2018 Swaziland Challenge Ride
By Sam Chubbock, Head of UK Support
Photo credits @ChubekaTrails and @BigGameParks
At 4 pm on Monday 18th June, 10 adventurous women met at Heathrow airport. Some had met before; others were meeting for the first time, but all were excited for the same reason – they were about to embark on the 2018 World Horse Welfare Challenge Ride to Swaziland. The group consisted of riders Di, Eleanor, Gill, Jane, Jeannine, Maree, Nicky, Ruby and Sue with me as the (very lucky) charity rep. This was a day we had been looking forward to for weeks, despite initial difficulties some of us encountered with confusion between Swaziland and Switzerland – a problem which apparently contributed to the recent decision to rename the country as the Kingdom of Eswatini. It is a landlocked sovereign state in southern Africa, bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, and we were all eager to get there. This is a diary of our adventure.
After a 3 hour delay and a long flight, we arrived in Johannesburg just over 2 hours later than planned. We had missed our transfer so hurried alternative arrangements were made by In The Saddle, meaning that 7 of our number were soon on their way, with the remaining 3 following a couple of hours later. The transfer took about 4 ½ hours with one very quick stop at a service station which was somewhat different to any I’ve been to in the UK – it overlooked an area full of water buffalo, wildebeest, ostriches and (dehorned) rhinos! After crossing the border the group were finally reunited at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. We were greeted by our host, General Manager of Swaziland’s Big Game Parks, Ann Reilly, and colleague Kate Wood.
Our accommodation at Mlilwane was stunning traditional beehive huts with spacious, comfortable rooms and en suite facilities. The open-sided restaurant was a short walk away and just outside this was a large campfire with a number of extra logs lying around the edge of the fire. Much to our delight, these extra logs turned out to be warthogs who came in every evening to gently roast themselves beside the fire!
After a couple of drinks and a wonderful dinner with Ann and Kate where they briefed us on the planned trip, we enjoyed a comfortable night listening to the sounds of Africa.
After waking to bird noise, we walked to breakfast past warthogs and impala wandering through the camp. After a buffet breakfast the time came to meet our horses! The plan for the first full day was to ride our ‘main’ horses in the morning, back to the base for lunch and then out for an afternoon ride on our ‘spare’ horses so we were all familiar with them (and them with us) before the trail. My horse was a handsome 15hh 7-year-old bay gelding called Jabulani (which means ‘happiness’). In the afternoon I was paired with a beautiful bay Lusitano gelding called Ibo, who was comfortable and responsive, although a little too keen to roll whenever we crossed a stream! We rode out through Mlilwane reserve – a beautiful 4560 Ha sanctuary, with plains stretching out to meet peaks in the distance. We were able to get close to wildlife without the slightest concern from them or the horses. We passed endless animals including Burchell’s zebras, impala, wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, crocodiles, sacred ibis, blue crane, roan antelope, nyala and, of course, warthogs!
After two fabulous rides it was back to camp for a hearty dinner, then an early night before setting off on the trail.
After breakfast and a farewell from the warthogs, who were in the middle of our beehive hut camp, we set off on the trail. The horses were all equipped with saddle bags, halters and lead ropes, and we carried water and a packed lunch with us – as well as a carrot for each of the horses. We rode out through Mlilwane, again past plenty of wildlife, and then through varied terrain including steep and rocky sections, woodland, plains and a couple of stream crossings where the horses could drink. During our morning rest stop I got my first taste of how wonderful the team were with the horses when Jabulani got himself tangled round a bush. Guide Caro very quietly and calmly extracted him from the bush and made sure he was unharmed. At the lunch stop we were all thrilled to discover that instead of curly sandwiches we had homemade vegetable frittatas, cheese, homemade seeded bars, dried peaches and an apple (which, of course, I shared with Jabulani). The final section of the ride included crossing a section of fast river, with guides to help us. This largely went to plan, apart from a moment when Ann’s horse Lion accidentally pushed her down the riverbank – something Ann fortunately seemed to find almost as amusing as Lion did!
After the river crossing we rode into Klipspringer, our camp for the night, to find dome tents, eco-friendly long drop toilets, showers and the corral already set up alongside the river. I gave Jabs his carrot, turned him out in the corral, found my tent and then investigated the shower whilst the sun was still up and before the temperature dropped. The two showers were waterproof fabric ‘cones’ hoisted inside a shelter, using water heated on a fire. The cones were filled from buckets, hoisted into position and then there was a nozzle to twist to let the water out. This was amazingly effective and probably the best shower I had all trip! The bespoke horseshoe towel rails were a delightful touch.
On this first camping night I realised how grateful I was that Cecil Amey opticians had managed to find me some daily disposable contact lenses for this trip – quite a challenge with my complex prescription, and they very generously donated them when they discovered it was a charity ride.
Dinner was cooked on the campfire which we huddled round as the temperature dropped, and we enjoyed a refreshing gin and tonic as the food bubbled away. Dinner tonight was vegetable chilli – we were all very British about it, politely commenting that it was ‘quite spicy’ until Ann tried it and realised it was significantly hotter than the campfire! Some managed to eat it (some even enjoyed it!) but many of the group, including members of the local team, gave up part way through – that chilli has gone down in legend on both continents!
After dinner, we made our way back to the tents under a spectacular night sky and settled in for a rather chilly night.
For breakfast, two pots were bubbling away on the embers of the fire. After grapefruit we had the choice of ‘thin porridge’ (like semolina) or ‘jungle oats’ (porridge) – I tried both and they were very tasty and set me up well for the day ahead. Then it was back on our horses and back across the same stretch of river, again with lots of support from the team. Jabs got a bit unsettled at one point when he thought he was getting left behind (despite plenty of horses still behind him!) but guide Nathi was quick to spot it and come to help. Once we all crossed we started climbing a hill through commercial forest of eucalyptus and pine, and before long encountered a small herd of zebras hiding in a ‘layby’. They weren’t at all bothered by the horses so we stopped to take some photos, then set off again only to find the zebras following us at speed after being spooked by a vehicle, which turned out to be our ground crew taking water to our next stop! All our horses were very calm and soon enough the zebras took another route to us and we continued without our stripey hangers-on. After a mid-morning water stop for the horses, we rode on before stopping for another delicious packed lunch (falafel, mangetout, dried mango, an apple and the most amazing trail mix I’ve ever tasted). During the afternoon ride we had to cross a few small streams and encountered a few local dogs but all went smoothly.
We arrived at the Foresters Arms – a lovely English-style country hotel which was our only night with WiFi and one of only 3 nights on the whole trip with electricity (although I have to say I didn’t miss either). We enjoyed a drink in the bar and looked through a local wildlife guidebook, then headed through to our two tables in the dining room. The owner explained their dishes are all small portions so everyone gets the opportunity to try different things, and they had a special vegetarian menu to cater for some of our group. The food was excellent quality and Nicky and Sue decided they wanted to try the macaroni cheese but didn’t want a whole portion. They asked our delightful waitress, Joyce, if they could have a half portion each. Joyce looked a little confused but agreed. When she brought out the food, the ‘half portion’ was essentially a tablespoonful of macaroni cheese – not surprising that she was confused really! Everyone on our table was doubled up laughing at the morsels of food and poor Joyce was trying so hard to be professional but was struggling not to laugh too. After several different courses we had all eaten extremely well and enjoyed a very comfortable night.
Breakfast was an amazing buffet, including cereals, homemade bread and cakes, fruit, yoghurt and much more as well as a menu of cooked options. Again all delicious, although I was conscious of moderating my intake for poor Jabulani who had to carry me all day! After leaving Foresters we rode through more commercial forest and had a canter at the end of which we emerged onto an open plain and only then realised how far we’d climbed – the views were stunning. The area had been deliberately burned as a fire break and as we rode through a surprisingly sweet smell came from the ground. Mid-morning brought us to a steep, rocky descent where we needed to dismount and lead the horses. This was quite a long descent so we had a rest at the bottom to let the horses rest their brains after concentrating on the route. The next section of ride took us through some villages where the local children came out with great excitement to see the horses – a sight they apparently don’t often see. A planned river crossing was slightly delayed whilst we waited for a man to move his car which was parked in the water – this area was obviously the local car wash as well as the laundry, with many of the villagers washing their clothes whilst we were there. The horses had a drink and Jane nearly went for a swim when her horse, Chunky, started thinking how refreshing it would be to lie down in the water!
After a bit of a climb we found a lovely shady spot for the horses and enjoyed another healthy, energy-filled lunch, then rode on through more countryside and villages until we reached EmaSomini camp – our base for the next two nights. As before, the tents, showers, toilets and corral were all set up ready for our arrival, with the whole camp nestled into the hillside with a rolling panoramic view in front of it. We turned the horses out for a well-deserved roll and some hay, and then Kate greeted us with a bar and a tour of the camp, which revealed a cooking fire as well as a campfire for us to sit round. As we sat round the campfire, the mood of the group was buoyant, with everyone weirdly excited about the next two nights camping! Dinner was lentil soup followed by ‘pap’ (a local staple of maize pulp, much like sticky mashed potato) with a tomato relish, corn on the cob and roasted butternut squash, and pudding was apple stew with coconut cream. We sat round the campfire with a tumbler of South African wine and chatted happily until bedtime.
After a surprisingly good sleep, I woke at dawn and wandered down to see the horses, all contentedly munching their breakfast. I bumped into Ann and joined her on a short climb up the rocks behind the corral to take some photos in the early morning light – what a fabulous way to start the day. Breakfast was a feast of butternut squash bread with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes cooked over the fire. The plan for today was to do a circular ride morning and afternoon, with lunch at the camp. Di’s horse Vicky had a minor cut on one leg from the previous day so it was decided to rest her. Ann left Lion to keep Vicky company and decided to hike on a similar route to us to get some photos, and Jane opted to join her. Chunky, however, had other ideas and shimmied his way out of the fencing and caught up with the group as we set off! Fortunately, none of the horses reacted and Chunky allowed himself to be caught and returned to the corral. We headed off on the most amazing ride, up over the hill to an outcrop with stunning panoramic views. We stopped there for a while before heading back down, learning about native plants such as ‘baboon tail’ (used to make ropes and thatch rooves) on the way. After lunch of hummus and vegetable wraps, we realised it was too late for another ride but Caro offered to take any of the group who wished to go for a walk. Four of us joined him and walked away from the camp and up into the hills to an outcrop overlooking a reservoir. Caro had brought a cool bag with him and we all enjoyed a gin and tonic whilst watching the sun set over the water.
Afterwards, we walked back to the camp ready for dinner. Tonight it was the best butternut squash and coconut soup I have tasted, followed by chickpea stew with rice. Pudding was cooked bananas with chocolate sauce, with marshmallows for toasting over the fire. We also got our first glimpse of some witty and beautifully-observed cartoons which the very talented Ruby had created to celebrate some of our adventures. Ann and I talked horses all evening (covering everything from grass sickness to equitation science), and then I retired to the tent with the calls of bush babies and jackals in the distance.
Today was the last and longest riding day so we woke before sunrise to get an earlier start. Breakfast was thin porridge followed by a sort of bubble and squeak dish made from potato, cabbage, mangetout, tomato, peppers, onion, mushrooms and more cooked over the campfire. Again, we were all stunned at how well we were eating on the trail.
Vicky still wasn’t quite sound so Di was swapped onto a new horse, called Nguni after a breed of cattle we had seen which had similar mottled markings to his. We rode out from the camp, with the ground crew singing us a traditional farewell song as we left. We rode through the hills, at one point seeing the river far below us where Caro pointed out the site of Klipspringer camp where we had stayed earlier on the trail. The whole ride today was on Mlilwane reserve land so we didn’t pass through any communities, but encountered more wildlife as we got closer to home including, rather appropriately, a klipspringer on an outcrop above us. After crossing the same stretch of river again we rode on to somewhere we could stop for a rest and a snack. Unfortunately, just as we stopped one of the horses felt hemmed in by others and kicked out, catching Di’s leg in the process. Fortunately, Di knew quickly that it wasn’t too serious and was very stoic about it, although I think was rather relieved it hadn’t happened earlier in the trip. Di was still able to ride so we carried on after our break, seeing impala, zebras, wildebeest, blue cranes and crocodiles along the way. Once on the final stretch we split into two groups so those who wanted to could enjoy a final canter. Despite 6 days on the trail, the horses were still full of energy and had a good blast across the reserve, with riders grinning from ear to ear! We walked back to base (which felt like going home) and I gave Jabs a final carrot, a good scratch to say thank you and then turned him loose with the others. Much to our delight, they all had a roll, then bucked and cantered off into the distance. Although it was very sad to say goodbye to our fabulous horses, it was wonderful to see how much energy they had left at the end of the trail – a great credit to Ann and her team.
We had a buffet lunch in the main restaurant overlooking the lake, then a final visit to the reserve gift shop before getting on the minibus and waving a fond farewell to Mlilwane, the warthogs and our now much-loved horses.
After a 2 hour drive we arrived after dark at Hlane Royal National Park and were taken to Ndlovu camp - a little group of stone and thatch cottages, beautifully lit by oil lamps. The rooms were roomy, comfortable and charmingly decorated, with en suite shower and toilet facilities. As we were settling into the camp we heard a low coughing bark in the surrounding land which Ann told us was lions – what an incredible moment. After dinner we had an early night and heard lions throughout the night.
We rose at 05.45 ready for a game drive at 06.30. We were loaded into a land cruiser with 10 comfortable, forward-facing seats in tiered rows so everyone had a great view. It was a misty morning and none of us had realised quite how cold it would be as we drove along in an open vehicle! However, we quickly forgot the cold and damp when our guide and driver, Maxwell, found a pride of five lions. We were all stunned by how close we got to them, and the lions were utterly unconcerned by our presence. After a while we drove on to another section of the reserve where we saw lots of antelopes. As we were driving, one of our group spotted something in the trees and called to Maxwell to stop. To my compete awe, two enormous elephants – one cow and one bull – gently and slowly padded across the road in front of our vehicle and, unbelievably, disappeared into the surroundings. This was a truly magical moment for me which brought a lump to my throat.
Shortly after this we stopped at a watering hole where we climbed out of the vehicle and enjoyed tea and coffee with homemade muffins, before continuing on the drive. At one point, Maxwell stopped the vehicle and picked a piece of grass which he passed round the group for us to smell, because apparently it had been urinated on by a rhino! After a total of 2 hours in the reserve we drove back to base for a buffet breakfast. We then had leisure time until lunch which most of the group spent relaxing, watching wildlife at the watering hole beside the restaurant and reading their books. However, Jane persuaded me to join her on a guided mountain bike ride around the reserve. Again this was with Maxwell who asked if there was anything we were hoping to see, so we mentioned vultures and (somewhat optimistically) giraffes. We set off into the bush with Maxwell seemingly on a bit of a mission. After about half an hour, sure enough he found us some vultures! We saw African white-backed vultures in a tree and dozens more soaring high above us. As we were watching them, another four glided overhead at a lower altitude and, much to our astonishment, we could actually hear the air moving over their wings like an aircraft. We stopped at a watering hole and saw a crocodile, some lapwings, a very small diving duck and an enormous bird which Maxwell said was a martial eagle. After persistent pedalling, occasionally hindered by deep sand, we realised that Maxwell had found some recent giraffes tracks and was trying to follow the group. Jane and I didn’t think we could be that lucky but Maxwell excelled himself and found a herd of about 8 to 10 giraffes. It was incredible to see them, and a couple of young males actually moved slightly closer to us to get a better look. The whole herd watched us for a while until eventually they all loped off into the distance. By now I was extremely grateful to Jane for persuading me to join her – what an experience!
After a speedy ride back to make up time, even more so after Maxwell had to repair a puncture, we arrived back at camp very hot, very tired, half an hour later than planned, but elated. After a very welcome shower and lunch, we got back on the minibus which took us to a seemingly random spot beside a main road. Here we swapped our bags into the back of Ann’s pick-up and were greeted by guide Richard in another open land cruiser to take us into Mkhaya Game Reserve. We soon understood why the minibus couldn’t take us, as we bumped, rolled and climbed our way to some welcome drinks and a comfort break. We thought there were no activities planned on our arrival but how wrong we were! We got back into the vehicle and Richard took us on a two-hour sunset drive around the reserve and literally within minutes, we met our first white rhinos. The whole group was astonished and moved to see them, but this wasn’t to be our only rhino encounter at Mkhaya. We continued on our drive, where we saw warthogs, nyala, wildebeest (including one white in amongst a herd), impala, giraffes and several more white rhino, including one which was only a few months old.
We arrived at the camp in the dark to a breath-taking scene – dozens of oil lamps lit the paths and the dining area, which was made up of beautifully laid tables around the campfire. After a drink around the fire we had an incredible, four-course meal, all cooked without electricity. Drumming signalled when dinner was over, and we moved our chairs back round the camp fire. Then the staff appeared in traditional dress and sang and danced for us with great energy. After several songs they asked for volunteers so, feeling under pressure as guide and charity rep, Ann and I joined in when no other volunteers were forthcoming! After some rather less impressive high kicking from us, everyone joined in for a sort of ‘dance-off’, and I was extremely grateful that none of our group had their cameras to hand.
After this we headed back to our rooms, escorted along the lamp-lit path by a member of staff. This was to make sure we all found our way to our rooms, which turned out to have open sides above a waist-high wall, with a thatched roof and a somewhat unnerving mesh ‘hyena gate’ to position over the entrance! We were also shown where our emergency whistle was in case we needed to summon the night patrol person at any point and told not to leave anything out in case it got taken by monkeys. None of this seemed conducive to a relaxing night, but remarkably, once I was settled into my cosy bed, with a hot water bottle under a thick duvet and blankets and cocooned inside my mosquito net, I felt very safe and got an excellent night’s sleep. In fact, with the oil lamps and the setting, the rooms could only be described as enchanting, and whilst Mlilwane had felt like home and everywhere we stayed was wonderful, Mkhaya quickly became my favourite location.
I was woken at about 4 am by two bush babies having a conversation either side of our room. In case you don’t know, bush babies are so called because they live in the bush and sound like babies – not the subtlest wake-up call, but certainly memorable! A far nicer wake-up call was the organised one we had at 5.45 when a lovely lady placed a tray of tea, coffee and biscuits on our wall and said a soft good morning to make sure we were awake. This was so we could be ready for a sunrise game drive at 6.30, during which we saw yet more incredible wildlife including a female white rhino with a baby only about 4 months old. We arrived back at base by 8.30 where breakfast was waiting for us by the campfire. To our delight, we the discovered an addition to the itinerary when we got the opportunity to go on a bush walk into the reserve in two small groups. The plan was to see plants, insects, animal tracks and the like, but probably not many animals. On this walk we learned how to identify rhino prints and how to tell if they were from a white or black rhino. We also learned that white rhinos are so called not because of their colour but because they have a wide lip (‘white’ believed to be a mis-hearing of ‘wide’ at some point), whereas black rhinos have a pointed lip. We also saw rhino mud-baths and scratching posts, plants that are poisonous to all but giraffes and porcupines, a plant which can be used as a toothbrush (which some of the group tried) and one which can be used as toilet paper (which none of the group tried). Most amazingly of all, we also saw another female white rhino, lying down with her young calf beside her – again, they seemed unconcerned by our presence, although we kept a respectful and safe distance.
We headed back to the base for lunch, on a long table under an enormous sausage tree with nyala and crested guinea fowl wandering past. After lunch we had some time to pack, then another sunset game drive where our guide Richard managed to find us a large and very intimidating group of hippos! They were all in the water but as one they turned to look at us when we arrived and didn’t break their gaze until we drove away. This was a mixed group of adults and young, and we even got to see a few of them doing the iconic hippo yawn. On the way back to base, we encountered another rhino mother and baby, and the youngster curiously approached the vehicle, meaning Richard had to act quickly to increase the distance before the mother felt threatened.
We headed back to the camp after dark for another wonderful lamp-lit evening. Ann and the team had located some bush babies so we were able to go to the outdoor kitchen area and see these gorgeous creatures by torchlight. Round the campfire we got chatting to a lovely American couple who had arrived that day and were amazed to find out we had spent 6 days trail riding through the kingdom. The lady casually remarked that she didn’t really like horses, which was met with a collective gasp from 11 passionately horsey women. Her partner jokingly asked if it was a good time to mention that he didn’t really like women, so I suggested that with this particular group, that was probably a safer thing to say!
After dinner, there was an awards ceremony to mark memorable events on the ride, and we thanked Ann and her team for a truly wonderful experience. We enjoyed one last night around the campfire together before bed.
Another delightful wake-up call from the Mkhaya team, followed by breakfast and a last visit to the gift shop. Over breakfast we found out that two of our rooms had been visited by guinea fowl in the middle of the night. They had pooed everywhere but I think those affected were just relieved they hadn’t been visited by anything more dangerous than guinea fowl! We then watched in awe as the ladies carried our suitcases to the truck on their heads and then we drove out through the reserve. We were lucky enough to encounter a group of young male rhinos on our way out, and then we were out of the reserve and back into the minibus for the drive back to meet our airport transfer. We said a very fond farewell to Ann, who by this time was considered a friend by most, if not all, of the group, and set off on our long journey back to the UK.
This really was the trip of a lifetime and I am incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing opportunity. The country was fabulous, the wildlife was breath-taking and we were looked after to the highest standard by Ann, guides Mhlabane (Caro) and Nathi, ground crew Kate, Magongo, Musa and Philani, and all the rest of the teams behind the scenes and at each of the stunning and unique locations we visited. The horses were wonderfully looked after, really fit and obviously well loved by the whole team. And finally, the group of ladies I got to accompany were amazing – they welcomed me into their company and quickly felt like friends. They are a diverse, warm, welcoming group of amazing, capable, adventurous women and I was lucky to be part of it. For anyone thinking of joining one of our Challenge Ride, I can only say – do it; I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Interested in taking part in a Challenge Ride yourself? Register your interest here.