| val de vie equestrian feature |
On The Wings Of A Storm
23 SEPTEMBER 2021
Val de Vie Equestrian Estate is set in the heart of the Cape Winelands of South Africa’s Western Cape.
It is a haven for equestrians, top polo players, outdoor enthusiasts, and families alike.
A 200-kilometre equestrian safari across a slice of the Namib turns out to be a release for the captive urban spirit.
The seemingly endless Australian deserts and Africa’s own Sahara are young and raw in the face of the Namib. This is an ancient roiling mass of a desert in southwestern Africa, a red silica tsunami that drifts into the Atlantic Ocean on a vast 2000-kilometre front.
But what a landscape it has carved: dune 300 metres high, temperatures that soar to 45C in summer and, in many parts, land that rarely sees more than a few millimetres of rain a year. At the coast, desert heat collides with the air over an icy Benguela current to form thick banks of fog; treacherous for ships that lose their bearings and are stripped by sun and tide to iron ribs in the sand.
It is an environ pocked and blistered with ancient craters and once, 80,000 years ago – yesterday on Earth’s violent timeline – pierced by the world’s largest known intact meteorite. There are immense swathes of the Namib’s 81,000 square kilometres that have never seen human inhabitants and never will.
Who would venture here on sand and stone, lichen and lava rock, and into this unforgiving world where only the most impeccably adapted creatures live and die? Perhaps, like our deepest and still uncharted oceans, the Namib remains one of the last places on Earth that we can call true wilderness.
Photographer Chelsea Cara rides ahead for the perfect vantage point to capture rides in full gallop across the desert terrain.
This is a sweet spot for Ride the Wild, an adventure traveler’s dream company that defines luxury not solely by Egyptian cotton bedlinen and solicitous staff at every moment of a day, but often by the expert co-mingling of the untamed with the ‘civilised’. They link with operators that offer a distinctly unique and wild experience, only partnering with those they’ve ridden with firsthand, and bringing along the best photographers and videographers to capture these extraordinary moments.
On a May 2021 custom route, it is Namibian Horse Safari Company led by veteran guide Andrew Gillies that heads out from a base camp at St Nowhere on the Skeleton Coast and follows a looped 200-kilometre route that passes through the basin of the Messum Crater, and ends at Henties Bay.
Riders sleep swaddled in bedrolls on stretchers under the stars. No tents. No room service. No cellphone alert tones. Seven days of frontier life in the 1800s. it begins with a commitment to let go – not easy when you’re tethered to a demanding professional life but it takes only 24 hours to change perspectives.
‘ I’m lying in my bedroll looking at the night sky and watching shooting stars,’ says Ryk Neethling, marketing director at Val de Vie Estate. His usually ubiquitous mobile phone is buried in his backpack. Somewhere. ‘ Later on, I’m woken by a powerful white light – I think someone’s left their headlamp on. It was a full moon rise and suddenly the desert around me was so bright you could see every rock and blade of grass. ‘
Ryk is one of a group of 12 who flew into Walvis Bay and headed north by road to Swakopmund to meet their fellow travelers and their support team. But it was also to connect with the desert-adapted horses that would be their lifelines: full and crossed Arabs, Boerperds, Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods – combinations of breed that produce the stamina, sure-footedness and temperament needed for this terrain.
The horses are selected from a herd of over 100 that spend four to five months of the year free to forage and become lean and desert fit. Each horse does a 10-night safari every six weeks or so between April and late October with the group that it has formed natural social bonds with during the other half of the year.
‘ When selecting the 12 to 15 horses for a safari, it makes a massive difference if they have a natural harmony, ‘ says Emma Finney, founder and director of Ride the Wild. ‘ This cohesiveness ensures a better experience for the rider too. ‘
While the small string of horses settles into an instinctive hierarchy, there’s one more step in the selection process. ‘ We get to know the riders through detailed forms and chatting about what they wish to get out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, so that individual horses are expertly matched to riders for temperament and skill,’ says Emma. ‘ If the rider is over 85kg, they’re given two horses for the duration of the safari. ‘
At one point on the route, the path crests a high, steep krans that falls away to the desert floor hundreds of metres below. Ryk wryly admits that he softened the hold on his reins, tilted his head away and let the horse lead, picking its way, hoof for hoof, like a softly padding leopard. ‘ It’s an incredible experience,’ he says, ‘because you have to put your full trust in your mount and let it take the lead.’
While there are stony tracts that demand a slower gait, there are many changes for long canters and gallops – and for professional photographer Chelsea Cara, the opportunity to capture the horses and riders in action against the rugged terrain. One set of photographs shows the riders racing in a zig-zag dash, dust rising and swept horizontally from the desert floor.
Frame after frame shows the riders begin to spread out with stronger horses taking the lead, flanked by the free, unmounted ‘spares’ playing to their naturally wild hearts. One is a grey and he is a flash of white coat against ochre sand and sky. Another is a burnished bronze bay with the delicate lines of an Arab. It is through Chelsea’s lens that we begin to grasp the proportion of land to sky, rider to mount, colours bleached out to monochrome in the sun.
Chelsea has serious equestrian credentials but on this trip, the group is mixed in age and skill: two athletic young North Americans who’d essentially never ridden before, a woman in her 40s looking for respite after a recent family loss, three practiced eventing riders from Jo’burg, and a woman who rode every day but never at this speed or on this terrain. . .
Everyone’s keen, amped for adventure, but unsure what to expect. One of the young guys asks about rain. They’re filming and carrying expensive gear. Gillies smiles. ‘We’re in the Namib. It doesn’t rain here.’ A guest’s backstory on a trip may remain private, although riding alongside a fellow traveler seems to loosen up any natural restraints. But everyone has one thing in common – the rhythm of the day and that your horse’s wellbeing and care remain your responsibility.
You rise at dawn and from scattered positions radiating outwards from the two camp vehicles, check your boots for scorpions, then make your way to the fire for coffee and breakfast. Once in your riding gear, you grab your horse off the line (he’s been heartily fed and groomed already), take him for a drink and then head to the custom-made truck lined with saddle racks, where you’l find what you need to tack up for the day ahead.
At the end of the day, you remove the tack, let the horse rolls its sweat-streaked flanks in the sand, feed it, water it, and then tether it to the line next to its mate, where a substantial stash of hay awaits. Even horses have their preferences. Only then do you meet for a sundowner and supper cooked over the fire.
The in-camp chef, however, is no leather-chapped cowboy serving beans in a pan. Rayne Brehem is an award-winning chef who earned her stripes interning under Margot Janse from Le Quartier Francais. There’s no gas hob and gadgetry here though; just the campfire and several dutch ovens and pots. She creates a delicious variety of dishes including chicken or game-rich potjies paired with fresh vegetables and salads, with no dish repeated.
No one manages to stay awake much beyond 9pm as the days demand stamina for six to seven hours in the saddle to meet a 25- to 40km daily target.
There it is then, the rhythm of a desert horse safari day. No webinars or meetings, no Zoom calls or chatter. The corporate wold ceases to exist and social life goes on without your post.
‘ I barely saw another vehicle or person other than our group for most of the safari,’ says Ryk. A luxury safari on a private reserve anywhere from the Sabi Sands to the Serengeti may offer powerful encounters with wildlife but this isn’t wilderness.
And wilderness has a way of being unpredictable. On the second to last night, in the desert where it never rains, a small miracle happens. An anvil of high clouds builds, the night is split by thunder and lighting, and the heavens dump sheets and sheets of rain onto a desert that drinks it greedily. In an hour, it’s all over. It will be a week before the first seeds burst into life and turn the sand into a carpet of green. They’ve waited 10 years for the signal.
‘ After all the lockdown restrictions, anxiety and uncertainty driven by the pandemic, this was pure escape for me,’ says Ryk. He’s already keen to book the next equestrian experience. ‘ More Namib, perhaps a different route, and in September, maybe Botswana or Kenya.’ There’s longing in his voice and a distance in his eyes . . . The freedom is addictive.
On the last night, the group checks into a 12-bedroomed villa overlooking the ocean at Henties Bay. There were hot bucket showers in the desert but here, after the first real sluice in more traditional luxury, the last vestiges of ochre sand wash away and the group sheds the wild like a second skin.
There’s exuberance at making it across the desert. There’s wonder at what you’ve seen and experienced. There’s regret that it’s ended. There’s a final stroke for a horse that you’ve entrusted your life with and who’s carried you safely for 200km, a sure-footed, agile beast as fleet as a desert wind.
Something shifts in the way you see nature, life. . . perhaps even in the way you see yourself.