Memories to be made in Matopos

By Bryony Rheam

Photography by James Varden

This  is  exactly  what  James  and  Janine Varden are aiming at providing in Matobo National Park.   It’s their dream to offer packhorse safaris through the rugged terrain of the Matobo Hills – the type of safari that harks back to the days of the real explorers: sleeping under the stars, reliant on your horse and what provisions you can carry.

The beauty of being on horseback is that the rid-er is able to get much closer to wildlife, especially the rhino, than they would be able to do in a vehicle. The experience offers a totally different perspective and a chance to be at one with the landscape, not separated from it as one usually is. The opportunity to followone’sownpath,choosingwheretogoratherthan being confined to the road, is enticing.Once you have been on a horseback safari, you’ll be loath to navigate the bush any other wayin the future.

Riding through the beautiful grassland, rich in Mountain Acacia, Wild Pear and Paperbark trees, clients are also taken to view some examples of the extensive rock art found in the Matobo and to visit places such as Malindidzimu, where Rhodes’ Grave is to be found. Most of the clientele are from overseas and, as such, enjoy riding through different terrain to that which they are used to and the open space allows them to enjoy long canters through the bush. They come to Zimbabwe specifically to go on the safari, sometimes combining it with similar ones in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa or further north in Tanzania and Kenya.

James Varden is a professional guide with over twenty-eight years’ experience of working all over Zimbabwe and other areas in Africa. Originally from Australia, Janine was a Jillaroo for eight years on an out back station before working in an open range zoo specializing in African mammals.

The Vardens originally operated their horseback safaris from Mvuhradonha in Mashonaland, but moved to Umguza a year ago. In conjunction with the well-known and respected Johnstone family based at Cawston Ranch in the Nyamandlovu district, they currently offer a seven night riding package, however these are day rides where the clients return to the same camp for four nights. In Matobo, this is at Rowallan, the old Girl Guides’ camp, where they stay for three nights.

The day begins early with a 5 a.m wake up then tea and real French Press coffee, a light breakfast with the ride starting an hour later. Around 11 a.m., they will stop for lunch and a siesta until three when the ride will begin again. Rides always end with ice cold sundowners either in the bush or back at the campfire. You stay in very comfortable tented accommodation and are provided with a three course dinner and full bar facilities.

The plan is now to make the trip a seven-day trek through the wilds of the breath-taking landscape of the Matopos.

Limited to a maximum of eight, the safaris are only on offer to intermediate and experienced riders; children over the age of twelve are welcome as long as they are proficient riders. The company provides good quality tack and the horses, of which there are twenty-two to choose from, are of high standard and well maintained.Ten of these are new horses that have recently been imported from South Africa, including four from the renowned heavy horse Waterford Stud.These include Shire cross as well as some Boerperds, which are excellent for long out-rides in the bush. The horses are very easy-going and calm, even when meeting the rhinos; however, some horses don’t like animals that are taller than them, such as giraffe and ostrich, and therefore all new horses are taken outto get them accustomed to these animals so that they are calm when coming across them with clients.

The first night will be spent at the tented camp at Rowallan, but the second and third will be wherever in the bush they decide to stop.

The Vardens aim to offer a unique experience, but one which is also ecologically sound. Any rudimentary camp – horse or vehicle supported – will therefore disturb the bush as little as possible: even the toilets will be a hole in the ground that can be eas-ily filled in, the showers a bucket of fire-heated water with all ash cleared and a strict carry in / carry out lit-ter policy.

The fourth night will be at a fly camp which is at an established place to which a support vehicle will have gone ahead to set up in preparation for the guests. Plans are to spend one night at one of the ‘Beautiful Homes’ for which Matobo is renowned. That is one of the exquisitely decorated huts that take part in an an-nual competition. Visitors will sleep the night there and be able to indulge in the flavours of local food, cooked by locals. The riders will then make their way back to Rowallan Camp with the 6th night another unsupported night out.

Ride Zimbabwe is a truly owner operated safari company: James and Janine accompany guests on every ride. Their philosophy is to keep to small groups and make each trip special. Whether its sleep-ing out under the star-crowded sky or drinking in the rich smell of the bush, or being followed, as once happened, by two curious bull rhinos, the Vardens aim to make every outride as memorable and spectacular as possible. This really is the holiday of a lifetime.

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