Michael Kallenbach saddles up for a luxurious horseback safari through Zululand

The early evening ride was meant to be rather short. It was designed so that we could get to know our horses that would take us through the bush and in search of game over the next few days. I had been allocated Zulu, a lovely black steed, but as soon as our guide instructed us to go into canter, I put all my weight down into my heels and the stirrup leather snapped.

I imagined that I would be flat out on the ground: an embarrassing moment on any horse ride, but even more so, I thought, on the first day. What would the other riders think? But Zulu was more steady and reliable than I had at first thought and he proved to be worth more than his weight in gold over the next three days.

I clung on to his neck for dear life, and he luckily he didn't follow the rest of the riders who were cantering off. Instead, he slowed down to a halt. I quickly recovered my composure, borrowed a bit of leather from Temba, our groom, for a makeshift repair and was soon back in the saddle.

Although I was born in South Africa, I had never explored the mountainous region of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal. With the weak rand against the pound, this was certainly my chance. My guide for the next three days was Richard Daugherty, who owns the Bhangazi Horse Safaris, set in the St Lucia Wetland Park. He has owned the camp for only the past two years, but spent the previous eight years as a guide in Botswana's Okavango Delta.

Richard was born in Durban and knows the area well. He also speaks perfect Zulu - or so it sounded to my untrained ear. His two main concerns: that the horses are in good shape and the guests are well looked-after.

At the crack of dawn there was a verbal "knock knock" at the tent opening with home-made shortbread biscuits and a freshly brewed pot of Rooibos tea waiting outside - in addition to a large jug of hot water. Already, Richard was up and about ensuring that the horses are prepared for that day's adventure.

On our first night at camp, the horses managed to escape from their temporary electric paddock. Temba, our back-up guide explained the next morning that they fought their way out at 11 pm the previous night and there was no point trying to round them up again in the dark. He and his colleague, Dumisani would wait until sunrise and then try to lure them back into the paddocks with a bucket of horse feed.

But as they approached the horses ran down the nearby cliff and went off for miles. Obviously, it was some sort of a game they were playing, but eventually the horses came back and were dragged back to our campsite just before breakfast.

Zulu is a boerperd, one of the truly South African horse breeds whose heritage can be traced right back to the landing of Jan van Riebeeck at Table Bay in 1652 and the establishment of a halfway post to serve the ships of the Dutch East India Company. Their stamina and hardiness were later tested during the Boer War.

The camp hosts a maximum of six guests; on my visit there were only two others riders, both from upstate New York. One was a skin cancer specialist, who was particularly cautious about the sun and made sure we all knew about the inherent dangers of the area he's involved in. He made sure we all had additional lashings of sun cream on each day.

By night, though, around the camp-fire before dinner, the talk was all about the US elections. My two American travel companions were both Democrats, they told me, and will vote for Barack Obama. Then Richard spoke about his own problems in Africa: poachers.

"They come from abroad, very smartly dressed, like tourists with plenty of money. They have 4x4s, and silent guns and they are proving a menace. The authorities are trying to catch them but it's not always possible."

The early morning rides are meant to beat the midday sun, and we were successful in spotting a wide variety of game on our first two days. Richard seemed to have a knack as to finding where the game might be on a particular day. On our first day alone we had sightings of buffalo, rhino, zebra, waterbuck, eland and wildebeest.

Although we never saw any leopard, Richard was certain that they had been lurking around the camp, having heard the baboons making sufficient noise to indicate they were nearby.

The tents were among the most luxurious I have stayed in. No hardship here; there's even a chemical loo and a bucket shower with plenty of warm water. Every other small detail was thought of, whether it was cotton wool or hand lotion. And the meals were particularly enticing. Silver-plated jugs of iced-cold water adorned the tables, laden with local food underneath white tablecloths.

On the final day of my trip, like any good host, Richard asked me to sign the guest book. All the comments were complimentary. But what he failed to draw my attention to - discreet as ever - was that last Christmas the South African president Thabo Mbeki and his wife had opted to spend six days at Bhangazi. It came on the heels of the crucial Polokwane conference when the ANC elected the controversial Jakob Zuma as its leader. Mbeki had been defeated, was exhausted and had, like so many others before him, sought sanctuary at St Lucia's Wetland Park.

"Did he ride too?" I asked intently. "No," replied Richard, "but we set up a special tent for him and his advisers so that he could recharge his batteries. He was a perfect guest, and his team of bodyguards seemed to look after him, so it made it quite easy for us."

And for me too, this corner of KwaZulu-Natal provided a perfect opportunity to recharge my batteries.


Flights to Richards Bay are via Johannesburg. South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.britishairways.com) and Virgin (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) all have direct flights from London to Johannesburg. South African Airways then has several onward flights a day between Johannesburg and Richards Bay. Ride World Wide (01837 82544; www.rideworldwide.com) offers a five-night stay at Bhangazi from £1,050 per person, including luxury safari tent accommodation, full board (all food and drinks), transfers from and to Richards Bay and all riding with guides. International flights are excluded.