Peace Parks Foundation's response to COVID-19 in southern Africa.
Simalaha Community Conservancy

A horseback adventure in Zambia

For most travellers, 2020 has been a frustrating year. Best made plans were laid to waste as global lockdowns restricted movement all around the world. This did, however, present a unique opportunity for people to explore their own countries and the wonderful adventures found on home soil.

Henry Becket and his family were supposed to celebrate a milestone birthday abroad, but as the COVID-19 pandemic closed Zambia’s borders, the family decided to visit the Simalaha Community Conservancy that is situated in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Simalaha Horse Safaris, the latest addition to the Conservancy’s tourism offering, provided just what the family needed to celebrate and reconnect with nature. Henry shares his experience.

A Journey Through Simalaha

2020 has been a strange year, lots of uncertainty, and certainly a feeling of unease around the whole world. It’s also the year of my 30th birthday and as with most well laid plans this year mine had been scuppered by the “new normal”. So what to do? My parents had just the idea, a three day trip to Zambia’s Simalaha Community Conservancy. The twist? We were going to do it all on horseback. 

Simalaha is situated in the south of Zambia’s Southern Province. Here, the senior leadership of two chiefdoms work together to drive community-led conservation that can protect the local peoples’ natural heritage and also promote income generation through nature-based economies and tourism opportunities.

From Livingstone, you drive out beyond the Kazungula border that leads into Botswana, and it’s a two to three-hour drive depending on who’s driving. My first impression on our trip in was the wonderful Mopani woodland that seems to be well intact compared to a lot of areas in Zambia where deforestation is a major challenge. 

Before I knew it, we had arrived at the gate to the conservancy and after a short drive in from the main road, we were at Simalaha Horse Safaris. Our hosts, Doug Evans & Gail Kleinschmidt, were there to meet us with a cold drink and we immediately relaxed onto the clay deck overlooking where we would be riding for the next three days. The camp sits on the edge of a floodplain that sprawls out for kilometres before reaching the Zambezi river. There is a waterhole no more than 50m from the deck, and who better to welcome us to the plain than a herd of relaxed wildebeest having an afternoon drink. 

Thirsts quenched we were led to our accommodation for the weekend. It must be noted that Doug and Gail are not new to the lodge lifestyle, they also own Chundukwa Lodge in Livingstone which has been a stalwart of the Livingstone tourism industry for decades. Arriving at my tent it was clear they had brought the comfort and tranquillity of Chundukwa all the way up to Simalaha. The tents, which are raised on wooden decks to overlook the plain, each have their own en suite outside bathroom with hot water provided by, what is locally known as, a ‘donkey’ (wood-fired water heater).

After settling in, and a much-needed shower after the long trip, I heard a rustling in the long grass outside my tent. Upon closer inspection, I was greeted by the stars of the show: 14 very relaxed, unsupervised grazing horses. Doug’s herd is a mixture of Basotho bush ponies, thoroughbreds and quarter horses, proving a lovely mixture of character and colour.

Rides for days

I will pre-empt this next chapter by saying that I really do love a safari, however, if I had a gripe, it would be the requirement to wake up before dark – I’m on holiday and it just doesn’t make sense? But alas, here we were on day one, awake bright and early for our first day’s ride. After a quick breakfast of coffee and biscuits, it was time to meet our horses, and this is when I met Maggie, a massive mare with a huge mane. She looks more likely to be pulling a cart than crossing a floodplain, but I was quick to learn that she was not short of talents for this sort of work either. 

Our first ride took us across the plain, heading for the Mopani woodland in the distance. Less than 20 minutes in one thing became abundantly clear: there is game here, lots of it. For the next three days, six hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, we were never not in sight of something.

On the plains, the zebra, wildebeest, impala and puku happily ply their trade, grazing peacefully, inquisitive of us but not afraid. It was interesting to learn that many of these had been brought in to the conservancy over the past decade by a conservation not-for-profit, Peace Park Foundation, to serve as breeding herds that would repopulate the area and rebalance the ecosystems after many years of unsustainable use of wildlife had almost cleared the area of original species.

We rode alongside these herds all day. Waterbuck and reedbuck were also amongst the herds or seen in smaller groups, sometimes in the woodland, sometimes on the plain. The reedbuck like to hide in the long grass, and when they jump out inches from where your horse puts her hoof down, you become grateful for Doug’s experience and appreciative of the work he’s put into the horses. None of them seemed bothered by the reedbuck, but I can’t say the same for my heart rate.

A slice of paradise

I’m not a great birder, but I can honestly describe Simalaha as an ornithologists heaven. Horseback safaris here create a phenomenon that I don’t believe can be recreated on the back on a game viewer.

Whilst riding across the plain the horses’ feet kick up a multitude of insects, which invites birds, such as bee-eaters on the hunt, to fly in amongst us. It’s a wonderful experience, an extremely close hand account of bird vs bug.

As we moved towards midday it started getting warm and I was quite relieved to be heading back. At the camp, I thanked Maggie for the ride and deposited myself on the clay deck. Having stopped moving for the first time in six hours I suddenly realised I was rather hungry. Here’s a fact: I would go to the Simalaha just for the food! Gail and Doug are gastronomic artists. Over three days the food was variable and always exactly what I needed – satay cabbage salad, roast chicken and delicious desserts, all exceptional.

After six hours in the saddle and a fantastic meal, there is only one activity in mind, a good nap before our afternoon ride. Well-rested we then journeyed off for shorter afternoon rides which ended with a sundowner overlooking the plains and its inhabitants.

An ever-changing landscape

Three days were spent like this, each ride unique and well worth slightly aching joints and posterior. Before I knew it we were packed and on our way home. As we were leaving, I wondered what Simalaha would look like in a few months’ time, after the October heat has done its work, or even after that, when the rains arrive. I was intrigued at the thought that you could come here at different times of the year to have a totally different experience to what we enjoyed during this first visit. I guess there is only one way to see it really, I’ll have to come back again.

Come and see!

In honour of their first raining season here, Simalaha Horse Safaris is running a ‘wet weather’ horse safari special in January 2021. Lodge owner Gail Kleinschmidt, promises “an amazing, if not wet and adventurous three-night stay!”

For more information on the amazing experiences on offer and how to book visit www.simalahahorsesafaris.com or send an enquiry to reservations@chundukwa.com.

 

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