* This article originally appeared here in the Sunday Times
Approaching the pair of rhinos that were partially hidden in the thicket, I felt both adrenaline and endorphins coursing through my veins. Seeing these creatures in the bush is always an exhilarating experience, but this time even more so as we were not spectators on a game vehicle but rather on horseback.
Since this was the first time that the horses were ever meeting rhino, and vice versa, the approach was gradual and calculated, giving both horse and rhino time to suss each other out. The rhino was still a fair distance away – it would, after all, take several of these introductions before each animal would become comfortable with the other.
Leaning back in his saddle, our guide Rynhardt Erasmus gave his trademark smile, the sides of his mouth gently lifting, as he congratulated us on the first Big Five encounter of our trip. With his well-worn Stetson and wild grass sticking out his mouth – he was in every way the convivial and cool cowboy.
Rynhardt is one of only a handful of guides in the country who have the training and experience to lead trails in Big Five territory, and every minute spent with him leaves you with the feeling that you’ve been in the presence of someone who possesses a truly remarkable gift. In Rynhardt, this gift is the rare case of being more than simply experience or passion. It’s simply second nature.
Babanango sits inland from Richards Bay in Northern KwaZulu-Natal – just less than three hours’ drive from King Shaka International Airport. The Game Reserve is a commendable project that is rewilding a significant size of land in the province, 22000 hectares to be precise. This makes it the largest reserve to be birthed in the country’s democratic history.
While two lodges are already open, the next year will see some exciting additions, including an ambitious task of restocking the land with over 3000 heads of game. One striking feature of the Babanango philosophy takes a diversion from the usual bush experience to leave behind the traditional checklist safari. With their trademark ‘Safari Reimagined’ guests can expect to engage in immersive encounters that will undeniably sexy up the safari experience.
I was invited to participate in a multi-day horse trail – an experience that will be a hallmark of Safari Reimagined. These trails are aimed at experienced riders looking for an unique wilderness experience. Our shorter trail traversed around fifty kilometres of wilderness, with the highlights being the unhindered open-air encounters with wild game.
Not being a seasoned rider, it was with some trepidation I mounted Gunzo, the gelding who would be my companion over the three days. The total 16 hours we’d spend in the saddle would be quite the tangent from the occasional one-hour outrides I was accustomed to. After the first day of scrambling hills, crossing rivers, and traversing valleys, turning a corner at sunset and finding a campsite set up for us was greatly welcomed.
After a hot shower and a very filling bush supper, I decided to ditch the tent in favour of sleeping outside. I settled down for the night alongside the fire pit, letting the warmth of the flames and blanket of stars above accompany me to sleep.
Waking on the second morning my body was quick to let me know that it was adjusting to riding – communicating via muscles I didn’t even know existed. The stiffness didn’t however deter me and soon I was back on Gunzo for another day of exploring from the saddle.
We headed Westwards, making our way to our second night’s location: Babanango Valley Lodge. It is a casual yet chic farm-style lodge in the heart of the reserve. On arrival at the lodge, I dismounted and gladly accepted the G&T waiting for me. I wound down for the evening, letting my muscles soak in the infinity pool, mesmerised by the views down the valley.
A horseback safari is an education in the necessity of being present – a necessity that quickly becomes a gift. In these unprecedented times, the bush has become a salve for many a weary soul, as nature has an uncanny ability to nurture when it’s needed the most. There is nothing like a cross-country horse trail to teach you to be alert to and connected with the land around you.
On the third and final day in the saddle – as Rynhardt had predicted – my body had adjusted and I hardly even noticed the waning stiffness. The riding felt more natural, I became more attuned to my surroundings, and the urban impulse to reach for a device every five minutes was long gone.
42kms later I came to realise that horseback safari is a remarkable way to experience the natural and human history that the land wears. As the stories reminded me, the surrounding Zululand hills have experienced their fair share of human dramas over the past centuries. This land has no shortage of offerings, if only you’ll pay close enough attention.
Babanango is a growing story, and if the thrill of my big five horseback is anything to go by, ‘Safari Reimagined’ is going to provide unforgettable bush experiences. You’ll soon discover that in the 22000 hectares of land there are endless stories waiting to be uncovered – if of course, you’re willing to exchange your seat for a saddle. babanango.co.za