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Mar 2019


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

I must admit I’ve never heard of a quagga, and couldn’t guess what one is!

Picture a zebra that’s been put through a washing machine and lost the stripes from its quarters and belly: that’s a quagga. They went extinct in the first half of the 20th C.

Enter the Heck brothers who were Nazi geneticists at Berlin zoo during WW II. They specialised in resurrecting extinct animals. Another German, Hr Rau picked up the baton in the 1980’s, after the death of the brothers Heck, which subsequently passed to the South African National Parks a decade ago. And hey-presto, derived from the Plains Zebra of Etosha, Namibia, please welcome back the Quagga. The first quagga foal, Henry, was born 5th Jan 2005. Numbers are now up to about a dozen, mainly in the Cape Town area.


The quagga

This is not a Quagga – but it’s equally strange to look at!

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Feb 2019

Duma the Mozambique Dog

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

Meet Charlotte who looks after the horses for the Mozambique ride.

Mozambique horse riding holiday

Duma the Dog in Mozambique


Last month she came across Duma, one of several semi-independent beach dogs. Duma had broken his front leg which was dangling awkwardly in-front of him. As Charlotte approached to get a better look he took flight and raced into the bushes on three legs. She spent hours persuading him to come out but Duma was terrified and very sore. Eventually Charlotte managed to coax him into her room with a bowl brimming with rice and chicken.

The vet was 800 km away and not due to visit for some time, so she sedated him with pain killers and kept a close eye on him. Like most of the beach dogs Duma has a gentle temperament and it didn’t take long for everyone at the stable to fall in love with him. Finally the vet arrived and poor Duma was coaxed into a cage. A short drive into town, which was a painstaking journey as the road was bumpy and Duma was in a lot of pain. Monica, the vet, took one look at Duma and in no time at all had the leg set and bandaged up in a bright coloured bandage.

He has now settled into his new home at the stables and joins Boots and Peppy, two of the other rescued beach dogs. Today he had his bandage removed and his leg is perfect, he just needs a bit of time getting used to being a four legged dog instead of a three legged dog.

Mozambique horse riding holiday


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Feb 2019

Tigress Collarwalli Queen of the Jungle

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

Tigress Collarwalli is perhaps the most famous tigress in India: she has successfully raised a staggering 26 cubs and in late 2018 broke her own record by giving birth to 4 cubs, in a lifetime total of 8 litters.

Why the name? We know so much about her because she wears a collar and has been christened ‘Collarwalli’ by the national park rangers who track her in Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh.

Collarwalli herself was one of four cubs born to tigress ‘Barimada’ who featured in the BBC documentary ‘Spy in the Jungle’. She was the first of Barimada’s cubs to establish her own territory.

Pench in central India is now home to more than 50 adult Tigers, and combines well with Kanha and / or Bandhavgarh national parks.

Here are a few images of ‘Collarwalli’ with her new born, clicked by a local photographer.

Tigress Collarwalli

Tigress Collarwalli

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Jan 2019

Shocking news from the Inca Trail, Peru

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

Mid-December saw an armed robbery at Winay Wayna campsite on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu,

during the night. The group (not ours) were woken and robbed at gunpoint. I believe no-one was hurt physically, but the head porter had a gun to his head, and some clients lost possessions.

Travel, as with daily life, has risks. You are still much more likely to suffer an accident driving your car at home, than being robbed in Peru. Assessing and managing risk is essential to the safety of our clients and staff. But be careful of the company you keep: Cusco has 1,750 companies selling tours and only 320 of these are registered with the authorities. Of that 320, just 4 of us have a licence to offer adventure activities.

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Jan 2019

Where is The African Horse

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

Why are there no indigenous horses in Africa, south of the Sahara? It’s because of two killer diseases: Trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness – ASS) and African Horse Sickness (AHS).

No horses in Africa, yet zebra’s do so well? The explanation here seems to be “stripes”. Tsetse flies are the vectors of sleeping sickness, and tsetse flies don’t like stripes. Added to which zebras (and donkeys) have acquired a high degree of tolerance to AHS and it’s rarely fatal, whereas AHS is usually fatal for horses.

But hang on; take a look back into pre-colonial Africa and you’ll discover a formidable cavalry heritage in the area known as the Sahel: the semi-arid zone that bands the continent, south of the equator and north of the Congo. The feared Songhay cavalry (Mali/Niger), the Kanembu in Tchad; the entire Dongola heritage of Sudan, Ethiopia and Cameroun; and the cavalry of the Oyo Empire (Nigeria and Benin) are all proud cavalry regiments. So what did they ride?

Trans-Sahara trade routes have existed for eons: huge camel caravans crossed the Sahara bringing metal goods south and gold, ivory, salt and slaves north. It’s not documented, but this would appear to be the answer to the question of Sahel cavalry horses. The trans-Sahara Arab traders introduced Barb horses (from Morocco) which formed the backbone of all these cavalries. Barbs were highly prized but had a short lifespan south of the Sahara due to AHS and the tsetse flies (ASS), so they needed to be replaced regularly, which was good for trade!

This led to attempts to breed a resistant horse, with partial success. Look at a map of Africa and where the River Niger forms its great bend, heading towards Timbuktu, this is where the semi-resistant horse was bred. However, ‘body’ and prowess were sacrificed to gain semi-resistance and the resultant horse was small and a shadow of its form Barb incarnation. There were also attempts to cross breed with zebras which are resistant to ASS. But zebras don’t really date outside their own stripy kind; minor success was achieved by painting stripes onto a Barb mare to encourage the zebra stallion, but not on a sustainable level. Besides, Zebras have short, powerful necks and don’t really lend themselves to head collar and bit.

Indigenous African horses
There is talk of an indigenous sub-Sahara horse, The Dongola, named after a town in Sudan. The breed came to prominence in the Sudan and was traded across the border into Ethiopia. Latterly it was most abundant in northern Cameroon on the other side of the continent. The Dongola is directly derived from the Moroccan Barb (so isn’t really indigenous to Sudan) and the breed still exists today. Nowadays it’s become a poor specimen of a horse and the breed is in decline and rare, however, in its day (12th and 13th Century) was highly valued as a war horse. It developed just north of the Tsetse fly zone.

Tsetse fly map of Africa. horses in Africa

The range of tsetse flies in Africa (green) and the presence of cattle and horses (brown).

I find the ebb and flow of equine priorities fascinating. The Barb has played such a crucial role in human history (even Julius Caesar rode one) yet stumbled into decline in the last century. Its value is once again being realised and the export of Barbs from Morocco is banned in the hope that the stud book will recover to its former glory – which it undoubtedly will.

The here and now
Today there are riding holidays in every country south of the equator in Africa, how do they cope? And are humans susceptible to AHS or ASS?

What are Tsetse Flies?
There’s one African resident you’re best to avoid: the tsetse fly. They look like a house fly on steroids, but behave like a horse fly: they bite. Not all tsetse flies are carriers, but they do all bite. African sleeping sickness is curable but is usually fatal if left untreated. Unlike the malaria parasite, there is no prophylactic. Similar to the malaria parasite, the sleeping sickness parasite is a protozoa, not a viral or bacterial infection. There are a number of things you can do to avoid being bitten in the first place, and this detailed advice is included in our Field Manuals.

African Sleeping Sickness (ASS)
The chances of being infected from a bite are minimal: most cases of ASS are found in local hunters and farmers who frequent woodland and have faced repeated exposure to bites. Symptoms of sleeping sickness include fatigue, muscle aches, fever, and headaches. Eventually, these can progress to psychiatric disorders, seizures, difficulty sleeping, coma, and death. There is no vaccine for the disease, which might seem quite alarming, but cases of ASS are in sharp decline – with new cases at just 5% of the number they were in 1995.

Horse husbandry
The trick to keeping horses healthy in sub-Sahara Africa is quite straight forward. Both AHS and ASS are spread by flying insects, midges and the tsetse fly respectively. Eliminate the insects and you control the disease, which is easier said than done. Insecticides are helpful, as is spraying horses with repellent. In Namibia for example, there is a route dating from the 1850’s whereby horses were moved from highland (midgey country but good grazing) to Namib desert (scant grazing but zero midges) in times of AHS outbreak.

Am I At Risk when riding in Africa?
ASS is not as prevalent in East or southern Africa as it is in Western or Central African countries, but there is a risk for both locals and visitors to East and Southern Africa. Travellers visiting rural areas and safari parks are at greater risk than those visiting city or coastal areas but it’s always good to exercise precautions to avoid being bitten.

Where Will I Find Tsetse Flies?
The flies tend to seek shelter in bushy and forested areas during the hottest parts of the day, so avoid doing walking safaris during these hours when your presence might agitate and awaken the lazy flies. Strangely, tsetse flies are attracted to moving vehicles. When venturing through densely forested areas, it’s a good idea to close your windows and keep your eyes peeled to avoid a painful surprise.

Avoiding Tsetse Flies
There’s no need to let tsetse flies deter you from having your dream safari. While the bites can be painful (akin to a horsefly bite or ant bite) the chances of a visitor contracting ASS are incredibly low. Still, if you’d rather not experience their bite first hand, there are a number of precautions you can take:

 Wear long sleeved shirts and trousers to cover exposed skin
 Wear neutral colours. Tsetse flies are especially attracted to black and blue
 Avoid walking through dense forest during the hot hours of the day
 Insect repellent is only slightly effective at deterring tsetse flies
 Sleep with a mosquito net

At many lodges you’ll spot panels of black and blue fabric around the property’s boundaries. These act to lure tsetse flies away from the lodge.

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Dec 2018

The Namib Desert Ride

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

Namib desert ride

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. 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.

Namib desert ride

The most beautiful desert in the world …. probably. The Namib.

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?”

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 (African Horse Sickness) 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 herded 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.

Namib desert ride

Dune 45, Sossusflei. Namib Desert

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 turns 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 …

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.

Namib desert ride

Mellow Yellow (on the right)

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 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.

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.

Namib desert ride

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.

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!

Namib desert ride

The wonder of the desert – a sprinkle of rain and the grass grows

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 itself. 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!

Namib desert ride

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 trackers 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.

Namib desert ride

Crossing ther Tropic (hordes of Chinese in the coach in the background)

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 steel 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.

Namib desert ride

Andrew owner/guide

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.

Namib desert ride

The Kuiseb Gorge, Namib Desert

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.

Namib desert ride

Huge open spaces and long, long canters – a dream riding experience

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.

Namib desert ride

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Dec 2018

Valley of the roses, a horse ride in Morocco

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

Valley of the roses, a horse ride in Morocco

The rust-red dawn greets the rose pluckers from Hdida hamlet. The trail we ride along here is overhung with figs, oranges, pomegranates and dates but the rose pluckers just ahead of us ignore them and head straight for the tangled mass of dark green and spitefully spiked rose bushes. Even these ladies pull on leather gauntlets before locking horns with the roses.

The rose fields are protected by walnut trees which keep the winter winds off, but at this time of year the blooms are at their best and smell unbelievable (David Austin eat your heart out!). The blooms have to be picked at dawn because the sun causes the shocking-pink roses to lose their potency. Gauntleted fingers work 19-to-the-dozen and it doesn’t take long to fill a whole sackful which is carried back to the village to add to the co-operative’s harvest.

Valley of the Roses, overnight camp. Horse ride Morocco

Valley of the Roses, overnight camp

Before the road was put in the petals were exported on mules that followed a cat’s cradle network of paths. These are the trails we have been riding.

A rose by any name at all: the roses in the M’Goun Valley are Rosa Damascena and have been growing in Morocco for centuries. This variety started life in China at least 4,000 years ago. How they came to be here isn’t documented, but they probably followed an ancient trading route. The total petal harvest from this valley is about 3,500 tonnes! The co-op sells them to distilleries that make rose water. Other cottage industries make soap and pot-pourri; but the majority are bought by large French perfume wholesalers.

Pub trivia: 1 ½ million blooms make 1 litre of rose oil!

Valley of the Roses, overnight camp. Horse ride Morocco

Watering stop

Festival of Roses
Roses petals make great tea: they smell great, taste great and look great! The oil is good for your hair, good for your skin and good for your heart. You can even get a rose ointment here from the hole-in-the-wall village shops which cures everything from chapped lips to sunburn. The festival itself is an unsophisticated affair, despite the valuable deals that are struck. It’s just a pleasure to wander around and be part of the event. Each village co-op has its own white canvass tent to show off their crop, and just imagine the scent in the air! There are other crops as well, the most unusual of all being the saffron which is harvested, by hand, using a pair of tweezers to extract the stamen from a crocus. And this is all “every day” to the local Berbers!

Leave the crumbling kasbahs and mud-brick homes, complete with stork nests on their rooves, and ride back into the gorges. It’s quite amazing what secrets the High Atlas Mountains conceal.

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Dec 2018

Cape Town

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

Did you know that Greenmarket Sq is Cape Town’s “Kilometre Zero”? Every city has one and it’s the exact point from which distances are measured.

Cape Town hotel

We are often asked to recommend a hotel in Cape Town for a night or two before or after a trip. Brand new for December 2018 is “40 on Burg”. A classic art deco building that has been beautifully renovated to offer just 20 rooms. Location is everything, and this is perfect, just steps away from Greenmarket Square, the historical centre of old Cape Town: cobbled streets, thriving café culture and loads of individual owner-managed shops.

Cape Town hotel. Quiet neighbourhood

The perfect base from where to explore Cape Town

Venture Co doesn’t do anodyne, brand-conforming hotels: we prefer to recommend properties with individual character and flexible service to accommodate the evolving preferences of travellers.

Penguines, Cape Town

Penguines, Cape Town

To get a sense of what Cape Town offers, check out some of these ideas:
• Interact with lively local communities on a township tour and try some Umqombothi (home brewed ale)
• Take a sightseeing tour on a red hop-on-hop-off bus to get your bearings
• Try an architectural walking tour by day or a ghost tour at night
• Take in some penguin action at the Boulders penguin colony
• Book a ferry to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned
• Summit Table Mountain in a cable car to see the most spectacular views
• Visit the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, also known as the Cape of Storms because of the fierce seas which are responsible for more than 60 shipwrecks
• Head to Groot Constantia, the oldest wine producing farm in South Africa for wine-tasting, lunch and a stroll through an original Cape Dutch Manor House
• Take your time at District Six Museum, which commemorates and celebrates the vibrant mixed community forcibly removed in the 1960’s
• Stroll through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens set at the foot of Table Mountain; be sure to try the aerial boardwalk
• Browse one of the many contemporary African art galleries such as Michaelis, Iziko, Worldart, G2 and Everard Read
• Head to the V&A Waterfront to see street performers or take a shark dive in the predator exhibit at the Two Oceans Aquarium. Visit Cape Town’s oldest cannon battery, watch seals languishing on a quayside, shop, or take a sunset cruise while sipping bubbly
• Go paragliding or abseiling off Table Mountain; take a beach horse ride, do some whale watching or go deep sea fishing. Cycle or walk along the Sea Point Promenade, go mountain biking, hiking, surfing, snorkel with seals, kayak with penguins, or just stretch out on a deck chair on the beach

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Dec 2018

Quito: gateway to the Amazon and gateway to the Galapagos

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

Jet lag: that’s the first thing that strikes you upon arrival in Ecuador! So no matter where you’re staying, head to the café inside Hotel Plaza Grande and order “Los Corridos” which is traditional homemade ice cream …. lights dim, bells chime and a waiter wearing a purple cloak serves the desert that sits on a smouldering bed of dry ice! The perfect antidote to jaded in-flight memories.

Ecuador's beautiful capital, Quito, surrounded by a ring of snow-capped volcanoes.

Ecuador’s beautiful capital, Quito, surrounded by a ring of snow-capped volcanoes.

Quito’s high, over 3,000m (9,350’) so take it easy: stroll around Mercado San Francisco, where the locals shop sell everything from Disney-inspired kitsch toys to fresh cow’s tails and entire pig’s heads. There’s an interesting herbal remedies section. Check out the Piñata shops featuring Minions, giant beer cans and terracotta donkeys (A piñata is a terracotta container, dressed up as something eye-catching and filled with sweets. A popular party game is to whack it with a stick till it smashes and the sweeties tumble out). Then seek out some of the legendary South American coffee, and Casa Gangotena café, which overlooks Plaza San Francisco, takes some beating. Try the ‘bonitisimas’ (corn patties made with quinoa and trout) or my favourite, ceviche, which is fresh fish marinated in lime juice and served cold (much, much better than it sounds!)

Mid-day is the perfect time to visit middle earth, and Quito boasts 2. There’s the state run “Middle of the World Park” which erroneously claims to be Earth’s mid-point @ 0° latitude. But it isn’t. It’s actually several hundred metres out! Get a guide to show you the actual point and there you can do the ‘water down the plughole’ test (clockwise in the north; anti-clockwise in the south, or is it the other way around?)

Pululahue Volcano is 20 mins from the city centre. The Geobotanical Gardens cling to the slopes and the plants are remarkable to wander around. They also have various animals (Spectacled Bear, big cats and so forth which may or might not appeal). But you have to head to El Crater Restaurant, which is right on the crater’s rim, and try some cocoa tea.

If your stamina allows, visit Vista Hermosa, which is a rooftop restaurant, for supper. Live music and excellent people-watching provided free.

Coffee flower: how the story begins.

Coffee flower: how the story begins.

Day 2
Get out of town: head to Rosadex rose farm which is two hours away through the volcanoes. It’s a lovely drive matched by a beautiful destination, far from the hum of the city. The roses are mostly for export, and too many are scentless, but beautiful to look at.

On the way back to Quito, stop in Guayllabamba to enjoy the “chirimoyas” a so sweet, and utterly typical fruit (no English translation for this one!)

Hummingbird seen from a coffee-shop in central Quito

Hummingbird seen from a coffee-shop in central Quito

All Latin cities have one now: a Teleferico Gondola. Quito’s runs from downtown up the Pichincha volcano (13,450’) so take it easy. The view from the top is just superb and you get a real sense of why Quito is built where it’s built.

And to round off your two days in Quito, a choice!
1. Urko restaurant, serves traditional Ecuadorian food with a twist; for example, their version of ceviche is called jipijapa (octopus). They also have the city’s best live music venue, Misquilla.
2. Competing for your custom is a visit to Ichimbia; another great view of the city while dinner at Café Mosaico is served.

To make any or all of this happen, give the office a call, or speak to our resident Quito guide, Paulina Vivanco:

Paulina Vivanco: Pauli and pooch!

Paulina Vivanco: Pauli and pooch!

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Nov 2018

Virgin: the first

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

Virgin Atlantic has recently flown from Orlando to London … nothing new there! Expect the flight was 100% powered by biofuel! A world first.

Vigin’s 747 ‘Queen Of The Skies’ flew the trans-Atlantic route using waste gasses captured by some scientific wizardry and turned into ethanol, also known as jet fuel! Amazing! A company called LanzaTech carried out the clever stuff that has the potential to change commercial aviation. And about time too.

Good old Richard B slipped into his high-viz to welcome the plane home. Good on you Richard!

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