Hwange Horseback Safaris lock down tales

posted 5th May 2020 by Danica Wilson in Latest news
Each week we want to share positive stories coming out of our beloved Africa. Today’s is from our friends at Hwange Horseback safaris.
Despite the devastation wrought by the virus, some positives have emerged from the catastrophe which has engulfed the already fragile tourism industry in Zimbabwe, and at our family-owned and run horse safari operation in Dete, on the border of Hwange National Park, we have chosen to focus on these rays of positivity rather than falling into the swamp of doom and gloom. In the short six years of living, riding and walking in Hwange we have not seen the esprit de corp which now bonds the operators and other players in the conservation and photographic safari industry surrounding us.
As the tsunami hit, and cancellations and postponements flooded in, we like everyone else ran into a brick wall which initially left us stunned and more than a little bewildered. Lodge after lodge ground to a halt and staff were laid off, placed on indefinite unpaid leave, or in a few lucky cases retained on a severely reduced salary. Rows of mothballed game drive vehicles, silent kitchens and lone maintenance men pottering around closed up tents became the order of the day at a time when in normalcy, frenzied preparation for the immanent high season should have had the lodges humming with nervous energy, and not so subdued sense of anticipation.

January and February had been our best ever despite the looming cloud which seemed too distant and remote to affect our little outpost in Africa. More and more guests are realising that the green season in Hwange ushers in a magical transformation when the dry and arid bush bursts into its emerald glory and the best way to immerse oneself in this paradise is from the back of a horse or on foot. If we had a concern, it was to do with the patchy rainfall, low pan levels and the possibility that the wildlife and human population surrounding the Park, were facing a difficult dry season.

Boom and the Corona hit! Time for a reality check, and the sudden realisation that we were in a very different position to the average operation in the industry. Horses unlike Land Rovers (or should the guide be unlucky, Toyotas,) cannot be parked in a shade port, the mechanic put on leave, and the guide reassigned to other duties. Our highly trained safari horses continue eating, need exercise and all the tending that goes with maintaining a happy and healthy herd. Pulling in our horns would involve a lot more fancy footwork and be very limited as opposed to vehicle-based operations.

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hwange horseback safaris
hwange horseback safaris
Hwange horse back safaris
hwange horseback safaris
Images taken during COVID-19 by Hwange Horseback Safaris

Consolidation was an obvious and urgent need, thus it was decided to temporarily move the horses from our stables at Imvelos Camelthorn Lodge back to the main stables at Dete. In itself, this would involve riding 9 horses 80 odd kilometres through the wilderness to reach Dete. At a push, we felt this could be done in 2 days despite the unusually hot weather.

A logistical nightmare faced us, and that’s when the cavalry rode over the hill in the form of fellow operators in the area. Offers to help flooded in and within a few days we had our permit from National Parks along with a ranger to escort us, Shaun Gunter from Miombo Lodge stepped in to look after the Dete stables, Steve Alexander from Conservation Wildlife Fund not only volunteered to lead the ride but organised a lion proof boma for the overnight stop with riders and support staff camping at his house and Sharon and Phil Stead, owners of The Amalinda Group of lodges pressed their son and friends who were in lockdown at Khulu Lodge, to provide a backup vehicle for the second half of the ride.

Imvelo Safari Lodges sent Big Boy from Bomani Lodge to back up the ride on day one. Lugging drums of water and driving at 5 kph for 11 hours behind the horses is not for the faint-hearted.

Before, during and after the move, support and well wishes poured in from family friends and colleagues in the industry. What started out as a daunting challenge turned into something of an adventure, and memories that will never fade were created.

Humour overcame sore butts, and the mere presence of the youngsters with their boundless energy left the older amongst us with no option but to shine up and although there may have been a slight flagging after hour 22 in the saddle (I speak for myself ), the abiding memories are of laughter, pride in our horses who were Trojan, and the formation of a firm resolve to continue with our business come what may. Five years of grind were not going to be sacrificed, no matter how high the hurdle. We all grew stronger in that short but oh so long 80 km journey.

The horses are now settled in their temporary “corona stables” (named after the beer and not the disease) in Dete, grazing on a field which the Daughters of Calgary will plow and put to vegetables to feed the schools, old age home and other disadvantaged members of our small community, using manure from the stables and seeds donated by church members from Harare. With 23 hungry mouths, hay is being raked from the roadsides where a contractor has voluntarily mowed the edges in order to provide a decent firebreak. Our English and Zimbabwean family have been sending donations to buy the ever more expensive horse nuts, not to mention friends who out the blue have also bought food. They wish to remain anonymous, and we must respect that but I thank them from the bottom of my heart. In a time when everyone is being financially crushed, these gestures take on a meaning beyond words. It is all too easy when put into this situation to feel alone and helpless, and then a call or message changes everything, and one realises that the virus has caused good old compassion and a sense of community to rear up against it. We seem to have stepped back in time to an age when friendship mattered.

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hwange horseback safaris
hwange horseback safaris
hwange horseback safaris
hwange horseback safaris
hwange horseback safaris
hwange horseback safaris
Images courtesy of Hwange Horseback Safaris

Our grooms have rallied to the call, and led by Emish Hambani, guided by Kerri Lee Du Preez,( who was doing a magnificent job down at Camelthorn before being uprooted and forced into quarantine in Dete), continue undaunted to lavish their care on the horses. Despite uncertainty all around, they have to a man placed their faith in our ability to weather this abominable time. Truly inspirational. Rations have been reduced, pay is bound to become sporadic, and yet the positive feeling when entering the yard is a reminder that we cannot let them down. That same positive energy is still all around us when we do the stable check at the end of the day, a tonic which if it were possible to bottle would make someone millions.

All those who own horses or ride regularly will appreciate that lockdown in no way slows down or lessens the workload of running a stable yard. It is meaningless to the horses, who still need feeding, grooming and daily exercise. Anti-poaching patrols and snare sweeps have become more regular, but more about that in another post. Our involvement and interaction in the Dete community, in which we live, has increased. Community vegetable gardens need piles of manure, water pumps need repairing and seeds need to be sourced.

The expectation of Government assistance in Matabeleland North remains a pipe dream, but the inbred resilience of the people has come to the fore. Remarkably, since lockdown, and maintaining social distancing, etc. we have made new friendships which will last into the new normal. No complaining is heard, only positive anticipation of the good times to come when the bug is back in its box, and tourists return. Humbling and inspiring as we have become part of a much larger and closer family.

Our veterinarians Dr Karl Van Lauren and Dr Rob Rees have been nothing short of amazing. Their advice on the long ride ensured that the horses arrived in superb shape, and countless WhatsApp calls following a virus amongst some of the herd are handled with remarkable patience and compassion.

Rob Rees who has done so much remarkable work in our area with the wildlife is trapped in Harare on lockdown, and must be beside himself with frustration, yet deals with our calls selflessly and positively.

Karl’s enormous wealth of equine knowledge and experience with safari horses bring calm into seemingly desperate situations. What a pleasure it will be to have these two magnificent professionals back in person when the country is set free.

So bring it on! We will get through this, maybe battered and bruised, but certainly stronger and with a whole new perspective on the underlying goodness of people.

Thank you seems so trite but in this case, it is more than heartfelt and other than those we have no words. Where would we be without this unbelievable support?

Until the next time keep safe and plan your return to our little slice of paradise.

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