Not for the faint of heart….

Icelandic legend spins the tragic, true tale of falsely accused folk hero Fjalla-Eyvindur and his wife Halla. Exiled in the inhospitable highlands with little food and no shelter, their children died in infancy except for one beloved but weak two-year old daughter.

Their hideout discovered, and the need to run upon them, they made a decision. Halla cradled her daughter in her arms and sang her to sleep with the lullaby “Sofðu unga ástin mín” (“Sleep my young darling”) before dropping the slumbering child over a waterfall to a quick and certain death so she and her husband could flee unhindered.

Iceland on horseback

Anita kept us entertained with Icelandic legends as well as informing us about her country’s unique geology.

Our guides Anita and Elva, both young mothers themselves, solemnly sang this lullaby in their heart-wrenchingly clear voices to our group of riders as we rested by a stream in the highlands where the ghost of Fjalla-Eyvindur is rumored to wander. Beside me, the young Danish wrangler Nina fought unsuccessfully to hold back the black tears streaming down her dust-covered face.

“Did you understand all the words?” I whispered once the song had ended. “No,” she choked in reply. ”The music is just so full of sadness.”

 

Iceland on horseback 2

The weather was ever changing. This is our group modeling Icelandic rain gear on the wettest and coldest day.

We were an all-women’s group for the first ride of the Icelandic summer; 16 intrepid riders from America, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland on this dark and blustery June day in the forlorn highlands north and west of the slumbering volcano Hekla. The melancholy tune touched all of us; daughters, wives, mothers, grandmothers… our ages spanning the decades of twenties through sixties, all here to experience riding the iconic Icelandic horses in their ancestral volcanic island home.

 

Iceland on horseback 3

Icelandic horses come in all colors; white, sorrel, bay, black, palomino, dappled gray, and paint.

Iceland has a population of around 315,000 inhabitants who own over 100,000 of this uniquely pure-bred stock. Brought in longboats to the country by the Vikings from Norway and the British Isles late in the 9th century, they are considered one of the oldest breeds of domestic horses in existence today. Bred more for their temperament and personalities than for color, these friendly, stocky steeds are treated as part of the families they live with. Having evolved in such a harsh environment, they are amazingly surefooted and confident, practically floating over the landscape in their smooth tölt gait. To interact with them is amazing, but to ride them is nothing short of magical.

Our Danish Wrangler Nina comforting one of the younger horses who was tired on his first big excursion with the herd and riders.

Our Danish Wrangler Nina comforting one of the younger horses who was tired on his first big excursion with the herd and riders.

 

Iceland on horseback 4

Our accommodations for the first and last nights were at the outfitters’ farm, which had the typical grass-covered roof.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On arrival night at our hosts’ farmhouse, we were asked to tell a bit about our riding experiences and the type of horse we enjoy riding most. Our guide Anita listened intently to our answers in order to assign each of us two horses to ride in the week ahead, her philosophy being that you must ride a horse three times before the two of you truly connect. The next morning after breakfast we assembled at the nearby corral, greeted by inquisitive eyes shining beneath thick bangs, seemingly as curious about us as we were of them. The barn doors slid open and the wranglers clapped their hands as the herd disappeared into the dark interior. A few minutes passed and the door opened again with a wrangler leading a mount out to each rider in turn. The tongue twisting Icelandic names of the horses were difficult to remember in the beginning. My first steed was Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of the Nordic god Odin. At the age of 17 he was one of the older horses, but was quite forward, attentive and eager to please. Before the farmhouse was out of sight, I had relaxed and given this handsome bay with the thick black mane my full trust.

 

Iceland on horseback 5

Plutus and me

My other equine companion was a sorrel with a strawberry blonde mane by the name of Plutus, tall for an Icelandic horse at 15 hands. He was only seven years old, but even more mellow than Sleipnir, 10 years his senior. When I remarked on this trait to our host Stefnir, he commented that Plutus “has an old soul”. In addition, however, he also had the flying pace, skeid, which I was able to coax him into on several occasions and together we floated along at our own smooth pace while the more daring riders usually left us, quite literally, “in the dust” as they galloped past.

 

Iceland on horseback 6

View of the hosts’ guests accommodations.

Those who have never been to Scandinavia or done the Youth Hostel rite of passage in Europe are sometimes taken aback when they see the sleeping arrangements in the cabins and huts along the ride route. Mattress to mattress, bunk-bed style platforms offer sleeping space upon which 16-20 people may roll out their sleeping bags. Of course, in an open room there can be night noises such as people climbing down the ladders in the dark, sleeping bags rustling when someone rolls over, snoring, as well as some folks talking (and even singing!) in their sleep. Anita has a supply of ear plugs available for those who sleep lightly. If you enjoy camping or roughing it, then you’ll do fine. There are flushing toilets at each overnight stop, as well as running water, but showers are only available in 2 of the 4 overnight locations, although there is an opportunity to soak in thermal springs as well as to shower one afternoon in Landmannalaugar. Touring Iceland on horseback is, in many ways, a “change of pace”.

Iceland on horseback 7

Smoked salmon and lamb, cheese and butter, a variety of breads and even special gluten free and vegetarian dishes were served at every meal.

In regards to food, Anita, Amelie, Elva and Nina were up daily before the guests preparing a buffet style breakfast consisting of muesli, fruit, yogurt, several kinds of homemade bread, jams, honey, and lots of the delicious Icelandic butter and cheese, washed down with ample coffee, tea and hot chocolate. After breakfast everyone would make their own “pocket lunch” for the ride consisting of sandwiches with sliced meats (including smoked lamb), cheese and vegetables, as well as fruit and cookies. Snacks appeared magically while the guests were getting out of their dusty gear at the end of the riding day, followed by freshly prepared warm meals of hearty soup, bread & butter, roasted lamb, fish, vegetables, stews, pasta dishes and desserts. Everyone pitched in with setting the table and washing up, family style.

There is no “cocktail hour” on this ride, no doubt for several reasons. For one, the converted Dodge Ram (lovingly nicknamed “Green Monster”) which transported all our belongings and food for the entire week was stuffed to the ceiling with absolute essentials and no room to transport additional bottles. Anita did surprise us on the trail with a shot of whiskey in our hot chocolate on one particularly cold and wet day, as well as a box of red wine (equivalent to 4 bottles) the night of our farewell dinner. It is possible to purchase beer at the stopover in Landmannalaugar, but other than that, this tour is dry.

 

Iceland on horseback 8

Riding through a lichen-covered field of rocks.

Anita had long wanted to offer a designated “all women’s ride”, and it was very interesting to observe the women of diverse ages and cultures interact. The common denominator, as usual on such rides, was horses. We shared our tales of falls and injuries, competitions, places we had ridden in the past and dreams of future rides over supper every evening. We had the great fortune of all being more or less competent equestrians, and no one came off their horse during the week. I’ll certainly give my kudos to Sleipnir and Plutus, who never stumbled or shied while moving along confidently with the herd of free-running horses that accompanied us.

 

Iceland on horseback 9

Moving behind the herd.

Now that was an experience! Riding with a herd of free horses mixed amongst the riders, tölting along with luxurious manes and tails flying, accompanied by the four-beat sound of hooves pounding the volcanic soil, clipping over paved roads, splashing through rivers, striking rocks. Since the Icelandic horses are raised in this rugged environment, they know how best to navigate it. This particular horse herd is very familiar with the ride route and knows where to stop, wait, slow down, or go full throttle. After a very short time, I was able to totally relax and be one with my horse in this colorful tölting procession. It’s a remarkable experience for sure.

 

Iceland on horseback 10

We felt very small sometimes upon the landscape of Iceland.

We left the herd at a base camp on the days we ventured into the remote areas of the highlands. Climbing high to the rims of black and red craters filled with turquoise lakes, galloping over the black crater floors of extinct volcanoes, leaving temporary tracks of our existence in the wind-swept surface, riding quietly as tiny specks against the massive mountains around us…Iceland can make a person feel very small but very strong at the same time.

 

Iceland on horseback 10

Bizarre land and rock formations support the belief in trolls and ghosts in Iceland.

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The lupines were in bloom in June at the base of the volcano Hekla

The Icelandic women are remarkable, physically and in spirit. They can shoe horses, change flat tires, bake and cook and explore mountaintops, live at the foot of active volcanoes, sing folk songs, raise children and slaughter lambs, all the while being warm and gracious to strangers. Their strength was evident to us during our summer ride. I can only imagine the trials of surviving winter on the island, which brings us back to the chillingly beautiful song sung to our group by Anita and Elva as we entered the desolate and mysterious highland area where there is no food, shelter or lodging and where the basalt formations  and mountain features take on the shape of trolls and monsters in the mists.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

To enjoy a ride over this sometimes verdant but more often stark topography, riders must have the willingness to give up their creature comforts for a week in return for an in depth experience in one of the most unusual places on earth as seen from the strong backs of the dependable Icelandic horses. In my case, the reward was the ride of a lifetime.

 

Ride review by Trudy Trevarthen

Castles, Caves, Vineyards, Forests, Medieval Villages and Foie Gras…

Since we started Equitours some 35 years ago I have had the wonderful good fortune to do over a hundred rides around the world. My latest ride, the Castles and Caves of Malbec, was a delight, especially since it was my 85th birthday ride. If you enjoy good horses, good food, great wine, lovely countryside rich in history and friendly companions this would be hard to beat. There were eight of us on the trip, mostly old friends and one splendid new addition; Teri, the international vet who takes care of everything from tigers to elephants. Actually it seems to me that for someone who likes this sort of thing I have about the best job imaginable. One of our riders asked me at lunch how I had been clever enough to manage to have a life style like this and I was considering a suitable answer when Teri, the irrepressible vet, popped up with, “Pure, dumb luck!” which set everyone laughing uproariously and has to be fairly close to the truth.

Celebratory Ride in France 1

Bayard and Teri riding down a country lane.

Another plus on this trip was that Michel’s organization was impeccable; things happened on time, the accommodations and picnic places were well chosen. The van always awaited us with food and drink when we arrived. The lodgings were in charming, picturesque inns or B & Bs. The well trained horses never put a foot wrong and were always saddled and ready for us to mount. The pacing of the ride was good though the back country roads and trails we took were often too rocky for speed, but every day we had chances for several fast canters where the terrain was suitable.

The first two days we rode through the rolling hills of vineyard country in the Bergerac area and grape vines stretched in every direction as far as you could see. They seemed to be growing little else in the area which has been famous for its wine for thousands of years. We made stops at several old castles where the grapes were turned into wine and the cellars contained hundreds of huge oaken barrels full of aging liquid. They lined up rows of glasses with wine in various stages and with a variety of different grape blends and described the intricate process. Most of us were unable to absorb all the finer points of production, but one thing did become clear to all of us: there is a lot to know about producing a good wine for sale on a very competitive market. I wonder if modern technology has really improved the wine that much over what they produced a few centuries ago using more primitive techniques like peasant girls in bare feet trampling out the vintage.

As we continued on our hundred mile journey the landscape began to change and instead of vineyards we were winding on narrow trails through oak forests where the hills were steeper and there was no human habitation for miles. Now we were in truffle country where sniffer dogs are used to find these precious fungi (fetching $100 an ounce or so) deep below the surface. I fear my palate is not refined enough to fully appreciate truffles (especially at that price), but this is also famous paté de foie gras country and I did very much appreciate that along with many other delicious local dishes like the maigret de canard.

Celebratory Ride in France 2

Our group at the dinner table tasting more of the region’s delicious specialties and drinking some Malbec wine.

We stopped for picnic lunches every day around noon and Béatrice would unfailingly meet us with the van. She would have the table prepared with bread baked that morning, many kinds of cold cuts, lovely cheese and mouth-watering pastries for dessert. We picnicked in small villages or beside rivers and took a short rest before heading on to discover new places. In the evening of our fourth day of riding we came upon the village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie built on the side of a steep hillside above the Lot River. Our first view of the place was breathtaking. I have seen many lovely towns and villages in my day, but this town is on the top of my list for its picturesque, fairy-tale beauty and indeed it has been voted by the French as their favorite town. I can certainly see why.

Celebratory Ride in France 3

Saint-Cirq Lapopie perched on the cliffs above the Lot River.

We spent two nights here and I was sorry to leave. We stayed in a lovely inn and ate fabulous dinners. After the first night we departed early in the morning for the Chateau de Cénevières where we had lunch and then made a loop to return to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie by another route.

Celebratory Ride in France 4

Riding out of the gate of the Château of Cénevières.

We were able to ride into the courtyard of this exquisitely maintained, 11th century castle as did the knights of old and we were given a fascinating tour of the castle by its owner who had restored many of the rooms so that visitors could see how people lived in ancient times. The tour also turned out to be a history course because the castle was the center of frequent wars like the Hundred Years War and religious wars which caused bloody upheavals to sweep the area again and again, making the castle’s high walls a matter of survival.

The last day of this ride in France gave us some nice canters along the Lot River and then the trail narrowed and took us through what amounted to a tunnel open on the river side. The ceiling was so low that we had to dismount and lead our horses for several hundred yards until we came to a bridge across the river which allowed us to cross and head up the other side. We traversed narrow trails through oak forests until we arrived at the caves of Pech-Merl somewhat like the more famous Lascaux. We had a guided tour of the huge cave with images of horses and other animals sketched on the walls dating back some 25,000 years. It made medieval villages seem almost modern as I reflected on the very ancient history of mankind in Europe.

Celebratory Ride in France 5

Riding along the Lot River below the cliffs on the way to Pech-Merle Cave.

After the caves we were off again through deserted forest trails with no sign of life until we suddenly came out of the woods to the edge of a seemingly almost sheer limestone escarpment at the bottom of which was the Célé river and the picture perfect village of Souillac with the red roofs of buildings set among the trees. The sides of the valley were so steep that at first glance it was hard to see how a horse could find its way down, but Michel knew a zigzagging trail which descended safely though at a sharp angle. It seemed to me that Souillac, though a tiny village, was just as picturesque as Saint-Cirq-Lapopie and it was a fitting destination for our last night with a superb dinner and many toasts all around. It was with great regret that I said goodbye to my companions and returned to Bergerac next day for my flight to London and home. I couldn’t feel very sad at leaving because I was returning to our beloved Wyoming ranch where spring had melted the snow, the grass was growing fast and wildflowers were beginning to bloom. Nevertheless I will long feel a certain feeling of nostalgia for this idyllic area.

Ride Review by Bayard Fox                                                                                        Photography: Claude Poulet

…an exceptional experience in every respect…

 

Transfers
As expected, the representative of the ride safari was at the prescribed location next to the Johannesburg Airport information booth at the designated time holding a placard.
Departure was delayed due to late arrival of one flight, but this did not present a problem. The van was in excellent condition, clean and comfortable with water and ice placed in the vehicle for guests to use. A rest stop at a cafeteria was made at the halfway point. Customs formalities at the South Africa / Botswana border crossing at Pont Drift were efficient and proceeded without delay.

Riders
There were eight participants on the Tuli Safari during the week of October 6-13, 2013 as follows: five English women, a German couple and me. One of the participants from England had taken the same ride years earlier. All were experienced horse people so there were no problems with respect to ability. About half of the participants owned horses and two of the riders from England actively compete in horse shows. All participants were well matched with their assigned horses.

Tuli ride safari reception

Welcome to Botswana!

Reception
Upon arrival we were given a warm welcome by Louise Carlesen, Director, and other members of the staff. (We would meet Cor Carlesen later at a camp in the course of the ride). Afterwards we were treated to lunch and given a thorough briefing about the ride itinerary and safety procedures. We were also asked about our riding experience and preferences prior to the horses being assigned. Following the introduction we changed into our riding gear, mounted the horses and set off to the first permanent camp. Soon after our departure each rider was asked to individually demonstrate their riding skills at a walk, trot and canter over a short triangular course in the open. This ride should be suitable for all experienced and confident riders.

Guides
The ride was accompanied by the highly experienced guide, “West” Mmanoke, who led the group, and the assistant guide, Tsaone Radedibo, who brought up the rear. Both were highly skilled and knowledgeable and shared their experience about the region and wildlife throughout the week. They were very alert in spotting game and in keeping ample distance from elephants to avoid risks.

Ride Safari in Botswana: Horses

Our trusty steeds were Ajax, Big John, Calvero, Casablanca, Dennis, Foxy, General, Lancelot, Mister Fun, and Monate.

Horses
All horses in the ride were excellent. All were geldings of pure and mixed breed and included one Boerperd. Each horse was well-schooled, responsive and in excellent condition. During long canters in hot, dusty conditions no horse showed signs of tiring and there was no sweating, other than under the saddle pads. The horses went over jumps smoothly and without hesitation. They also got along well with each other.

Grooms
Four grooms (one also served as a driver) took excellent care of the horses and the tack. The horses were properly fed with good quality hay and feed, given plenty of water and thoroughly checked in the morning and evening.

Tack
The tack was in excellent condition and was well maintained throughout the ride. I chose English tack and was very comfortable after many hours in the saddle. Saddlebags were provided and two bottles of water were placed in them at the beginning of each ride. The grooms were responsible for tacking and untacking the horses each day.

Itinerary
The ride was well planned and executed. This was to be expected in light of the fact that the Tuli Safari is conducted weekly from March through October.

The ride from camp to camp was thoroughly enjoyable given the variety of terrain, the spontaneity of game sightings and the wide range of wildlife species encountered. The outgoing personality and knowledge of the guide and his assistant were a big plus, as was the camaraderie among participants. Long riding times gave us the opportunity to “take it all in” and to appreciate the open space and exotic nature of this adventure. The route each day was particularly rewarding: galloping across open plains, crossing riverbeds, admiring the terrain, vegetation and wildlife, etc.

Tuli ride safari wildlife

View from the safari vehicle. Our guides always kept us at safe distances from wildlife when on horseback.

Evening game drives by safari vehicle were also a highlight, giving participants the ability to see a variety of animals, including cheetah, elephants and lions up close in comparison to the distance maintained while on horseback.

Tuli Ride Safari: Sundowners

“Sundowners” is a wonderful tradition to celebrate the achievements of the day’s ride.

Sunsets spent with drinks/ Sundowners in hand atop rock outcroppings with spectacular views of the riverbeds and the vast plains below provided a heavenly end to each day as the sun slipped below the horizon.

Pace
The ride was well paced and varied between walking and cantering, nearly always in single file. There was very little trotting. Canters included some enjoyable long stretches in open areas. Frequent stops were made when encountering wildlife as well as gallops near other animals including zebra and giraffes, generally at a distance of about 75 yards. The guides were particularly sensitive about maintaining a safe distance from elephants.

Tuli ride safari: pace

Thanks to our ever cautious and professional guides, there were no animal charges or incidents throughout the week.

Each day there was generally a rest break of about half an hour in the morning and afternoon in the shade of huge Mashatu trees. During these stops, participants were given light snacks, including apples and cakes. There were numerous crossings of dry riverbeds, some of which had moderately steep inclines. A number of stops were made at waterholes and streams for the horses. On several occasions riders had the opportunity to jump over downed trees and natural obstacles.

Climate
The ride took place in the spring. The climate was dry as were nearly all riverbeds. There was no rain throughout the week. The temperature during the day was hot and, in my estimation, approached 100 degrees by midday. Rides departed around 7AM each day. There was also plenty of dust kicked up by the horses, especially during canters, as we were riding in single file. Evening and overnight temperatures were pleasant.

Ride safari camp

In our outdoor camp we gazed in awe upon the majesty of the Southern Constellation before drifting off to sleep.

Accommodations
All camps were located in attractive areas. Tents were spacious and equipped with water, bowls, soaps and towels for shaving and freshening up. Each tent had its own flush toilet or drop latrine. Two nights at the Kgotia Camp featured sleeping outdoors, which was very enjoyable. Adequate shower facilities were present at all locations. Luggage was transferred from camp to camp during the ride and placed in the respective tents prior to arrival of the riders in the afternoon.

Meals

All meals were excellently prepared and included a variety of drinks, salads, meats, vegetables and desserts. The quality and variety of food were excellent and better than expected. This was particularly noteworthy in light of the logistics of moving from camp to camp each day. Hot coffee, tea or hot chocolate was delivered to each tent at the time of the morning “wake up” call. Early breakfasts included fruits, cereal and breads, together with coffee, tea and juices. The varied menu for lunch and dinner were particularly noteworthy. Plenty of food and a variety of drinks ( water / soda / wine / beer / coffee / tea ) were available.

It was clear that the cook, Grace Mosholombe, and her assistant, Queen Bale, took pride in their work. Sanitation standards were high.

It was clear that the cook, Grace Mosholombe, and her assistant, Queen Bale, took pride in their work. Sanitation standards were high.

Summary

The Tuli Safari is an incredible adventure enabling equestrian enthusiasts to thoroughly appreciate spectacular landscape and a profusion of wildlife that is unique to the Tuli District of Botswana. Experiencing this majesty in a small group aboard willing horses under the guidance of personable and knowledgeable guides is unrivaled. The magic continues after dismount with evening game drives, spectacular sunsets savored from high vantage points, animated conversation over excellently prepared meals beside the fire and culminating with the awe of gazing upon the majesty of the Southern Constellation before drifting off to sleep. This is a lifetime experience not to be missed.

Author Robert Savarese.1

Author Robert Savarese at home away from home.

Ride Review by Robert Savarese

Riding High In the Sierra Nevadas…

Sitting now in my living room in Verona, Wisconsin, it is hard to believe that a week ago I was sleeping in a rustic inn in Trevelez, the highest village in Spain, following a long day of riding through amazing scenery in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. My best riding buddy and I signed up for this ride in celebration of “big” birthdays, 60 for me. We expected to see and do amazing things, and were not disappointed.

I cannot say enough good things about trip outfitter, Dallas Love, and her string of wonderful,  hard-working  horses.These are well-schooled, sure-footed, trustworthy mounts who seem eager to go to work each morning and are highly responsive to rein and leg cues. Although I don’t like heights, I can honestly say that I never had a moment of fear, even on the most precarious  trails, thanks to the steadiness and experience of the horse Dallas trusted to me for the week.  Prior to experiencing this week of mountain riding, had I seen the trail down the Trevelez river gorge, I would never, ever have thought I would willingly walk down it on my own, let alone leading a horse!

Dallas is a competent, experienced tour leader and excellent cook. She prepared amazing picnic lunches, always accompanied by a local wine. One day after lunch I casually mentioned that the only thing lacking was a bit of chocolate. Voila! Dallas pulled a giant bar of dark chocolate with almonds from her picnic bag!

Mountain Riding in Spain

Enjoying a cool drink from the fountain

The experiences and scenery of this trip will not be easily forgotten. The sounds of our horses’ hooves echoing through the steep, narrow streets of so many tiny white-painted mountain towns, the bubbling village fountains where we and the horses drank cold spring water, and the melody of cowbells on all sides as we rode through a high mountain pasture are among the most vividly different from suburban life in the United States.

Mountain riding in Spain

Thank goodness for waterproof riding boots!

I would highly recommend the Coastal Range Ride for persons who are FIT, both for riding and hiking. The ride description says you need to be capable of mounting and dismounting on the trail, which indeed we did many, many times each day, and be capable of walking up and down steep, rocky terrain leading your horse.Take this seriously. We walked a lot, both on the trail and in the villages.Some of the trails were tricky, to say the least! My riding buddy and I were very thankful for our rubber soled Ariat Terrain boots.  We also definitely wished we had signed up for a fall ride (after a season of riding at home) rather than a spring ride following a long, idle winter.

If you do take this ride, you can be sure you will see sights and have experiences that are absolutely unique, enjoy excellent horses, and be very well looked after by Dallas, aka “the mountain gourmet.” Buen viaje!

Ride Review by Jean Warrior

To the drum of my horse’s hooves…

French Malbec Trail

This trip was not just about visiting wineries….it was about riding through a 500 year old vineyard to the beat of my horse’s hooves.

French Malbec Trail

This “gariotte” is an old shepherd’s house, about 200 years old.

In this travel exposé I am supposed to write of the itinerary of the french Malbec Trail…to describe the incredible, ancient french villas we slept in, to expound upon the minerality and subtle classic french flavor of the daily wine tasting and the visits to the vignobles, or ancient, millenniums old wineries. But this trip was not just about visiting wineries…it was about riding through a 500 year old vineyard to the beat of my horse’s hooves, with the spring sun slanting through vines just budding out…

So, I will leave that traditional travel exposé to others, and instead write about what is indelibly inscribed into my being after this week of riding through the beautiful Célé and Lot river valleys of south-western France…

French Malbec Trail

Author Teri Weronko

Imagine lush green countryside…imagine thick-necked, spiky-maned, buckskinned, French horses…that come in fantastic colors….isabelle fonçé, café au lait, champagne and alezan brûlé. Each impeccably, dependably trained… Imagine passing those envious, traditional tourists, climbing out of their cars, watching, speechless, as you ride past, through the ancient, fortified gates of a cliff side castle, 800 years old. Imagine lounging in the late afternoon sun, drinking a beer, and watching your horses roll in the luxuriant grass when you finally reach your french Chambre D’Hôtes, or bed and breakfast. All of you slaking down the heat and sweat of a fine day galloping through the french countryside in your own species-specific ways…

French Malbec Trail

Cave painting dating back to 25,000 BC…spotted horses running over neanderthal plains.

Friends at home have told me…why would I spend money to ride horses somewhere ELSE, when I have these horses of my own here, to ride at home? I have an answer for that now…for this type of journey is about discovering a country on a human scale, one gallop at a time, far from the aggravations and crowds of traditional tourist travel. It is cave paintings dating back to 25,000 BC, of spotted horses running over neanderthal plains. It is hidden river valleys, ringed with hanging white limestone escarpments, studded with spectacular stone troglodyte dwellings, clinging to the cliff sides and promising more secret, painted caves yet to be discovered. It is learning new horses and new languages and drinking coffee and cocoa from steaming, peasant, country bowls in the homes of sweet old french couples. It is new friends from around the world. It is laughing at cultural differences and toasting cultural similarities. It is drinking in the flavor of the life we have always dreamed of to the drum of our horse’s hooves on cobble-stoned roads as they carry us to our next french villa, our next country cheese discovered, our next bottle of wine together, our next connection made.

French Malbec Trail

Michel and Bayard….Santé!

I would call this the ‘trip of a lifetime’… but that is so wrong… A trip like this is just the beginning…once you are here, you will see that this is just the first journey of many that you will make, to reconnect and ride again with old friends, and to meet new friends around the world. Adventures like this are not once in a lifetime experiences…they are the living, galloping reminder that THIS is life…today…THIS trip, THIS horse, THIS shared laughter on the trail. Don’t miss it. Come and join us!

Ride review by Teri Weronko, DVM

How Horseback Riding shaped Wyoming’s History…

Though horses originated in America, there was a 10,000 year hiatus in the history of horses on this continent because it seems that about that long ago Native Americans hunted them to extinction, along with the hairy mammoth and the giant buffalo.  Fortunately before that happened, some horses had migrated across the Bering Straits to Asia where they quickly spread. History would have been very different if the Indians had domesticated and ridden horses instead of simply hunting them.

The lack of horses greatly hampered the Plains Indians in Wyoming and elsewhere because they could only depend on dogs and themselves to move their equipment from place to place and it was very difficult for a man on foot to hunt the fast moving buffalo in open country. Thus the acquisition of the horse in the early 18th century transformed their existence. After their arrival the Spaniards had long jealously guarded possession of the horse as a vital advantage in maintaining control of the vast territories they had conquered in the Americas. Their monopoly was shattered in 1680 by the Pueblo Indian revolt in Santa Fe when about a thousand horses either escaped into the wild or fell into Indian hands. These horses were some of the finest in Europe and were mostly of Arab and Andalusian blood. The wild ones found an ideal habitat in the Great Plains and multiplied quickly in numbers. The captured ones were great trade items and usually fetched a far better price than the most attractive bride.

By the 1730’s horses had reached Wyoming and vastly increased the living  standards of Plains Indians there causing a population shift toward the west where, thanks to the horse, people could now hunt and move so much more easily. Of course, as with so many technological advances, horses immediately became a key player in tribal warfare which made it possible to make raids at much longer distances. They were also a most attractive and comparatively easy prize for horse thieving which was refined to a fine art and became a constant source of friction. The heyday of the Plains Indian horse culture lasted nearly a century and a half before its collapse. The famous defeat of Custer in 1876 was a last gasp in reality. The buffalo were nearly exterminated, depriving them of their livelihood, and they were ignominiously relegated to reservations.

The Indians were not the only ones to profit from the fabulous supply of magnificent wild horses which had proliferated to 3 or 4 million by the early 1800s.Trappers used them extensively during the first half of the 19th century to carry their supplies into the wilderness and to carry out the furs they collected.

rendezvoussite2

The mountain man rendezvous.

These were the days of the picturesque mountain man rendezvous of the 1830s and 1840s in Wyoming and Utah. The Pony Express riders (among them Buffalo Bill), who famously carried mail in as little as seven days over the 2,000 mile trail from the Missouri River to San Francisco, used relays of these fine horses to accomplish this extraordinary feat.  Later the cowboys used them for those legendary cattle drives from Texas (where there were lots of cows, but no market) to Wyoming and other states on the Great Plains.  What gave these drives their impetus was the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1868 which made it possible for Texas ranchers, who had plenty of cows and little market, to ship their cows to the East Coast. Wyoming ranchers also wanted to establish herds so that they could raise cows themselves to satisfy the growing demand for beef in the East. In the peak year of 1884 it is estimated that 800,000 cows crossed the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma on their way north. The colorful era is celebrated in numerous books and songs and in movies like “Red River” and “Lonesome Dove”.

Buffalo Bill

Fantastic feats of horsemanship in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows captivated audiences worldwide.

From 1883 to 1913 the Wild West Shows of Buffalo Bill Cody captivated the Western World and enthralled the crowned heads of Europe as far off as Russia. The fantastic feats of horsemanship in these fabulous shows were performed mainly on these wild horses or their descendants. The town of Cody, Wyoming today preserves these traditions of the old West more than any other place and it is now home to the magnificent Buffalo Bill Historical Museum which contains many fascinating exhibits depicting Western history.

Today horses are still a vital part of ranch life in Wyoming. It would be difficult to raise cattle on these huge areas of land, which are often inaccessible to vehicles, without horses. Today mining may be more important that ranching to the state’s economy, but ranching still dominates the culture. Rodeo is still the main attraction in most Wyoming towns. For over a century now, dude ranches in Wyoming have played an important role in preserving the old culture of the West and in offering people from all over the world a taste of what cowboy life is like. Dude ranch vacations at their best offer a more or less authentic opportunity to actually experience this tremendously appealing way of life by participating in ranch activities and working cows on horseback. Wyoming has also preserved huge areas of unspoiled wilderness and guests can take pack trips into these uninhabited areas just as the first explorers and the mountain men did. One can often travel like that for a week without seeing other humans.

Bayard Fox

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

Tree Lodge was the perfect location to recover from the long haul flight New York to Johannesburg and on to Maun. The charming raised tented cabins surrounded by the bush made us feel at home in Africa right away. The lodge is set in the grounds of a small game preserve. Well marked walking trails meander through woods and open grassy areas where chance encounters with zebra, giraffe, ostrich and vervet monkeys keep you on your toes.

Kalahari pix

Cantering over the pans

The following morning we left for our ride in the Kalahari, a place I had always wanted to experience after reading Laurens van der Post’s books and Mark and Delia Owens’ “The Cry of the Kalahari”. We were based for several days at the surprisingly luxurious Camp Kalahari, quickly settling into a routine of a morning ride followed by a late lunch and an evening game drive. The sandy soil provided good footing for the horses, the islands of palm trees were visually appealing and the pans were perfect for long canters.

Bush ride meerkays

The curiously meerkats showed no fear of us at all. In fact, we served as elevation platforms.

The highlight was encountering a group of habituated meerkats. Dismounting from our horses, we moved with them as they foraged for scorpions and other tasty morsels. They were very busy and totally unafraid, climbing upon us as convenient look-out posts if we sat in their path.

Bush ride history

Dr. Livingstone was here as witnessed by this mighty baobab tree.

We moved to a fly camp through thicker bush and passed by two enormous baobab trees which had been signed by some of the early explorers (including Dr. Livingstone) before they set off on an arduous trek across a thirty mile pan to the next waterhole. It was awe inspiring to experience the history of this wild, unspoiled place. The following day we had some good, fast riding on the pans culminating in a night spent out in the open under the stars. Cantering along in the dark as a super moon was rising to our left was an unforgettable feeling.

Bush ride sunset

Evening comes to the Kalahari.

The Kalahari has a haunting beauty and appeals to those who want to experience Africa in more depth than the typical tourist on the game reserve run. David Foot, leader of these rides, is a veteran guide and one of the best. English born, he was based in Zambia and Malawi before moving to Botswana and even after years of guiding tourists, retains his sense of freshness and fun.

 

Ride Review by Mel Fox

A Tough Act to Follow…

 

Day 1:”Assembly”

Departed Amsterdam for the KLM flight to KIA Tanzania. Met Ginna in the departure lounge prior to the 8 1/2 hour flight. Kathy and Hannah were also on board. After long immigration and visa lines we met one another and our Kasakazi guide Joanna Westermark. I was dropped off at KIA Lodge while they proceeded to Shangazi House near Arusha.

Mel and Amy are in Nairobi and Barbara is on Precision AIR from Nairobi. Maryellen is desperately trying to extend her passport to fly in tomorrow night. No doubt it will all come together though it seems a bit scattered at present.

Check into KIA Lodge and take in the familiar sounds and smells of East Africa. It feels great to be back.

Day 2: “R and R (Rays and Reptiles)”

Pretty day! Clear and sunny; a pleasant change from the cold and wet Virginia weather. Sat by the pool with a view of snowcapped Kilimanjaro basking in the warmth of the sun. Took a taxi ride to Shangazi House to meet up with my fellow riders. Upon arrival I was met by Mario the warthog and his or her private keeper. Shangazi House lies in the shadow of Mount Meru with several very attractive cottages situated around the main residence. We walked the grounds visiting the flower and vegetable gardens and sat by its pool. Kilamanjaro seems to edge Safari in the local brew taste test. Nicoise Salad for lunch. The passion fruit sorbet gets the nod over the tamarind.

Vincent led Kathy, Hannah and me for a walkabout to the Snake Museum at 4 pm. We trod past the poultry houses and a rousing soccer game and then up the road through a small village. As we approached the entrance to Arusha National Park we saw the Reptile Sign and were met by our tour guide. He was proud to show off their venomous and non-venomous snakes, muscular monitor lizards, chameleons, leopard tortoises and turtles, allowing us to handle many of the harmless specimens.

(As it later turned out we didn’t see a single snake on safari other than a small one being carried off by a raptor. Our naturalist guide Chris Rogers was an enthusiastic herpetologist with a charming story of how he surprised Jo with “snake in the bag”.)  Our walk lasted about two hours – it was good to stretch after sitting on planes the last few days.

Mel, Amy, Barbara, and Jo arrive for dinner and as dessert is being served, here comes Maryellen. Apparently she makes her plane with less than an hour to spare thanks to the US Passport Agency’s computer freeze. All’s well that ends well.

Day 3 :”Horses and Hosts”

Depart Shangazi House around 9 AM after pumping up and changing a few tires on our two vehicles. We drive to Arusha to find Mel’s luggage – Precision Air is notorious for relieving passengers of their bags – our driver is Steven. After tracking down the required receipt we are out of the city at last and on our way to the first camp to meet the staff and our horses. Along the way we noticed how green the recent rains have colored the landscape. We see our first game: giraffe, lilac- breasted roller, zebra, goshawk and secretary bird. Vehicle # 1 saw a gerenuk.

We arrive in camp around 3 pm and meet a huge staff too numerous to remember all their names. Of course we are introduced to Jo’s partner Chris and Mark the chef.

Our brand new dome tents are arranged along the bank of a dry creek bed with a view of Longido and the plains to the east. There are scatterings of trees to make it a beautiful camp. The horses are picketed just beyond us. There are several showers and loos set up as well as the main dining tent. Behind the dining tent are the kitchen and staff quarters. A quick lunch precedes our introduction ride.

I draw a nice chestnut gelding “Phoenix” a.k.a. Warhorse. Good strong walk, comfortable and fit: perfect.

  • Maryellen – Nyasha
  • Hannah – Ashrafi
  • Ginna – Dada
  • Joanna – Heat Haze
  • Amy – Juicy Gossip
  • Chris – College
  • Kathy – El Gannador
  • Mel – Dume*
  • Barbara – Ashberg                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        *Originally Mel was paired with a jigger and upgraded the next day.  Our poor syce jigged the entire week – never stopped!

A very nice two hour orientation to get used to our tack and mounts, long walk with a few trots and canters. We see lots of game on horseback: wildebeest, zebra, gazelle  (Grants gazelle and Thompson’s), kori bastards, ostrich and white – back vultures. Beer and biltong by the fire – the first of many good dinners by Mark and a near full moon to cap off the day. Settle in with Hyena whoops and night jar alarms.

Day 4: “Pick up the pace a little”

After breakfast we mount up for a full day’s ride around our camp. We see Grants and Tommies, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, Masai donkeys, eland and gerunuk. We find a leopard tortoise at our lunch spot. The weather, though warm, has been good. Our horses and we sit out the heat of the day and enjoy a siesta. Most are reading. Kathy is knitting socks and Maryellen is doing needlepoint. We remount in the late afternoon for a ride back to camp.

The light is gorgeous at this time of day. White throated bee-eaters,  a European roller and grey hornbill are on the wing and we jump a scrub hare. Another great dinner and beautiful night sky. Unfortunately the Southern Cross is not visible in the January sky unless we wish to get up at 4 AM for a partial glimpse. We will be taking down the camp tomorrow and moving northward in the direction of Lake Natron. Our ride today has been moderate to acclimate us with longer trots and a few more canters – Joanna exhorts us with her pleas to pick up the pace.

Day 5: “Hold the Line”

Light breakfast of yogurt and juice and toast even though eggs and bacon and sausage are offered every morning. Very nice morning ride taking us to waterholes not only used by the Masai livestock but the game as well. There we saw sacred Ibis, spoonbills, stilts, sandpiper, and black-headed heron and 2 crowned cranes. Lots of plains game and Masai cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys with their herdsmen in attendance. Two good gallops chasing wildebeest in vain. Joanna does her best to control her guests with orders to hold the line. Barbara’s mare seems to gravitate towards her pal Phoenix and I can hear her coming; snorting at the canter (Ashberg- not Barbara!)

We draw close to Oldongo Lengai, the only active volcano in Tanzania. Her slopes are dusted with recent white ash. Chris tells us we may hear her rumble during the week. Thankfully we do not. Just prior to lunch we crest a hill and ride next to the rim of a crater. Here we stop for lunch and siesta. The Masai women are waiting for us with their bead work and other crafts for sale. A shopping frenzy is well underway.

I decided to hike down to the crater floor. I am surprised to pick up a breeze most of the way down. Once at the bottom the air is still and very hot. Pied crows fly overhead. Spot a beautiful sunbird with orange and yellow breast and a green/blue head and back. Afternoon ride takes us along another larger crater and up a knoll for a panoramic view of the steppes around us. We walk our horses down the rocky slope. As we approach the “Out of Africa “camp # 2 we have a nice long gallop in and out of tall grass. As we pull up nine giraffe are walking across the acacias in front of our tents. We have a beautiful view of the volcano to the west and the rising full moon to the east. The Milky Way overhead is a halo on our piece of heaven.

Day 6: “Market Madness”

Strange dreams a.k.a. Malarone moments last night. Another beautiful day. A secretary bird is atop an old nest with its mate foraging on the ground not far away. Great morning ride with many gallops. We saw six eland with two calves in the very tall grass. Good hand gallop alongside giraffe. Surprisingly after we caught up with them they seemed content to let us ride alongside. It was obvious they could pull away anytime they chose. Also had a good run with the wildebeest. Ground was reasonably safe for this kind of riding although you were always one stumble away from a cartwheel.

We watered our horses at a Masai waterhole and offered herdsman “pony rides.” I couldn’t help but notice the Masai women were much braver around the horses than the men and it was usually the youngest men that would ride first breaking the ice for the older guys. They seemed to enjoy it and grinned broadly as we led them around.

A large herd of cattle came into drink joining the donkeys, sheep and goats. One red cow was about to give birth as the calf’s hooves were already exposed. She tried to lay down in the water but was prodded to shore and put down.  After some adjusting the Masai pulled a calf and had to jump start it’s breathing with a few good drop – yanks. The black calf held its head up ensuring a happy ending for all.

Chris “forced “me to go another wildebeest chase. As we came into sight of camp we gave a go on some ostrich who I believe were the fastest competitors by far. Nice lunch. We decide to give the horses an afternoon off while we go to the Masai market. We had seen Masai livestock on the march to market most of the morning.

We take the two camp vehicles for the 40-minute drive. Along the dirt track we came across a herd of goats tended by a young boy. Several sets of rams are butting heads like bighorn sheep. As we pass through the herd the goats cascade over a dirt cliff reminding me of lemmings leaping over an edge or perhaps like wildebeest plunging into the Mara River.

The Masai market is packed. Everyone is well dressed with most anything for sale from livestock to foodstuffs to sandals to hardware and yes, even brand-new cowbells. Chris buys a young goat as a dinner guest for the staff. He rides very nicely behind our backseat. On our return we spot 16 giraffe silhouetted against the sunset as well as a lovely herd of zebu cattle with an especially big bull. Lamb for dinner and bed by 10.

Day 7: “Highway of Death “

Today will be our longest ride. We will reach Lake Natron by traveling a dry riverbed as our highway. We will thereby avoid the sharp volcanic rock flows but we need an early start to avoid as much daytime heat as possible. Chris calls for 7 AM departure. We have a very good group with many wonderful qualities. Punctuality isn’t one of them… we depart at 8. It is very hot.

Lots of giraffe and a few wildebeest mixed in. We make our way to the riverbed with good sand footing. We pick up the pace a little with a controlled canter as we enter the canyon. We pulled to a quick halt after rounding a blind curve and surprising a herd of cattle watering at two dismal looking puddles. A few of our horses take a sip but Phoenix won’t touch it. Good sense, that horse.

We break out of the canyon onto a deadly hot stretch. We can see Lake Natron shimmering on the horizon. Long columns of zebra are on the move as well. We stop for lunch and seek shade amongst some trees. Unfortunately several hundred ticks are also under those trees.   I have itchy feet so I hike west during siesta to find the river. After 30 minutes out I pull up and retrace my steps back to the others. Turns out I was less than a hundred meters from the river. Had I been on horseback I would’ve been able to see it.

Chris and I watch spirals of white pelicans flying high above us. Thunderstorms to the east finally are cooling us down. We ride out at 4 PM and follow the river until its waters petered out. Onward north until we reach the shores of Lake Natron. Many thousands of flamingos greet us there. Masai women hold up their inventory of trade goods but we are too tired to pay much attention.

After a good view of the lake we head eastward to find our camp. We see wildebeest, zebra and grants gazelle. We dismount and lead our horses over volcanic ground and find two of the Kaskazi vehicles stuck in the mud. The large horse lorry looks hopelessly mired up to the chassis while the water truck is in the process of disconnecting the tank and dumping its water. No showers tonight!

Drinks and dinner. A big windstorm kicks up blowing over the mess tent. Quick work by the staff and guests holding poles, double staking and finally moving a big truck to act as a windbreak saves it from complete collapse. Everyone holds on until the wind subsides. Kathy gets her head poled in the chaos. Hyenas are very close by. Bed at 11 PM. Long hard day means a long hard sleep.

Day 8: “Bathing Beauties”

No ride this morning. Horses and riders have earned a holiday after yesterday’s odyssey. We walk about 40 minutes across the pans to bathe in the “Hot Springs.” We come across a fresh wildebeest kill and several old zebra kills. The Hot Springs turned out to be a very pleasant and refreshing flowing stream. Everyone enjoys a nice sit in the shallow water with their beer in hands while cichlids nibble at our feet. Lots of sun cream is applied as the sun is very strong.

Alongside the banks we see Egyptian geese, sacred Ibis, blacksmith plovers and, of course, lesser and some greater flamingos. The staff stretches a tarp between the two vehicles to provide shade for our picnic on the pans. After lunch it was back to the waters but they were now noticeably much warmer and not near as enjoyable as before. We head back in the late afternoon for those who want to take an evening ride before dinner.

Five of us are led by Joanne. Chris is no longer riding as he is focused on the stuck lorry. In addition to the usual ostrich, grants gazelle, wildebeest and zebra we stumble across “Zonk” – the albino zebra that Chris had spotted during a Christmas ride. We turned back towards camp and out on the pans where I found a Masai spear amongst bones and other flood debris. Its origin can only be speculated but according to Chris it was a spear of an older type and I was pretty lucky to find it. We saw jackals close to the fresh wildebeest kill and a hyena on his way to finish it up.

A big wind storm comes up again during dinner taking down the big mess tent. No saving it this time. We evacuate to our dome tents and listen to the rainstorm that follows. The water truck is out and showers have returned but despite all their efforts the horse lorry is still stuck on the pan.

Day 9: “Stuck in Africa”

Up early for a 7 AM ride but as usual we are ready at eight. Staff had left extra early to work on the Lorry. Joanna leads us on a four-hour circumnavigation of the camp awaiting radio confirmation that the lorry had been freed. Had a good view of an African wildcat. We bought two cowbells from the Masai. They of course had to catch the cattle first to remove the bells. Amy and I had two very fine souvenirs.

We see our first hammerkop and Maribou stork. Our experience with the Masai on this trip has been nothing like encounters I’ve had with the Kenyan Masai near the Mara. Our Tanzanian hosts are a much more traditional and rural than their counterparts north of the border and certainly less westernized. It was a special joy to be to be among such hospitable people.

We return to camp for lunch and hallelujah the lorry is out! We will rest for three hours and leave at 3 PM for our return to the “Out of Africa” campsite using the highway of death as our route. We depart at 3:45. Very hot walk out in the open for the first one and a half hours. Zebra, wildebeest, grants, Tommy’s and ostrich trudge in various directions as we move south. Giraffe and Masai herdsman watch from the banks of the dry riverbed. It has now begun to cool especially when we reach the leeward side of the volcano that is now blocking the setting sun. Longest gallop of the ride…4 km according to Jo’s GPS. It was a blast!

As we enter the canyon a very large troop of olive baboons line both rims and had come to water from the same waterholes Phoenix had ignored two days prior. The canyon was shaded and there was a nice evening light. Hard to believe the difference a few hours here can make. Within view of camp a very large herd of zebra, wildebeest and grants gazelle stream by us. It is 7 pm. We enjoy drinks around the fire and our last horse safari dinner with Mark. Another windstorm comes calling right on cue with a light rain to boot.

Day 10: “Equiperils”

Windstorms – flaming heat – stuck vehicles – what a week! Wouldn’t change a single moment of our adventure.

After breakfast we say goodbye to the staff taking photos and presenting our gratuity. We are wearing our napkin – ring bracelets as a remembrance of their many kindnesses. We will take our last ride (2 1/2 hours) from camp directly to the airstrip for a flight to the Serengeti.

We got a late start and try to make up time with some very long trots and canter. We follow the same dirt track that took us to the Masai market. We water our horses at the village trough and carry on to the airstrip. We begin a canter along a heavily rutted stretch that is probably the poorest footing to date for speed. Maryellen’s horse runs up on another and she ends up on taking a dirt nap. Other than a bruise or two and a scrape under the chin she is game and good to go.

As we reach the airstrip the race is on to meet the plane at the opposite end; an exhilarating and climactic finish. We meet our pilot Roland who is a good friend of Chris and Joanna. We celebrate with champagne and photos and then say goodbye to the grooms who will ride our horses back to camp for several days of good grass and long rests.

“Serengeti – bound”: The flight takes 45 minutes. We see our former campsites, fly over Lake Natron and find the migration from above. After landing we immediately noticed the difference in temperature. Due to the elevation we now enjoy cool windy weather with a threat of rain. It is obvious there has been lots of rain here which means good grass and great game viewing. Two vehicles meet us for our first game drive to camp. We see dik-dik, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, waterbuck, tawny eagle, lappet- face vulture and a pair of jackals and lilac breasted roller.

Vehicle #2 driven by Jo gets stuck on the plains. We wait for our rescue vehicle while the tse-tse flies waste no time sampling the newcomers. Welcome drinks greet us at our field camp K/A Kampi Kampi. The new staff is equally friendly and accommodating. “You are welcome.” We now have a late lunch and get ready for a second game drive.

Serengeti National Park has three rules:

1) No night drives

2) Must stay on existing tracks

3) Must stay in vehicles

We were mostly obedient.

This evening we encountered dik-dik, cokes hartebeest, zebra, giraffe and a distant lioness on a koppi, rock hyrax, cape buffalo, two bull elephants, black and white belly bustards, a leopardess in a tree! We get stuck again. Getting out to push the vehicle in reverse Barbara positions herself directly in front of the right tire and gets slimed with Serengeti sludge. Dinner and bed. The Lions are roaring and the hyenas are whooping. Tomorrow will be terrific.

Day 11: “Migration”

The sun is out and maybe the ground will dry out today. We are told it is unusual for these early rains. Chris’s game plan is to find the migration. As we leave Kampi-Kampi, we note nesting pairs of secretary birds and lappet-faced vultures, zebra, three black-backed jackal and giraffe. It is a cool clear windy morning. We come across courting ostriches and a huge clan of hyena perhaps 40 to 60 strong. Then four eland, three bat-eared foxes, a Montague’s harrier, Egyptian geese, Grants gazelle and a European roller.

Vehicle # 2 flushes another bat-eared fox, which is immediately chased by the jackals. She bristles her tail and thwarts the threat. In addition to his vast knowledge Chris is an incredible spotter. He finds a cheetah on a Thompson’s fawn kill. We are up close and can hear the crunching of bone as she finishes her meal. Lappet-faced vultures and jackals await their turn. Two Tommy mothers stamp their feet and snort vainly for a fawn that will not return.

Because the cheetah is slightly lame on her right front Chris speculates she just happened upon the fawn hiding in the grass. The cheetah is on the move again but will she catch running prey. Four more timid eland and then Chris puts us on two young male lions. We are very close and treated to a long good look at these apparent nomads.

We are still in search of the migration when vehicle # 1 runs into a deep hole. Luckily vehicle # 2 is  there to pull us out. An unusual sighting – a rarely seen lion-tailed mongoose (Egyptian mongoose.). Then we see them. Thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles mixed in – a chorus of bleating and short scampers displaying their agility. Barbara accurately describes their bucking behavior as if they had just been stung by bees.

Five more hyena and a pair of black-bellied bustards. Thunderheads are building in the early afternoon. We have our packed lunch on the plains amidst the migration. A male kori bustard is puffed up and in full display to a disinterested prospect. We observed dung beetles make and bury their balls of wildebeest dung. A black-chested snake eagle soars nearby. The wildebeest are on the move again forming long columns as they follow the rains to greener pastures.

We see our first two warthogs – not counting Mario. Sheets of rain are approaching so we must move as well. Chris cuts off the engine so we can hear the sounds of hundreds of hooves splashing along. It makes me sad to think of the great bison migrations that we exterminated in our country. Another lucky find – a serval cat.

As we crossed a stream Chris’s car is stuck again. Two more jackals. Chris’s car cuts off and needs a push to jump start it. Two more warthogs, crowned cranes, buffalo, common reedbuck and Guinea fowl. What a day! Showers and R and R around the fire.

Chris speaks passionately about the needs of the people being balanced with the needs of the wildlife. He’s a strong advocate of both and loves Tanzania. His father was a national park superintendent and counseled Chris on this very subject. Chris and Jo make a great team: engaging and enthusiastic. They revel in sharing the best their country has to offer us.

Day 12: “Hold On” says “the Lion King”

Up extra early at 6 for a 6:30 Game drive. Spectacular sunrise on the Serengeti. First up four bat-eared foxes and then Chris spots a lone lioness in the grass. We approached by vehicle and get a good look. Although not the pride patriarch a magnificent male presents himself as well. He is on a mission and with little apparent effort covers an amazing amount of ground. Hyenas run off as he advances their way. He stops along the track to lap rainwater, scratches, marks his territory and strides off in search of the pride.

As we approach the koppies we see buffalo and rock hyrax. The animators from Walt Disney Studios were sent to this area to draw backgrounds for the film “Lion King”. These islands of piled rock don’t look real but they are every bit striking.

Chris is determined to find us black rhino. There are perhaps 20 or 30 left on the Serengeti. A cow/calf pair were poached just a month ago despite the park rangers protection. Chris finds fresh rhino scat and spoor but no rhino. In addition to yellow billed oxpeckers we find a wattled starling grooming the buffalo and giraffe for parasites. We watch a band of dwarf mongoose sunning on a rock and shortly afterwards a black shouldered kite. Chris heard a slate colored bou-bou; he considers audio just as important as video.

Reedbuck, ostrich and warthog present themselves. Chris picks up a tawny speck on a distant koppi which turns out to be four fully grown male lions in their prime. (Vehicle no. 2 ups the number to 5 by locating an unseen male on the backside.) The lions are enjoying the cool breeze to avoid the flies and of course to watch prey come and go.  Palm swifts, a bateleur eagle, an augur buzzard and a northern white crowned shrike are added to the bird list.

We exit our vehicles and breakfast on Ngong Rock. A  “hollow” rock is perched on this koppi and when struck with a rock makes a metallic gong-like sound. One can only imagine hours of music played on this ancient instrument. Red and blue agama lizards skitter about. We use binoculars to watch a breeding herd of approximately 20 elephant. Euphobia candelabra adorns our koppi. Mel finds her mother’s favorite flower; a red and yellow lily whose name escapes me now.

We pack up and carry-on. Fisher’s sparrow-larks flee the wheels of our vehicles at the very last moment. We become stuck again twice. It is important to note that our very skilled driver Chris is performing three roles simultaneously: driving under adverse road conditions, spotting game, and overseeing our safety with numerous “hold-ons!” If he is embarrassed he certainly shouldn’t be. We are damn lucky to have him.

Another leopard! A clear view of a leopard climbing up a koppi boulder. Fantastic. A long crested snake eagle is perched on an acacia just 50 meters away. Now we are amongst the breeding herd of ellies. A large cow with enormous tusks is identified by Chris as the same one that charged the vehicle in December. We give her a wide berth. We note one elephant is missing the lower portion of her trunk no doubt due to a snare.

Somehow Chris notices a shiny back that seems out of place with the buffalo we are watching. It is a hippo: not the best view but a sighting nonetheless. We crossed a man-made dam and park at a small impoundment. Impala and banded mongoose were seen on the way in. Chris pointed out a Fischer’s lovebird and lilac-breasted rollers in the thorn bush and a pintail wydah in flight. Its long tail was twice as long as his body length.

Chris the Lion King strikes again! He locates a lioness who is asleep and straddling a large limb of a sausage tree. We watch her for a very long time twitching, scratching, yawning and readjusting her sleep position. We decide to go back to camp for lunch with plans to return here at dusk.

We get stuck in the mud twice again crossing the stream. It is now getting comical and we are greatly enjoying the increasing rescue count. We lunch and rest before game drive #2.

On the way back to the sausage tree we spot a white-headed buffalo weaver. Upon arrival we note our lionesses has moved from one limb to another. We watch and wait for sunset as Chris is sure she will come down if we are patient. After an hour or so our patience is rewarded. She has noticed a reedbuck but is more interested in the zebra that are moving closer to the stream. After many false starts she finally comes down and is immediately on the stalk of the three zebras closest to the water. She slinks closer as we watch intently. The zebra inexplicably wander away from the ambush.

The light gives way and we must return to camp before dark. A great experience to closely witness this behavior. We wonder whether she was ultimately successful with the zebra.

Tonight’s dinner is our farewell feast at Kampi-Kampi. Where did the time go? Why do we have to leave? After toasting Tanzania and our host, the staff performs their Kampi-Kampi dance with great gusto parading around the table laughing and singing as they carried their goodbye cake. A curious circus of various insects performed on our table between the lanterns. Praying mantis, walking sticks and rhino beetles were the headliners. Perhaps it was time to get out of the bush!

Day 13: “Farewell to Friends”

It is our last sunrise on the Serengeti but hopefully not the last one ever. After breakfast Ginna presents the gratuity from our group. The staff sings songs in our honor featuring a solo by Edison. We say goodbye to Kampi-Kampi and game drive our way back to the airstrip where our pilot Roland will be waiting.

Our Lion King Chris finds lion immediately not 500 m from camp; four lionesses and one large male disappear in an island of thick brush. We later see a black-bellied bustard display his neck craning dance. We add klipspringer to our mammal list. One was atop a rock with its mate standing just below. A huge parade of impala bound by, perhaps 70–80 females with their young herded by a single ram.

Our first vervet monkeys make their debut and two more jackals. Chris shows us the red and black stipple ants that form nests in the whistling thorn acacias. He explains the symbiotic relationship between the ants, the acacia, and browsers. We stop and watch 4 jackals at play chasing one another in a series of tag. Our vehicles push on passing tawny eagle, a bachelor herd of impala, giraffe, slender tailed mongoose, warthog, African brown parrot and cape buffalo.

Chris scans the plains with his bino’s hoping to find another cheetah. Instead he spots a large male lion on a fresh zebra kill. As we zigzag towards him we find a leopard tortoise (its only predator is the ground hornbill), and another bat-eared fox. The male lion is now up and is dragging the carcass and is exerting his full strength to the task. He drags for about 30 seconds before he stops to rest and start again. We now notice there is a lioness at the shade tree we had not seen earlier. Most likely she was the one who made the kill. In any event the male is determined to move the kill away from prying eyes above or below.

We are now a bit behind schedule as we race onto the airstrip. We flush out arctic terns en route. Roland and his boss greet us without a hint of concern about the time. Their plane is all ours. We have a beer before Chris demonstrates Kathy’s protective vest, which she has diligently worn throughout the safari.  He attaches himself to the vehicles roll bar and jumps out. The carbon dioxide canisters go off as designed and he safely lands harmlessly on the ground. His neck and organs are cushioned by the inflated pockets covering the vital regions – good show!

On our flight back to KIA Roland takes us over the Ngorongoro Crater. I count at least 11 tourist packed vehicles within a few miles of road. It was high noon – what would the traffic be like at dawn or dusk? It reaffirmed our conviction that  we had been treated to a rare glimpse of Tanzania without the human hordes.

Barbara leaves us at KIA and she will fly to Nairobi on Precision Air. She gives instructions to pursue the elusive white beaded belt she coveted from the Masai. She promises me a set of her photos (and Chris’s) in exchange for a game list and a copy of this journal – deal!

We turn around and fly 10 minutes back to Arusha airport. We eat box lunches in the airport lounge before saying goodbye to Amy. She is traveling on to Zanzibar to enjoy the beaches and discover Stone Town.

Steven drives us into Arusha to shop at the Masai market. I find two more cowbells, which I purchased for less than I paid on the trek. No matter; the memories are far more valuable. Chris hops on a motorcycle and goes to the hardware store to buy a six-foot length of PVC pipe, which we supplement with cardboard, plastic sprite Bottle caps and duct tape to ship my spear home.

Chris and Joanna bid us farewell as we leave the market. They must be exhausted after working so hard on our behalf. Certainly we wish them every success together.

Mel and Ginna kindly invite us to the Rivertree Hotel in Arusha where they are staying for an extra two days. We have afternoon drinks under the large shade trees and are treated to pre-flight showers that our fellow passengers will surely appreciate. After a quick dinner of salad and pizza we take our leave for KIA departure on KLM. As Kathy notes we are now “Four Little Indians.”

To get to Amsterdam one naturally has to fly to Dar es Salaam first. This way you can add an additional three hours to the flight. I invite a Tylenol p.m. to the party and we enjoy a seven hour sleep over.

We arrive in Amsterdam and experience the forgotten shock of cold air. Hannah is off for home. She will be seeing patients first thing in the morning. Goodbye hug and now there are three. Coffees, juice and pastries and some idle shopping. We visit the art museum located within the terminal. Can’t speak for the others but I’m hitting the wall. Maryellen and Kathy’s flight to JFK leaves first – the final farewell – now is just me and a ticket to Washington – Dulles.

Future plans within our group were being bandied about including travels to Iceland, Turkey, Chile and Turkmenistan. This trip is a tough act to follow.

Ride Review by George Richardson

 

Of Battles, Horses and Heroes…

As the superb cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere attest, horses have existed in Western Europe for over 30 millennia and must have provided an important source of food for local hunters.  We do not know just when people began to domesticate them, but it may well have been long before they were used as mounts or draft animals.  Just like cattle, sheep and goats they are an excellent source of milk and meat.

The first reliable written records show that by the time Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, the Celtic cavalry was one of the best in the world and, as hired mercenaries, formed a vital part of the Roman war machine.  The revered Celtic goddess of the horse, Epona, held an important place in Roman mythology as well.  During Caesar’s Gallic Wars his greatest reversal came at the hands of Vercingetorix and the Gallic cavalry at the battle of Gergovia in 52 BC where the Roman army suffered a stinging defeat thanks in large part to the horsemanship of the Gauls.  They could not long defy the might of the Roman Empire, but it demonstrated dramatically the effectiveness of their cavalry.

As Europe was beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages and we regain access to some written records, the Moors were launching an attack from Spain deep into southern France.  Large sections of the former Roman Empire were conquered by their new-found religious fervor.  Many historians believe that the battle of Poitiers about 729 was one of the great turning points of history.  There the French King, Charles Martel, decisively defeated the Moorish army and brought a halt to the spread of Islam in Western Europe.  Had it not been for that victory and aggressive French attacks which followed, Chartres might be a mosque instead of a cathedral and all Europe might have fallen to Islam.  Eventually the French forces drove the invaders back across the Pyrenees and cavalry played a vital role in the military campaigns.

It was about the time of Poitiers that the stirrup came into popular use in Western Europe though they had been used in China for centuries.  Of course this was a technological advance of huge proportions since equestrian arts were so vital to military success.  How great an impact they may have had on warfare and on feudal society is one of history’s great controversies.  The Moors brought lighter Arabian and Barb horses from North Africa which may have been a factor in their defeat as the Franks seem to have had heavier horses and the stirrup probably gave them more ability to use them in heavy armor against the lighter armed Moslem cavalry on smaller horses.

History of horseback riding in France

Illustration to “The Song of Roland”

Warfare continued back and forth across the Pyrenees and in 1771 Charlemagne made an ill-fated invasion of Spain.  Roland was protecting the rear of the French army some distance behind as it was retreating across the Pyrenees through the pass at Roncevaux, but his detachment was attacked and exterminated by pursuing Moors. Roland famously refused to blow his horn for help until his dying moments.  The story gave rise to one of the most popular and wide spread romantic poems of the middle ages, The Song of Roland. This Saga remained tremendously popular in Western culture for centuries and countless translations, songs and adaptations across Europe were woven around this romantic episode.

For centuries after that, French horsemen mounted on huge, powerful horses, were successful in many battles, including the one at Hastings, which certainly did change the history of Europe.  Another military development, the English long bow, caused a shift in military tactics at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 when the English archers wiped out a large part of French aristocracy charging them on horseback at long range with their arrows before they could ever engage hand to hand.

History of Horseback Riding in FranceSeveral horse breeds developed in France and one of the most famous is the Camargue horse which long survived in the wild in the marshy areas around the Delta of the Rhone River.  These magnificent white horses are still used by the gardiens, or French cowboys, who take care of the horse herds and the local cattle.

Dr. LeGear

The Percheron Dr. LeGear holds the equine weight record for modern times at about 3,000 lbs. and 21 hands tall.

An even more famous French breed is the Percheron which is used in many parts of the world today both as a work horse and as a saddle animal.  They are the world’s biggest horse and Dr. LeGear holds the equine weight record for modern times at about 3,000 lbs. and 21 hands tall.  Napoleon favored these horses for his cavalry and to pull his artillery.  Tragically many of them were killed as Europe was ravaged by his bloody wars.  Some believe that the knights of old, who had to be winched up into the saddle on a sling with their heavy armor, used horses even larger than Dr. LeGear.

Horses from all over the world like Arabs, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses are now popular in France, but another breed which is very French is the Selle Francais which has excelled internationally in jumping and eventing competitions.

After the Second World War the French, motivated by a strong cultural connection to the horse, were the first to revive the idea of travel on horseback and have maintained many rights-of-way for equestrian travel. This combined with the beautiful countryside, delicious food, and storied history create the ideal setting for riding trips today. It should be no surprise that some of Equitours’ best and most diverse horseback riding vacations are in France. Whether riding On the Kings Trail in Perigord or exploring the Vineyards and Beaches of Bordeaux the strong equestrian history of the country is never far from view and provides a fascinating backdrop for the rides.

Article by Bayard Fox

History of Horseback Riding in Spain; From Alta Mira to the American Plains…

The arrival date for the first wild horses to reach Spain after their ancestors crossed the Bering Straits from America is lost to us in the mists of history.  We do know horses had arrived there about 30,000 years ago because of the fabulous cave drawings of them discovered in Alta Mira and other caves which are about that old.  When they were first used for horseback riding is another question because at the time of the paintings they were probably just used for eating and may only have been hunted rather than domesticated.  It is probably a good guess to say that mankind started riding horses in Spain about six thousand years ago. The Celts, Carthaginians and Romans all influenced equestrian activities there, but the greatest influence on the blood lines of modern Spanish horses was the Moorish conquest of Andalusia and most of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD.

The Moorish cavalry, mounted on swift Barb and Arab horses, quickly spread across southern Europe deep into France where they were finally defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732 and gradually forced back south of the Pyrenees.  The lighter Barb and Arab lines were mixed with the heavier Iberian stock to breed the Pure Spanish or Andalusian horse.  Almost 800 years of intermittent warfare followed until 1492 when the Spaniards finally captured the last Moorish stronghold of Granada.  Of course cavalry played a dominant part in these battles of the “Reconquista”.

By the end of the 15th century the Andalusian breed was well established and sought after by the aristocracy.  These powerful, athletic and elegant animals were a potent war machine and made excellent mounts for sports like dressage and bull fighting.  The Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna also ruled Spain at that time and used these horses to help create the famous Lippizaners, renowned for their performance in dressage and effectiveness in warfare.

History of horseback riding in SpainThe same year that Granada surrendered Spain turned its attention to the new world and rapidly carved out a huge empire from Mexico to Tierra de Fuego, a task which would have been nearly impossible without the help of the magnificent horses they brought with them.  The mighty civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas crumpled before the Spanish cavalry which gave them a huge psychological as well as a military advantage.  The natives had no experience in withstanding a cavalry charge so that the Conquistadores were able to defeat vastly superior numbers.  Huge quantities of gold and silver flowed back to Spain from the plundered treasures of these new colonies, making Spain the richest country in Europe and transforming its economy. History of horseback riding in Spain

For nearly 200 years the Spaniards were able to keep an effective monopoly on horses and prevented them from falling into native hands in any number, but in 1680 the Pueblo Uprising changed all that.  About a thousand horses escaped or fell into Indian hands and the wild ones thrived and multiplied; some say the wild herds from this superb stock numbered over 3 million by the end of the 18th century.  It transformed the lives of the Plains Indians whose culture flourished for a century and a half.

The introduction of Spanish horses to the Americas also had an enormous influence on the culture and development of Latin America. The colonies in the Americas were also profoundly impacted by the Spanish conquest. Whether riding the Peruvian Paso in Peru or enjoying colonial era haciendas in Ecuador the influence of Spain is ubiquitous in the South America of today.

Wars when the French invaded and took many of the best horses for its own army.  During the 19th century intermittent wars and chronic political instability resulted in the loss of Spain’s possessions in the Americas.  After that came the dark time of the Spanish Civil War and the country never fully recovered until after the end of World War II, but since that time Spanish horses have made a spectacular comeback.There are wonderful opportunities for horseback riding in Spain today.

Article written by Bayard Fox