Happy New Year 2013 from Hidden Trails

by Ryan Schmidt [Hidden Trails] 12/31/2012

Happy New Year 2013 from Hidden Trails!

Happy New Year from Hidden Trails! May your new year be filled with prosperity, good health, and beautiful sunshine!

Since being hired by Hidden Trails in 2009, I had been dreaming of our riding tours in Africa. I always had coveted a visit to the vast and mysterious continent, but with the added motivation of the possibility of horseback riding there, I was more motivated than ever to make this trip of a lifetime happen! Finally in 2012, I was able to make my dreams come true, despite some unexpected obstacles that left only me less than 3-weeks to plan the entire trip before my departure. Luckily, there are no advance visas or vaccinations required for visits to South Africa or (southern) Botswana, so it was possible to do so, though it was rather harried! When I eventually arrived to Johannesburg, I stepped off the plane into the most fantastic thunder and lightning hail storm I had seen in years; there was an inch of slushy snow squishing under my thong sandals and as I stood there in a sun-dress, shivering and looking up at the heavens, suddenly realizing that all my preconceptions about Africa were truly about to be tested: starting with the weather! Lucky for you, now that I have made all the silly mistakes on my own, I can advise Hidden Trails’ customers on the RIGHT way to do everything!

I have composed several trip reports for our customers to review, that have now been posted online with each of the respective rides I had the opportunity to visit and learn from. We will share them here in this Hidden Trails Newsletter as well. Please feel free to telephone the office any time from Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm Pacific Time to chat with me, Lauren, if you are thinking about joining one of these epic adventures. Nothing would make me happier than to share my experiences with you!
- Lauren @ Hidden Trails
First stop, our “Waterberg Safari Lodge” in Northern South Africa…

Enjoyed the Most:
The lodge staff at both "the Nest" and "the Hill" are simply incredible people at what they do. They are chipper, funny, knowledgeable, kind, flexible and absolutely true professionals in every sense. The gourmet style dining at this lodge is well beyond any of the other safaris I participated in during my 3 weeks in Africa; the presentation, complexity of the flavours and wonderful variety in the menu in each night was simply amazing. The plentiful horses (herd of 70+) were varied in level of difficulty to account for all the different types of riders, yet each mount was lovely in it's own way with good safari sense, always fun to ride, fit in health and well loved. The accommodations, designed by Tess, one half of your hosting couple Ant & Tess Baber, are stunning to behold. Every guest building on the two lodge property is incredibly beautiful, a charming combination of modern luxury and traditional architecture.

Bothered you:
Nothing at this place could bother anyone... you would have to have impossible standards for them not to surpass your expectations by a mile!

You must come and see their lovely rhinos!! Due to the very sad reality of poaching, these magnificent beasts and their "owners" live each day worried that they may fall victim to the disgusting illegal trade. That being said, one positive you can take from the situation at hand, is that to keep them safe at night, the Babers have made a routine of feeding them around sunset at the lodge. The rhinos show up for their "dinner" while you sit on your hosts' private residence balcony (just a short 5 min off road drive from the guest lodges) drinking refreshing "sundowner" G&Ts. They congregate at the base of the balcony, tussling over the food in gentle competition with each other, making the most amazing and happy noises as they get excited about feeding on the fruits. They are merely a few feet below you; a truly unique moment to be had.

The buffalo are reserved for the intermediate - advanced riders only, as they are relatively dangerous animals due to their unpredictability and aggression and vast numbers. They have a tracking device on the herd so if they riding out with novice riders, they can avoid the part of the reserve they are positioned at. I was lucky enough (although I say lucky at the expense of the poor bull), to be riding out with Ant the owner who took me on my own to see the buffalo, when he noticed his prize bull was not looking as healthy as normal after the hard winter they had. So the next day, he called in the vet and we went out with his "wranglers" on horseback and a few of the guests who were good enough riders, and tracked and herded the buffalo so the vet could "dart" the sick one with the rifle. What an insane experience. Our hearts were beating fast as the walky-talkies crackled with static and transmissions about the whereabouts of the herd, and we had to set up a perimeter and yet be ready to gallop out of harm’s way if the animals stampeded! Holy cow (pun not intended), was it intense! The bull is only down for minutes, as they have to reverse the sedative quickly so as not to harm the animal. We all got to get up close and personal with the poor sleeping bull, and he stirred a few times even under the heavy sedation and man you have to watch out for those massive horns!!! I will never, ever forget that moment either. If you are into this sort of thing, I advise you to go during their census week where they take account of some animals, capture and relocate others. My time spent with the buffalo was only a small taste of what this week of theirs entails.

There are two lodges, the Nest and the Hill. You can organize to stay at both during your time here (you can horseback ride lodge to lodge in about 3 hours) or choose just one. Ants Nest has more of a communal feel to it, the way the lodge and its surrounding guest buildings have been laid out, although your privacy is never in question! Ants Nest is nestled in the private reserve's valley and nearby the owner's own residence. There is a lovely stone fire pit enclave set outside to have dinner under the stars or meals can be taken in on the lodge patio, or in the handsome loft dining area indoors. I recommend you get a massage (only about $25 US!!) outside at the poolside. The Hill is, as one might expect, perched on top a cliff on the "hill" and during the summer season when moisture returns to the land, a river flows out from beneath the stunning lodge balcony in a stunning waterfall. The various luxury cottages (which each sleep up to 6) are set back away from the main lodge, offering intimate seclusion for people on honeymoons who was their absolute privacy or for families who wish to keep it personal in their downtime. There are also a couple of lodge rooms available for singles.

Second stop: Triple B Ranch in South Africa…

Enjoyed the Most:
It is the hospitality of Laura, Shane and their smiling staff at Triple B that makes the ranch as special as it is and keep their guests returning year after year. I completely understand why they have a 51% rider return rate! Laura is a glowing host who can make anyone feel at ease in her presence; whether you are a family with children looking for an engaging and playful vacation or a single adult looking to get out of the city life for a few days to ride and relax, the ranch can be your home away from home. Best of all, it comes at a relatively affordable price in comparison to many of their luxury competitors! There is something available here for everyone! Trail ride on safaris through the surrounding property where you will find kudu, impala, waterbuck, zebra, giraffe - generally plains game here, with no dangerous animals - making it a very safe place to introduce yourself to riding in Africa for the first time for Novice riders and children, or simply those who would rather not entertain the idea of meeting a lion in the bushes while they're on horseback! Alternatively, you can improve or test your horseback skills, or be just plain competitive, by joining in on a polo-cross match on the field or get involved in the weekly Western Games, like barrel racing and pole bending. You can also request a few jumping lessons in the arena with Kirsty if you are keen to pop over a few fences. And we mustn't forget: there are several dammed lakes all across the property, where horses and riders can splash and swim with each other. This is a definite highlight for many of the guests who come here! I even met riders at other lodges over the week who mentioned how swimming at Triple B with the horses had been a definite highlight for them during their Africa trip. At night, the sounds of the bullfrogs are bewitching, the groans, woofs and honks (that is the only way I can think to describe it!) of the resident hippopotamus family is endlessly amusing and sometimes it really sounds like they are right at your doorstep. You often can hear the hyenas and jackals yowling on the hills as they hunt. It is eerie in the best of ways. Sometimes over the rest of the nocturnal din, you can even hear lions roaring - the big cats can be heard from up to 10km away! Don't worry, eventually the active night orchestra goes to sleep and therefore so can you!

Bothered You:
Nothing bothered me really - I suppose I wish they had their cross-country course still active!

Accommodations - several adorable little "huts" to choose from, some are traditional rondavel style (round) and others were boxy little cottages on the lake. There are also a few rooms available in main lodge building. All guest accommodations are comfortable, clean and cute. Nothing lavish here folks, just a cozy place to retreat to when needed.

Food - always plentiful and delicious!! I actually found their lunch menus to be the food highlight here for me. All-star quiches and the most delectable chicken schnitzels paired with simple, but extremely tasty, fresh salads. Dinners were also tasty and well prepared, although I personally found there was too much meat for my own eating habits; next time, I will order the vegetarian menu, just because I envied every amazing dish the one veggie woman was served each night! So good to note: vegetarians are well catered to here!!

Horses - they have many of them (about 70+), so there is definitely not only one, but many horses suited to you and your riding level and desires. You can ride as many as you wish while you are there, or find a favorite few to stick with. Their horses are nothing fancy, but all are quality animals who are happy in their home and much loved, and who do their jobs very well. They have the uncanny ability to make you grin from ear to ear. In fact, my mother came as a non-rider (although she had ridden a few times over twenty years ago on “rental” horses), and she completely surprised me by wanting to ride. She was CANTERING on the ever lovely gelding Flynn on her first ride at Triple B, and was practically a cowgirl by the time we left. SHE EVEN PLAYED POLO-CROSSE. I have the photos to prove it. ;)

As they wish to evaluate riders before giving them anything with pep, I first rode Kiona, a little Appaloosa mare on my first day, who was polite and quiet and clearly an easy ride but if you are a good enough rider to coax her spirit out, you will find she has more than enough juice to happily give you a delightful canter! Sweet horse. Later I rode Scotch Bonnet, a handsome bay Boerpard (the local breed, like a mustang in origin) who was quite playful and vocal, but still well-mannered and steady. He was my favorite of my stay there! Then I played a game of polo-cross for the very first time, on a chestnut Thoroughbred gelding named Rusty who is an old pro at it and was very forgiving of my terrible novice skills at the game. There is something to be said about a horse who doesn't flinch the slightest when you are swinging a lacrosse stick around his ears and shoulders, or who doesn't mind being "body checked" by the other competitors! I went swimming in the lake with the firecracker paint pony mare, Storm. She likes to swim, and kind of treats it like a salad buffet as she goes along in the water scooping up the plantlife in her lips. Hot damn, that little mare can GO!!! I think the post-swim gallop - ahem, I mean CANTER - we had on the way back to the farm was one of the most adrenaline filled of my entire 3 weeks riding in Africa. Did I say gallop? I meant canter...

While there is not a chance to see the Big Five on the ranch property, there are easily organized jeep safaris at neighbouring reserves where you can see elephant, rhino, lions, buffalo... and if you are lucky... the elusive leopard!

Last stop, Botswana, and the Tuli Riding Safari…

Enjoyed the Most:
The horseback riding & wildlife at Mashatu took my breath away: Plenty of long and fast canters, jumping small ditches and logs along the way (optional), covering the most amazing and vast terrain, cantering alongside the herds of giraffe who look like they are going in slow motion but are covering just as much ground as we are!! I will never, for the rest of my life, forget camping in the bush not so far from a den of lionesses, who you could hear at night roaring over their territory - you can actually hear other lions from across the border (and river) in South Africa roaring back in reply! Simply phenomenal, not at all scary. You never feel unsafe in the care of this first class horse safari operation.

Even walking (on foot or horseback) is exciting; there is just so much to revel in. In some parts, the dirt sparkles with rough diamond bits. It is magical. Curious and mischevious baboons watch from their haunches perched ontop of massive termite hills, jackals streak from bush to bush looking for cover, vultures circle above looking for carcasses leftover from the cats and hyenas, the air is filled with enchanting, rythmic bird calls. Antelope, zebra and wildebeest graze vigilantly on the grasslands or stand stock still in the bushes while you pass by thinking just maybe you don't see them. We followed the drag trail of a leopard kill, and eventually found what was leftover of the unlucky zebra. We did find 2 leopards late in the week: these cats are hard to find by most safari standards. Many locals have not even seen them. Here in the Mashatu Reserve, you have a brilliant chance of finding at least one during your week here. I met someone who went the week before me, and she said they saw 6! We saw a beautifully feminine, young female who came right up to our jeep and then proceeded to roll around like a house cat in the dirt, grooming and showing off. We saw a large male leopard lazing on a low lying branch in the massive Mashatu tree; he stared at us lazily, before sliding down out of the tree and disappearing into the bush. We were 10 feet away from several lionesses and their cubs, who were tormenting their mother just like children do - it was funny! We found a herd of elephants, where one baby came up to us and wanted to play. Like a dog wanting to play fetch, he had his back haunches up and front end down playfully, trying to get us to interact with him and the ball of elephant dung he was using as a soccor ball. He kicked it back and forth, front feet to back feet, side to side. It was incredible. For safety reasons of course, we could not "play" with him, and eventually he got frustatrated, and so with his trunk, threw his dung ball at us and stomped his feet like a spoiled kid before walking back to his mother. Anyone who thinks these impressive animals are not highly intelligent with very human like personalities and emotions is kidding themselves. Elephants are everywhere in the Mashatu Reserve, some travel alone, others in herd of up to 50. Our guides West and Mpo were comedic gentlemen, who were knowledgeable and friendly, and love to poke fun at you and keep you smiling. They are not only a wealth of knowledge about their country and safari, but also have trained locally, as well as in Europe and UK, in 3-day eventing. They are not just safari guides, but trained equestrians as well. Same goes for their wonderful horses; they are not only fearless safari animals, but well schooled horses who do dual duty competing in the ring when not trekking.

Bothered you:
That I did not have more time to spend there!? I could have stayed for weeks!!!

This place is great for experienced riders. There is a short riding test on the first afternoon to be sure everyone is up to par with required riding level and to make sure your selected horse is a good match. If you are not able to ride to the ability required, you unfortunately cannot continue. While this sounds a bit nerve-wracking for anyone who has doubt in their riding, for those who are strong riders, this ensures that you have the fast paced, exhilarating and SAFE riding experience you seek without worrying that an unfit rider may negatively affect the group. I kind of had butterflies even though I know I am a good rider! Haha! You do a large triangle... one side cantering, second side hand gallop/extended canter, and third side you need to bring the horse back at a collected canter. You can do it! ;)

Camping. Yes, it's camping, but really, REALLY nice camping. Put it this way, my mother came with me, who is NOT an outdoor type at all, and she felt completely at ease, wonderfully taken care of and always comfortable and happy while at all the camps we went to along the trail. She came as a non-rider and rode with the support vehicle each day from location to location and her experience was just as wonderful as the riders. There was a few days were she saw some wildlife I was jealous of! And don't knock having an outdoor shower until you have done it. Seriously. I already knew how divine they were from past trips in the backcountry, but I enjoyed seeing the rest of the group come to realize after the first day just how lovely they are!! If you are really not into the camp scene, you can book a safari that is lodge to lodge (Mashatu Deluxue Safari)!

Most of rates and dates for 2013 are already on our website. If you have any questions about a trip that is not yet updated please give us a call or send us an email at info@hiddentrails.com