“What in the world was I thinking?!” As the date of my horse riding safari rapidly approached, that was the thought crossing my mind. Not only had I not been on a horse in 20 years, but what if I was attacked by an animal? All those things that had seemed like details at the time of booking, were now all running through my head.
Back when I had made the reservation, I was going through a rough stretch. We had recently been through a difficult relocation. Our oldest daughter had rejected the host country completely for the first six months with refusal to eat as one of the consequences. That, together with a new language and a husband that was away most of the time, I was feeling pretty low. This safari had seemed like the perfect remedy! Some of my friends asked if I wasn’t scared of doing something like that alone. I didn’t really feel it was such a big deal. However, now it was just around the corner and I was coming to the full realization of what I was about to do. Help!
On my way!
At the day of departure, I was actually the calmest I had been in a long time. No turning back now! I waved goodbye to my husband and kids at the train station where I headed off for Schiphol Airport. With a short stop in a thunderstorm covered Paris, I landed in sunny Johannesburg the morning after. For all of you who have lived in Africa at one point, you will know the feeling of being back on its soil. I just couldn’t stop smiling as I walked through the airport that was so familiar to me. I was finally here!
When I arrived at the lodge five hours later, I was greeted by one of the lodge managers who showed me to my room. Unfortunately due to the traffic on the way I had missed the afternoon ride, so I would be driven to the location of the evening’s “sundowners”. It was at the owner’s private lodge where everyday they would feed the rhino’s living in the reserve to keep them close by as a safety measure. As most of you know rhinos are under severe threat from poachers, so large measures are being taken to keep these incredible animals safe.
When I arrived I was amazed by how close to the rhinos we were. Seeing how they interacted amongst each other was absolutely remarkable! I was still a bit hazy from my pills I take for flying, so it felt almost unreal to witness these magnificent animals from so close!
After getting over the initial astonishment, I got acquainted with the other guests. There were four other ladies there, another solo traveller who was in for just one night, a lady from a tour operator plus two lifelong friends who were traveling together. They were both expats in their respective country and we soon clicked and I ended up third wheeling them for most of the trip! The ladies had just come back from a ride and I couldn’t wait until the next day when I would finally get to go out there on horseback!
We were taken back to the lodge to freshen up before dinner and I was showed to my room. While getting ready, I scouted the room for bugs. I have an irrational fear of insects, which frankly is about the most useless thing you can have in Africa!
I saw a big fly sitting on the lamp and I had the brilliant idea of swatting it with a towel. BAM! Suddenly from under the lamp, huge African wasps start flying around! What the fruit!! I start doing the least useful thing at this point which is screaming while bolting for the door. A man coming out of the kitchen asks me if I’m ok. Not really!! He grabs a can of Doom (a pesticide true to its name) and heads into the room to rescue me from these nightmare creatures. He comes out and I thankful but still frightened demand to see the dead bodies before I head back in. By now I’m knackered and after a delicious dinner and some wine to calm my nerves, I fall into bed and I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
The next day after breakfast, we were taken to our horses that were waiting for us for the first ride of the day. I had been paired up with Tala, a furry little mare with curious eyes and ears constantly forward. The horses at Ant’s come from different backgrounds, some being ex race horses and all really well schooled. Since there is no dangerous game in the reserve, the horses roam free when not being fed or ridden. It must be the perfect life for a horse! Tala was beautiful to ride, forward going but really soft mouthed and I trusted her almost instantly. She was really curious and would spot the wildlife before anyone else!
Every day on our horse riding safari we would ride different routes and the guides would ask us what animals we would like to see or that we hadn’t seen yet. We would jokingly offer to groom their horses if they would find the ones we hadn’t managed to spot so far. They would almost always succeed! The morning ride was a longer one of around three hours, and the afternoon ride would be almost two hours. In the mornings we would always see more animals as they would get less active as the day got warmer.
During my 5 day stay we spotted giraffe, wildebeest, warthog, zebra, baboon, eland, red hartebeest, rhino, kudu, buffalo, blesbok and countless impala. The animals would smell the horses before the humans and I was amazed by how close we could get to the animals and how they would stay so relaxed in our presence. The horses were the real heroes in this whole venture, as they would walk right up to a giraffe without flinching.
So much to learn!
The horse riding safari guides we had were amazing and they would always find something new to teach us along the way. As we were walking with the horses they would tell us both facts and stories about the different plants and trees. They would also teach us how to recognize the tracks on the ground. Sometimes they would quiz us on something we had learned earlier so better stay alert! When I arrived I was only really looking straight ahead while riding through the bush. Slowly you start getting used to looking around as well as up and down. That was how we spotted a dead impala up in a tree, a recent kill by the allusive leopard.
During the week we learned so much about the animals and their behavior. Most of us have a preconception that animals in the wild are always dangerous. Actually many times the opposite is true if you know how to act around them. A lot of their behavior revolves around conserving energy and only spending it when necessary. For example, a leopard will not attack a horse because it is too heavy to drag up into the tree. Therefore it doesn’t pose a threat as you ride out. Even the rhinos will not charge unless you get in their way or between a mother and her baby. Some animals, like lions, will even fake charge as a warning before attacking unless they are hunting.
To further enlighten us, they gave a presentation about snakes. One of the guides brought different specimen to teach us about their behaviour. It turns out most will give you lots of warning when threatened, rather than attacking. He demonstrated this by putting his shoe over one of them and it still didn’t bite, just hissed very loudly. In the end, animals are just much more rational than humans, that was my conclusion.
Lunch would be served at different spots around the reserve each day. We would simply untack the horses and they would walk off into the reserve. It was wonderful to see the horses just roam free like that!
The same would happen after our afternoon ride, where instead of lunch, drinks and snacks would be served. The setting would be somewhere in the reserve where we could truly appreciate the beauty of the African sunset. The light is just magical and to experience it with an Amarula in hand is just the perfect ending to a day in the saddle!
We would always have dinner at the lodge. We would begin with drinks around a bon fire where jokes would be told and myths debunked! After we would have a delicious three course meal with all drinks included. Most meals were prepared based on local game caught in the reserve. During my stay I for example both kudu and eland as well as ostrich carpaccio.
I met some really great people during my stay at Ant’s. It is truly fascinating to have strangers from all over the globe meet in a small slice of the world and share some wonderful memories together. During dinner we would talk about what we had experienced during the day or share stories. With my fellow expat ladies we sometimes fell into deep discussions about the world and our experiences. With other people the conversation would gravitate towards other things we would have in common. Isn’t it amazing how you will almost always find a way to connect to other people, if you just keep an open mind?
During our last breakfast, one of the guests requested that we’d go swimming with the horses. The guide asked me if I wanted to do that as well. I hesitated. “Really?” said the other guest. “You don’t seem as someone who would be scared of anything” she said. My brain stood still for a minute, as that sunk in. For a moment I saw myself through her eyes. What she was seeing was not the way I saw myself. She was seeing a relaxed, energetic, adventures person that used to be me, before I had chosen to carry around every worry and responsibility in the world. Needless to say, I did get in that water with the horse and it was a blast!
As I got ready to leave Ant’s and South Africa, I found myself getting very emotional. The staff was probably a bit confused about my overly dramatic goodbye! However I had come to realize, that even though I had thought I was going there to find wildlife, what I actually found was a part of myself that had become an endangered species. That part which holds the spark, the passion and the joy. Not the responsible mom, or the ever supporting wife, the overwhelmed solo entrepreneur, … no, just me. I had tapped into the feeling of just being relaxed, at ease, playful and curious. Basically how it felt to be without that stick that was stuck in my behind. And it was marvelous.
Since then I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to not let that fade away again. It is the battery that supplies all other parts of life and needs to be recharged every now and then. Maybe not always necessarily with such grand gestures! Instead by making sure we make time to feed our souls with the things that nourish us.
What is your soul food? What things do you do to stay centered and connected? Maybe you have found something that will also inspire others. Me, I’m already booking my next safari!
Author: Cynthia Janssens
A triangle with one corner in passion, another in curiosity and the third in whatever catches my attention at the moment! I was born in Argentina, grew up in Sweden and have also lived in Spain, Tanzania and now in the Netherlands. Married to a belgian and an always-trying-my-best-sometimes-succeeding mother to two spirited TCK’s. In my professional life I have been working in recruitment for the past 10 years and for the last couple of years I also work assisting expat spouses in their job search. As an expat I have seen so many competent expat partners who are battling identity crisis together with loss of motivation and confidence due to constant rejections. I work to remind them of all the things they have accomplished and support them in keeping their enthusiasm at the same time that we work to improve their techniques navigating their job search. On the side I am also pursuing a second degree in children’s rights as I am really passionate about children’s safety online. You can find me on www.xpathglobalcareers.com and for a laugh I also post on instagram as @expatmemes