At halfway through my stint in South Africa, it seems that time is simultaneously standing still and moving forward at an alarming rate. It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote my last blog post, but perhaps it was yesterday. Time is relative.
It’s been a week of turnover and change. All the volunteers I started with bar one, who is currently in Botswana, have left and three new ones (two fresh faced newbies and a returner) have moved into the staff house. Rusty, the future Cycle Mashatu Manager, has also returned and I’ve been picking his brains about the most convenient formatting for the booking chart. Thus, it has been a rather hectic feeling week and it is nice finally sit down and relax, reply to correspondence, and maybe later, I will sneak in a nap.
On Monday I was contacted as a potential candidate for a fascinating sounding consultancy job (so sue me, researching tech is cool). Hence, Wednesday saw me escaping the pack (who are adorable and make excellent hot water bottles), to sit a preliminary skype interview. Apparently, the South African horse safari offices provide a unique background. However, I suspect the Shuttles Office was still a better choice than the alternative backdrop of dusty saddles and a free roaming parrot in search of toes to peck. Fortunately, hats hanging on walls or no, I met requirements and am through to the next stage (queue TV presenter voiceover).
I also sat an online test, this time in the presence of demon parrot. Whiskey, it turns out, is an excellent motivator as there is nothing like a parrot creeping closer and closer to encourage one to work at double time. Fortunately, I have yet to be attacked by him; more because I am very good at running away than any particular fondness for me on his part. For those foolish enough to try and befriend him, he is viscous, as the scratches Rusty is currently supporting go to show.
In other news, office life continues as per normal with the occasional benefit of joining a ride. My big projects at the moment are collating the data on agent bookings and producing revenue charts for Saddlebag Shuttles. This is in addition to being tech support, a role that ranges from providing the all-important Wi-Fi by plugging the router in, to prettying up Excel spreadsheets.
I also saw my first scorpion. Far more adorable than spiders, but I think I prefer to admire them from a distance, or may be through a computer screen. Two of them made an appearance at last night’s staff house braai (a better version of barbeque). Leoni, a freelance guide that occasionally works for Horizon, gave us a great talk about how tail thickness and pincer size are good indicators of sting nastiness. It is safe to say that the tapping out of my shoes each morning has increased in fervour.
One of the new volunteers is also an Eleanor of uncertain spelling which has prompted much confusion, especially when we talk about ourselves in third person. No doubt this will continue to annoy us, and everyone in the surrounding vicinity, so perhaps a battle of the nicknames shall have to be carried out (I’m vetoing “Marcus’s Sister” in advance). Until such time as appropriate names are decided on however, I will be known as Elanor 1 and look forward to Tuesday evening when Elanor 1 and Eleanor 2 (of uncertain spelling) will be hosting together. Oh, what fun we shall have *grins evilly*.
After a blissfully peaceful start to the week, I made the well-known, but eternally foolish, mistake of thinking to myself “I’m finally getting the hang of this”. Hence, it was only natural that my carefully colour-coded, neatly filed plans were thrown for a loop on Wednesday morning.
“So Elanor, are you happy to run Saddlebag Shuttles for the next few days?” (By which I mean you are are running Saddlebag Shuttles for the next few days).
WHAT!!!! Nope. Definitely not. Expect wildfires and stranded guests. Wait, how does managing a transfer company result in wildfires? I don’t know but it does.
Ah, the endless entertainment the voices in my head can provide.
Oh, wait. Wasn’t I supposed to be responding?
After the buffering symbol disappeared from over my head, I manage to stutter out something along the lines of okay but don’t blame me if I burn it to the ground.
This may seem like something of an overreaction, so let me clarify. Saddlebag Shuttles is an affiliate company to Horizon Horseback that books and runs transfers, normally for guests, at different lodges in the surrounding area and to and from O.R. Tambo Airport. It is run and managed by Rachel, whom I frankly aspire to be as awesome as. From her gloriously formatted spreadsheets to her embroidered blouses and the way that no matter how busy she is, she just floats around as cool as a cucumber, I have a huge amount of respect for her. Hence, attempting to even partially fill some of her role for a few days was an intimidating prospect.
One high intensity training session and a lot more jokes about fires (seriously you trust me with this???!!!) later and I was ready to go.
Needless to say, no fires were started in the course of my managerial stint. However, I am not sure my sanity has been left intact. From tasks I had no idea how to complete (I’m looking at you, car maintenance enquiries) to still being given Cycle Mashatu (back to being two words) and Horizon Horseback tasks to complete, saying the past few days have been a tad overwhelming would be an understatement. Heaped on top of this is the pressure of trying to find a job half a world away (if anyone needs a physics graduate, message me).
I am endeavouring to call it a learning experience and will no doubt regard it calmly once I’ve had a few days to recover from the icy cold shock of the deep end, but for now forgive my whining.
Besides, it hasn’t been all bad, I’ve finished the first stage of my pet project—developing a legible booking chart for Cycle Mashatu (#Excel #myonetruelove). There’s nothing like conditional formatting an entire spreadsheet to cheer oneself up in the morning. Now I just need to fill in a test month and circulate it amongst those who will be using the chart to garner a usability report.
I’ve also got to go out on a few more rides (we won’t talk about the disaster of me on Kalamazoo during polocrosse) which has been a lot of fun and good break from the office stress. I particularly enjoyed last night’s sundowners where all the rides, including the campers, met up (admittedly by accident, but shhh). It was a really lively crowd with lots of cross-group conversations and interactions happening and an activity I will definitely be suggesting happens more often in the future.
Having been in South Africa for just over a week now, I can certainly say that is has been an eventful introduction to volunteer life at Horizon Horseback. It certainly wasn’t a smooth start, my appearance at the lodge was a complete surprise to all the other volunteers. In fact, I think the only people who knew I was arriving was Laura, my boss in the office, and Shane, her husband, who manages everything horse related.
Last Saturday saw me starting work properly. Horizon Horseback recently acquired Cycle Mashatu, an operator that offers cycling safaris in Botswana. And by cycling safaris, I mean cycling around a big five game reserve on your bike looking at elephants and other game, not cycling between game reserves but staying in the safety of a game vehicle within the reserve. Fun. Terrifying but fun. A bit like a rollercoaster. I think I prefer the idea of horses, which go a lot faster when it comes to running away. However, that may just be my Slytherin sense of self-preservation kicking in. Currently most cycle rides are populated with South Africans and it’s Laura’s goal is to branch out onto the international market so my first task was finding cycling and adventure holiday companies that may be interested in selling our tours.
This was surprisingly challenging as most companies turned out to be operators who design and sell their own tours. However, as I got into the swing of things and thought of more and more synonyms for cycling, adventure and holiday it gradually became easier and I was able to hand over a list of companies ready to be contacted. All the looking at holidays and travel destinations has fuelled my wanderlust tenfold though and I doubt I will ever finish my bucket list now… That tall ship holiday across the Atlantic followed by travelling the entirety of South America sounds like and excellent idea. Perhaps I should start my own travel company like so many of the operators I have been reading about?
A power outage and consequent loss of Wi-Fi saw me writing up guest questionnaires into an Excel spreadsheet, something I continue to do between other tasks. I felt quite smug with my formatting of a pivot table to give guides’ average scores and drop down lists until I saw the spreadsheet Laura has put together for Shwe To Go, a group of local women who make placemats and bowl covers out of fabric covered bottle tops. A spreadsheet that I will eventually be teaching the use of. Thank God for physics degrees and years of analysing lab results in Excel.
Sunday had a minor incident in the form of someone crashing a small four-person helicopter into the lake in front of the lodge. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured and the hippo, while rather upset about the large metal beast in his lake, stayed out of the way while it was removed. It also had the silver lining that I got to replace one of the back-up guides and go out on a ride because everyone was so wiped out from the adrenaline rush. I rode the delightful Cobalt who is an absolute gem.
After that excitement, Monday was nice and peaceful with a surprise trip into Vaalwater where I was supposed to be teaching Emmie how to use the Shwe To Go spreadsheet but instead sat working on Laura’s iPad in the bank due to a misbehaving laptop (the best laid plans and all that). This wasn’t so bad as it gave me the chance to write the rest of my job description and a to do list of all the things I could potentially do to help Laura, from polishing Cycle Mashatu’s online presence, to making a Google form version of the guest questionnaire (I’ll admit this one is mostly just self-serving in the long run; I’m still only halfway through the Botswanan questionnaires, let alone the South African ones).
Tuesday morning saw a distinct lack of horses turn up for breakfast, for once with a valid excuse: the birth of a new (adorable) foal, by a new to the herd mare, Two Delta, (talk about two for the price of one). He’s yet to be named but current volunteer favourites are Potter, Bovril and B-52. I look forward to watching him grow (he’ll be huge if the length of his legs is anything to go by) and may try to take him home in my suitcase if he continues to snuffle my hair so adorably.
The rest of the week has been rather quiet. My main task at the moment is picture hunting and compiling brochures that describe the different accommodations and itineraries that Cycle Mashatu can offer. This is rather enjoyable to my exacting mind and I have been putting Microsoft Publisher through its paces to produce brochures that make even Shalimpo, one of our more “rustic” lodges, look like five-star luxury. Left a bit, right a bit. Let’s proofread for the n-teenth time. Did anyone say INTJ personality type? Otherwise, I’m working through my to do list and fielding tasks as fast as Laura thinks of them.
Rhino’s cooking continues to be as amazing as I remember (including his cookies) and I am volunteering with tacking up horses in the yard in the mornings in the vague hope that it counteracts some of the calories. Perhaps I shall have to take up cycling? I certainly want a bit of off-road cycling practise in case I end up going to look around Cycle Mashatu—those lions are going to be left in the dust.
Just under a year ago, I returned from St Petersburg. A year studying in Singapore and months of travelling had undoubtedly changed me. For starters, I had a tan, which was something of a first, but more importantly I had matured. Aged might be a be a better description—I’m fairly certain solo travelling halfway across the globe is to blame for some of my fine lines—but matured sounds far more graceful and elegant and so shall be my word of choice. Having never been a wild child of flighting fancy, I do not know how obvious my transformation was to those around me. However, I could feel the change in my bones, the way I had finally settled into my skin and was no longer unsure of myself.
During the past I year, I have faced challenges that have made me doubt that self-assurance but ultimately, I have come out stronger—and with a degree in physics—from them. Until a month ago I had planned to join the Royal Navy as a Hydrography and Meteorological Officer. This had been my intention for a little over two years but a series of events within the Bristol University Royal Naval Unit led me to the conclusion that to do so would be a mistake. Unsurprisingly, changing your career plan of two years just before graduating can leave one in something of a muddle.
I found myself looking at long lists of Careers That Would Suit X Personality Type and despairing over ever finding something that appealed, only the list of definitely not career choices seemed to get any longer. I knew that meteorology and project management interested me, as did oceanography but finding a job that didn’t require a PhD seemed impossible. I still don’t know where I will end up, so will just have to see how my applications go and keep searching until I find something.
There is one tiny spanner in the works of this grand plan.
You see, when I was still convinced I would be joining the Navy, I signed up to two months volunteering at a horse ranch in South Africa. I worked on the theory that if I passed the interview board I would have months to kill before finding out if my application was successful and if I failed… well two months away from everything would probably be welcome.
I am aware that there is a reasonable argument for cancelling my two months away. After all, how can one job hunt when they’re in the wrong hemisphere? However, given that I am writing this in Heathrow Terminal Three, it is pretty apparent that I am not about to back out. My reasons for this are threefold:
It is absolutely not in my nature to renege on a commitment or promise.
I have wanted to volunteer at Horizon Horseback ever since I first visited six years ago.
I had already bought the flights.
Will it make job hunting harder? Yes. And will I potentially lose out on a job because I will not be able to conduct a face to face interview? Yes. (Although, given I live in Guernsey, it is unlikely I could have attended many face to face interviews in the UK anyway.) However, this will be an amazing experience in which I will no doubt mature further and gain valuable experience and memories (and won’t that sound good on my CV).
Therefore, dear reader, let me tell you a little about Horizon Horseback and how I came to know about it.
Someone once told me that wherever you are, you’ll always find an islander. Hence, in true Guernsey fashion, my mother and I first heard about Horizon from the brother of one of the owners, who is originally from Guernsey. It is a horse ranch that offers horseback safaris out into the South African bush and it was to be a once in a lifetime trip. So naturally, we were back a year later with my brother in tow. We’re not the only ones who keep going back either, Horizon is a place that continuously pulls guests back, many year after year. The whole ranch is seemingly shrouded in a sense of peace and tranquillity that is more powerful than any drug. The community of guides and volunteers are like an ever-changing family that one is welcomed into for the duration of one’s stay.
From watching the herd of 80 odd horses run across the dam in time for the afternoon ride, to riding across a plain filled with zebra, a sense of something magical infuses every moment. The occasional surprise second breakfast or sipping a G&T whilst watching the sun set can never be forgotten and certainly never captured in photos or words. How could I resist going back? This time will be different of course. I will be working. However, I do not believe that this will detract from my experiences of Horizon in any way. It will be different, but change is not a bad thing and this one will merely reflect the changes in me. I’ve grown up. I enjoy the newfound independence of adulthood and the responsibility it brings. I look forward to the responsibility of working in the office and hosting guests, of being a part of the team that makes Horizon so special for so many people.
The past two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I can think of only a few other occasions that have been so full of laughs, 360° scenery and adventure for such an extended period of time. Ever since hearing my grandmother’s description of Mongolia, I knew I would eventually find my way to the Steppes and this summer seemed like the perfect time to go. Rather than a quick foray into the wilds before returning to Ulan Bator in a matter of days, I booked a seventeen day horse riding tour in the Zavkhan Province. Not all of this was riding, the first and last were more bookend days in Ulan Bator with welcome and goodbye meals and we also had a number of days of driving in the ubiquitous UAZ vans.
On the long drive out to Tosontsengel in Zavkhan Province-this took several days-we stopped at the Erdene Zuu Monastery which contains what is probably the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. This was really interesting because-since it belongs to a sect of Tibetan Buddhism-there was a lot of influence from other religions, notably shamanism. In particular the demon statues and paintings were simultaneously mildly terrifying and very cool. The presence of a rainbow and mountainous hills (when does a hill become a mountain?) stretching up beyond the plains further excited me and all I could think was I can’t wait to be riding through this.
The first couple of nights before we met up with the horses and cook tent we stayed in tourist ger camps and enjoyed the last showers we would be experiencing for a while. The first one held a traditional Mongolian music performance by local students in the evening, which was enjoyable and I am still amazed over the throat singing and the sounds it produced. The second camp was next to an extinct volcanic crater, the rim of which we climbed up to and were rewarded with yet more spectacular views.
The next day was when we finally got to meet and ride some of the horses in what I will refer to as speed dating for riders. This was so Haldi-our trip leader-could assess our riding ability and confidence so he could pair everyone off with suitable horses. I was surprised that one of our group had never so much as sat on a horse before and as the trip progressed, was increasingly impressed with how well they took to riding at all speeds. Trying an ex-race horse was a fun experience as he was very quick to canter which I will confess to letting him do, although I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t supposed to be going any faster than a trot. Whoops. A couple of other horses amused me with their ability to go in only one direction: towards camp. I mean it is not as if we were going in a fifty metre circle anyway.
As the sun rose, waking up everyone along with it (black out tents should be a thing), we devoured our porridge and finally got to find out which horse we would be riding. My horse was one of the ones that hadn’t been ridden the previous day and as I managed to haul my vertically challenged self into the saddle from the ground (lets ignore that I had the shortest horse and that Mongolia horses are short as it is), I was informed he was “fast”. As we started off a a short walk to become acquainted with our horses, he certainly lived up to this, pulling towards the front of the group. Other than this, everything was fine until we spotted some wild horses on the opposite side of the valley.
I could tell relatively quickly that he was getting excited about something as we kept pulling ahead. My plan of attack was circle back into the group and tuck in behind someone else. Unfortunately for me the soon to be christened Demon Horse had other ideas and we cantered off. Here Haldi’s advice of steer uphill came in handy and we eventually drew to a halt. From this point on I spent the ride trying not to ride off in a cloud of dust. Even if Demon Horse was slightly better behaved after our snack break, possibly we were headed down a steep incline, I knew he was just biding his time… waiting.
And indeed he was as I found out as I tried to mount after lunch. This took multiple attempts as with my less than tall nature and the awkward cushion saddle, I struggled to get on quickly and he kept trying to run off when I was halfway on. I felt a small amount of vindication when even the wrangler had the same issue but after he had proved it was possible to get on Demon Horse I was hoisted into the saddle and we set off. The gentle ride quickly devolved into a battle of wills. With me arguing that staying in the group and walking was a good idea and Demon Horse of the alternate view that a nice trot or canter would be far more preferable. I began to suspect that Haldi and I had a different definition of “a little challenging” (I’ll admit to not miding his definition), despite reassurances that Demon Horse would calm down in a couple of days. That said I was enjoying myself immensely. Not only was the scenery delightfully stunning to ride through but Dagii’s food was absolutely delicious and everyone was blown away by how much she could cook on the wood stove-later on in our trip she made bread on it!
The next day we set out from our base camp and began our actual trek out into the Mongolian wilderness. Demon Horse was very well behaved and by the time we returned to our new camp from the short afternoon ride-cantering and galloping across sand dunes-he had been downgraded to Rascal which remained his name for the rest of the trip.
From then on we changed camp location each day with a long morning ride and took shorter afternoon rides to explore our surrounds. Along the way we experienced the warm hearted hospitality of a number of local families, sharing food and drinking (lots of) vodka. From the Mongolian “quick lunch” to cream and dried yoghurt we were plied with food and sampled multiple batches of home made milk vodka. Something the student stereotype in me was excited to discover was the tradition that a bottle must be finished once it has been opened instead of being dipped into now and again.
In the evenings we tried a variety of games and activities, including archery (I suddenly understood why all the female archers at my club used to wear chest guards) and knuckles which Dagii beat us at thoroughly. Playing white bone one night was amusing as it is also played in Scandinavia (by a different name) and since we had one Swede and two Norwegians, I was left with the distinct impression it is the Monopoly of lawn games, with no one quite agreeing on the rules. There was also cake on a couple of nights as we celebrated two birthdays, a most unusual occurrence according to Haldi as apparently there are normally only a couple every season. The only downside was having eaten so much of Dagii’s food we barely had room for it.
All the support team were wonderfull. I’ve mentioned Dagii’s cooking, I still can’t decide if her noodles or fried bread was best. The drivers transported the camp in the UAZ vans each day, having it set up by the time we arrived. A couple of days off roading at the end of our trip to reach the airport, proved their driving prowess and care for the cars. One of our wranglers was nicknamed the man, the myth, the legend and later on part time wrangler, full time badass for the way he would lounge on the floor of the gers we visited and during snack breaks when he would immediately light up. His brown deel was complemented with a trilby and tinted sunglasses. I am fairly certain he and Haldi had an unspoken contest to lounge in the coolest way and spot at each snack break. Halfway through, the wrangler disappeared from the group in a cloud of mystery and while we found out it was due to an argument, this didn’t stop us inventing stories of his adventures.
After lasting most the trip unharmed, we had something of a massive pile up during a long canter. Fortunately, aside from some nasty bruises and a little shock, there was no lasting damage. This did however, signal for everyone else to start injuring themselves in minor ways and were lucky to have a trainee nurse with us, who really should be given a discount since they patched us up so well. I almost came off in the pile up but managed to cling on. It was only later as we were mounting back up that I came off because my saddle had broken, the cushion partially coming off, and Rascal was feeling flighty so took off before I had got my leg over his back.
We wrapped up the trip with some bare back riding (extremely painful on a skinny horse) and trying to pick things up off the ground from horseback. Picking things up was unsurprisingly hard and we all practised on Pumba who was the oldest and most steady of the horses. I was amazed to later see in the Mongolian music videos (playing at the front of the UAZ van) people picking things up at a canter. #lifegoals me thinks.
My words are insufficient to explain the magic of crossing open plains, hills looming ahead as birds wheel in a pristine sky. I can not articulate the emotion of standing atop a mountain and gazing across rolling hills of verdant green and realising the only sign of humanity is those who stand with you. Through valleys and over mountains, climbing rocks and ducking tree branches nothing can compare to the uplifting freedom I felt and the knowledge of belonging on this little blue dot to explore and appreciate its beathstealing beauty. Mongolia is truly an amazing place to visit and seeing it from horseback a humbling experience everyone should seek.