A Lion’s Roar to the Rhythm of Hoof Beats: Volunteering at a Horse Safari in Zimbabwe

Janine Zuerker lives in Germany and grew up with horses, riding and horse vaulting. However, since a kid she had always longed to work in the African bush with horses and wildlife. It took her a long time of research to find the perfect place, but once she found it, everything was settled quite quickly. She could take unpaid leave from her work and stepped into the plane towards Africa. She faces the unknown horse adventure that was waiting for her as volunteer for a horse safari in Zimbabwe in a private game reserve.

Author: Janine Zuerker

Meet My New African Home for the Next Months

Time had come for me to take my first steps on Zimbabwean ground as I walked out off the airplane after an 18-hour journey from Frankfurt, Germany to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I had no idea how my volunteering time in the African bush will look like and what adventures will wait for me, but I was unbelievably happy to be finally here, looking forward to these exciting next 3 months. From the airport it was about a one-and-a-half-hour drive to Cawston Wildlife Estate, where my helping hand was needed. Cawston is a private reserve, about 32.000 acres big, full of bush land with plenty of wildlife and about eleven horses roaming freely in the bush, longing for daily grooming, feeding and outrides.

Donha and me spotting giraffes on a safari in the Cawston Wildlife Estate. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

This is one of three parks in Zimbabwe where some unforgettable horse safaris are offered and where I was volunteering to help with the horses. This meant that I was responsible for their daily training, exercises, food, grooming, medical treatments and whatever came around during a safari time. When I arrived, I was greeted warmly and already asked for a first outride to get to know the horses and a small part of the reserve. I was just amazed by the gorgeous African bush with its beautiful wildlife such as wildebeests, giraffes, impalas, kudus and other species. A moment of unawareness and I got caught up in bad thorns that left me with a bleeding leg. Welcome to my African bush riding adventure!

Preparing the Bush and a Horse Safari in Zimbabwe

Working with horses in the bush, far away from a vet and all the medication I knew from my western world was challenging from time to time. Quickly, I had to learn the basic techniques of curing a horse from a colic to administer intravenous injections (IV). Without any medical background, this seemed to be quite a task but there was no option than to learn it for the good of each horse and animal. While some of my beautiful four-legged friends had to recover, others were ready for an ever-exciting bush ride that never disappointed me. After a month, the daily routine of feeding horses at 6am, before starting to groom them and go out on a ride into the African bush, was all I wanted to breath every day.

Building a bush toilet during a safari in the Cawston Wildlife Estate. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

This experience got only topped by some stunning horse safari time within this epic reserve I was lucky to call my home. But before the safari clients could come, I helped to set-up a camp and learned how to build a bush toilet, shower and how to broom the bush with a tree branch. Even though I have to admit that I never quite understood why exactly I had to broom the bush; some things just work the best if you don’t question them too long. Once the bush camp was built up it was time to saddle the horses and to explore the vast plains and the thick bush to spot some wonderful wildlife.

Kitchen on a horse safari in Matobo National Park. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

The Perfect Job with Horses Abroad

Donha and Starlight used to be my two favorite mares for this magical safari time. They were intelligent, knew the bush very well (not me, I would have been lost every day without my local colleagues) and I could completely trust them. Together we spotted giraffes, sable antelopes, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, elands, even the shy Tsessebe antelopes and enjoyed some magical sundowners as well as typical braai evenings. This place offered me more than my little horse-loving-heart could ever wish for, it was just about a perfect job. And with safari season getting started, it got better and better, the best was yet to come.

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Between Seven Horses in a Lorry

This was the time I found myself in the back of a big lorry with seven horses next to me heading to a national park south of Cawston Wildlife Estate: Matobo was our goal, to track the endangered white rhinos on a horseback. For about three days I had a splendid horse safari in Zimbabwe, exploring the rolling hills of Matobo National Park, enjoying fantastic sunsets and spotting the big grey rhinos. Nothing more to wish for – I thought. Little I knew what to expect when I packed up this camp here to drive straight six hours north to enter Hwange National Park. The sun was already setting down, the night started to embrace the bush while I still had to set up the camp for the clients.

Me with 7 horses in the lorry. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

Here, it was essential to work as fast as I could, as Hwange National Park is Big Five territory and the team and I had to ensure security for the horses and the clients. To me, a rather inconspicuous tiny electric-fence was the safety boundary, separating me from the lions, hyenas, elephants and buffaloes. However, the horses could enjoy the additional security of a big boma (a green canvas fence) – “Can I spend the night with the horses, perhaps”? The nights were full of hyena callings, rumbling stomachs of elephants and strange noises. The days, however started with long morning and wonderful afternoon rides, which caused not only my adrenaline-level to rise. There were surprises behind each bush and tree, elephants eating calmly the leaves, buffaloes roaming the thick bushes and zebras watching carefully the plains.

Ride Zimbabwe Crew during a horse safari in Hwange National Park. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

The Deep Growling of a Big Cat

My last morning in Hwange National Park started off with a stunning bush ride through the pan, along some waterholes, where I spotted impalas, ostriches, wildebeests, jackals, baboons and some eagles controlling their territory. I trotted along the sand pad that was full of lion spoors, when I suddenly heard some bird callings and I could feel the growing tension of my horse, Gizmet. I stopped, looked for James, my guide and turned around for a couple of meters; there it was: the deep growling of a cat – a big cat! We had just found some precious lions; three at least. An adult lioness with her teenage cubs laying in the shade of a bush, barely visible, so well blending in with the scenery. I was definitely a bit too close for my comfort zone and probably also for Gizmet’s.

James guiding during a horse safari in the Cawston Wildlife Estate. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

Should I Stay or Should I go?

The growling didn’t stop and the lioness was surely not happy of our presence, therefore I backed up to put some space between us and the predators. I surely don’t want Gizmet or me to be bait! What a special moment to experience. I enjoyed this fantastic sighting until I heard some other bird calling and then I saw one of the lioness’ cubs walking down the hill towards her. This was the moment when the mother jumped out of the shade of the bush and gave Gizmet and me a huge fright. All I remember was the lioness’ big, big head. Luckily, she stopped and walked towards her cub before laying lazily down in the shade as nothing had happened. My adrenaline was high up, unsure if I should move away or stay and do nothing.

Safari time in the Matobo National Park. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

I looked for James, my local guide, and he decided for the latter until the cub ran away to the same spot it had come from. The deep growling of the lioness still continued until I made my way back to camp, cantering along some small path and just enjoying the rest of this majestic ending of my safari time in Hwange National Park. About the most perfect day I could wish for! Whilst the lion sighting on horseback was definitely something special, exhilarating and nerve racking I didn’t feel unsafe at any time as I trusted James’ years of experience and training being a fully qualified professional Zimbabwean safari guide, which is indeed needed to operate horse safaris in a Big Five territory.

A Special Cat’s Visit

It was time to pack up the camp and get the horses back into the lorry to drive home for some relaxing days. I found myself back at Cawston, picking up my so beloved daily working routine just to find myself greeted by the most spectacular sights during my lunch-break: a leopard laying in a tree branch not far away from my happy place: the veranda overlooking a waterhole.

Bush Camp in Hwange National Park. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

This was just such a blessing and rare sighting, definitely a very lucky moment and couldn’t believe my fortune to spot lions and a leopard within a couple of days. Still trying to capture my luck, I saddled Starlight after my lunch for a bush ride and was shortly after surrounded by 31 graceful giraffes, eating peacefully the leaves of the thorn bushes. Even though this was my daily life, I was amazed by these wildlife sightings and so thankful for each special moment.

A Magical Moment in Life

Winter was coming and we were heading towards baby season at the private reserve. Little donkey foals and calves were born, trying to take their first steps to follow behind their mothers. These were really spectacular moments and everyone loved those little, adorable cuties. Though I was still waiting for someone special to arrive. My favorite mare, Donha, was pregnant since quite a while and she should soon give birth to a foal, that all of us were so joyful waiting for. And I didn’t have to wait long, it all happened on a Monday morning – I have to say it was about the best start into the week, that I ever had in my entire life. I started my morning working shift as usual, walking to the stables, ready to prepare the food. This morning however, was different.

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I found Donha in her paddock running up and down, being completely agitated. I had just started to put her separately in the stables as I thought it might cause too many risks for her to stay with the herd in the bush being so close to give birth. There she was, losing already water and other liquids. Now, I had to act quickly and brought her to a paddock with some grass to make it smoother for her to lay down. It took only a couple of minutes before she decided the grass looked very comfortable. What happened from now on was about the most magical moment I could ever imagine and I am so grateful that I could watch her giving birth to a little healthy foal, which soon was to be named KT.

The Miracle of Life

45 minutes after she had laid down, I could see the front hooves coming out, a cute little female foal was a new member of the family. Another 45 minutes later, the foal even managed to stand up and wobble around, trying to find some milk. This was quite a mission and took until the early afternoon when it finally understood how it works and started to drink. From there on, she just grew stronger, bigger and healthier every day, bringing unbelievable joy to the reserve. I knew my three months volunteering work was going to come to an end soon, the more I felt so blessed to be a witness of this miracle. And who would believe it? Not even two weeks afterwards, another little foal was born by a different mare.

Nugget and I watching sunset. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

It must have seen the world for its very first time during the early, early morning hours as once I started with my working shift, it was already running around behind its mommy. This time at Cawston felt very special to me, with two foals that grew healthy, strong and could even start playing with each other. Every time I went for a bush ride, I started already to miss these little babies. I could not have wished for any better good-bye present for these memorable months I lived in this gorgeous reserve, but to see these foals jumping around in their paddock.

Off to Another Horse Safari in Zimbabwe

It was time to say “see you soon”, my time was coming to an end in this beautiful wildlife estate, that taught me so many things about horses living in the bush, wildlife management and making the best out of every situation. I really didn’t want to leave, but there was still one last amazing horse safari waiting for me in Matobo National Park. My very last horse safari in Zimbabwe for probably quite a while.

Zebras in the Hwange National Park. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

The Beauty Under the Star-Sprinkled Sky

Last time I was here, I saw a rhino on a game drive from our vehicle. This time I got even more blessed! I was very happy when I jumped on my horse, Engine, to go on a proper bush ride in this colorful winter scenery. Engine showed me that he really deserved his name, it was a dancing party for the whole five hours while we were bundu bashing. The both of us were just enjoying and loving it to the fullest. We were tracking and tracking until suddenly we stood just right in front of this majestic looking grey, big cow. Our guide, James, had just found a wonderful female rhino between the trees. First, I thought she was standing next to a stone until I realized she had a little calf with her that was sleeping on the ground.

Gizmet and me riding in Hwange National Park. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

It was a fabulous sighting from the back of my horse and Engine decided to be amazed too, he stopped dancing and was watching carefully for a very long time. Nothing seemed to be more at peace right now as the two of us standing here and admiring mother earth and its rhinos. After a long time, we decided to give them more space and leave them alone, heading for a spectacular sunset view point. By now I had witnessed and watched plenty of African sunsets, but they just seem to be spectacular every day, especially from a horse’s back. My last horse safari in Zimbabwe was very special in all means. I even had the chance to get to sleep under the star-sprinkled sky, in the middle of the bush and the African winter.

A Special Place Right Next to the Horses

My last clients here wanted to do an all-day long ride in order to prepare themselves for an endurance riding competition through Zimbabwe. So, we chose a very long route that brought us to a water dam in the early evening hours, where we wanted to spend the night before heading back the next morning. I quickly pitched up a rustic campsite at Toghwana Dam and we enjoyed the bonfire under the clear sky. All of us slept close to the water and I chose a special place, right next to the horses in the grass, where I heard them calmly munching during the night and saw plenty of shooting stars rushing through the pitch-black sky. During the night it was freezing cold but also so unique! What a wonderful night outside, the perfect way to end my horse adventure in Zimbabwe, that I will forever carry in my heart.

Enjoying some grazing near the Toghwana Dam. Photo credits: Janine Zuerker

If you wish to volunteer in this horse safari in Zimbabwe and gain some experience as a horse safari guide you surely should have long-time horse experience, know some natural-horsemanship techniques and it definitely comes in handy if you have a medical background.

“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.”

John Hemingway

If you are interested in more pictures and stories about Janine’s horse adventure in the African bush, the mock-charging attack of an elephant in Victoria falls or a project of re-settlement of a bee hive, check out her website or Instagram.

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