IN the third instalment of his family safari of a lifetime, NICK HAMMOND visits a camp with a difference to get a unique perspective on the traditional game drive…jodhpurs, anyone?
THE open-air shower looks over what must be several hundred square miles of bush. Nothing more.
Warmed by yesterday’s rays, water from the rooftop tank cascades over a cunningly placed slab of slate into a waterfall deluge. I slip under it gratefully and watch as rollers and bee-eaters swoop and dive among the impala below.
I haven’t felt this good in years.
This profound thought comes unbidden to mind as another day begins in paradise.
There’s a knock at the door at the front of the house, and I hear Evelyn come in, carrying, as she does, a tray of tea things on her head. Teapots, hot chocolate, biscuits, milk, the works. All balanced nonchalantly on top of her head as she goes about her cheery camp business.
In a few minutes we’ll meet up at Ant’s Nest HQ a short walk away, where a selection of patient horses will be waiting for us. Then it’s another morning of riding in the bush; encountering small family groups of giraffe; ‘wheelbarrowing’ warthog kneeling on their front legs to crop the fresh new sward with their tusks; herds of zebra and pronking gazelle.
Yesterday, we came at a leisurely stroll around the corner of a dusty path – tracker Sam at the front, fellow guide at the rear, and myself, my wife and our two girls in single file on our horses inbetween – when the raised hand sign was made for an instant stop.
Sam turned, flashed a smile. He whispered, low and urgent: “It’s Shameless.”
We’d met Shameless a couple of days ago. He’s Chief in charge of the Waterberg buffalo herd; a giant, grumpy, great-embossed bugger of a beast and not to be trifled with.
Buffalo cows are bad-tempered enough. Bulls – and especially bulls around cows with calves, which these are – are decidedly dodgy. We are perhaps 100 yards away from the herd which is 50 or so strong, milling in the dust and lounging in the short roadside bush.
Punctuation piles of dung are spattered around them. Satellite dung beetles scurry and roll in their orbit. The wind changes direction and now we can smell the cattle, just like a dairy herd from home – but with an added whiff of danger.
My blood is up, and I glance at the girls. They are silent in their saddles, watching, waiting; breeze riffling their cotton safari shirts, tugging at loose locks of hair.
This is why we brought them here. Why we flew them 12 hours, drove them eight more, plastered them in sunblock, spraygunned them with mossie repellant. These are the memories to last a lifetime.
We wait, Sam in sotto voce contact with other rangers by radio to make sure we don’t carry out an unwitting pincer movement on the herd and set them off on stampede. Don’t fancy quite that much excitement.
The beauty of the horseback safari – a few hours in the morning, a few at night, kids welcome, game drives, night drives, bug hunts and a whole lot more all part of your personalised itinerary – is that, like our quadbike extravaganza, you get up close and personal with animals in their natural habitat. But on your horse – chosen to suit your level of competence very carefully by a team of expert riders – you get even closer, minus all the noise.
The horses here – around 90, between Ant’s Nest and sister property Ant’s Hill – live a life fulfilled. By night, they wander the rich and plentiful plains and scrub, safe from larger game such as lion and elephant, which aren’t in this area. When their mental mealtime alarm clock sounds, they report for duty at the stables where the chosen few are duly saddled up. Once their ride is over, their saddles are removed, wherever they might be in the huge Waterberg reserve – and left to wander off to find their own sweet way back home.
These are seriously chilled out nags – and by the way, I’ve never so much as sat on a horse before getting here. By the end of a few short days, I even manage a canter.
One evening we climb down from the saddle from a point on top of the world, looking across a huge, curving, wooded horizon. The horses, once unsaddled, roll in the dust and crop and plod among us. A table lies ready, wine tasting prepared, biltong and nuts to nibble on.
And four safari chairs, facing the biggest sky we’re ever likely to see. We sit, drink, watch the sun descend on this ethereal space.
Ant and Tessa Baber can claim the plaudits for this utterly remarkable place, where lizards and harmless snakes scurry among the rocks.
Ant’s ancestors came here in the late 19th Century, and as Tessa tells us over G&T sundowners one evening as a wild white rhino and her calf squeal and rumble just two feet below us on the decking, it’s become a vital focus point in the war against the sickening slaughter of these prehistoric beasts.
Save The Waterberg Rhino is leading the fight against callous, well-armed and ruthless poachers who will stop at nothing to supply the Far East’s hunger for rhino horn. And from the feeding platform at the end of the Baber’s garden, we watch as these gentle creatures come in for respite and a snore in the sand. The kids stand transfixed; they could reach down and touch the rhinos’ backs if they were brave enough. On the short drive home, we come across another rhino and her calf, born just days before. It’s the first time they’ve been seen since.
Food at Ant’s is superb. Groaning breakfast spreads of honeys and fruits, chefs on hand to whip up omelettes or pancakes. High Tea packs on the calories with a fresh cake of the day, jugs of iced tea, freshly brewed coffee. Dinner is taken with other camp members or by lamplight on your own under the stars, if you prefer. We share a bottle, a beer, our guides join us to tell of life in the bush.
We learn about local snakes from a wrangler who brings out live boomslang, puff adder, spitting cobra. We embark on a foothunt for Ant Lions, don our cossies and ride bareback into wonderfully cold dams (checked first for crocs, but of course). The horses plod, plunge, swim powerfully beneath you. Exhilarating.
Our lodge has a standalone bathtub on the terrace, overlooking the ravine, now dry of water but filled with the rustle and cough of wildebeest, lizard, weaverbird and monkey. Our plunge pool and a lounge deck provide respite during the heat of the day; great fans gently shiver the mosquito netting by night. There aren’t many mossies here anyway, and you don’t need to take malaria tablets.
Each night I retire to the deck and once again run the gauntlet of kamikaze dung beetles and giant moths. A cunning lizard waits by the outdoor lampshade, making darting runs every now and then to secure an unwary visitor.
Sometimes I spot visiting nightlife with the Bushnell Equinox night vision binos I’m testing, courtesy of Edgar Brothers. It’s strangely eerie spying on passing wildebeest and browsing zebra when they don’t even know you’re watching.
Tonight, I fire up a cigar, help myself to another beer from the fridge and try not to make too much noise as I open it and peer in at the sleeping children, slumbering deep in their soft, white duvets.
It’s our last day here tomorrow, before Cape Town beckons. There’s genuine sorrow amongst us to leave and I sit long into the night listening, watching.
These rocky lodges and shimmering cliffs are haunting in their own right. But at Ant’s, a new dimension in friendship and wonder means this place gets under your skin.
Once you’ve been, you’ll never be the same again.
Nick Hammond’s trip was expertly curated by Abambo, the dedicated family Africa Tour Specialist led by Rosanne Cobb (founder and editor of The Good Safari Guide). With 10+ years experience, Abambo offers an unrivalled depth of knowledge and access to some of the finest lodges and game experiences on the continent. If you are looking for an ATOL-protected family adventure into Africa, pick up the phone for some excellent (and free) advice from Abambo; they are exceptional.