Chasing “striped horses” over the red sands of the Kalahari

Author: Paulo Ribeiro

The sun is about to rise. With the naive determination of one who grew up in a flat landscape, I gaze at the majestic mountain in front of me. There is no path, only a steep climb full of loose rocks. When the sun strikes the peak of the mountain, I start. Slowly but surely, I keep going and imagining how a creature horse-alike can be so agile in such a treacherous environment. 

Especially if you have hooves.

The mountains are not the only challenge. To reach it sometimes it is necessary to cross a maze of blackthorns. More than once I caught myself trapped, like a fly in a spider web.

 A very spiky and sharp web.

The mountains are a spectacle. Soon as you reach the top of the valleys it looks like you are inside a postcard. However, no mountain zebras yet. To find a mountain zebra is not as simple as it looks like, after all, how difficult can it be to find a striped horse on a mountain without trees or big bushes?

Turns out, mountain zebras have evolved in this environment. They perfectly blend with the mountains, which is particularly interesting to witness. Fresh footprints spotted, a good sign. A good way to evaluate if the footprint is fresh is to compare the colour tone of the ground inside and outside the footprint. If the footprint is fresh, the ground tends to be a little darker.

Keep tracking.

I hear rocks rolling, another good sign. Despite their natural and amazing ability to climb, it is common to make some rocks roll while they run.

A neigh.

Finally, I hear the voice of zebras. A high pitch sound resembling a horse whining. I am on the right path. Once more, rocks are rolling, but now I know the direction, up there on the hills a family herd of mountain zebra, with adults and foals running uphill as fast as they can.

Growing up in Goiania, in middle-eastern Brazil in the ’90s — a flat part of the country with savanna-type vegetation — was quite an adventure. Though there were not many TV shows related to nature and wildlife, I remember one that was seminal in my life. Every Sunday afternoon I was there, in front of the TV watching Planet Earth, and it was on this show, I heard for the first time the word “Kalahari”, which is one of the local languages — Tswana — means ‘waterless place’. 

Back then, it was a distant dream and I could never imagine that today I would be living and working over the red sands of the “waterless place”.

It turns out, life is full of surprises and I ended up looking for zebras in one of the most magical places I have ever seen in my life, named Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, which has a small population of mountain zebras living on the Korannaberg Mountains, a chain of small mountains formed of sedimentary rocks.

      Tswalu has its own particular time. Life here moves at a different rhythm, almost as a unique living organism. Luck has been walking with me my whole life, and it is the same now. Climbing these mountains full of loose rocks is quite a challenge, especially for a Brazilian born and raised in a flat environment, however, these walks provide me with a lot of surprises and exciting encounters. 

      It is not rare to cross my path with a family of cheetahs cleaning themselves under the soft morning sun, cranky buffalos which, luckily, never cared much about me, or even brown hyenas coming home after a long scavenging night.

      Tswalu is a Tswana word that means “New beginning” and at this point in my life, this adventure full of challenges is exactly the new beginning I needed. 

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