantic coast. The horses in Namibia are so strong and gutsy and have the stamina to carry you right across the desert. When you eventually reach the coast and the horses enter the surf they are really non-plussed! As each wave recedes they follow the water leaning into the surf, and nearly topple over! A really strange sensation. I guess they’re desert specialists and not used to waves.

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17

May 2017

Gorilla Trek Permit Price Hike.

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

On May 6th the Rwandan government announced that the permit required to trek to visit the mountain gorillas will rise from $750 to $1,500 per person with immediate effect. Draconian stuff!

Mountain gorilla in the Virunga Mountains, Uganda

The rule affects all gorilla trekking organisations in Rwanda and all new permits will be charged at the higher rate. Permits that have already been paid for and issued will not be affected.

 

The Rwandan Tour and Travel Association (equivalent to our ABTA) asked for the implementation to be delayed six months, but the request was declined.

 

Gorilla permits in Uganda remain unchanged at $600 for the time being. When pressed the Ugandan ministry indicated that “Uganda does need to improve our infrastructure for visitors to the mountain gorillas …” So perhaps it’s a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Uganda follows suite. For the time being it’s business as usual.

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17

May 2017

Migration Update

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

The herds are spread out over the Serengeti plains and gradually moving north towards the Kenya border and Maasai Mara. Surprisingly, some rangers have reported seeing a small herds heading back to the south. Who knows why!?

Serengeti migration

Huge herd of Wildebeest heading north across the Serengeti Plain heading for Kenya

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16

May 2017

Self-driving Holidays

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, South America, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Imagine approaching watching the migration from your own 4X4!

4x4 car hire

4X4 with roof-tent and all camping equipment. This pic is from Malawi, but could be any country south of the Sahara

Hiring a 4X4 along with all the camping and off-road equipment is a fantastic way to explore. Recently Venture Co has broadened our offering to include just about every country in Africa, all of South America … but not India! Driving in India remains a hidden art! Much better to hire a car-and-driver combination.

 

Africa

A DIY safari in countries such as Malawi, Zambia and Namibia are brilliant: you have the independence to go at your own speed, the countries are safe and hospitable and the adventure really comes to life if you’re planning the route, shopping stops and overnight camps.

Camping holiday Africa

Enjoying the nightlife, camping in Africa

Multi-country self-driving holidays in Africa are now a reality too: a cross-border permit, allowing you to take a car from its home country into a neighbouring one are straight forward to arrange and add a modest $150 (give or take). The volume of traffic on the roads is a fraction of the UK’s and this is particularly so in rural areas and National Parks. Most vehicles come with a satellite connection so that if you do need to call the cavalry, they know where you are. Above all, people in rural Africa are really friendly and welcoming.

 

Self-driving in Africa is excellent value for families particularly if you combine some camping nights with a few lodge nights. We can provide detailed route notes, campsite and lodge reservations and reliable vehicles. But a word of warning: demand exceeds supply, so you need to plan about a year in advance.

4x4 hire Namibia

Dune 45 in the Namib Desert, Namibia. Easy to access by road in a hire car and fantastic to explore at your own pace.

South America

The roads are excellent, but the distances vast, so it makes sense to plan 2 or more centres into your itinerary, and fly in between. For example, if you begin in Buenos Aires and spend a few days exploring this absolutely fantastic city, then you don’t need a car at all: public transport is cheap, brisk and really efficient. Fly on to Patagonia and collect a hire car to explore the national parks and glacier parks; drive on to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of mainland planet Earth. Drop off the car and fly to Santiago to explore the winelands, or further north to the Atacama Desert and explore the desert’s wonderful, and unexpected, hidden gems.

 

But a word of warning: the lurking risk with driving in South America is vehicle theft. This is of course an insurable risk, but be aware of the excess, which can be onerous. Three are several major car hire companies in South America and we can guide you through the pros and cons.

 

India

What a wonderful country! Old India hands often say they feel slightly daunted as soon as their plane comes in to land; but as soon as you get on the plane home, you begin planning your next trip! India never quite finishes with you. I have tried both self-driving and the car-and-driver route. I do not hesitate to recommend the car-and-driver option. Indian roads, and the rules that apply, are as mysterious as the subcontinent itself. Much the best to let someone else interpret the mayhem while you sit back, plan the route and call the shots.

Driving holiday India

The shool run! You see it all on the roads in India!

 

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10

May 2017

Ride to the source of the Nile, Uganda

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, Tavistock Travel Agents /

Uganda is often overlooked as a holiday destination, probably because it’s not as famous as its neighbours Kenya and Tanzania. That’s a real shame because it’s got it all: fantastic wildlife, rich, tropical rainforest and the birth place of the world’s longest river, the Nile. OK – it’s got some famous primates, the mountain gorillas, too!

Overlooking the Nile near it’s source, Lake Victoria, Uganda

We have a ride in Uganda which is based around the Nile: you ride Thoroughbreds through the rainforest, beneath a canopy frequented by the utterly charming Grey-cheeked Mangabey monkeys; zig-zag along sandy tracks that lead through incredibly fertile sugar cane and pineapple plantations, pass by tiny rural communities where life really hasn’t changed much for years and where the village children turn out in their dozens to welcome the strange mounted ‘muzungus’ on (what appears to them) to be huge beasts! It’s a lovely experience of rural Africa and one of my favourite rides.

Grey-cheeked mangabey monkeys. Charming but eclipsed by their more famous neighbours, the Mountain Gorillas.

And it ends with a swim with your horse in a sheltered bay in the Nile! What a thrill.

 

We have a ride going out 8th October 2017 which has a couple of saddles going begging. If you’re tempted to join, please give me a buzz.

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02

May 2017

The Namib Ride

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Horse Riding Holidays, Traveller's Tales /

Rain’s a funny thing: the vital source of all life and that comes into sharp focus in an environment such as the almighty Namib in Namibia. The rainfall here is so low that we spent 10 consecutive days outside: no buildings, no tents, not even a mess tent, just the sun and stars above. Rain is so reliably absent from the Namib that you can plan a trail ride with absolutely no contingency for any form of precipitation. It’s the longest period of my life that I have spent beneath the sky.

Making progeress across the almighty Namib Desert

To bring this rain-fact into focus, we flew in to Windhoek in a thunderstorm! Lightning flashes every whichway, thunder claps and it was cold. We began the Trans Namib desert ride in a thunderstorm! Didn’t really matter because we were staying in the charming River Crossing lodge for night 1. Next morning was grey and threatening but we were driving out to the escarpment and the promise of sun. We stopped on the cusp of the escarpment and gazed out at the scene before us: that’s the thing about the Namib Desert, the scale. The incomprehensible scale: it appears to be a hop-skip-and-a-jump to the horizon, but it’s 50, 60 or 70 miles to the skyline. The topography is dominated by Mount Guab with its table-top summit which is to be our focal point for the next few days. Descended the steep escarpment and entered the flat, stony, dust-dry world of the Namib. But it’s stunningly beautiful; subtle tones of browns and reds merge in to one another and create a palette of extraordinary beauty. Barren beauty. Harsh, hard and uncompromising. Challenging and not a little intimidating. I think everyone on the truck took a silent gulp and questioned their ability, “Will I be up to this?”

Mokoro

10 days outside is an amazing experience: no roof, no tent, no mess-tent!

There is very little visible human activity down on the Namib plain; redundant fences that run arrow-straight for mile after mile, impeding game, no longer restraining cattle which have long-since acknowledged the fact that square pegs aren’t viable in hot, round holes. And here’s Ababis, as good as the day German brickies built it 150 years ago. Wonderful brickwork and perfectly pointed, and redundant. It was built as a refuge for horses. AHS was a major problem back in the day, and remains so. The virus is transmitted by a midge which can’t survive in the desert dryness, so at times of high AHS outbreaks strings of 500 horses plus used to be driven down to the desert to escape the plague. In the afternoon as a gentle loosener we drove down to the world renowned Sossusvlei sand dunes which in finest Teutonic tradition are numbered from east to west. We were bound for number 45. The biggest and baddest of all the dunes and scrambled up to the top, which felt much harder than the last time I did it in 1997. Time flies and takes stamina with it.

 

The ride began at 06:00 hrs with everyone up and at ’em early. And that was the hallmark of this group, really well organised and punctual to a fault; I’ve never known a group like it! Walk over to the corral and we were introduced to our horses. I have Mellow Yellow and Andrew said to me as he showed me around his tack, “He’s neither Mellow, nor Yellow, more like Jekyl and Hyde!” Thanks Andrew. He seemed calm and in good reliable nick for his 15 years as a desert safari horse.

Majestic Gemsbok

Behind us, at the top of the escarpment, the thunderclouds are gathering as the day warms up. There’s an east wind blowing the clouds towards the desert, but we’re assured it’ll come to nothing as the desert warms up and resists the advance of the clouds. Gradually, as the day turn to evening the wind performs a volte-face and the west wind blows from Atlantic inland, over the escarpment taking any promise of desert rain with it. This is the pattern that stays with us throughout the ride: clouds on the horizon inland, never making it to the desert. Later in the ride, as we near the Atlantic, we encounter another marvel, the fogbank that rolls in off the Atlantic. Powered by the cold, cold Arctic Humboldt current that flows northwards along the Namib coast, as it collides with the hot Namib sands a fog bank is created; thick as pea soup and extending to hundreds of feet high this cold, damp blanket rolls inland each evening, soaking everything in dew, sustaining life in the most remarkable niches and retreating back to the ocean by mid-morning. It looks sinister and spooky and they say the residents of Swakopmund down on the coast are affected by it …

The ingenious mobile kitchen complete with Redbush tea, isotonic drinks, and steel wineglasses! Oh, and the G&T kit!

 

Left Ababis bright and early and headed NW which was to be our compass bearing throughout the ride, towards the Tropic of Capricorn and eventually the Atlantic coast. This mountainous country is flat, and that’s both an understatement and an oxymoron! The plains stretch to the mountainous horizons and take half a day to ride across; huge canters that last for 10 or 15 minutes and the three-beat morphs to the two-beat and the wind rushes in your ears; and the steering is light as a feather as you sidestep scrub bushes, rocky outcrops and the ‘landmines’ of the Namib, the burrows of the Cape Ground Squirrel: charming critters to watch, lethal if you put your galloping foot in the wrong spot. Did I mention ‘fast’? This is a fast ride! Absolutely brilliant: fit horses, tuned in to their environment and tough as tin-tacks; big hearted and stamina that a marathon runner would envy.

Lunch was at Solitaire which is one of those desert watering holes fresh out of a frontier thriller: a scattering of sand-blasted 1930’s cars marks the extent of the property; there’s a petrol pump, tyre repair shop and a couple of mechanics who look as if they could fix anything given a spanner and an oily reg. And there’s a kitchen that produced a delicious spinach lasagne! Absolutely in the middle of nowhere and we’re served lasagne and apple pie. Bizarre. The horses were hitched outside (obviously!) and were a constant source of interest to other travellers, “How much for an hour’s ride?” I was asked on two separate occasions. Every Namibian tour operator you’ve heard of from pukka and pricey to budget camping stops here for lunch, there is no other choice. Later we met the owner because we camped in his riverbed.

sossusvlei dunes

The Namib Desert ride crosses big red dunes in several places.

 

Onwards NW across the flat plain and gradually a new colour is introduced to the palette, muted green. A few days ago a small part of the annual 15 mm of rain that falls in this part of the Namib fell. Nature in all her remarkable resilience reacted immediately and there’s a light covering of grass; ankle tall and seed heads waving gentle in the breeze. Last week there was a herd of 500 Gemsbok which is one of the four oryx species, all of them rare desert specialists. Gemsbok are remarkably big given their scant grazing opportunities, but they thrive in this unforgiving environment. A little later as we left the plain and rode into some broken, hilly country, with a high barren ridge to the east,  we saw a dozen very skittish mountain zebra which are one of the rarer zebra species; plains zebra are the “standard issue” as seen on the Serengeti Plain and in the Madagascar movie,  there’s the very rare Grevey’s zebra which is also a desert/mountain dweller, but in Ethiopia and the top of Kenya not here, and there’s this fella, Hartmann’s Zebra. We never got close enough to see the colour of their eyes, but our horses pricked their ears and followed their flight.

 

And so we came to Korieb Farm which was weird: back in its day it must have been the picture of efficiency. Well laid out buildings and tidy animal handling pens, but all is deserted. The story is that the recently-deceased owner, of German extraction, had two sons who are unable to get along. One lives in Germany but wants to farm, the other lives in Cape Town and hates farms. So dad in his wisdom bequeathed the farm to Cape Town boy and his city property in Germany to farm boy! And the sons still can’t speak to each other and find the obvious solution: rich in pathos and a mirror of folly.

Cot & picketline

‘Stretcher’ with picketline in the backgropund. The horses stand remarkably quietly on the picketline.

Camp tonight is in the bed of the Guab River. The Boy Scout handbook always tells you not to camp in riverbeds because rain in distant mountains can cause a flash flood, but this river hasn’t flowed for four years, so I guess we might survive!

Hybrid McLellan saddle

The saddle is loosely based on the McLlelan saddle with breastplate and single girth (no cinch)

We have no tents on this trip. Everyone puts their stretcher where they please and kips beneath the stars. In the small hours I was woken by the unmistakable yap on a hyena. I hate that sound; I know hyenas are necessary for the working of the natural mechanism, but I harbour an innate loathing of the creatures. It prowled around the periphery of camp and along the west bank of the river, yapping and looking for an off-chance. In the morning everyone was a little bleary-eyed. We were heading for Pascali’s farm, he’s the one who owns Solitaire and now has three farms. He’s clearly a wealthy man, but you wouldn’t know it to talk to him. And he’s wise: he’s using his money to buy Namib farms, remove all the fences and turn the land back to natural use. In effect he’s enlarging the Namib national park which borders his farms and creating concession land for wildlife conservation. Good for him! What a great thing to do. We were chatting last night and this dark horse told me that his team made the first descent of the Blue Nile. And how’s this for a twist of fate? Thirty years ago I was driving a truck from London to Cape Town which required passage through Zaire in the rainy season, which is a full contact sport and a story in its own right. I was six weeks into the Congo Basin when I came across a white man on a mountain bike! You simply can’t ignore something as eye-popping as that, so I stopped. That’s how I met Cam, a Kiwi and simultaneously one of the toughest and most gentle people I’ve ever met. He hitched a lift for about two weeks till we were finally over the Ruwenzori Mountains and free from the Congo mud, so I got to know him a bit. He was a river guide in those days and heading for the Zambezi at Victoria Falls (this is true!). Our paths crossed a fair bit over the following decades and then Cam did the first decent of the White Nile, which is where he met Pascali. I love it when these kinds of circles intercept!

Pascali is removing all the fences on his farms, but he’s retained the water-trough, which is now the most glorious plunge-pool you could wish for; everyone dipped into the delicious coolness and was dry once more within moments of emerging. Turned out that water tanks are today’s theme. I can see the afternoon’s ride so clearly in my mind’s eye: plains, wavy grass, long canters, the ascent around the shoulder of a mountain to reveal another almighty plain. Different tones and hues. The mental reminder that if I was right here, alone, I wouldn’t have a clue which way to go and how to survive. Utterly dependant on the guide and his infrastructure. This farm is Boesman’s Farm and a little later as we topped a deep drift we came across the concealed farm. It’s said that the owner, one Mr Boesman, never wears shoes. The pad to his farm follows the contour through the drift and rises over the rim to lead to another huge plain. Lovely canter over the sandy piste and 3 Km later we top a gentle rise to find the picket line already set up, camp established and a warm welcome. At the high point of camp is a circular concrete foundation with a semi-circle of corrugated iron around half the circumference. The fire is set in the middle and the chairs around it. It’s perfect! Turns out this used to be a water tank, but everything is now redundant, except for this robust remnant!

Subtle beauty in the Namib

Apparently today is Thursday, day 4 of the ride, though I have no idea of the date or day, I’m not even wearing a watch anymore. The rest of the world has ceased to exist, replaced by horses, drubbing hoof-beats, the environment, the journey.

We paused mid-morning and Andrew pointed out an interesting little feature. Picture an open, shallow valley that has a ‘waist’ half way along where the rock protrudes through the sand. It almost looks like a tumble-down wall that bisects the valley, but it is entirely natural. Built in to this ‘wall’ is a C-shaped little shelter, just big enough for a man to hide in. It is in fact just that, a hiding place. The San Bushmen made these things with ambush in mind: one man would conceal himself, armed with bow and poison-tipped arrow while his mate would make a huge backtracking detour to gain the head of the valley. He would then gently reveal himself causing all the valley game to retreat, funnelling through the valley waist and passing within touching distance of the C-of-concealment. The hunter is presented with a close-range, easy shot and can select his beast. Doesn’t matter where the arrow strikes because the poison is lethal and to this day, there’s no known cure.

The poison story starts with the myrrh bush (as in the Three Wise Men and gold, frankincense and  myrrh). There are lots of species of myrrh bushes, but the Namib one is home to a beetle that no doubt has a fancy Latin name, but let’s just call it the ‘Bushman arrow-poison beetle’. I’m not sure how the San actually extract the poison, but I guess the answer is “Carefully”. The poison causes cellular haemorrhage on a massive scale and no matter where it enters the body, it’s lethal. Even if you prick your finger, it’s curtains. The neat thing is that the poison leaves absolutely no residue, so an animal pinged by a San bowman becomes prime steak. The San are probably the best tracks in Africa and used to follow pricked game till they dropped, recover their arrow and the whole clan would come to the carcass rather than vice versa. Happy days!

How on earth did the San discover this poison and no-residue equation?

And then we crossed a main piste road! And a sign announcing the Tropic of Capricorn, and the bizarreness was completed by a coach load of Chinese people descending and clicking away at the sign. Then us. Then us with the sign. Then themselves with us in the background on the other side of the road. An otherworldly encounter.

Glorious red sand sand-dunes.

We followed this road (the main Walvis Bay to Solitaire piste) into the Guab Gorge in the hope of finding the river flowing. But the river was asleep and only muddy ponds remained, which the horses revelled in! Rolling, pawing up the mud, then drinking the cocoa-like brew; they loved it! Robbed of our dip we drooped in the shade and rested for an hour. The midges were a pain so I went to use my time more constructively and lobbed stones into the pools. The first stone was greeted by a frenzy of activity, which startled me: was there a flock of hyenas concealed beneath the surface? No, catfish, really quite decent-sized catfish, and in massive numbers. How do fish this big, and this numerous, survive the months and months of drought? I know the theory that they burrow down into the mud and wait-out the hot times, but can it really be true? Where’s David Attenborough when you need him?

This afternoon “calcrete” made his introduction: calcrete is a sedimentary rock that has a high lime content and varies in colour from grey-white, through magnolia to reddish-brown, and suggests that one-day’s time this entire area was a seabed. Calcrete is as hard as drop-forged stele formed in a furnace and when sprinkled liberally with small, angular rocks and stones forms an horrendous surface to ride across. Poor hooves, I felt for them, and I do wonder why the horses were left barefoot behind? I know than more than half the weight of horse and rider is borne by the fore-feet, but surely this surface warrants all-round shoeing? The herd remains outside when not on safari duty and they’re kept barefoot; they also have extremely hard feet genetically. None-the-less, for the ten day ride I would have thought shoes are worth it, particularly as after the 10 day safari the shoes are removed and re-used anyway. Rant over.

The calcrete endured for the afternoon, interspersed with occasional sandy stretches permitting a quicker pace. Camp tonight was at the Oasis, which it isn’t! The calcrete crust rises here and there to form ridges and camp tonight is at one such ridge. The crust folds over to form a cave which has been imaginatively adapted to make a charming little camping grotto and verandah. You really couldn’t make it up! This hospitable and cozy little site really is an oasis of a refuge in the middle of a calcrete jungle. No other habitation or water source within miles and Andrew tells me this is a retreat for a weekend farmer from Walvis Bay. Stunning vistas, delightful outdoor shower and loo with a superb view. And this is an appropriate point to mention camp food: Phoebe, our Ozzie camp master and magician cook, is an inspiration: she drives the 28 tonne draw-drag unit (and I know how deviously difficult it is to reverse a double axle trailer) she sets up the tension on the picket line and then produces hot meals which are timed to perfection and are consistently the best safari food I’ve ever had. The whole team are low-profile, efficient and genuinely warm people. You judge a guy by the team he leads and this is a very, very good team.

Paint and Quarterhorse blood is gradually being introduced to the herd of 160 horses.

Today was my most keenly anticipated day because today we ride into the Kuiseb Gorge. I’ve always wanted to breathe the air here since reading the ‘Sheltering Desert’. How could two men remain hidden for two years? Until I’d seen the Kuiseb I didn’t see how this was possible, but now I understand; it’s so remote and uninviting that if you knew what you were about, you could easily conceal yourself here. We entered the Namib National Park a short distance south of the Kuiseb by an unpublished access point. Rode across Badlands, criss-crossed by meandering game trails, serenaded by lovely larks – just like Dartmoor in the Spring, but a little bit drier and warmer. Zig-zagged across plains to top rises, and zig-zag onwards. Then a massive, dark, foreboding fissure reveals itself running perpendicular to our line of travel and showing no obvious point of access, let alone a crossing point. This is the Kuiseb Gorge about 5 miles west of Carp Kloofe (if you’ve read the book). We dismounted and led the horses down, down, down into the breathless furnace on the gorge floor. Mature Camel-thorn trees grow down here, surrounded by shimmering mica particles and flood detritus evident that the river does have other moods. These pools provide a crucial watering hole for the horses who suck-up litres at a gulp while the muddy carp complain that their home is being violated. Back off the girths a notch or two and remove the bridle. Nelson shows me a really neat way to turn the bridle into a backpack so that I can walk without encumbering my hands. And the ascent looks un-doable from below, but Andrew points out the route which has 3 switchbacks and gradually you think yes, I could trek that, but can a horse?

“Always expect the unexpected” has been my mantra for Africa for 30 years, and it proves itself right time and again. We had a plan to scale the gorge with led horses interspersed with free-running horses and people at salient points to turn heads to face the right direction. We had some dramas, but suffice to say everyone emerged at the top safe and sound with bragging rights intact and stories to tell. It was quite a pull and sucking in lung fulls of hot air was demanding. I must admit I cheated and caught hold of the tail of the horse in front of me and supplemented my horsepower.

And so to a distant coppice of Wait-a-Bit bushes and Camelthorn Acacias known as Aru Flei; this is where the guys in Sheltering Desert hid their truck for two years, which makes me thing how dim the authorities must have been in 1943. This is the only coppice in the entire panorama: the most obvious place to hide a truck! There was even a plane involved with the search and surely lorry-spoor would stick out like the proverbial dog’s whatsits.

A fresh water pool in the Kuiseb Gorge – bliss!

Easter-eve and the calcrete persists; unforgiving and abrasive. Where we can we dodge into dry riverbeds where the sand is present and we can kick on through the gears. Came across another crust in the calcrete ridge which conceals three small caves: there’re clear signs of human activity, but who knows who or when, or why? A lappet faced vulture follows us high above; we saw its nest earlier which looks like a massive dump of random twigs woven into the branches; what a strange ecological niche to occupy. And low and behold we come across clear human activity; you can tell from the abandoned heaps of sand-blasted, rusty tin cans, discarded bottles and dumped rubbish. This was a tin mine, long since given up but they couldn’t be bothered to clear up their mess. A little further on we see more modern signs of human activity, “Do Not” signs announcing the new mine, this time a uranium mine operated by the Chinese. There’s a sinister shadow over the continent that manifests itself with Chinese mines, Chinese dams, Chinese roads and the Chinese mantra of “No workie, no eatie. And there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. The Chinese presence is all-pervasive in Africa and it worries me; they are mining within a national park for crying out loud!

A final canter along a dry riverbed brings us to the wonderfully named Gnanab Camp; there’s a name for all Scrabble players.

Easter Day and this is our Big Day of 60 Km. We reached “Hotsas” mid-morning which is an artesian well, supplemented by a wind-pump. Water is constantly present here and the open pool is surrounded by camera traps that have apparently caught cheetah, leopard and a variety of nocturnal critters. The same cameras probably have a selection of shots of our lady riders who thought they were being discrete! And so to Marble Mountain which I’m assured is just about the end of the calcrete plains. Sandy days from here on in! I think what makes this ride so tough is not the temperature (mid 30° C most days) nor the wind which can blow quite enthusiastically from time to time, it’s what bounces back at you from the iron-hard surface. The absence of moisture in the air you breathe and the dust and the lack of green are also part of the equation. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but this is a tough environment. A tough ride. A version of Africa that I haven’t experienced before; during my life I’ve crossed the Sahara five times from north to south, by various routes, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like the Namib: stunningly beautiful, but demanding great respect and deference.

The ride to Rowan’s Camp is another long day (50 Km) but coming on top of yesterday’s 60 Km feels tougher. Ahead of us is another gorge, the River Swakop Gorge, but this time the access is a toddle: the sandy piste leads straight in and this is a trail that any self-respecting 4X4 could manage. The river flowed recently and the bed is covered in alluvium which is now baked dry and cracked to form quadrangles the size of a dinner plate. The sound of the hooves hitting the plates is like porcelain smashing! There’s lots of green here and we can hear birdlife such as the Go-Away bird; a pair of klipspringers pose in perfect profile high above us. The Boers used to shoot klipspringers and use their fur to stuff saddles – apparently it has a natural resilience and springs back into shape and resists Boer-butts distorting it. Maybe they should be re-named “Saddle-boks”. Officially we’re out of the Namib-Naukluft National Park now and into the Dorob National Park which is 100,000 Km² and only became a park in 2010, Namibia’s newest. And would you believe it? A little further on we came to a pool and there are Avocets wading in the shallows! The last time I saw one of them was on the Exe estuary in February! Amazing that the same bird inhabits two such different habitats. The common denominator is fresh water, rain. Plenty in Devon but I am surprised there’s enough in the Dorob.

Andrew, our guide. Hugely experienced and immensely capable.

Rowan built Rowan’s Camp, in case you couldn’t guess! He’s a helicopter pilot and has flown all over the world, including relief flights for some of the Tsunami disasters, the Pakistan earthquake and a collection of other world-headline events. The camp is glorious! Unlimited hot showers are universally welcomed; the simple things in life! Long hot soaks, scrubbed clean, sweet smelling and relax to the bar for our penultimate night.

The final push to the Atlantic shoreline led through Tamarisk groves. Now this is a strange plant: like just about everything in the Namib, it’s adapted to occupy a very specific niche, in this case, salty land. The plant takes up salty water and secretes the salt through its foliage, retaining the fresh water. As you brush by the low trees you are swathed in moisture which rapidly evaporates leaving pure white salt residues on knees, chaps, gloves and shirtsleeves. And so beneath the brand new bridge carrying the Swakopmund to Walvis Bay traffic and passed a herd of tourist-ride camels sharing a pool with some pink-tinged pelicans. And there’s the Atlantic, the same sea that caresses the Devon coast, but in different mood. Out to sea is the fogbank eclipsing the view, sinister and a little bit menacing. Swing north along the beach and there’s the finish line! The horses were by and large reluctant to go into the sea, they are after all desert specialists; but they did all get their feet wet. Standing in the retreating wave I felt my horse lean with the ebb and for a moment there, I was concerned we were going to take a tumble.

End of the trail; no more “west” left!!

 

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