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Sexy up the safari experience with a horse-riding trail through the bush

With its ‘Safari Reimagined’ concept, Babanango Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal offers immersive encounters that will test your muscles and stir your soul

23 January 2022 - 00:00 By JARED RUTTENBERG
Game viewing on horseback at Babanango Game Reserve allows guests to get close to the wild animals, which won't see them as a threat.
Game viewing on horseback at Babanango Game Reserve allows guests to get close to the wild animals, which won't see them as a threat.
Image: Babanango Game Reserve

Approaching the pair of rhinos that were partially hidden in the thicket, I felt both adrenaline and endorphins coursing through my veins. Seeing these creatures in the bush is always an exhilarating experience, this time even more so as we were not spectators on a game vehicle but on horseback. 

In the testing phase for a new horse safari launching later this year, this was the first time the horses had ever met rhino, and vice versa, so the approach was gradual and calculated, giving each of them time to suss each other out. The rhino were still a fair distance away and it would take several such introductions before the two species would be comfortable with each other.

Leaning back in his saddle, guide Rynhardt Erasmus broke into his trademark smile, the sides of his mouth gently lifting as he congratulated us on the first big-five encounter of our trip. With his well-worn Stetson and a piece of wild grass sticking out of his mouth, he was in every way the convivial and cool cowboy.  

Erasmus is one of a handful of guides in SA who have the training and experience necessary to lead horse trails in big-five territory, and every minute spent with him left me with the feeling I was in the presence of someone with a truly remarkable gift. With him it feels like more than experience or passion; it's simply second nature.

Babanango Game Reserve sits inland from Richards Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal, about three hours' drive from King Shaka International Airport. The reserve is a commendable project that is rewilding a significant portion of land in the province — 22,000ha — which makes it the largest reserve to be birthed in the country’s democratic history. 

While two lodges are already open, this year will see some exciting additions, including an ultra-luxury lodge and the ambitious restocking of the land with more than 3,000 head of game. One striking feature of the Babanango philosophy takes a diversion from the usual bush experience to leave behind the traditional checklist safari. With its trademark “Safari Reimagined”, guests can expect to engage in immersive encounters that will undeniably sexy up the safari experience. 

Guide Rynhardt Erasmus is a convivial and cool cowboy.
Guide Rynhardt Erasmus is a convivial and cool cowboy.  
Image: Jared Ruttenberg
The writer with his steed, Gunzo.
The writer with his steed, Gunzo.
Image: Hayley McNeill

I had been invited to participate in a multi-day horse trail during its development phase, an experience that will be a hallmark of Babanango's “Safari Reimagined”. These trails are aimed at intermediate and experienced riders looking for a unique wilderness experience. Our trail traversed about 50km of wilderness, the highlights being unhindered open-air encounters with wild game. 

As I'm not a seasoned rider, it was with some trepidation that I mounted Gunzo, the gelding who would be my companion over the three days. The total 16 hours we’d spend in the saddle would be quite a departure from the occasional one-hour outrides I was accustomed to. After the first day of scrambling hills, crossing rivers and traversing valleys, turning a corner at sunset and finding a campsite set up for us deep in the bush — known as a fly camp — was greatly welcomed.  

After a hot shower and a filling bush supper, I decided to ditch the tent in favour of sleeping outside. I settled down for the night alongside the fire pit, letting the warmth of the flames and the blanket of stars above accompany me to sleep. 

THE BODY AWAKENS

Waking on the second morning, my body was quick to let me know that it was adjusting to riding — communicating via muscles I didn’t even know existed. However, the stiffness didn’t deter me and soon I was back on Gunzo for another day of exploring from the saddle.

We headed westwards, making our way to our second night’s location: Babanango Valley Lodge. It is a casual-yet-chic farm-style lodge in the heart of the reserve. On arrival at the lodge, I dismounted and gladly accepted the G&T waiting for me. I wound down for the evening, letting my muscles soak in the infinity pool, mesmerised by the views down the valley.

The writer at Zulu Rock Lodge, which overlooks kilometres of pristine bush.
The writer at Zulu Rock Lodge, which overlooks kilometres of pristine bush.
Image: Hayley McNeill

A horseback safari is an education in the necessity of being present, a necessity that quickly becomes a gift. In these unprecedented times, the bush has become a salve for many a weary soul, as nature has an uncanny ability to nurture when it’s needed the most. There is nothing like a cross-country horse trail to teach you to be alert to and connected with the land about you.    

NATURAL RHYTHMS

On the third and final day in the saddle — as Erasmus had predicted — my body had adjusted and I hardly even noticed the waning stiffness. The riding felt more natural, I became more attuned to my surroundings, and the urban impulse to reach for a device every five minutes was long gone. 

Forty-two kilometres later, I understood that a horseback safari is a remarkable way to experience the natural and human history that the land wears. As the stories reminded me, the surrounding Zululand hills have experienced their fair share of human drama over the past centuries. This land has no shortage of offerings, if only you pay close enough attention.

Babanango is a growing story, and if the thrill of my horseback trip is anything to go by, its “Safari Reimagined” is going to provide unforgettable bush experiences. You’ll soon discover that in the 22,000ha of land there are endless stories waiting to be uncovered — if, of course, you’re willing to exchange your seat for a saddle.

GETAWAY AT A GLANCE:

WHERE IT IS: Babanango is located 50km from Vryheid in malaria-free northern KwaZulu-Natal. It is roughly six hours' driving time from Johannesburg and three hours from Durban.

ACCOMMODATION: Babanango has two (soon to be three) separate lodges — now the farm-style Valley Lodge and Zulu Rock Lodge, which has chalets atop a mountainside overlooking a valley. Their ultra-luxe Travellers' Camp launches in May. 

RATES: Babanango is running a special for SA residents until March 31 2022 (for Zulu Rock Lodge and Valley Lodge). Weekends are R1,920 per person per night sharing (Friday to Sunday). Week nights are R1,700 per person per night (Sunday to Thursday). Includes all meals, drinking water, tea and coffee, two activities per day (game drives, walks and, at Valley Lodge, the copper mine tour. Excludes reserve fees of R180 per person per day and all other drinks not mentioned. Ts&Cs apply.

HORSE TRAILS: The horse safaris, available for intermediate and experienced riders, are set to launch in March, with multi-day offerings based on seasonality. During low rainfall seasons, guests will be based at the fly camp, where they can sleep in a tent or under the stars. In summer, during the rainy season, the offering will be tailored to host guests at Babanango Valley Lodge. The reserve is already home to leopard, rhino and buffalo, with plans to introduce lion and elephant by May. When it does, it will be one of only a handful of big-five overnight horse-safari operations in SA. Trips will be priced from R7,500 per person per night.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: Helicopter safaris, hiking, birding and butterflying, game drives, guided walks, bush dining, copper-mine tours, private dining, camera-trap experiences, animal-release experiences.

MORE INFORMATION: See babanango.co.za.


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