Serenity and Seclusion on Horseback in South Africa’s Waterberg
The Waterberg, a mountainous area characterized by rolling terrain, dramatic escarpments, and woodland habitat is a beautiful and understated South African retreat. The three-hour drive from Johannesburg is most interesting after exiting the major highway and navigating the gently winding roads past small but bustling African towns, farms, game reserves, and roadside sellers hawking oranges, avocados, and potatoes at bargain prices. It feels secluded, with its quiet nights and starry skies, yet is accessible at just three hours by car from Johannesburg.
My foray into the Waterberg included a stay at the charming Horizon, a cattle ranch turned game reserve where the main activities, like game viewing, occur on horseback. Guests—solo travelers, families, and couples of all stripes and riding abilities—have the freedom to choose how they spend their days. Options including riding slowly or at speed through open fields and enchanting low-growing stands of trees to view plains’ game, visiting a nearby fifth generation African farming village and accompanying school, swimming with their mounts in the placid dam, engaging in a rousing game of polocrosse on the camps well-trained horses, enjoying the best tea time cake I’ve ever had in Africa, or spending a few night stargazing at the camp’s rustic mountain annex, (guests can take an afternoon to visit a nearby “Big Five” game reserve). Accommodations at the main camp are beautifully designed rondevaals (Afrikaans for “round houses”) that dot the property’s generous lawn overlooking the dam where resident hippos, antelope, and horses peaceably share real estate.
My first time at Horizon, I arrived late after winding through the back roads of the Waterberg in the darkness, on my own, in plunky economy-sized rental (not a recommended way to arrive for a first time guest, as transfer from Johannesburg are easily arranged), but I was up for an adventure. When I finally arrived, a small troop of forty-something friends were lounging at the outdoor living room, celebrating the engagement of two in their party with stories, laughter, and wine. I asked how the proposal went down. The groom-to-be revealed that he elicited the help of staff to set up a private ride with sundowners to the top of ridge with a stunning westward view. There, the groom-to-be found champagne and glasses tucked away in the rocks. The rest was up to him, and he executed, to his fiancés’ great delight. I was surprised to learn that it was this couple’s first time to Horizon. The other couple, however, had been six times over nine years, and brought along the first timers to show them the magic of Horizon. During my six-day stay, I would discover what that was for myself.
My rides followed diverse terrain on some of the steadiest mounts I’ve ever ridden. The horses roam freely on the property so are happy, fit, and accustomed to seeing game. In turn, the game sightings can be very, very good. On one ride we stuck to plains, an open track inviting us to have a gallop, and fit horses pleased for the chance to run. On another we wove through up no particular trail, ducking branches, and the horses climbing granite-like stairs as they navigated the hillside. We saw leopard tracks and feces—evidence of the secretive cat that as usual, hid itself from our view.
Horizon prides itself on being able to cater to a range of guests who are interested in getting on a horse. I rode with elderly men and women approaching seventy-five, a seven-year-old girl (there with her parents), and two guests who had never been on horseback before. For the new riders, the guides and horses proved to be amazing teachers. By their third ride, the new riders were cantering on their steady mounts. I was impressed.
What Horizon doesn’t offer “on paper” is perhaps its greatest asset-- an inclusive and non-pretentious atmosphere where the vibe is pleasant comingling of adventure, fun, family, and sanctuary. Here, I made new friends, was touched by the personal stories of the owners, staff, and guests, and healed from the stress and responsibilities of life at home. Long ride and dinner conversations ranged from politics, to conservation issues in South Africa, to horse stories, to hard life choices. I was touched by the thoughtfulness with which companions engaged and listened to others and myself. I felt loved, appreciated, and given the resources to heal—something I never thought I would say about any holiday. The warmth of this gentle haven made it easy to settle into the laid-back routine. As proof, guests, many of whom are serial visitors, often enjoy a week or more here at a time. Horizon is a true gem waiting to be discovered and wonderful first foray into safari for newcomers to southern Africa.
Contact Tabacco Travel for more information.