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Saddling Up in The Drakensberg Foothills

Horseback ride, Drakensberg foothills, South Africa, (c) Alan McGowan

The city of Durban, normally hot and sunny was wet and windy when I arrived, but not with the wintry drizzle of England. No, it was African rain – warm, heavy drops that fell vertically and flooded the street within minutes yet cleared the air so magically. A reminder that I was on the edge of giant continent where nature is more immediate and relevant to life than at home.

Travelling a few hours inland we were in the Drakensberg foothills and some 1000 metres above sea level – the Drakensberg Mountains running a thousand miles across South Africa and forming a barrier with the landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho.

The mountain air was clear and the temperature varied markedly during the day: at 8am it was barely above zero, by 10 O’clock it was mid 20s and rising. Later that afternoon it was hot and yet as soon as the sun sank behind the mountains it very quickly became cold enough to need a sweater.

I was balanced (more or less) on the back of Tetu, the path ahead zig-zagging its way up the slope toward the sun. As a novice I was happy to have been given a gentle mare, one content to follow rather than lead, and happy too that the first part of the ride was along a quiet stretch of country road before we turned into trackless fields of yellow-green grass.

Drakensburg foothills, South Africa (c) Alan McGowan

The ground undulated a little before rising to an incline of several hundred feet and our small group of riders formed a line as we tracked slowly up the uneven terrain. With more experienced colleagues ahead and behind, the horses seemed to find their way almost intuitively and I began to relax and look around as we gained height.

As the slope steepened, rather than guide, I let Tetu feel her way across a narrow stream and muddy ditch. I swayed in the saddle but kept my balance and as we continued upwards I felt Tetu begin to labour and felt sweat running down my back. It was beginning to get hot and I started to wonder if I’d used enough sun-block.

Unfazed by the presence of our little group, life goes on as it always has in this remote corner of South Africa. We rode slowly past a group of local women cutting the long yellow grass and laying it out in neat piles to dry. I was told it was made into broomheads which the ladies sold at market – the land not simply a scenic marvel for visitors but a source of subsistence for the people who live here.

We were now several hundred feet up, the countryside opening out around us. From the top the views were breathtaking. In one direction lay the Drakensberg – rising to 8,000 feet, its massive, snow-capped, peaks sharp against the sky – and in the other direction the plains of KwaZulu-Natal rolling away toward the horizon.

Drakensberg foothills, South Africa (c) Alan McGowan

The scale of it was enormous. At home everything is near: buildings, streets, people, all close enough to touch. Here it was different: distances were immense and the air so clear you could see for miles. It was like another world, and for me the feeling was magnified by being on horseback.

There’s something powerful about sitting six or eight feet off the ground on a horse. Nevermind that Tetu was the gentlest of animals or that if she had taken it into her head to break into a trot my sense of calm control would have been considerably upset. That didn’t matter: right at that moment I felt an awesome sense of achievement. In more ways than one I was on the top of the world.

We let the horses graze before continuing along the ridge and across a high meadow overlooking valleys and a river until eventually we looked down to the road where we’d begun. Starting down the slope and along the empty road we turned back into the stables. I realised I was no longer a novice and that horse-riding, something I thought had passed me by long ago, was an extremely enjoyable pastime. I even managed to dismount without falling over.

Pony trekking is an optional activity on Acacia Africa’s 19 day Kruger to Cape Town camping overland safari. From £752pp (no single supplement) + Adventure Pass from £150pp including transport, accommodation, most meals and services of a tour leader/driver. Excludes optional activities and return flight.

Acacia Africa (020 7706 4700; acacia-africa.com). SATSA membership 1931, ATTA membership no 20151, ATOL 6499 and ABTA  W4093 PROTECTED.

Vivian McCarthy travelled as a guest of South African Tourism.

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