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International event rider, Jeanette Brakewell comes on safari

Jeanette Brakewell, international event rider, Olympic medalist and world championship individual silver medalist, has just been on a six day mobile riding safari with us in the Okavango Delta. She came with a group of friends, including John Bowen, well known 3-day event coach and dressage commentator and Chris Pugh, dressage rider and coach.

 

It’s a magical time of year in the Delta, with the cooler temperatures of our winter and the excitement of the flood coming in, bringing bird life and green flood plains in its wake.

 

Jeanette had just spent three days on a vehicle safari in the Xini area of Moremi, further north and east of the area where we ride. She had an amazing time seeing a plethora of game and birdlife, including sightings of lion on nearly every drive. I wondered how that compared with the experience of a riding safari. “ It’s totally different, “ Jeanette told me. “The animals in general seemed quite habituated to the vehicle. We could often drive up quite close to them and they ignored our presence, including the lion on their kill and their cubs at play.  On horseback there is so much more skill and effort involved. You need to work to get close, being aware of your surroundings and the wind, the animals’ reactions and behaviour.  Without a great guide like you David, we wouldn’t have a chance.”  One of Jeanette’s highlights of the riding safari was the way we followed a breeding herd of elephant.  “It was fascinating to walk alongside them at a respectful distance while being very much close enough to appreciate the massive size of the adult females and be charmed by the tiny baby elephants – they were so cute! They disappeared into a piece of woodland in front of a channel of sparkling blue water fringed by lush grass. It’s the one time in my life I let my horse eat while I’m riding as the relaxed grazing of the horses makes the wild animals less wary of us. We had to be patient but after a while the elephants decided it was safe to cross the channel and crossed in single file about 20 metres away unperturbed by our presence.  It’s a sight I will never forget.”

 

I asked her about the horse she was riding, a six year old mare called Sonnet.  “ Sonnet’s my new best friend!” Jeanette said. “  Like the other horses in the group, she really knows her job, so sure footed, looks where she is going and knows where to put her feet over the uneven ground, avoiding the holes, dealing with the different terrain – sometimes close cropped grass, other times long sedge or through thickets. She unhesitatingly goes through water whether splashing through shallows or wading in depths up to her belly. And she seems unperturbed by the hippos in the middle of the lagoon.  On one ride we had good going and we’re able to canter alongside a herd of wildebeest which was amazing.  It got a bit dusty, but Sonnet neatly popped over the natural ditches of the hippo pathways .” She added “it’s fascinating to see how they behave as a herd and interact as a group.  On one ride we had Griffin, the spare horse,  riding loose with us.  He had a lot of fun. First he thought he might join the big herd of zebra we rode past, until he discovered that none of his friends were coming too. Then we were standing watching three bull elephant browsing in some bushes.  Griffin got a bit bold, and started taking liberties by getting too close to one of the elephants .  He was not impressed and started a mock charge.  That made all the horses briefly spin. Your shout warned him off and the horses soon settled down again.”

 

What was her favourite animal? “It’s impossible to choose as they are all so interesting to see in their own wilderness.” Jeanette replied. “The elephant herds are amazing. Every ride we’ve been lucky to  get  close to a herd. The big herds of impala are very graceful in the way they move, watching a huge bull elephant lean his trunk and forehead against a palm tree and shake it to make the fruit fall was impressive and a big lagoon full of hippo posturing and squabbling  over their space is highly amusing. Warthogs scuttling by looking important with their tails bolt upright always make me smile. Definitely one of my favourites though are giraffe. They are so elegant with their big eyes and huge eyelashes, and the way they move, their gait either a walk or a lolopping canter. Despite their height they are very hard to spot as they merge into the trees. On one ride we startled five male buffalo who were quite curious and approached us. And I would never have expected to say that I found birds interesting. But watching a bateleur eagle fight a tawny eagle for its prey in the sky above us was pretty special, and there are so many varieties of birds, lots of them such vivid colours.”

 

This is Jeanette’s third riding safari in the Delta, though her first with Ride Botswana. Had she achieved some firsts? Her reply wasn’t what I expected! “ It hadn’t been on my bucket list to learn to pole a mokoro”, she laughed. “ And I needed some persuasion to have a go when the professional polers brought in three mokoros with a load of firewood.” But my competitive streak took over when John and Chris challenged me to a race. It was very entertaining when John fell in during our 10 minute practice with the professionals as coaches. The race involved poling to a marker and turning the mokoro around to cross the start line again – a hippo channel – which was a bit technical. Chris fell in on making the turn but soon scrambled back in. I won by several lengths.  We then were shown how the experts did it, with a mokoro trip up the channel, seeing elephants on the banks and hearing fish eagles calling, stopping for sundowners on a little island by a big lagoon full of hippos, watching the herons come into roost in the tree behind. The sun set was amazing, such spectacular colours.”

 

Another first was going for a swim in the  Delta in the channel we stopped for lunch and a break on our day ride to our second camp.  “ I’ve never got into the water before” she said. “ I have to say that I am a bit worried about the hippos and crocs. But I took your word for it that this was a safe place and I am pleased I did. It feels such a miracle to see how the water changes and brings this landscape alive. I couldn’t not get wet!”

 

And finally, seeing a leopard from horseback on her last ride of the trip. “ We heard a rasping cough close by. You explained quickly what it was and then set off in search of it. We were all so lucky to get  an excellent view of it as it peered out from behind a termite mound, curious about our presence before  it disappeared into the long grass. “.

 

Jeanette summed up her trip. “It’s been my best safari experience. It’s a perfect break.  The food is so good – I’m sure that I have put on a stone! The Bloody Mary’s were fabulous too. The camp is very comfortable, yet you feel part of the bush.  Exploring the landscape with horses gives a real sense of adventure. All of our group were ideally suited with our horses.   David’s team are first rate in the way they look after the horses and the humans!”

 

And what is Jeanette looking forward to on her return home? “ I‘ve got three nice horses qualified for the final of the Burghley Young Event Horse five year old class, bred by owners who have been great supporters to me over the years. It’s very satisfying to see the progeny of mares I competed beginning their own careers.”

 

As told to David Foot.  August 2022. David Foot had also arranged the vehicle safari in Moremi for Jeanette and her group.

 

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