Posted on Sunday, January 6th, 2013
The Ultimate Riding Experience
DAY 1: I arrived for the Masai Mara Ride Safari in Kenya via a 10-passenger plane. The place looked like a movie set. For as far as I could see there was gently rolling, short grass pasture where various herds of wildlife were scattered here and there. As we descended I saw elephants from the plane. The drive from the landing strip to our first camp was incredibly lucky. Within five minutes of driving we saw giraffe, Thompson gazelle, warthogs, zebra, topi, but the highlight was finding two lions and two cheetah. The animals in the Mara are totally habituated to safari vehicles because they have been in their environment for so long. I imagine they see them as part of the ecosystem so we got within 8 feet of the lions and they hardly blinked. Cheetah walked within 4 feet of our vehicles. Our guide said he has had cheetah jump up on the hood of his vehicle to use it as a vantage point when hunting.
My big, burning question for our guide was how do you intend to ward off any lion, cheetah, or leopard attacks? Answer: he doesn’t intend to. Most of the animals in the Masai Mara will not bother people on horseback, and therefore we are unarmed. He tells me lions are deathly afraid of people in the Mara (but not necessarily other parts of Africa) because they have been hunted by the local Masai tribes with spears. Though hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977 the lions are not without worry because people are allowed to defend themselves and their livestock against lion. Of course this gets exploited, and if someone claims self-defense when prosecuted for killing lion, the case gets dropped. Add to that the swagger of taking on a lion and the result is they are still killed by people and therefore totally wary of humans. The biggest threat to us on horseback, in this order, are elephant, buffalo, and hippo. However, a horse can outrun all those things. The Hippo are scared of people and will only charge if you surprise them, or get between them and their water pools or they perceive a threat to their babies. Elephants are deadly, don’t like horses, and will charge if we get too close. In that case we have to be prepared to run and stay on. Buffalo are nasty, cantankerous creatures that will gore horses and stomp people. They are unpredictable and very dangerous so if we have to outrun them we’ve been told again we must stay in the saddle. In all cases of predatory animals, surprising them by stumbling upon them in bushes or deep grass is the most common cause for attack. Usually the animals can hear us coming and move off to a comfortable distance. Our guide Anthony went so far as to say that I could almost certainly walk across open, non-brushy land with no animal water source, day or night, and be unharmed.
Our camp is extremely comfortable and the outfitters are excellent about seeing to our every need. There is always coffee and tea immediately when we wake up. Every morning there is hot water available to wash up in a basin outside the tent which is then refilled and waiting when we return from riding. Laundry is done every second day or so. After every ride they clean my chaps and riding boots. We get hot showers from big watertight bags suspended in trees with a shower nozzle coming out the bottom of the bag. For privacy we have zippered canvas (tiny) shower surrounds. The showers are barely adequate but pretty much what I expected. They put hot water bottles in our beds so the bed is warm. Our guide, Anthony, says he can’t get used to this nicety and it always gives him the shocking feeling that an animal is in his bed. At night every tent gets an old-fashioned lantern that burns all night in front of the tent and there is a solar-powered lantern for inside. Thankfully, the Masai Mara is not buggy, and daytime temperatures are in the perfect mid-70’s. It gets cold at night, though, and I definitely need my fleece jacket. The campsites have been carefully chosen so each experience is new. The first night we camped on a high bank overlooking a pool full of hippos. Having meals and cocktail hour overlooking these animals is a very special treat. Hippos, however, are bad morning neighbors because they wake up very early and roust everyone with their snorting, grunting, and splashing. Meals have been good and I can’t believe the cooks can make things like bread over a campfire.
DAY 2: The binoculars I brought are useless on a ride safari because my horse won’t keep still so I can only use them one-handed without dropping the reins. Camera is not much better, though I’m told with practice it can be done. However, both these things are essential for the game drives we do every day in the safari vehicles. I love the safari vehicles! They seat 7 including the driver. It’s set up so everyone gets a window. The best part is the roof opens and it’s comfortable to sit on top of the vehicle if you hold onto the roof racks. This is an ideal vantage point for game spotting and photographing. Besides that, it’s just plain fun to ride on the roof.
I am very happy with my excellent horse for the trip. “Tinga” is a big, strong, thoroughbred cross chestnut gelding with a nice fast pace and excellent judgment. Big scary of the day for me was crossing the Mara River with hippos 50 yards downstream watching us on full alert. Tinga charged across without hesitation navigating the big slippery rocks in the stream bed and it was over before I had time to stress. We have a couple more river crossings to look forward to (NOT!). As some of you may know I was concerned about my level of riding because the booking agent at Equitours wisely promoted the trip to expert riders only. I was actually very nervous about this because I was quizzed thoroughly about it when I booked the ride. Example: can you ride an English saddle at a fast, posting trot for 30 minute stretches? Are you competent on long gallops in 2 point position and can you control a spirited horse under all conditions? Are you sure you can? Are you really, really sure you can? No really, you gotta be sure. After today I’m sure. Last night we did a long gallop on an open plain with 5 horses going fast. I did fine. I just trusted that Tinga wouldn’t stumble if I maintained my balance and kept my focus far ahead, not at the ground. I needed the two point position and I thank my wonderful trainer Courtney Reid for making me practice it. I find it essential.
The native Kenyans who look after the horses are called syces. The syces string a rope line about 10 ft. above the ground, through the trees, and the horses are tied to it. They are guarded all night. Three times daily and once in the middle of the night they are fed with nose bags and staked out to graze as much as possible during the day. In the morning, the horses are saddled, tacked up, then they hand me my horse, hold my saddle solid while I get on, and we’re off. Same drill when we return. I hand them the horse and they take over from there. So far, this experience has exceeded all hopes.
This morning the ride was beautiful and exciting. On the way home we rode along the Mara river bank and there were hippos to my right. Within 300 yards on my left was a herd of 10 elephants interspersed with smaller game animals (maybe gazelle and topi) and next to them was a band of baboons. The game experience here is beyond anything I had imagined. Our guide has leased rights for us to use this area called the Masai Mara game conservancy which lies adjacent to the Mara reserve from the Masai tribe. The rules in this area are pretty relaxed and we can drive off-road anywhere. So far we haven’t seen anyone else besides some Masai tribesman herding their cattle.
This freedom to do what we want has been great! The rules differ between various conservancies and reserves. For example, in some conservancies and national parks you are only allowed off-road only in the event of a confirmed cat sighting and then you must drive directly there. No more than 5 vehicles are allowed near the cats at any one time and if other vehicles are waiting you must restrict you visit to 20 minutes. I’ve heard some game reserves and national parks can get crowded, and the total number of beds in the Masai Mara game reserve including all the tented camps and lodges is 3700. I enjoyed the relative freedom and fewer people in the game conservancy.
DAY 3: Today was the most exciting horseback ride of my life for sure. In the morning we had to cross rivers with hippos watching us at short distance but I’m numb to that by now because I’ve had to do it about 6 times. Rode through Masai village territories. Saw lots of Masai tending cattle and goats. The cattle have bells that provide soundtrack to landscape.
Six cute free roaming donkeys came galloping up to see us, and proceeded to join with us for about two miles. Game was abundant but not too exciting. One of the horses colicked and we were glad to have a spare horse. The colicking horse was ponied (lead) behind another horse all day but at least she didn’t have to carry a rider. At lunch one of the riders decided to opt for riding in the vehicle so we had her horse running freely along with us which probably caused what happened next.
It was after lunch when things got a little dodgey. We had just crossed a creek and come up out of a gully onto open flat land. I was noticing gathering clouds and heard what I thought was a crack of thunder. Instantly, the horse to my left whirled into me and my horse started running sideways before he took off at a run. As I was regaining control the Masai guide who rides with us yelled SIMBA! What I had heard was the roar of a lion. 3 female lioness were hiding in the bushes about 45 yards away. One of them charged us about 30 meters out and retreated when our guide yelled sharply at her. In retrospect our guide thought it was the loose horse that drew the lion attention and half-hearted charge. The lionesses kept their heads poked out of the bushes watching us as we rode on. It was very dramatic, but truly they were easily dissuaded with a yell and if all of us had challenged them they would have bolted.
As if that weren’t enough, 30 minutes later we came to a tiny little stream about 6 ft wide in a shallow gully. Everything looked fine and I was behind our guide as he began to cross. I was just starting to go in when a hippo came boiling up out of the water 10 ft to my right. My horse spun, ran back up through the line of horses behind me and somehow got me safely out of there. It was totally unexpected because the creek didn’t look wide enough or deep enough to conceal a hippo. The other thing was his head faced away from us, so he looked exactly like a gray rock. In all, it wasn’t that bad because he was wedged into the narrow stream so he couldn’t get out very fast, and he was totally confused so we had enough time to get to safety. Still, I was glad to have stayed on both times.
Final event of the day was my bad. We came into a wide open meadow with a herd of giraffes, a bunch of other game and elephant in the far distance. It was a gorgeous sight and I wanted to run with the giraffes so I asked our guide, Anthony, if we could gallop, he said sure so I took off. Of course this caused all the other horses to take off too and soon we were all at a full run with giraffes scattering and game everywhere. When we reconvened after a 2 mile run our guide was a little cross with me. Apparently, when he said yes to my gallop request he meant to stop the group for a moment, get a plan together and then go. I heard yes and took off causing everyone else’s horse to take off too. What a brat! That said, it was the biggest rush ever!
There are ten in our group of riders. We have an Australian family of four, a British couple and me. Youngest rider is 18. Our guide is native Kenyan, Anthony Cheffings. Anthony is sub-contracted by the outfitter who owns this safari company. He is a superb, knowledgeable guide, good horseman, and though he is a white guy with a British accent he speaks Swahili so he can communicate very well with the Masai employees. His father was a professional hunter in Kenya so he has tremendous knowledge of most aspects of the country. He runs his own Safari company and if I had a group of people going on safari I would certainly book with him directly. Also In our group is 18-year-old Australian Izzy, sweet Izzy. She works for Off Beat safaris and assists Anthony. Izzy is a fabulous rider, really fun to have around and helps out a lot. Another very important rider in our group is Matteon, our Masai tribesman guide. He has been working as a back-up guide at Off-beat for 15 years and when we’re riding I watch him carefully. I try to watch where he is watching because I know that he has a deep understanding of the land and perceives much more wildlife than I do. In all, it’s a great group of people and I have enjoyed them very much.
Tonight’s camp is beautifully situated on the edge of a high escarpment overlooking the Mara valley. We went to a promontory near camp where we watched a storm roll in across the Mara. Wearing my little rain poncho I got hit with a big blast of wind before a quick dramatic deluge hit.
DAY 4: Big ride today. 8 hours in the saddle. At the end of the day I was pretty beat because the riding was tough. We led our horses about a mile down a steep, rocky escarpment to start the day. I kept hearing sliding hooves behind me and thought for sure a horse would come piling into me.It all worked out okay. My horse is acclimated to the Mara, and so far seems to know how to maneuver on uneven footing, while avoiding holes so I have great trust in him. Then again, what other choice do I have? Holes are probably the biggest danger we face. A horse could easily break a leg if they step in the holes aardvark and other animals make. Or they could stumble and fall on the rocks. I wear a helmet and try to stay alert. The ascent back up the escarpment to our camp at the end of the day was hard for the horses. These horses are tough, tough, tough and sure-footed. I was thinking about the overhead involved in running a camp like this. It’s a huge undertaking for the operator. Just from what I can observe there are three guides and at least 12 other native Kenyans working to make the camp run. We have chefs, guys looking after horses, doing laundry, setting up and moving camp etc. One huge factor in the outfitters’ advantage is that Africa is the opposite of the USA. In the USA goods are cheap but labor is expensive. In Africa, goods are relatively expensive but labor is very cheap.
There are 11 or 12 horses on each safari and a big truck is needed to transport them. Another big truck transports the camp gear and we have 2 Safari vehicles that cost about $60,000.00 each. Of course they have the other usual costs of insurance etc., and they have the added difficulty of 3 months where they book very few trips (March-May).
DAY 5: Rode to new camp. Today was Zebra day. We saw large herds of Zebra on our ride and their constant zebra barks (they sound like a cross between seals and dogs) was today’s soundtrack for the ride. We see so much game everyday it would be monotonous to list it all. Tomorrow is a non-riding break day with morning ride optional. Today I did my first opt-out. Instead of going for a night drive with a spotting light in the Landcruisers, I decided to take a shower, wash my hair, and catch up on some stuff. Of course my fellow riders ran into a pride of 3 lioness with their 9 cubs playing in the road not too far from camp. Apparently the lions don’t mind the spotlight at all and they were able to spend quite a bit of time observing and photographing them. The pictures were great.
This third camp has been my favorite so far. We are in a grove of trees and there is abundant game all around us. The lead horse, Johnny Walker, had several baboons at his feet this morning when the syces checked him on the tie-up line. He seemed to be tolerating them pretty well as they snacked on the grain he had spilled.
Close to us is a fancy camp called offbeat Mara camp. We went over and checked it out which was a bad thing because it made me long for fluffy pillows, and running water.
My opinions about safaris: there is a huge range from big corporate operations to mid-range operators to individuals doing safari tours. In my opinion you should book with mid-range to individual operators.
One important thing to consider when booking safaris is the kind of vehicle available. I’ve seen minivans stuffed with tourists driving around and that looks miserable. Much better is a 4wd Range Rover or Land Cruiser safari vehicles with no more than eight seats, windows for everyone and roof hatches. Roof hatches are essential. We are fortunate to have a native Kenyan guide who speaks perfect English. I think some safari operations advertise a native guide, but it can be difficult to understand them if Swahili is their first language. Safari is big business in Kenya, and there are all kinds of ways they cut costs so you have to really question everything about accommodations, meals, transportation to and from safari back to your hotel, and especially how many other people will be on your Safari.
Another decision to be made when choosing safaris is whether you want to drive, ride horseback, or walk. Surprising to me is that driving safaris get you closest to the game, followed by horses which give a greater access in some ways but less in others, and walking safaris give you the least game interaction. Walking safaris are more about tracking animals and experiencing nature sans vehicle.The trick is to find a good guide.
Anyone in Kenya can call themselves a professional guide because it is unregulated by the government. What has evolved to discourage people with no expertise from acting as guides is self-regulation among some guides who have formed a professional association called the Kenyan Professional Safari Guide Association (KPSGA). In order to belong to the association guides must study and pass exams to earn a bronze, silver, or gold rating. There are lots of guide schools putting out graduates but the KPSGA administers exams designed to be independent of individual schools in order to get unbiased results of competency. Guides must wait three years between exams while they continue working in the industry before they can advance their rating. Book with a good travel agent, do your research carefully, and insist your guide is at least KPSGA bronze rated.
Which brings me to the subject of guide books. I use guidebooks for general information and am very wary of the places they rate highly. After all, they have just directed the entire world to go to these places. Case in point: I was almost persuaded to go to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania by guide books that refer to it as the eighth wonder of the world. This place is about 10 miles wide by 10 miles long with only three roads going through it. The point is that game is concentrated in the crater so you see a lot. But, as my guide points out, it’s also massively marketed, not a very big place, and so many people go there they have traffic jams in the crater. Locals call it “the hole”.Guidebooks rave about Ngorongoro crater but I’m giving it a miss. I find myself relying more and more on travel blogs, websites such as TripAdvisor that give candid reviews, and word from friends for travel advice.
DAY 6: I went on the optional morning ride but the highlight of the day was a mid-day game drive. Our guide got us within 20 yards of a mother cheetah and her nearly adult cub eating on their fresh Impala kill. From a distance, the tell-tale indicator marking the cheetah kill was all the vultures circling and lurking. We were not the only ones to notice this. As our guide predicted, it was only a short time before a competitor showed up. In this case a hyena ran up, snatched the cheetah’s kill, and ran off. It was no contest; the cheetah didn’t even begin to put up a fight against the vicious hyena. Fully annoyed, the cheetahs slinked off and left it all to the vultures and hyena.
A couple of miles further we came across three torpid male lions who had been gorging on their Eland kill. They were all stretched out under trees and barely moved a whisker when we pulled up 10 feet away from them. I should say they barely moved until we found their kill under some trees where they had dragged it. As we checked out their stinky Eland kill one of the lions came over and laid down beside the carcass just to let us know he wasn’t sharing.
The evening we had another cheetah sighting.You only see female cheetahs in pairs when it’s mother and cub. In this case the cub was full-grown and unbeknownst to it one day the mother will simply walk off and leave it. After that happens they will never again have friendly contact. Today though, they looked gorgeous and happy perched together on a termite mound looking out over the open plain.
The crazy thing about game drives is the animals absolutely ignore people in vehicles. We can have windows open, talk loudly, snap pictures and be hanging off the roofs but they carry on as if we’re not there. However, if you step out of the vehicle they bolt. I asked our guide about this and his theory is that they possibly perceive us as contained and caged in the vehicle. I imagine we look to them something like a monkey driving his cage on wheels.
DAY 7: Moved camp today. Got up early for a sunrise game drive and saw the lions with cubs I missed on previous drive. Rode 50 km to a beautiful campsite in a grove of acacia trees. Today was the longest riding day so everyone was pretty tired and turned in early.
Day 8: Drove to final destination where we spent 2 nights at a gorgeous estate called Deloraine near Lake Nakuru. This is where the owners, Tristan and Cindy Voorspuy, live with their 80 horses.
Did a game drive at Lake Nakuru very early this morning. The hundreds of flamingos and storks on the lake in the early morning mist looked somewhat ethereal. Not only that, we saw 4 white Rhino and a leopard which brought our game sightings to include the big 5! The big 5 refers to the five most difficult (dangerous) animals to hunt in Africa which are: lion, cape buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and leopard. This achievement was an additional star I added to my ultimate riding experience in the Masai Mara.
Article by Jacqueline Lampros