Saturday, January 12, 2013


Fording the Water

Ride of a Lifetime - An African Experience
by Catherine Sampson

In spring of 2006, my ailing mother asked me if I had a place to choose to visit, where would I like to go.  Without a second thought, I hastened to answer Africa!  My mother smiled and said to me, I’ll be with you in spirit and you will go first class.  A month later she died in my arms and my journey to Africa was a promise I would keep.

On the Game Path

It was almost a year in the planning, but the day came when I would hitch a ride on a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg.  It was to be a month long adventure engaging in several safaris that would take me to four countries.  I would have close encounters with all of Africa’s Big Five and a few others.  I would be chased by an elephant, ride an elephant, be challenged by a hippo and witness a night kill on the grasslands of Kruger.  On one of these safaris I would arrive in Botswana and ride the Okavango Delta on country-bred horses, use to the wicked terrain and dangerous predators.  To put it mildly, it would be a trail ride to remember. 

At each destination I unpacked my duffle bag and tonight I placed mother’s photo by my crude nightstand.  I was now alone, half a world away sleeping in a tent with the haunting African wilds calling out in the darkness.  I know mother was watching over me, so I would have some help from a higher authority.  No need to worry, just enjoy the experience I told myself. 

Horses at Camp

The horses number 56 or so in herd size, and stayed in the open protection of the island 24/7, 365 days.  A small solar powered electric strand of wire encloses them from the outside predators.  Still, the odd crocodile will attempt to capture a horse at water’s edge and some unfortunate horses bare the scars of their near mishap.  That being said, these tough horses are very in tune with their environment and react swiftly to danger.  Only proficient riders need apply on these riding treks.

The days in saddle were long and dusty.  Being their winter season, the delta’s clay soil turns to cement dust.  The bone dry bushes’ sharp cactus like needles graze across the adequate  protection of your leather leggings, as you ride around the next bend in a never ending marauding game track.  Occasionally, we stop for lunch, tethering the horses to a low bush as we rest beneath the shade of the huge sausage tree.  After a short snack, we mount up using the nearest log or termite mound.  Then it’s off again heading home to an evening of gourmet native cooking while watching African television (the campfire).   It is always an early night as daybreak comes soon enough with the call of the “Go Away” bird as we mount up again for another day on the delta.

After six days of challenging rides, which included bareback riding as the horse swam short waterways, surviving mad gallops racing alongside the striped cousin of the horse, witnessing the bulldozers of Africa, the great elephants downing so many trees with just a push from their mighty trunks, to dead-still, non-verbal halts while the fearless buffalos pass, to a wrench back; my Waterloo awaited me.

My gray Thoroughbred named Mazoozoo, kept a steady pace with the six horses ahead of him, trotting head to tail following the lead horse.  Dodging the razor sharp bushes, as we wound our way following the elephant trail, it seemed rather repetitive if not boring.  Without warning, the Mazoozoo dropped beneath me like a stone.  His front hoof had found a burrowing hole, buckling him at the knee and tossing me forcefully to the hard clay as he stumbled and scrambled to right himself, seemingly uninjured.  I finally came to rest on my back, looking up at the clear African sky with excruciating pain emanating from the lower back.

I lay still, gingerly willing my toes to move and thankfully they responded.  Little did I know it at the time, but essentially I had broken my back, not to be detected until my arrival back in Canada.  Slowly, I made my way to my feet with a little assistance from the outriders and guide.  It was the sort of pain that can only be expressed with an outpouring of tears.  I bucked up and a short period later was eased into a military style saddle where I could brace myself against the steel frame for support while semi-standing in the stirrups.   Since I would not be able to control the horse should danger present itself, the outrider with rifle in hand, took the rein of my horse and became my body-guard for the next while. 

As we approached a small grove of trees, we momentarily startled a large herd of buffalo thrashing with panic in the thickets.  These animals are short tempered and unafraid to challenge a lion, or in this case a horse and incapacitated rider.  The outrider did his best to keep my horse calm and hold his rifle and horse.  It was at this point I felt I may never see home again.  If the buffalo charged us, I was dead.  To everyone’s relief, the herd rushed to the right of us.  They were gone in a flash.

It would be a long agonizing hour looking for a point in the watershed where a dug out canoe could make it in.  With two-way radio, help was on its way. 

I transferred to the dug out canoe.  We navigated to more open deeper water.  From there I struggled into an aluminum motor boat.  At last in open water, the driver made speed, spooking a large male hippo that took a run at us.  The hippo emerged out of the water like a huge rolling log, just about 10 feet off our wake.  Finally, a familiar sight as the boat was brought to shore and I was helped to my tent. 


They had no ice packs other than those keeping the fish cool, so that had to do.  Next I asked for some horse liniment from the stable area along with some horse bandages.  It wouldn’t be until late evening when a nurse, who was visiting the camp, would arrive.  At least I was safe for the time being.

After a short visit with an English nurse who had finally landed at the camp and taking all my insurance information and medical history, she informed me that it might be a while longer before they got back to me.  You see an elephant had wandered into the camp and as it would happen, decided he liked my tent area to poke around as he grazed his way along. 
As I held my breath with him trampling the vegetation outside, I thought I better make peace with my God.  The elephant sauntered off into the evening sunset, leaving me to my misery. 

My premium travel insurance was proving to be worthless.  A Medivac helicopter was the only way I could see, but unless I had $5,000 in US cash on me, it wasn’t going to happen.  And so, there I lay in a canvass tent, half a world away with no visible way of leaving.

Dug Out Canoe

In the morning, a plan was hatched from the only viable means of transporting me out.  For two grueling hours traveling at 10 km/hour, I lay on a mattress placed on the bed of a Land Rover truck, as it bumped its way through brush, water, heat and dust before rolling out on the grassy airstrip.  From there I was helped into the small Cessena for the flight to Maun. 

As the plane landed and rolled its way along the tarmac to the ambulance, I was quickly assessed and recommended that I fly directly back to Johannesburg. 

As I waited in the lounge of the small international airport, I reached for my purse and passport.  It had been taken from me and safely housed in the cab of the Land Rover while on route to the airstrip.  The tour agent meekly told me I would have to pay to have the plane go back and get my purse and that I might miss the only flight out of there. 

I was quickly acquiring the temper of those wild buffalo.  Shaking in pain, standing there with no passport, no credit cards, no money, no plane ticket, visas etc., I was going to be her worst nightmare since I was literally stranded.  She followed my direction; sent the plane back, retrieved my purse and asked officials to hold the plane!  The lioness had won this round.

Asked if I would ever go back to Africa, my answer is YES in a heartbeat.  For all the pain, drama and wildness, there is nothing like the draw of its call, maybe not just on a horse.

My Rescue Team

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