Riding in the Pearl of Africa

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hr-img_4615Lake Mburu National Park’s diverse landscape is home to plentiful plains game and birds. Laura Griffith-Jones dodges warthogs and termite mounds on an exhilarating horseback adventure in this undervalued jewel

I am galloping across a wide-open valley in Lake Mburu National Park. Water droplets spray up from beneath the horses’ thudding hooves, refracting the light like a prism. Nostrils flared, our mounts draw heavily on the hot, damp air. It is May and the emerald season is in full swing: the wild grasses in this miniature Ugandan jewel are luscious and tall, the vividness of the greens breath-taking.

This 370sq-km reserve is usually passed through en route to the country’s better-known tourist hotspots in the south-west, such as Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest and Queen Elizabeth National Park, but it has much to offer as a destination in its own right. “Lake Mburu is a very special place; every part of it is alive with variety, interest and colour,” says Eric Edroma, Director of Uganda National Parks. “It contains an extensive wetland area and harbours mammal and bird species found nowhere else in the country. Its landscape has a varied mosaic of habitats, including rolling grassy hills, lakeshore, forest, swamps and rich acacia-wooded valleys, which all support a wealth of wildlife.”

Lake Mburu is also the only Ugandan park where you can go horse riding – which is why I am here. Accompanied by the Stables Manager, Joseph Warui, and his assistant Charles, I set off from Mihingo Lodge’s stables just after dawn. Toofan, my trusty steed, is a handsome and (at 17 hands) huge chestnut thoroughbred. He’s also an ex-racehorse from Nairobi, Joseph tells me, so this was bound to be fun. Leaving the paddocks behind us, we meander through dense thicket, past acacia, wild fig and African olive trees aplenty. The acacias are in bud and the sweet perfume of their pretty yellow and white flowers permeates the air. There are termite mounds, puddles and bushes to outmanoeuvre, and I duck beneath spiny branches and tangled tendrils. Sharp thorns snag my linen shirt, a reminder that we are heading deep into the African bush.

We stop for a hearty breakfast high on a kopje with magnificent views stretching for miles. Soon after, we descend into a wide valley. The purple skies above, filled with rumbling storm clouds, powerfully juxtapose the emerald savannah below. Away from the thicket, we move freely, side by side, chatting easily. We pass defassa waterbuck grazing up to their knees in water. Impala are feeding on succulent grasses nearby, some with babies, typical of this season. They see us and sprint away, gracefully leaping shrubs. The Burchell’s zebra are wary, too, but the buffalo are braver. With muscles rippling, ears flapping and an inquisitive stare, they slowly approach. We keep our distance. A family of skittish warthogs — tails upright like television aerials — bursts out from behind a bush, spooking our steeds and interrupting my reverie. You can’t relax for long: at any moment, something might appear out of nowhere.

Lake Mburu may not have the Big Five but the plains game is prolific all year round. There are 68 mammal species here, of which three (the impala, slender mongoose and bush rat) are found only in this Ugandan park. Sadly, the hunting dog, elephant, black rhino and giant forest hog are now extinct here, although this is perhaps not surprising considering the park’s turbulent history. Since becoming a conservation area in the 1930s, it has suffered from sleeping sickness, rinderpest and nagana outbreaks, and wildlife-human conflicts. Tsetse-fly-control programmes and ranching schemes have solved some problems, but not all.

The region was formerly part of the Ankole Kingdom and home to nomadic Bahima pastoralists. Furious that they had been evicted, they tried to reclaim their land in 1986. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) established a Task Force in 1987 and a compromise was found: the park was reduced by 60% to allow the pastoralists to remain, with limited permission to use natural resources. Another major concern was their poisoning of predators to protect domestic animals. As a result, there is now just one lion left, a very elusive male often heard roaring at night. The Community Conservation Unit, set up in 1991, and the Mihingo Conservation Foundation, strive to maintain stability by building schools and clinics, educating herders to value conservation and tourism, and providing compensation for loss of livestock.

By now, we are in the heart of the reserve, exploring areas impossible to reach by car — one of the advantages of travelling on horseback. At last the clouds are lifting, and hot rays of glorious sunshine light up the floodwater like an Impressionist painting. “The valleys are seasonally flooded and drain into the swamps and lakes, and eventually Lake Victoria,” says Joseph. He describes the magical moment when the rains come and the parched lands burst to life. Before me, wild flowers speckle the savannah — splashes of purple, white and yellow against a sea of green. Lilac and turquoise butterflies flutter around us, reminding me of Bambi.

Spring is also the best time for birds. Lake Mburu has 350 avian species. Forest, water, grassland, marshland and woodland birds all thrive here. Twitchers gather to spot the rare shoebill, papyrus yellow warbler, African finfoot or Abyssinian ground hornbill. We spot a black-faced go-away bird (with its comical ‘Go away! Go away!’ call) as we trit-trot to an orchestra of babbling black-lored babblers, chattering Rupell’s long-tailed starlings and whistling tropical boubous.

Back in the thicket again we begin to climb, dodging branches until we reach a grassy plateau. From here we have 360° vistas of rolling hills dotted with eland, topi and impala, and encircled by deep valleys. We rein our horses in as we approach another formidable herd of buffalo, cooling off in a murky waterhole. Once again, the muscular beasts are captivated by these strange centaur-like creatures, and move towards us. Giving them a wide berth, we continue on our way.

We slow to a halt at the edge of the ridge. In the distance is Lake Mburu itself, surrounded by pancake-flat plains. It is one of 14 lakes in the area, linked by a 50km-long swamp fed by the Ruizi River. Only five of these lakes are in the park. We pause, breathing it all in. I am reluctant to leave, but before long, it’s time to loop back towards the lodge.

Once out in the open valley again we set off at a gallop, hooves thudding on the sodden earth with a sound like a herd of stampeding wildebeest. Red-necked spurfowl fly out of the long grass as we hurtle by, and we catch a glimpse of a solitary bushbuck. At times, the zebra seem to be running with us and it’s thrilling to feel in harmony with these wild animals.

Joseph suddenly points eagerly into the distance, and my eyes hone in on a Rothschild giraffe. Then another, and another — 15 in all, their long slender necks reaching into the upper branches and tough, blue tongues tearing off thorny mouthfuls. These four bulls and 11 females were introduced last year, and have not yet encountered horses. They fix their docile eyes on us and begin to amble over. Two of the horses panic, rearing up on their hind legs and spinning on their hocks. Charles and I have our equestrian skills sorely tested, but once they settle down, are able to savour this extraordinary wildlife experience.

After 25km, we have come full circle back to Mihingo Lodge. After five hours in the saddle, there is nothing better to sooth your aching limbs than to have a massage in the spa or soak in the infinity pool. It is the end of another astonishing day in Africa and I laze on a lounger, watching the mirror-like water turn pink under the setting sun and imagining those giraffe quietly roaming in the dying light.

 

Safari Planner
• Getting there  South African Airways flies to Entebbe Airport. From there, it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive to Lake Mburu National Park. The writer travelled with Journeys Discovering Africa, www.journeysdiscoveringafrica.com who can make all your arrangements for you, including a car and driver-guide.
• Where to stay Riding safaris are arranged by Mihingo Lodge (doubles from US$500, full board), which is a magical place to stay. Set in 99.5 hectares, it has 12 spacious tented rooms with private terraces. There’s a spa, a tennis court, a hide, an infinity pool and a bar and restaurant. As well as offering horse-riding, it can arrange hiking and mountain-bike safaris, game drives, boat trips and nature walks.
• Riding tips The lodge offers anything from a half-hour jaunt to a four-day equestrian adventure. Beginners can go on short outings and must stay on the tracks. The longer rides are only suitable for more advanced riders and a certain level of fitness is required. Overnight riding safaris are available, on which you sleep in comfortable mobile camps, serenaded by whooping hyenas, piping tree frogs or hooting Verreaux’s eagle owls.
• When to go The two rainy seasons are March to June and September to December. At this time of year, the landscape is fresh and green, and the birdlife is particularly prolific. July and August are the hottest months.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Uganda (7th edition) by Philip Briggs

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