Steph's Notes from the Field: Page 2
Sitting in the little reception room, dark outside - and windy and chilly - the TV is blaring from the back room, music and talk show. I guess I'm a little homesick tonight... Just a few minutes to type and then I'll be picked up to go to 'the function' . I think this is sort of like ride meeting, dinner, etc. Tomorrow the horses vet in. Today they inspected the horses to pick the senior and junior teams for the Championship (Namibia, Botswana, South Africa). Serious stuff, reminds me of USEF! Thid ride is both the Namibian National Championship ride and the African Championship (continental championship event - like our PanAms or North Americans). It's a big deal event, and by combining the two, they can better afford to put on the rides (FEI rides are very expensive - they have to bring in foreign vets and judges, etc) and it can also give the ride a little more oomph and promotion.
We drove the trail today- that was great fun! It's really really desert here. I can't send any photos for now (this computer won't take my USB device to transfer photos - plus the link is pretty slow, might not be able to send much anyway). So I'll have to just keep writing, and do photos later. Everybody piled into and onto the LandCruisers and headed for the trail. Over to Dune 7, past the place where Hollywood has set up camp, building a little 'town' and filming the 10,000 BC movie - supposed to be a blockbuster type film. Speaking of films - the stable that they are using for the ride camp was built for another Hollywood movie "Flight of the Phoenix" with Dennis Quaid. Supposedly Wesley Snipes is here too, filming some other movie. Wow - Namibia is on the map - partially thanks to Angelina and Brad I think! The locals talk about her all the time.
Anyway - the trail - looked an awful lot like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt - sandy - beautiful flowing dunes, scrubby gravelly sand flats, washes, a 'river bed' that looked like a moonscape in places - very desolate, a few plants hanging on to life. A vine with roots that go down 50 meters, bringing water to the fruits that the thorny bush produces. Lifeline of the bush people in the past. The Namib desert is the 'oldest desert in the world' - I'm not geologist and don't quite know what that means, but it is something they are very proud of! Water is precious here, very precious. Walvis Bay (2nd largest city in Namibia - 80,000 people at most) gets its water from the Kousk (sp!) river - which is entirely underground except in extremely wet conditions - but has a good clean water supply from the mountains. But water is precious and people don't waste it.
Deep deep sand - this is going to be a very challenging trail - more deep sand and dunes than any other ride I've seen. These horses have to be tough. I've seen some fantastic horses so far - the Namibia market is still wide open, no foreign buyers yet. South Africa has already seen sales boom from sales to the middle east market after the export laws were softened. There are lots of breeders of Arabians here - both halter and endurance - they are hoping that at some point their horses will be noticed as well.
The people are wonderful here - friendly, gregarious, animated - it's a close knit group, children and teens that ride together, play together, parents that ride together - and work together to keep building the sport. They've done a bit of travelling - having riders in Aachen, as well as Dubai 2005. They sent young riders to Bahrain last year for the WEC for Young Riders. They've had riders at Presidents Cup - they are ambitious, and eager for more International participation. Since they can't send horses overseas to compete without 3+ months of quarantine, and great expense, they have to rely on horses from other countries to supply their riders with competition mounts. And they are all (Nambia and South Africa) hoping to build a network of ride exchanges - bring riders here to ride the local horses, and in return send their riders abroad. A wonderful idea - we talked quite a bit last night (over several bottles of fine South African red wine about how to build this network - it's a great opportunity for people to ride International without the expense, restrictions, hassle, etc of doing FEI Championships. And such wonderful International flavor too - to get closer to each other's customs, build new friendships, etc.
better send this while I can - more later
If there's one word to describe Endurance in southern Africa it's 'tough'. Tough horses, tough riders, tough competitors. Last night Zulu asked me what I thought about it - about the Walvis Bay ride, the course, the course, Namibian Endurance. Let's see... strong fit horses, smart fit well prepared riders, difficult course (lots of deep sand) but well marked - a well organized event. "But what are our short-comings? How should we improve?" . I really had to scratch my head on that.
I thought back to Compiegne - lush green grass and field, beautiful forests (Napolean's Forest!), bright white tents, tables set with red wine and french bread, impeccablly groomed horses and riders, fine leather saddles and top quality tack, snappy endurance riding clothes... Contrast to the African venue - huge red and white circus tent, dusty and a little frayed. the flapping edges held to the ground with old stakes and rubber tires, wind and sand, grit in the teeth, the course marked with hundreds of old tires - streaks of colored paint and mileages to guide the riders - the tires half buried in the sand (until the next big storm when they will either disappear in a new drift or blow away themselves).
So all I could think of was "well, maybe you're not as polished." Which made us both laugh - because this sport never has been, never will be, a 'polished' sport. Sure we bathe the horses (sometimes) and tie ribbons in their manes and braid their tails, and we put on clean tights and jackets and boots and look pretty good for a bit. And then the skies open and the rains fall - and the wind blows and the horses splash through creek and mud, and the sun bakes and the night falls, and in the end it is toughness, fitness and savvy which brings us to the finish line.
We'll clean up again for awards and closing ceremonies, but in the corner of the room is a wad of dirty clothes, the truck is covered with dust or mud, filled with bottles and buckets - the tail ribbons are somewhere on loop 3, the braids look more like dreadnots, and we're tired! Who cares about polish?
Farm bred horses, farm bred kids - the young riders here could have taken their horses anywhere in the world and given the best in the world a run. I do believe these riders are as fit and determined as they come.
The horses in Africa run in fields, no stalls, no fancy feeds. they grow up on the land, foraging and learning to run and to be watchful. And then they go to work - on the farms - working cattle, providing transportation. Most of the people can't afford to raise horses just for sport. So by the time a horse is tested in Endurance, it is already developed - already toughened with farm and ranch work. And the kids - also toughened and used to hard work - take their training and preparation very seriously. Most of the parents I talked to said their kids had been training extra for this event - running, climbing, trying to get stronger because they knew they would have to get off the horse and run through the sand, up the dunes. So they trained and prepared.
- more later, the awards ceremony is in a few minutes-
The last of the horses and riders pulled out today. Goodbye sea and dunes, goodbye to the famous seaside bungalow where Angelina and Brad stayed (just a few kilometers up the coast from Walvis). goodbye to the cool misty mornings, sayonara to the wind! (though the last few days and ride day were perfect - just light breeze and sunshine).
The awards ceremony was last night, lots and lots of awards - and it seemed like there were by far more juniors and young riders than seniors. much much different from the USA. They did the National Championship awards, and the African (regional) Championship awards, and also year-end awards ... many many awards! and the ceremony was in Afrikaans so I got the gist of the thing, but lost a little of the detail:)
I sat next to the Minister of Sports for Namibia - a large african woman with a big smile. She was very proud to be there, and very very proud of Frans Saubek - a colored who rides and trains for one of the families. He won so many awards (including first to finish in the 160km - 9:12 ride time) that she said "he'll need a lorry to take all of this home! This boy is having a very special night" . Indeed, he looked mostly overwhelmed, every once in a while a smile escaped from his wide eyed wonder. I have quite a few pictures of him from the trail - he was very photogenic with his dark skin, riding a horse of the same color, bright yellow shirt.
The leading 160km riders left on the last loop close together, flat out gallop out onto the course. Hannelie Coetzee, Frans Saubek, Vanette Hanedom, George Wessels - all within minutes of each other. Up until the last loop they had been averaging 16 - 17 km/hr on the course. Frans and Amir did the final leg in 53 minutes, 22.6 km/hr. Amazing really, and the horse looked awesome at the finish! Like he had done nothing. Amir also won the Best Conditioned award - he's a half arab gelding, I think the other half was a type of african 'quarter horse'. a big dark horse - very impressive. Hannelie and Wanette and George were not far behind, it was a race.
The 120km Junior Team championship had some excitement as well - 9 riders (from both Nambian and S. African teams) left Dune 7 at the same time, and when they hit the flat took off at a gallop, the remaining 10km to the finish. The traffic control didn't quite have things under control at the road crossing - as they came galloping to the road there were a couple cars going by - on of the horses barely missed slamming into the car - slid to a stop and went around before it got straightened out again. Another horse leaped over the front of the car (for real, it's on film) and gained the lead. These kids are tougher and braver and crazier than anything I've seen before. And their horses too!
Off on another trek. At the Walvis Bay ride I suggested that with the
extra days I had between Walvis and Saldanha (Capetown, Sep 9)I could
possibly visit some of the Arabian breeders in Namibia - take some
photos of the horses and their farms, and help do a little promotion
of the breeding programs. I have discovered that here in Namibia a
casual suggestion quickly becomes a reality, and before I knew it
there was a 4 day trek planned for me to visit some of the major
Arabian horse - Endurance horse - breeders.
So - here I am at the home
of Peter and 'Linki' De Witt. Peter and Linki (and kids and horses and
gear) picked me up at Mike Brendekamp's place, after Mike picked me up
at Okapuka, after having to wait an extra hour while Inger's rover
'Chip' took us on a (scenic) detour through the mountains finding a
passable way back down after encountering some challenging
'roads'. Peter and Linki brought me to their farm for the night, until
tomorrow when I'll get a ride to one of the breeder's places. They
have an 8000 hectare cattle farm about 80 km from the Botswana
border. This is cattle country, they call their little town Gobabis
'Little Texas'. Though I didn't see any hats or boots or buckles, and
they don't do rodeos... but they do do cattle.
Linki is in the back room at the moment, doing a dozen loads of
laundry - just now getting home from Walvis Bay ride after a full
day's travel - and the kids have to leave tomorrow for Windhoek -
school starts day after tomorrow, so everything must be washed (twice
because of all the sand), dried and ironed. Meanwhile she and daughter
Serena are preparing steaks for dinner... Most of the Endurance in
Namibia is family sport. The kids get interested in it, the parents
support them as far as they want to go.. The De Witt's children Pierre
and Serena both rode at Walvis - the 160 and the 120 - and are now
interested in pursuing the sport beyond the school years. Pierre may
go to Australia after school to work for an Endurance trainer - learn
more about horses, training, competing. The parents all support their
children, but the children take the sport very seriously - training
their horses as well as themselves. More interest in the sport, more
breeders producing Endurance horses, be tter horses for sale locally,
more interest in the sport - it is growing here.
So - I spent yesterday and today at Okapuka - the Game Park - and
Ingerbord Hermes' Horse Safari. Absolutely fantastic
(http://www.okapuka.com), a dream really to
ride her horses (mostly Arabians - Egyptian bloodlines) through the
park, with every imaginable African animal to be seen - from warthog
to kudu to rhino... I didn't see the lions, but will have to do that
next time! They have a 35 hectare (fenced) complex for the lions -
(well fenced). The entire game complex is over 30,000 hectares - with
6000 animals. Fritz (the owner - originally from Austria) used to run
cattle on the farm, but a severe drought in the 90's resulted in the
loss of much of the herd, and he had the vision at that time to
develop a game park - for preservation and tourism. He has herds of
some of Africa's endanged animals as well as the tough and hardy
species. He sells the extra animals when the numbers get too high and
also buys new bloodstock to maintain the vigour of the herds.
Ingerbord's story - she and her husband came to Namibia on holiday
almost 10 years ago. She had heard about Okapuka because it was one of
the few places that offered horse back rides through a game preserve
in Namibia at the time. (another desparate horse rider!). She and her
husband were taken with Namibia, and taken with Okapuka. They kept in
contact with Fritz, suggesting that he needed a 'real' stable on the
premise, with many fine horses for guests to ride. They kept at it -
and eventually the door was open. They returned to Namibia, built a
stable, horse facility, purchased some acreage, built a house... and
built the business. Ingerbord is running the business on her own now -
determined to stay in the place she loves. (and rightly so!). She is
busy breeding her Arabians, taking in guests for the week long
safaris, and continually learning about the animals, the ecology, the
land. She's a real treasure.
I have some photos to send - (over the phone line, time stands still
in Nambia I think... )
Tomorrow I'll get a ride into Gobabis (also known as 'little texas')
with Jan Pienaas since he's headed that way to look at a bulldozer,
then catch a ride from Gobabis to Windhoek (capital of Namibia) with
Linki de Witt since she's headed that way to take her kids to the
dentist, spend an hour or so at the local market in Windhoek (where I
will refrain from buying any of the wonderful african art since I can
only carry 20kg of luggage on the flight back to Paris), then Mike
will take me to the airport, I'll fly to Capetown, where I'll be
picked up and spend the night with (?? can't remember her name at the
moment - will know by tomorrow night), and then off to Saldanha bay
for the next event.
Namibia has been fantastic, the people wonderful, the land beautiful,
the politics complicated and a little tragic... I'll write more on my
impressions when I get time. But I highly recommend Namibia as a place
to see - before things change too much, if they do - time will
tell. Great natural beauty, a very old fashioned feel - about 10 years
behind the rest of the world. There's a real charm to this place. I
hope very much to get back here next year. Sue and Dennis Summers are
planning a trip in March (Jan and Johana's son Stefanus has been
riding with them this summer in the US) - there's an FEI CEI*** ride
the end of the month, maybe we can field an American team! (I bet I
can talk the Rojeks into it too I've heard that March and April are
the most beautiful, green from the summer rains, not too hot... we'll
see, it's at the top of my list, insh'allah...