Galloping with the migration: A horseback safari in Kenya

A Kenyan safari by horseback: wildlife, adrenaline, glamping in the wilderness and adventure at a gallop!

 

Partnering with The Classic Safari Company, publisher of Australian Country Magazine Karen Day saddled up for an eight-day horseback safari in the Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya. Read her story...


 

Would you put yourself in the gazelle’s position?

Horses have been preyed upon for millions of years. Long before they were domesticated they were hard-wired to be good at reading a predator’s body language. It’s as though they have a built-in instinct to avoid becoming lunch. The same can’t be said of herds of animals on the African plains. Watching footage documenting their annual migration from the Maasai Mara you can see a gazelle snacking on grass while a lioness lazily grooms her cubs in the midday sun. But would you put yourself in the gazelle’s position, albeit from the saddle on our friend, the humble horse?

The Classic Safari Company and Safaris Unlimited

The Australian-based Classic Safari Company and its Kenyan counterpart, Safaris Unlimited, have been testing this proposition for more than 40 years. Classic Safari is run by the dynamic Julie McIntosh, who also happens to be a keen horsewoman and, in her spare time, president of the Windsor Polo Club. It is fitting that Julie represents Safaris Unlimited’s boutique safaris in Australia as this experience is built for the horse lover who wants bit more than a trail ride. That bit more includes every conceivable game animal from lions and giraffes to gazelles, elephants and the occasional hippo. Yet, when I was given the amazing opportunity to join the first tour of the annual June-to-September migration of the great Maasai Mara herds, I found myself at Sydney International Airport bawling my eyes out. The trigger was that I had forgotten my hairbrush, but the reality, I am ashamed to admit, was that I was scared. I turned 40 this year and I thought I had it dialled. But as it turns out, the fear of travelling to Africa alone, especially with the political unrest in the region, was wreaking havoc with my psyche.


Doubts dispelled

Those doubts were quickly dispelled once I landed in Nairobi and met my first hosts for the trip, Cheli and Peacock. Arriving at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport my first impression is that I’ve landed somewhere resembling Adelaide. How deceptive that is becomes apparent when I step outside this quiet international airport’s customs area into an assault on the senses. There’s a crowd looking for new business, looking for a client, looking to take you for a ride. Thankfully though, through the cardboard signs, the touts and the heckling, I’m greeted by a very well-presented guide with a big plastic sign. He promptly spirits me into an air-conditioned transporter to do battle with Nairobi’s peak hour. After 40 minutes’ navigating a combination of beaten up dirt bikes, unroadworthy trucks and foot traffic from what appears to be a large proportion of Kenya’s 40 million people, we arrive at an oasis. Based in Karen, the Beverly Hills of Nairobi, Hemingways at Nairobi is the perfect antidote for the 24-hour flight from Australia. Owned by a group of British and Scottish directors, the hotel could be straight from the set of The Great Gatsby and captures what life may have been like in Africa in the colonial days. Having my own butler is just one of many luxuries to which I quickly become accustomed.


The Aussie contingent doesn’t need to be asked twice

After a very long shower and a good night’s sleep early in the morning I meet with another driver and the first of my tour partners, Alice and Damien from WA. As we make our way to Wilson Airport the traffic is like peak hour on Sydney’s M5, with added challenges of unruly pedestrians, unhelmeted bike riders and the constant risk of someone driving down the wrong side of the road. At the airport a Safaris Unlimited representative introduces us to the rest of the group. There are 12 of us, one from Ireland, one from England, four Aussies and six endlessly entertaining Americans. We pile into our first light plane for the flight to Keekerok airstrip and then board another small aircraft for the 10-minute flight to Naboisho airstrip. At Naboisho we are met by our hosts for the next eight days, the owner/operator of Safaris Unlimited, Gordie Church, and his support driver, James. As we board a four-wheel-drive, an offer to sit on the roof is extended. The Aussie contingent doesn’t need to be asked twice. Alice, Damien, Tanya and I climb onto the roof for absolute pole position on what turns out to be an incredible number of game sightings in the trip’s first 40 minutes.

Gordie Church: Safari outfitter extraordinaire

Safaris Unlimited was started by Gordie’s father, Tony, in 1971 so Gordie has grown up on safari. He has an intimate knowledge of the conservancies of the Maasai Mara and the land, the people and wildlife that live there. On arrival at Olare Lamun camp we are now officially guests at the under-canvas home of Gordie and his wife, Felicia. Gordie and Felicia’s love story is one of the reasons this experience is impossible to replicate with any other safari outfit. Four years ago Felicia came to take care of a brokenhearted Gordie’s horses and found the love of her life. There is still some debate regarding who fancied whom first but the chemistry between this couple is palpable and a pleasure to be around. Their business extends beyond riding tours to all aspects of safari, which can be tailored and personalised to guests’ specific requirements. Horses are very much a part of the Churches’ personal lives and their 28 safari ponies live a perfectly lovely horsey life for the nine months of the year that they are not required to work. While on tour, every four horses have a full-time groom to ensure they get the best of care.

Camping? Hardly!

On arriving at the camp we meet the crew, settle into our tents and are matched with our pony friends. The camp consists of a series of guest tents, a bar area, a dining room and staff tents. The furnishings are as classy as the rest of the operation with no detail left to chance. Your wash basin and vanity are positioned at the entrance to the tent, the beds are comfortable and as you slide under the Egyptian cotton sheets each evening one of the best surprises of all is a hot water bottle tucked inside. Make no mistake, this is exceptionally well-executed glamping.


The 'Thunderbox' and other bathroom joys

The bathroom facilities are truly one of the joys of this trip. If you are single you have your own en-suite and couples share. The wooden seated toilet, aka the thunderbox, is raised above a hole in the ground. The shower operates on a bush system whereby an overhead bladder is heated by the crew. There is no temperature control but they always seem to get it right. Each allocation is 20 litres, which last around five minutes, enough time for a quick shave and to wash your hair if you like.

The horses, game drives, walking

As this particular tour is a riding safari, our group quickly binds via our mutual love of horses. The conversation flows freely among my fellow travellers, who range in age from 25 to retired. The male/female split is surprisingly even. The afternoon of the first day we are matched with our mounts and we stay together for the duration of the journey. My horse is Running Free, a 15-hand mare, and she in unflappable. Running Free’s life began on the racetrack and although she has had seven foals, she clearly loves the thrill of galloping across the open plains. Her best friend is Kapatula, who is also Gordie’s horse, so I was guaranteed to be up front on the action from the outset. The tour moves through four camps and travels approximately 250 kilometers during the eight days.

Daily activities vary from casual morning and afternoon rides, to full days in the saddle, game drives and trips to local communities. A must-do is the bush walk with Gordie, who packs a rifle for our protection. We come across a dead crocodile and our first pod of hippos.


Do I need to be a three-star eventer?

To truly enjoy this ride you don’t have to be a three-star eventer, but you do need sound horsemanship skills. If you are a novice rider I would recommend regular lessons for at least six months before you go. As part of that training include a couple of trail rides and make those free-range where possible. The Safaris Unlimited ponies are very well behaved but this is not for beginner riders. The camp moving days are fairly long in the saddle and the terrain is challenging in parts. You also need to be on your guard. The horses are fit and fast and you need to be prepared for free-range gallops. Occasionally things get a bit hairy. When your guide screams out for you to hold your horses you need to be able to collect them up, and when he cracks his stock whip and yells across the plains to ride your horse, you need to give your horse a free rein and get into two-point fast. The next two klicks may well be quickest you are ever likely to cover. The dangers of this trip are real and the word ‘retreat’ means ‘do it and fast’.

What about all that dangerous wildlife?!

The fifth day is a gruelling and exhilarating 50km-ride, with fast plains and rocky outcrops and sightings of elephant, giraffe and all the usual suspects of the Mara. However, we also come across another of the big five, the buffalo. Our first sighting was at a waterhole where he reluctantly moved, and the second time we were across the river from one another. On the third occasion, as we were plucking our way through the bushes, our fearless leader suddenly started backing up with an urgent whisper of “retreat, retreat”. We had almost ridden over a big sleeping bull buffalo.

Hippos are another unexpected danger. On our second-last day we were enjoying a leisurely early-morning ride when we stopped to water our horses on the banks of the Mara River. This, mind you, is the same river in which wildebeest and zebra are regularly devoured by crocs. Caprivi, the big grey South African warmblood, had almost dunked his rider in the water and we were getting ready to move out when Felicia called “Incoming hippo, move your horses!” The party split in all directions and the horses scrambled up the ravine just as a one-tonne hippo made a late dash for the water. Hippos feel safest when they are in the water, and getting in their way when they are making a break for it is when most deaths and injuries occur. The other thing you don’t expect about hippos is the noises they make. They have the laugh that makes them sound like an evil genius sneezing and then having a giggle at his evil plan of eating grass and wallowing the day away.


In instinctive conclusion

The safari comes to a close in no time at all and the forgotten hairbrush incident has been erased by myriad life-changing experiences and encounters. And, based on our ponies’ unanimous response to the hippo encounter, I can report that instinct worked for each and every one of them.

How to get there

Etihad and Emirates airlines fly direct to Nairobi from Australia.

Abundant wildlife

The wildlife is a constant assault on the senses. This is a brief list of the game animals we saw on the first day alone:Giraffe, warthog, vulture, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, eland, wildebeest, elephant bones, Vermet monkey, baboons, Marbou storks, silverback jackals, topi, waterbuck, and the list continues – elephant, crocodile, lion, buffalo, hyena, doves, mongoose, hippos and myriad birds and reptiles.

Unforgettable

  • The camp crew’s amazing ability to cope with wet weather. The staff makes mud disappear.
  • The siesta from approx 1.30-4.15pm. At camp we lazed in our tents sleeping, reading or enjoying the sounds of the bush. On moving day you simply pull up under a tree, pull your cap over your eyes and let the heat of the day wash over you.
  • Bloody Marys while watching giraffe saunter across the plains.
  • The sheer joy of watching elephants eating
  • A guide (Gordie Church) who speaks fluent Swahili
  • Masai guarding the camp for lions at night
  • Watching a mating pair of lions in the think of the bushes. The female was working very hard at seducing her beau to no avail as he continued sleeping.
  • Having someone polish your riding boots daily
  • Having your laundry done every second day
  • Wondering what David from Ireland will do or say next

 


A word from The Classic Safari Company

If you'd like further information on this incredible safari please contact us and we'll be happy to help. Both Julie McIntosh and Ella Kiddell have joined horseback safaris with Gordie Church in Kenya and can happily answer any questions or allay any concerns you may have.

We can also assist with flights and any additional pre- and post- arrangements. Why not combine a horseback safari with a stay at the working cattle ranch of Borana, a spot of polo at North Kenya Polo Club, a visit to the arid and little-known Namunyak conservacy and the stunning Sarara, a stop over in Cape Town or even a gorilla trek?

 

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