December 2015 - Equestrian Adventure

Californian rides the plains of Africa.

by Patti Schofler

Nancy Warner’s dream of Africa was to see it, feel it, hear it and to experience every ounce of the fascinating continent. A horseback safari through Kenya’s Masai Mara turned out to be her solution for total immersion.

Cautious about traveling alone to Africa, Nancy contacted the organizer, High Pointe International Equestrian Tours, who provided a choice of rides successfully experienced by single travelers and then to set up a teleconference with the African guide from Safari Unlimited that conducted the tour.

Once she reached her Nairobi bed and breakfast, it was old home week. A few days in the city before the safari included a visit to an orphaned elephant sanctuary where her treat was to put a baby elephant to bed. The treats continued when monkeys visited her while she was reading in the garden of the bed and breakfast.

After meeting her guide at the B&B, they drove to the stable where Nancy was introduced to two fellow travelers from England and was matched to her horse. “The guide really probed us about our experience in the saddle,” she noted. “It wasn’t enough to just say ‘Oh, I’m experienced.’ He wanted to know how many times a week we rode, where we rode and more.”

Off they went for their nine-day adventure. The daily agenda included a ride until mid-day, lunch and a siesta for both horse and rider, and a return to the saddle from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. The schedule kept everyone out of hottest time of the day, and a time for the horses to be feed and bathed three times a day.

“I don’t know if they washed them with insecticide, but there were no flies around the horses, unlike other rides I’ve been on,” Nancy said. “These horses gleamed.”

Three guides traveled with the riders with the two in front watching for animals and one in back watching the riders.

To Nancy’s delight, both the daytime and the nighttime provided uniquely memorable experiences. The six-hour ride under the warm sun belonged to the horses who easily carried the group in and out of river beds, jumped trees downed by elephants, and steadily sometimes walking, sometimes galloping, sometimes trotting,  meandered along herds of Thomson gazelle, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and warthogs. Nancy’s partner was a strong, energetic Thoroughbred cross named Rio who shared the same calm, confident “police” horse traits as the others in the group.

“Nothing bothered these horses,” said Nancy, a rider all her life who has never owned a horse, but who is completely comfortable in the saddle. “At one point, our guide stopped us and pointed to three elephants nearby. Then another one came around the corner with her ears forward and head down, not good signs. Our guide said not a Kodak moment, and we got out of there. But our horses were calm the whole time. That’s how they always were. Clearly, the horses like their jobs and like to go anywhere. One day we were crossing a dry river bed and a hippo jumped out in front of us. You could see him counting us as he made a half circle around us. We held our ground and he decided there were too many of us. But we weren’t worried for a moment and neither were the horses.”

In the evenings, after the horses were bedded down, the riders piled into jeeps to seek out the sundown animals. One night, they witnessed the battle of David and Goliath. “We heard a horrible scream. We moved in closer to find a male silver back jackal trapped by a huge python. His mate was attacking the python, trying to save her mate. She was so brave and diligent. Every time her mate screamed, she attacked with more venom. These jackals mate for life.

“In the middle of her fight, hyenas came down the hill. They’re opportunists who take whatever they can. She turned around, and chased both back up the hill and they took off. She was so angry, you could see the smoke coming out of her ears. She was fighting for her mate for 45 minutes and those hyenas were stealing time. She went back with such venom that the python released him. She followed her mate until she saw he was safe, and she returned to finish the job.”

Also, each evening, the group was serenaded by the native animals. During the day, the hippo pod that resided next to their campsite on the Masai riverbanks silently cruised with only their big round eyes, nostrils and wiggling ears above the waterline. At night, they opened their large mouths to fill the riders’ ears with their song. “They sounded like washing machines, really loud,” the recalls Nancy, who lives in the Bay Area’s Larkspur. The following nights brought the sharp howl of hyenas and deep growls of lions.

Attention was always given to safety. The lead guide, Gordie Church, grew up in South Africa and after a British education, inherited the business from his father over 20 years ago. “He knew animals as well as I know the animals I work with,” said Nancy who boards and cares for dogs and cats in Marin County. She also volunteers for the Marin Humane Society and San Francisco Zoo.
“They took care of us and of the horses. When we were out riding, they made the right decisions. The fields have holes from the warthogs, so we would only run when the guide knew it was safe.”

Every meal was special as well. On the group’s arrival, they enjoyed a lunch of cold avocado cucumber soup with a phyllo dough pizza topped with lemon, Kalamata olives and feta cheese. Every dinner was four courses served on a table lit by hurricane lamps. Each night the napkins were folded into the shape of an animal. The last night’s napkins were elephants.

“Our chef cooked on a Coleman stove the most amazing meals. Our tables were set in the food tent like we were going to a five-star restaurant morning, noon and night. In front of our sleeping tents were little tables with fresh flowers, like a French country inn. Attention to detail was over the top remarkable.”

Gordon was as enthusiastic as his travelers about the sights. “I kept a list of birds we saw and every night we went over the list, checking if I got the names right. I would wait for him to ask me about it because I didn’t want to take advantage of his time. And every night he would ask me if I had my list. I had over 70 species of birds and 40 species of animals.”

What they didn’t see was other travelers, only an occasional Masai farmer and the animals.  Riding safari fit Nancy’s search for adventure travel. She does, however, suggest that this trip is only for an experienced rider, one who does or does not own a horse, but who has the riding legs equal to the hours in the saddle and sometimes fast pace required by this ride.

“I didn’t want a relaxing vacation sitting on a beach.” And clearly she didn’t get one.