“Watch out, Ginny. He’s charging!”
My sister and I were in Kenya on a horseback-riding vacation when a Cape buffalo attacked. We galloped away from the angry bull at full speed. Being experienced riders, we laughed with relief when we finally pulled the horses to a stop.
An African adventure had been at the top of our bucket lists. During the nine days of our unique safari, Ginny and I were going to watch millions of herbivores travel on their annual pilgrimage from the southern part of Kenya to the northern section of Tanzania – both from horseback and from camp vehicle.
When we arrived at the legendary Norfolk Hotel, we met twelve other clients from Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Lari Shea, owner of the California company, arranged dinner for us on the illustrious veranda. It had once been frequented by many big game hunters and was now enjoyed by international celebrities.
After a light supper, Ginny and I returned to our large, Victorian-style room overlooking a spectacular garden. Jet lag trumped our excitement, and we fell fast asleep.
Safaris Unlimited, the local touring contractor, arranged for us to meet their guides the following morning. The company specializes in traditional excursions complete with private canvas tents and numerous staff. Just as early hunters experienced, our campsite moved every two days. Consequently, we saw various animals, birds and landscapes as we followed gigantic herds and their subsequent predators.
We climbed into custom Land Cruisers and began a six-hour ride to the Masai Mara, a game preserve half the size of Rhode Island. We were in Africa to observe a snapshot of the two-month Great Migration, a thousand-mile journey by millions of wildebeests, antelope and zebras. The grass-grazing animals trim and fertilize the land. Lions, leopards and cheetahs prey on them. And hyenas and vultures clean up the remains. From horses and vehicles, we would witness a total ecosystem during its dramatic process.
Roughly an hour from Nairobi, we ascended a steep escarpment that surrounds the Great Rift Valley. We stopped at roadside huts, perched precariously on the cliff’s edges, and bought souvenirs from the tiny booths.
Along the way we saw young Masai boys herding cattle and sheep, using only sticks to keep the animals moving. In the distance we counted Thomson gazelles, baboons and giraffes. How quickly we had ventured from Nairobi skyscrapers to rural Africa.
Eventually, we left the pavement, driving onto a dirt trail, and spotted an enormous herd of migrating wildebeest. Suddenly they spooked. Hundreds of dark silhouettes stampeded in front of us, forming a billowing cloud of dust.
A few miles later, we arrived at the first campsite. As we drove in, the staff called “Jambo,” the universal greeting of East Africa. The camp was flat, situated in a low-grass meadow, shaded by monkey-inhabited, acacia trees. We passed three large tents: one held food and kitchen supplies; another contained an oversized, dining table; and the third, we were happy to note, had a fully-stocked bar.
After washing up in our individual tents, we joined the others for the evening ritual: meeting around a blazing fire with drinks in hand while hors d’oeuvres were passed. Gordie Church, co-owner of Safaris Unlimited, and his assistant, Felicia, informed us about the daily routines. The riders, between the ages of fifty and seventy, were assigned specific horses. While we listened to safety guidelines, a large baboon wandered by. He paused, tilted his head, and meandered back into the bush.
As the day darkened, we moved to the dining tent. The table was decorated with animal horns, wrapped in flowers. Hurricane lamps lit the inside, and our long-stemmed glasses sparkled from the glow. The waitstaff folded napkins into delightful bird patterns and filled our wine glasses. Samson, the head waiter, explained that evening’s dinner.
“Tonight, we begin with a creamed, squash soup. Your entrée is beef tenderloin, marinated in a sherry sauce. The sides are green beans and garlic mashed potatoes. The bread is hot from the oven.” He paused, “and for dessert, chocolate cake with whipped cream and berries.”
Using no preservatives and only fresh food, complicated gourmet dishes were created each day. Chefs Sarah and Francis produced three-course meals three times a day -- all cooked in an oven or on a grill over an open fire pit.
After dinner, Ginny and I returned to our lantern-lit tent and fell into our beds. As the evening was chilly, we were pleased to feel warmth from hot water bottles placed under our blankets. Two nightstands hosted solar lamps, water bottles and flash lights. And private toilet and shower areas were discretely hidden behind each tent.
Sixteen horses, tied to a high picket line, grazed in the meadow. Four Masai warriors, carrying sharp spears and dressed in red robes, guarded the horses and tents through the night. As was their custom, their earlobes had been stretched halfway to their shoulders. Beaded jewelry adorned their necks, waists and ears. The Masai women are known for their bead skills, and these decorations they created were certainly stunning.
Our days began with cookies, coffee or tea, brought to our tents at 6 A.M. Soon hot water was poured into our individual wash basins. After a substantial breakfast, the riders readied their horses with English saddles and bridles.
They rode between three and nine hours a day which allowed them to view a variety of animal and birdlife up close. They trotted between herds of wildebeests and galloping giraffes. And they saw lions and elephants, but always from a safe distance.
James, a Kenyan naturalist, drove nonriders to prime migration spots. Standing in an open-topped Land Cruiser, I photographed bull elephants pushing down trees and stripping broken branches to eat. On film I also captured aggressive buffalos, kneeling warthogs and tiny deer, known as dik-diks.
One morning we saw a pair of fighting impalas, their horns temporarily locked. Using binoculars, we later spotted newborn lion cubs, hidden in rock crevices while their mother rested nearby. We also watched a dozen tree-grazing giraffes and one lone hyena, stalking an unaware gazelle.
Kenya is a birder’s paradise; up to a hundred varieties can be spotted each day. Some of the more unusual birds we saw were the brilliantly-colored, lilac-breasted rollers; a pair of six-foot-high, mating ostriches; and some oxpeckers taking insects from the nostrils of sleeping buffalos.
After a day of exploring, we returned to camp and were welcomed with drinks, hot showers and an hour of relaxing. On the second night, local tribesmen visited out campsite, wearing their traditional red robes, and entertained us by singing and dancing. We joined in, trying to imitate their straight-backed jumps. As we learned, the Masai, known for long-distance and steeplechase abilities, have won several Olympic medals throughout the years.
One afternoon we were welcomed at a “manyatta,” a thorn-fenced compound sheltering a Masai chief, his six wives, and their many offspring. Amid the circular center were homes made of twigs, packed with mud. Dirt floors and thatched roofs completed the house.
The Chief invited us into his tiny, three-room home and explained his routine. At night he stabled a cow in one small room, her calf in another. The next morning one of his wives milked the cow and drew blood from its neck. We discovered that the Masai drink blood and milk as part of their daily diet.
Later, we gave markers, crayons and stickers to the Chief’s many children. With their arms outstretched and with big smiles on their faces, they followed Ginny, a modern-day Pied Piper, as she walked through the village.
At our third campsite, Smart, a Masai warrior, took us to a bluff overlooking a spectacular section of the Masai Mara. The sprawling plains were dotted with Cape buffalo, zebras and wildebeest. Lions slept in the shade of umbrella-shaped acacia trees, and four-foot-high grasses spread as far as the eye could see.
Our last campsite overlooked a hippopotamus pool on the Mara River. Of all the beasts in Africa, the hippo is the most dangerous. It kills more people than any other animal. If spooked while grazing, it rushes to the security of the river, stampeding anything in its path.
That evening we sat on a ledge, photographing the hippos as they floated and dunked thirty feet in front of us. Some carried tiny babies on their backs, protecting them from roving crocodiles. When they came up for air, we heard a whale-like, grunting noise. Throughout the night Ginny and I listened to their snorting while safely secured in our riverside tents.
For nine days on the unspoiled wilderness of the Masai Mara, we were luxuriously pampered. By Land Cruiser and horseback, we witnessed and photographed phenomenal wildlife. The colorful Masai tribe and amazing gourmet meals only enhanced this remarkable adventure.
Written on my bucket list was an African safari. To experience one with my sister during the Great Migration exceeded all expectations. My dreams had come true.
© 2013 Barbara Phelps Wolverton
Outfitters: Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Worldwide Horseback Riding Vacations.
24201 North Hwy 1, Ft. Bragg, CA 95437.
Tele: (888) 873-5777. (707) 964-9669. (707) 964-7669.
Safaris Unlimited (Africa) Ltd. P. O. Box 24181, Karen 00502, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tele: 254-20-208-7296. Cell: 254-727-53-5019.
Getting There: Swissair from JFK to Zurich to Nairobi. During the time we were travelling, they offered the best prices and with the shortest flying times.
Where to Stay: Fairmont The Norfolk. Thuku Road, P. O. Box 40064-00100, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tele: 254-020-2265-000. FAX: 254-020-2250-200. $250-$450.
Web: www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel. Dining is expensive and very good.
Giraffe Manor. Koitobos Road, Langata, Kenya.
Tele: 254-020-891078. FAX: 254-020-890949. $450 plus.
Fairview Hotel. Bishops Road, P. O. Box 40842-00100, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tele: 254-20-288-1419. FAX: 254-20-2721320. $125-$250.
Dining is medium priced and very good.
Nairobi Taxi and Tour: Simple Waweru of Ke-Ray Tours.
Places to Visit: Karen Blixen Museum (Danish author: Out of Africa), Karen Road, Karen, Kenya. Tele: 254-020-882779. Web: www.museums.or.ke.
Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Web: www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
Nairobi Railway Museum. Station Road, Nairobi, Kenya.
Hint: When travelling to third-world countries, I typically bring books, crayons, markers and stickers for children as well as clothes for adults.
© Printed in The Connection