Riding into the Sunset in the African Bush

When Claudia, mother of 4, decided to go on a much-needed R&R retreat away from the family, she found herself in the African bush on the back of a horse witnessing lions, black rhinos and elephants and joining a Superhero team. Now nearly a decade later, she recaptures stories of coming face-to-face with a charging black rhino, the remarkable bravery of the well-trained safari horses and her adventures with her family. A horse riding safari in South Africa had changed her life.

Author: Claudia Westerbarkey

Motherhood and Travel

Claudia was born in Munich, Germany, but her family moved to Spain when she was a child. She lived in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, France and Italy, however, Claudia describes herself as an Andalusian at heart. Spain is where her home is. “I look very German – tall, blond, blue eyes. So I really don’t blend in very well with the locals. In shops and restaurants people always do their best to speak English to me.”

“I have always been an adventure loving free spirit and NEVER thought I would have children at all. But as life goes, I came to be a mother of four with only four and a half years between the oldest and the youngest.”

An elephant spotted during a horse riding safari in South Africa
An elephant sighting in a horse riding safari in South Africa never gets old! Photo Credit: Claudia Westerbarkey

Much Needed Rest and Relaxation… in Africa!

I decided to go on my first horse riding safari in South Africa in 2008. I told myself that this was a much deserved and needed break and my husband fully agreed to this. He doesn’t really ride, although I’ve tried to lure him into it many times. But he understands how much a life around horses means to me.”

Claudia shares how safaris on horseback became an important part of her life. She grew to learn methods of organizing her home by coordinating efforts with her husband and grandmother. This gave her some space each year to have her much needed time in the African bush.

The Hook

I shall never forget my first afternoon ride into the bush the day I arrived. Good old Stoffel, an ex-race horse, did a great job staying calm and relaxed in my first ever lion sighting on horseback. I was completely overwhelmed and got really emotional as we rode into the sunset in the African bush. The sounds and smells of Africa are unlike anything else. I felt so connected and alive it was almost unreal. So I just stood there watching the sunset, a beer can in hand. I felt pure joy, happiness and gratitude for being where I was.

The sun sets at the end of an exciting day during a SA horseback safari
Yet another breathtaking sunset. Photo Credits: Claudia Westerbarkey

Why Do They Always Cry?

When my first horse riding safari in South Africa came to an end I was picked up by a transfer service to the airport. I was all by myself because I was on an earlier flight than the rest of the group and just sat in the back seat sobbing. The driver seemed unimpressed but finally decided to ask the question why all the people he picked up from this safari were always crying. I told him that the thought that I might never return to this magic place broke my heart.

In fact, as soon as I got home I told my loving husband that if he wanted to save his wife from depression he would let me go on safari again. As expected he said yes and I immediately booked my next safari and it has now become some sort of tradition. Other women go to a spa or beauty farm, I go on safari. My wise husband came to the conclusion that it was better to let me go to Africa once or twice a year for a couple of weeks than to wake up one day to find out that I was in the bush for good.

Exploring the World as an Adventuress

I love the idea of being an “Equestrian Adventuress”, to me it means that as an independent woman I can explore the world on the back of a horse. It means freedom, connectivity with a horse in a new environment, learning lots of new things, seeing the world from a different angle, and getting to learn about other cultures. Having a husband that supported my adventures was a big motivator for me!

Caludia is swimming with her safari horse in the Indian Ocean in Mozambique
Swimming in the Indian Ocean with a horse (bareback of course) was beautiful. Photo Credits: Claudia Westerbarkey

A Typical Day In The Bush

The fact that you never know what is going to be around the next bend makes every day in the bush different and exciting. Each encounter with big game and all the small animals are experiences I truly treasure. Over time you learn so much about life in the bush and life itself, no book can teach you.

During a horse riding safari in South Africa, a typical day in the bush starts just before sunrise. There is nothing like waking up to the sounds of the bush, baboons arguing in the trees, a distant “whoop whoop” from a spotted hyena, the roar of a lion patrolling his territory. The bird’s calls are not always sweet and pleasant. You don’t want to be woken up to the call of a brown ibis flying over your tent. They sound like they’re sending out an SOS signal because they’re about to crash!

Tracking Wild Animals

After a short breakfast and a strong coffee to blow away the cobwebs in your head from the previous fun night, we get on our safari horses and follow our guide who usually has a rough idea where we will be able to find a pack of lions, an elephant herd, rhinos and buffaloes. To see a leopard from horseback is really the cherry on the pie and I have only seen it once. Although, I’m sure we have come across many leopards that just didn’t want to be seen by us. Their ability to camouflage is astonishing. Depending on how hot the day will be and if we are following fresh tracks of some kind, we are usually out for 3 to 4 hours.

After lunch and a little siesta we go out again but on a different horse this time – 4 hours in the bush among dangerous game is enough for one day for the horses. We ride until sunset and always try to be back before dark. You really don’t want to encounter lions in the dark, that’s a very different ball game altogether. It has happened a few times that we somehow didn’t quite make it home in time because we were in an epic sighing of some sort. Believe me, it’s no fun to ride in the dark, knowing you could run into lions or buffaloes. We were all very quiet and riding very close to each other. 

Giving my safari horse a break while watching the sun set
Enjoying the sunset with my “bush pony”. Photo Credit: Claudia Westerbarkey

Well-Schooled Safari Horses

The horses are extremely well ridden and trained. They all go in a snaffle and with wonderful Bates or Stübben saddles. Some of the horses understandably get really nervous around lions but they ALWAYS stay put. Flight is not an option because then the situation will be out of control and someone will get hurt to say the least. Therefore, all the safari horses know that even if a lion comes charging at them they have to stand their ground… and they do.

Our guide has this magic Australian buffalo whip that works really well to chase off the lions if they stalk us a bit too much or even charge.

The safaris are very hard physical and mental work for the horses. Afterwards they get one or two months off. Then they get to roam freely on a farm with no dangerous game. I must say they get the best care and feed. The farrier comes every two weeks and makes sure that the hooves are in top condition. There is a big variety of breeds, from south African Boerperds to arab, shire and thoroughbred crosses. What all safari horses have in common is a great attitude. They all have what it takes to be a real “bush pony.”

The Superhero Team

Back in 2012 I was lucky to join the “Holy Sisters and One Brother of No Mercy”. We managed to go on horse riding safari together once a year although we live in different countries and even continents and have very different jobs and lives too. It has become a real highlight for all of us. I find it amazing how seven people, of which only two knew each other beforehand, can develop such a strong team spirit and friendship. The age span between the youngest and the oldest of us is over 20 years but that doesn’t matter at all. I feel very privileged to have met these wonderful people.

Claudia's Neytiri-costume does not impress her well trained safari horse
My “bush pony” does’t mind my Neytiri-costume while traveling with the superhero team. Photo Credit: Claudia Westerbarkey

What Happens in the Bush, Stays in the Bush…

There are countless funny stories I could tell but usually these stories stay in the bush. This one I think I can share… One year we decided to have a theme party and everyone should bring a superhero costume from home. We all put a lot of thinking and imagination into our outfits. The moment we all pulled out our costumes at the lunch table we were all in stitches over the “captain Windhoek” (Windhoek is a beer) and “Captain Pee Pee.” (A group member happens to stop for a wee-wee in the bush quite often.) We also had Catwoman, Bananaman, Batman, Mighty Mouse, and Neytiri from Avatar to name a few.

The party was great fun. The next day we decided to ride in our costumes. We wanted to see what people in the game drive vehicles we occasionally encountered would say. It was truly hilarious, some people would start taking pictures of us on our horses. Others seemed to completely lack a sense of humor and would just give us a bored look. They acted as if it was normal to see riders dressed like superheroes on horseback in the middle of the African bush.

Honey Badgers in the Night

Another funny situation was one night we were enjoying yet another delicious dinner when the three Rhodesian ridgebacks got under the table for a cuddle. All of a sudden this horrible stench reached our nostrils. Everyone jumped from their chairs but we could not figure out what the smell was and where it came from. Our guide just rolled his eyes and said: “oh no, the dogs went after the honey badgers.”

A family of honey badgers had come to live in the river bed just below camp and had been inspecting the waste bins. Of course the dogs then went to chase them off but they got sprayed. The smell is so bad you can taste it in your mouth. We tried to keep the dogs away from us for the rest of the evening without much success. That night we all went to bed quite early. Somebody had to give the dogs a good bath before bedtime because they always sleep in their owners’ bedroom!

The Black Rhino

Over the years I have had many intense sightings in each and every horse riding safari in South Africa. But nothing compares to my first black rhino sighting. We were riding in a neighboring reserve a couple of years ago where they had just introduced black rhinos of which only 5,000 are left in the world. They hadn’t quite settled in yet and would charge any game drive vehicle they would encounter.

All the guides in the reserve were really nervous about them charging. A couple of vehicles even had holes in the chassis from the rhino’s horn! At the time they didn’t know that you cannot leave the engine running when the rhino approaches. They will come for you because of the noise. This is not the case at all with white rhinos. They are very gentle and curious creatures, they often approach the horses but without any sign of aggression. So very different from the black rhinos that are real bullies.

Our guide had briefed us to prepare us for a possible encounter with a black rhino:  Stand still in complete silence, not a click of a camera or anything. He also had no experience on what would happen if we came across a black rhino with the horses.

A black rhino charging at the horse riding safari group in South Africa.
We had been tracking that black rhino for over 2 hours and then it suddenly came flying at us through the bush. Photo Credits: Claudia Westerbarkey

What are the Odds?

Understandably, that morning we were all very cautious and quite nervous. On the other hand, the chance of just bumping into one of 15 rhinos in an area of 35,000 hectare was quite small.

Having said that, we had left camp for maybe 10 minutes when we spotted a black rhino bull in the distance. Even though we were at least 300 meters away, he picked us up and started coming for us. At first he was just walking but then he slowly started picking up speed. We were all really tense. I remember thinking that at least we were standing behind a fallen tree trunk and that rhinos are not very good at jumping logs. It felt like an eternity but I might have been just a couple of minutes. We stood there motionless not really knowing what was going to happen next. Even our guide looked worried!

When a Rhino Charges…

The rhino was just a few meters away and did not show any signs of stopping. That was when our guide decided to move. He made a bit of noise which made the rhino startle and stop. Since we didn’t retreat or come forward the rhino really did not know what to do next. It just stood there for at least 15 minutes trying to figure out what it should do next.

The bull rhino finally threw a little tantrum and then turned away. But every 20 meters it would turn back to us to see if we were still there. Had we moved it would come for us again. I admit I was really scared the whole time. But it was such a unique experience to think that our little group was probably the first humans in modern times to have an encounter with a black rhino on horseback.

We have had quite a few more black rhino sightings since. It is really all about keeping totally quiet and motionless, but it’s still very intense each time.

SA horseback safaris always lead to amazing animal sightings: here Claudia encountered a hyena.
We just about recovered from the rhino sighting when we bumped into curious and funny hyenas. Photo Credit: Claudia Westerbarkey

Including the Family

My sister in law lives in South Africa since 2012 and we have visited them a couple of times. I told my husband beforehand that as we were going to be “in the area”, meaning a six hours drive from “my” safari, we would obviously have to go there. We spent a few days there with the kids. It was really nice that they got to know where “mommy always disappears to.”

My oldest daughter was 12 at the time. Therefore she was the only one allowed to ride with us, her siblings were too young. We were really lucky and had a great elephant sighting and even lions. I must say that it was a bit stressful for me. As a mother you obviously worry about your 12 year old child that is sitting on a horse in front of a fully grown male lion!

We went back as a family again in 2016 and this time my three girls came riding with me. My husband and my son, the non-riders in the family did some really nice game drives in the meantime. I loved sharing this experience with my family. I look forward to many future horse riding safaris with them, with my travel-gang or with myself. The African bush is always waiting for me and I can’t wait to go back.

A horse riding safari in South Africa changed Claudia's life to the better.
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