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A Tale from Namibia in the Saddle:

The moment where nothing happened, but everything changed.

We often boldly claim that our rides are life changing. But in Karien’s case it really was.

In 2015, she was a city architect, living and working in Cape Town. She’d always been passionate about horses, but like many of us, life got in the way and she had neglected her true passion for a few years. On an impulsive whim, she finally booked her ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ bucket list adventure to take on the Namibian Desert on horseback…. and then quickly started getting herself fit and riding ready to take on the challenge! 

Little did she know that these 10 days would not only spark her love for riding in Africa, but eventually lead to changing her career trajectory and ultimately joining the African Horse Safaris Team!

Read How it Was on Horseback that Everything Changed:

“I remember a particular moment on my first ride in Namibia. I was aboard Etosha, my sweet, lanky chestnut boy with the kind eye and a flaxen mane. Two of the loose horses, Sultan and Nugget, were some distance ahead of us. Having got wind of that night’s camp they were pressing on a little faster than usual. Etosha, too, was keen to go.

It was one of the days towards the latter half of our expedition. We were on our way from the legendary Velvet Plains to Boulder camp. By then the group had settled into a rhythm, sometimes full of chatter, other times each separating off on their own to drink in the vastness of the landscape and our own presence within it.

This particular moment was one of the solitary ones. Etosha and I were walking up ahead. In the distance the purple mountains stretched out from left to right. Dark brown, purple and blue shadows layering deep into the distance. In the foreground the soft, golden tufts of grass waved gently. But it was quiet. Not a sound, aside from the horses’ hooves cutting through the sand and the saddle leathers rhythmically squeaking to mine and Etosha’s movement.

The gentle dunes unrolled beneath us, one after the next, towards the mountains ahead. With each undulation, the loose horses would appear and disappear in the distance as the gentle dunes dipped and peaked. Etosha would break into an easy trot as they disappeared over the apex and walk again as they came back into sight. Again, and again. Completely relaxed.

Between horses ears in Namibia

We continued to follow a solitary fence line towards the mountain range. It was the only mark of civilization we had seen that day.   The complete isolation in Namibia had taken me by surprise since we arrived over the southern border 8 days before. It was my first visit to South Africa’s north western neighbour, and the contrast was stark. There is certainly nowhere in South Africa that you can experience the completely untouched landscapes for days and days on end.

The team both two and four-legged:

September in the Namib meant that the sun was hot and baking as you’d expect in the desert, but not unbearable. I’d flipped up my collar and rolled my sleeves down to protect myself against the worst of the sun which was high up in the sky by now. The sweat from the morning’s gallops was drying on Etosha’s shoulders as I reached down and stroked his neck, flicking his long blonde mane to the other side. I was already dreading having to part ways with him at the end of our journey together. My sheer admiration and respect for our little team of desert horses had grown every day that they carried us across the landscapes. These are not delicate show ponies. They are tough, resilient, brave, generous horses with a mandatory dash of attitude required to navigate this territory. I winced now at how I’d first regarded them as a bit of a motley crew. Day after day they had proved their mettle. From navigating steep rocky outcrops to careening across the desert plains, these horses have heart by the bucket load.

Horses drinking in Namibia

The horses are at the heart of this team. Their welfare is carefully monitored by Andrew Gilles and Telane Greyling who head up the crew. Legendary guide Andrew, with his Superman/Clarke Kent persona, moves seamlessly between overseeing horses, riders and the crew with an easy, gritty charisma. While Telane’s steely focus is on the herd. She quietly monitors each horse meticulously. Her horse sense and intuition often pre-empts any issues. She is uncompromising when it comes to the horses’ well-being.

Pulling into camp on horse safari:

Back on Etosha, my mind moved on to the routine awaiting us at the end of the day. Soon we would spot the truck in the distance, the only man-made object for miles in this beautiful but desolate landscape. Most probably, the drinks truck (named for its most prized cargo) would be parked at an angle away from the truck with the picket line stretched between them. The kitchen trailer stationed off to one side with the circle of camp chairs beyond, surrounding a dusty patch that would soon become that evenings campfire.

Oryx on the picket line in NamibiaThe loose horses would canter the last little stretch to camp and dunk their thirsty noses into the giant water buckets filled only minutes before. About a hundred meters from camp, I’d dismount from Etosha, loosen his girth and take off his bridle, scratch his sweaty poll while he rubs his nose on my shoulder. Then we’d walk the rest of the way into camp together while the sun dips into the saddle of the mountain range beyond.

My favourite part of this routine is taking off his saddle, placing it on the saddle racks mounted on the side of truck, before leading Etosha off to find some soft sand. Watching each horse circle a patch of earth with their nose to the ground before awkwardly going down to roll is an absolute joy! Rolling away the itchy sweat, massaging their muscles after a long day’s ride. So, satisfying! Next Etosha would have a long drink before finding his spot on the picket line, carefully positioned between his buddies Charl and Caprivi. One by one the horses will start their low grumble in eager anticipation of their nosebags.

And Andrew will lean out of the bakkie and enthusiastically announce, “The Bar is Open!”

Horses on the picket line Namibia

The moment where nothing happened, but everything changed.

All of this was still a couple of hours away. The sun was still high, and we had a fair distance to cover. The rolling dunes were flattening out to a more level surface, probably good for a long slow canter, I should wait for the others. I shifted back in the saddle and gathered up my reins bringing Etosha to a halt. The breeze on my face made me realize I had tears welling up behind my eyes and a lump in my throat. But this was pure happiness. I didn’t want to leave. This place, this expedition, this experience, had changed me forever. Time for a canter.”

Karien and Etosha in Namibia

Karien and Etosha in Namibia