H&H safari competition: winner’s Zimbabwe diary

  • When I was told I had won the Zara’s Planet safari competition in Horse & Hound, I just couldn’t believe it! “But I never win anything!” I thought.

    After sharing the good news with family and friends, I invited my friend Pip to come with me. She has done so much for me, letting me borrow her horses to ride and hunt over the years, that it seemed like a nice way to say thank you.

    Day 1

    We arrived in Victoria Falls airport 24hrs after leaving home, tired, but relieved that our bags had managed to make it to the same destination as us after two transfers! On our way to Hwange National Park we saw elephants, steenbok, sable antelope and baboons, before meeting up with our guide, James Varden, who took us on to Umchibi, our base camp.

    On arrival at Umchibi we met the rest of the safari company and after a spot of lunch, we headed out for a quick ride. I was on Cody, a lovely little chestnut gelding, while Pip had a grey mare called Bora. While out on our ride, we saw zebra, giraffe and plenty of kudu (an animal like a deer, but with much bigger ears!).

    When we got back we had a bucket shower (not as scary as it sounds!) under the stars and sat around the campfire for an amazing three-course meal cooked by the chef, and a few drinks. It gets really cold at night so as soon as the sun goes down the main priority is getting the fire lit, putting plenty of layers on and getting warm food inside you!

    Day 2

    After a good night’s sleep, we were up and about early with a full day of riding ahead of us. After a lovely bacon and egg breakfast, we headed off out into the bush. Pip was riding a chestnut mare called Tiger and I was on Cody again.

    We hadn’t been riding long when we reached the Muckwa pan, which is normally a very wet area, but as there had been no rain for three months, most of the park is very dry, apart from the pumped pans.

    Our first wildlife encounter of the day was a warthog that ran straight in front of us. It was such a funny little creature! We also saw lots of giraffe and kudu, before stopping for a lovely lunch under the trees, while the horses had a rest and munch.

    The paths we are using are called ‘Elephant Highways’ and after lunch we came across a small herd of elephants, who promptly stopped and changed direction when they noticed us.

    When we reached our camp, we untacked the horses and tied them up to have a drink and a munch, before they were given their tea and put away for the night. When in the bush the horses are kept inside a ‘boma’ overnight, which is a high canvas wall which keeps the horses in and predators out, hopefully! Once the horses were settled we sat down for a wonderful fish and chip supper!

    Day 3

    Last night was disturbed by a hyena wandering around the outside of camp, and this morning has definitely been one for the birds! We have seen Vultures, Tawny, African and Batleur Eagles. We also have seen steenbok and sable.

    I managed to rip my jodhpurs on thorns as we were riding through the bush. There are thorns everywhere and they are not small. We found one earlier today which was about 5in long!

    We also enjoyed a gallop through the Dopi basin, while being watched by some very curious zebra.

    When we got to the second waterhole of the day, we untacked the horses and rode bareback into the water. All the horses decided to have a roll in the water to cool off, which they appeared to thoroughly enjoy! Then we sat under some trees and had lunch and a snooze, as did the horses; most of them were flat out fast asleep in the sunshine!

    James, Janine (his wife) and the other guys do an amazing job with the horses; they have done nothing but impress so far. They are well mannered and totally unflappable in scary situations. It is clear that the horses are very well looked after and they certainly like their treats!

    After lunch, we took the horses back down to the pan for a drink before we set off back for camp. This time there were baboons drinking and playing in the waterhole!

    On our way back to camp we saw a young bull elephant — the sheer size of them is incredible and they blend in so well with their surroundings. We also saw giraffe grazing in the trees; they are difficult to spot as they are very well camouflaged. It is a good job that we have the trained eyes of James with us, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen them at all!

    The day came to a close sitting around the campfire after showering and eating another wonderful meal while listening to the sounds of the bush — this really is the most fascinating place!

    Day 4

    Well, I did not sleep very well at all last night! Every time I was nodding off a nearby lion started roaring — it was so loud! In the morning there were some lion prints really close to the camp.

    After breakfast we went out on foot to explore. The walk gave us the chance to appreciate things that we do not see from horseback, such as animal prints and small creatures. We saw elephant prints, as well as tracks left by giraffe and dyka. We also spotted lots of birds including the hoopie and the sparrow-tailed bee-eater. On the way back to camp we came across a small herd of elephants with two incredibly cute young babies. When they caught sight of us, they very quickly ran off!

    After lunch we set out for our overnight camp. This time I switched onto Bora, who is lovely. We jumped lots of logs that the elephants had knocked down on the paths. On the way back through the woods we followed some fresh leopard prints, but didn’t catch a glimpse of him. Then we came across some giraffes, who let us get really close to them and take photos.

    As the sun went down, we reached our camp for the night. It was in the trees but very close to the Dopi basin. As we sat around the campfire after yet another wonderful meal, we could hear elephants calling to each other at the waterhole. It was a wonderful moment!

    Day 5

    We climbed aboard our mounts after breakfast, (Pip swapped onto Cody) and set off for Nyamandhlovu pan. As we wanted to be able to have as much time there as possible on the viewing platform, we trotted and cantered most of the way.

    We then left the horses with the grooms and travelled to the platform by truck. This gave us the chance to enjoy lunch, accompanied by a lovely glass of wine, while watching all the amazing wildlife. My favourite bird so far has to be the lilac breasted roller — they are stunning! They are vivid blue and lilac so not at all in-keeping with their surroundings.

    From the viewing platform, we could see giraffe, kudu, hippos, zebra, crocodile and ostrich. The crocodiles and the hippos spend time in and out of the water, bathing in the sun then getting back into the water to cool off. The other animals come down to drink but constantly keep an eye out for the predators.

    On our way back to camp, we saw a large herd of elephants at the waterhole; the adults drinking while the babies played in the water. Then another herd came down to drink, and as they were leaving, the babies started rolling in the sand!

    Once back at camp, we showered and prepared for our steak and mashed potato supper (my favourite!). The chef also made a chocolate cake — honestly, the man is a genius! He can quite literally cook anything on that fire of his, and all the food just tastes incredible!

    Day 6

    We were all woken early this morning by a hyena screaming. It must have been very close to camp because it was so loud!

    We are having a short day today, hopefully getting back to the other camp by lunch time. While riding this morning we saw lots of zebra and warthog. We also had lots of opportunities for cantering and jumping, and saw impala, kudu, and steenbok.

    We have taken down the electric fence tonight in an effort to attract some lions or hyena into camp! Off to bed though now as we have an early start in the morning to get to Somalisa, our final stop off.

    Day 7

    After an early breakfast, we headed out and saw lots of animals; giraffe, steenbok and roan antelope (which are apparently very rare!). We also saw a white-backed vulture taking off from the nest just in front of us. Seeing one of these birds so close was incredible. The sheer size of them is unbelievable; their wingspan is over two metres long!

    As we cantered along one of the tracks we saw an elephant carcass which still had skin on it – it stank! There was lots of space around it where James says, other elephants have come to pay their respects to the deceased.

    Further along the path we ran into two huge bull elephants. They weren’t too pleased to see us and prepared to charge at us! We turned around ready to run, but they seemed to change their mind and disappeared off through the trees.

    We also met some elephants on our arrival at Somalisa, but this time they were drinking from the swimming pool! The accommodation at Somalisa is truly wonderful. The ‘tents’ are very luxurious with wooden floors, wardrobes, huge beds and … flushing toilets!

    Before dinner James took us out in one of the trucks to see a lion kill up the road. On the way we saw elephants, giraffe, kudu, impala zebra and lots of vultures waiting to get in on the action! We also caught a glimpse of a Carakyl, a very small cat who is apparently very rare.

    The kill was a buffalo lying in the middle of the road. We pulled up alongside and the lion was lying right next to us making sure that no-one would steal his food. He didn’t really seem too bothered about us being there — he had eaten so much he could barely move!

    From there we drove to the Kennedy pan, where there were nearly 40 elephants drinking from the pan. We sat and watched them for nearly an hour before it got too dark to see them properly. They are so much fun to watch; they are very sociable creatures apart from when uninvited guests arrives. A lone bull elephant arrived and was quickly chased off by one of the other bulls!

    When we got back to camp there were lots more elephants gathered around the pool having a drink! We sat and ate our dinner whilst watching them in the waterhole and at the pool under the full moon.

    After dinner we sat around the campfire watching all the different animals come to the waterhole to drink, zebra, hyena, giraffes and others. The animals come from all directions. The land is so dry at the moment it is a wonder anything can survive.

    Day 8

    Pip and I are heading off to Victoria Falls today so after breakfast, we were driven back to the main camp to meet our transfer back up to Victoria Falls. On our way back to base camp we saw a group of male wildebeest; it is quite unusual to see so many of them together. We also saw many giraffe, kudu, impala and elephants.

    Words simply cannot describe Victoria Falls. To see them with your own eyes is so much better than any TV footage or pictures. It is the sound that gets you; it really is “the smoke that thunders.” It is the dry season at the moment and the volume of water coming over the falls is still phenomenal! We got very wet walking down to the bottom of the falls, there is so much spray. But we soon dried off in the sun. We walked all the way along the side of the falls and stood right on the edge of the cliffs. We also saw someone bungee jumping off the bridge, but neither of us was brave enough to have a go!

    So, that was our trip — the most amazing experience of my life. A massive thank you to James and Janine Varden at Varden Safaris and their staff for making our trip one to remember! And to Zara’s Planet and Horse & Hound for making the trip possible in the first place. Thanks also to our fellow safari goers, who made our trip so entertaining, and finally, thanks to Pip for coming with me. We still haven’t stopped talking about it!

    For more details about riding safaris in Zimbabwe, contact Zara’s Planet on 08444 870 300 or email:info@zarasplanet.co.uk. Further information is also available at www.zarasplanet.co.uk

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