Do You Ride? – A Horse Safari in Kenya

Do you ride?

People are always asking that. It’s not good enough that we’ve bravely mounted bicycles and game vehicles and slept among roaming lion prides and night-creeping hippos. We need to ride horses too, through the greatest wildernesses in the world.

I’ve witnessed many travellers scoff at such a question. I’ve also witnessed pro-riders leap gallantly at the suggestion, heading out on rides as often as time on their safari allows.

I’m somewhere in between these two types. To the invite to ride, I scoff and leap at the same time.

“Yes, of course I ride! I’ve been on six horses! And I’ve never fallen off! Although I did once contemplate bolting from a spooked horse during his furious downhill dash, one dark and scary night in the countryside.”

The Chyulu Hills in Kenya, at ol Donyo Lodge, is no countryside, though. Nor is the Maasai Mara, at Mara Plains Camp. There are all kinds of marvellous animals hiding and seeking.

At ol Donyo Lodge, as another eager, but much more proficient rider headed out with one guide on our early morning expedition, I joined two other guides (obviously my reply had not been overly convincing) for a slow walk. Atop the great white mare I’d been partnered with, the wildlife did a little less hiding and more seeking.

In the open plains, some distance from camp, we sidled through a tower of six or so giraffe, munching on trees (the giraffes, not us), and then zebra and wildebeest, and I realised just what it is about riding a horse in the wild that makes the challenge worthwhile.

Giraffe and other wildlife view you as just another animal when you’re on the back of a horse, rather than on foot, allowing you to get much closer.

With the one guide in front of me and the other behind, and an animal of great muscle below me, I felt protected. And yet, looking into a giraffe’s eye at almost eye-level, I felt completely open, bare. Barriers dissolved, nothing stood between me and nature. The way nature intended.

I let the quietness of no motor, no voices, settle around us, in us. I heard my thoughts stir, listened to fear rise and sink back down, comforted, like a dog having her head patted.

Peace, that’s what it was all about.

Harmony.

Understanding.

“I could do this all day!” I shouted to the guides.

“Ok,” the fellow behind me, chirped, “so shall we break into a trot then? Maybe a gallop?”

“Always with the pushing! Fine, I choose trot.”

With a tap to our horses’ sides, we took off, up down, up down, up down, and then the thrill sank in and I was ready to catch up with the others, the pros, ready to lose my training-wheels and ride off into the sunset!

But it was still early and oh, look, breakfast was set up under a tree in the distance…

Under the dappled shade, we dismounted and made our way to a chair around the table.

“We’ve come across two cheetah while on a ride before,” said the one guide. “Only a couple of metres from our hooves! We just stood still while the animals slowly walked past us. They acknowledged us with a subtle glance and tilt of the head and then continued on their way.”

“How often in life do you get to experience such an incredible animal up-close like that?” Another guide continued. “And while sharing your perspective of it with another animal? And it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner or pro.” He looked at me. “Horses all have different personalities. Just like us. And there’s a right horse for you just as there is a right rider for each horse.”

“And, maybe,” I said, “it’s not about whether you’re a beginner or pro, whether you’re walking, trotting, cantering or galloping, because it’s in being still and silent with the animals on the ride that feels the most special. It’s when you really get to connect with it all.”

“Exactly,” the guide returned.

So yes, I ride. But I do “still and silent” so much better.

“The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and fire.” – Shannon Ralls Lemon

A Safari Morning

In the early morning, mine is the only voice I hear.

You might think this odd. You’ll think, ok, this girl talks to herself. But it also has to do with reflexes. Tap my elbow and see my arm shoot out. Stand on my toe and hear me shout. Show me a sunrise from a treehouse in the wild, the sound of elephants and that coo coo of a distant dove and listen for my woahs and wows. My unbelievables and you’re kidding me’s.

There’s the voice inside my head too, when the peace and quiet feels too good to disturb. This is how a morning in my villa at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa begins. This is a morning in Africa, the wilderness.

Without anyone around, my hands dance from white duvet to coffee cup, slipper to nightgown, as I slip out through the sliding doors, closing them to keep the monkeys out (I’d much rather they played in the trees). I take my place in the moving gold light as it spreads over the entire deck, reminding me of the passing of time and seasons, even though I feel worlds away from these concepts.

There is more coffee and then the move from slippers to shoes, gown to jersey, inside voice to outside voice. I follow the trail through the trees to our game vehicle, our ranger and tracker, other guests, cameras and binoculars adorning our necks like ancient Egyptian wesekhs.

The scent of promise is in the air. The engine turns on and beanies are slipped over ears, scarves around noses, smiles across faces.

I do that talking to myself thing again (the outside peace still holding) and bet myself I’ll see an elephant first. Lots of them. Babies, curling through the legs of their mothers. A great troupe with trunks in the air.

I heard them first, at the villa, and I hear them again now, like clockwork, as they say. You owe me tea, I tell myself. The whole herd swims across our view as though floating in a deep river.

In that moment, I remember being on top of one of these greats, at an elephant sanctuary in South Africa, one of the humane few. I remember that inimitable slow sidling of their amble, like a wild lullaby. I remember the feeling of the elephant tickling my ear after our ride, back on terra firma, its hairy trunk, how its physical touch connected me to it, it to me, for life, in my mind at least.

But in the wild at Londolozi, even without touching, this morning family mesmerises us all.

We climb out of the vehicle and stand around the front while the ranger hands us more coffee, steaming like our hot breaths in the cold air, champagne, biscuits, Amarula… Sharing the same ground now as the wild things, feeling the earth beneath us, part of us, I wave to the last elephant. Safari njema, inside voice announces.

And this I promise you, as though hearing me and my heart’s fastening beat, the elephant waves back and then trumpets the final note in our morning song.

Tell us…

What’s your favourite thing about mornings on safari?


The Sweetness of the Solo Safari

It wasn’t merely that the animals were all out, on this early morning in the Nambiti wilderness. Not simply that we didn’t have to search too hard to find the rhinos and buffalo, the giraffe and lions, the wildebeest and waterbuck. What made the drive something special was what was not there. That is, other people.

I know, sharing is caring. But have you ever been on a game drive through the African bush, alone, just you and your guide?

No voices disturb the peace. No movement interrupts the stillness. And there’s the matter of time… of being in the wild, with its animal life, its birds and plants, sounds and scents, and having no need to leave before you’re ready.

There’s also the fact that I really like to take photographs. Lots of them. From all kinds of angles and with all kinds of lenses. I need time. I photograph best in silence, too, as a ranger tracks best in a quiet of his or her own.

Even with the camera down, resting in my lap, the peace creates a space to properly connect with the surroundings and myself. Space for me to offer the wild my entire attention. Space to see the little things, the details. The details of a lion’s nose or of the unfolding scenes… like the wildebeest elders gathering around their little ones to keep them safe or the alarm spreading across an impala herd as a predator nears.

Sharing can be sweet. But the notion of “the fewer the merrier” has its magic too. It’s what Esiweni Luxury Safari Lodge in the Nambiti Private Game Reserve of South Africa is all about. There are very few staff or rangers, only five suites, only two chefs, and the French owners, Ludovic Caron and Sophie Vaillant, play the role of maitre de maison. It’s a small family. And it creates the feeling of retreating to a villa in the countryside, in the south of France, with your people. Your nearest, dearest, or nobody at all.

Of course this countryside has big cats and great giants roaming its hills and plains, but the sense of nature, of Provençal bliss, is very much there. Dining slowly under the open skies, with fresh breads and pastries, fine cheeses accompanying finer wines, just the crickets chattering and streams trickling, it feels like a moment stolen from the continuance of time. A world apart.

One night, on one of our solo game drives, my guide, Pemba and I watched the sun set from a clearing in the bush, as a lion announced himself only metres away to his approaching brother. His deep gravelly roars seemed to never end. I could feel them echoing inside my very core as night fell over us. As though we were together in a vast ancient cave and not in the open plains.

Another night, we chose to join the owners for sundowners and stories of lions and leopards under a lantern-lit tree, while a giraffe ambled in that slow giraffe way right past us. Even in the company of other souls, sitting around a campfire, the peace of the place held its incantation.

And yes, sharing is sweet, but I felt the real, quite rare charm in being able to return to a big villa on a cliff face looking out over the Sundays River, soaking in the solitude with nothing pulling me away. With no voices to disturb the peace. No movement to interrupt the stillness. And no need to leave it all before I was ready.