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Travel Extra: Safari – The ride of a lifetime

It’s not easy seeing the Masai Mara on horseback, says Charles Moore – but it’s also impossible to forget

31 December 2011

10:00 AM

31 December 2011

10:00 AM

It’s not easy seeing the Masai Mara on horseback, says Charles Moore – but it’s also impossible to forget

On the third day, we left our original camp to ride 30 miles to the next. There were 15 of us, including our leader Tristan Voorspuy and two Masai grooms. We had all gathered for a moment in a salt-lick when a dik-dik, one of the smallest of the African antelopes, shot out from a bush under our feet. The horses reared and bucked, each frightening the others. One of our party, Sophie, fell on to the hard ground, and cried out in pain. She had broken her wrist.

Much of the Masai Mara is remote from proper roads, let alone from hospitals and doctors. Tristan did what he could by intermittent mobile telephone to find the Flying Doctor. We rigged up a shelter of Kenyan kikoy to protect poor Sophie from the sun and debated, at a decent distance, whether we should photograph her as she lay in agony. On the one hand, it would be intrusive. On the other hand, when all this was over, we reasoned, she would like evidence of her adventure. We photographed her.

After more than three hours, we could hear the helicopter of the flying doctor. Until then, the country had seemed quite empty, but at the sound of the blades, a little crowd of Masai emerged from the wait-a-bit thorns and watched at what books call ‘a respectful distance’. Sophie was stretchered and sedated, and she and her mother vanished in the sky, heading for Nairobi.

I mention this disaster first, because it is as well to put off anyone who thinks that Voorspuy’s Offbeat Safaris are just elongated pony treks. You have to be a reasonably fit and reasonably experienced rider (both of which, I should add, Sophie is), and then have a bit of luck too. You will sometimes have to ride for six hours a day, and sometimes gallop. When you gallop, you will often be doing so across mara which is pitted with holes made by spring hare (the African kangaroo). In places, these holes are completely invisible because of long grass.

You will also need to be able to stay on and get away fast if charged by wild animals. If you fall off in such circumstances, you will almost certainly be rescued by Tristan galloping up with his whip and driving your assailants away, a prospect which many women find alluring. You may also wish to jump (though you never have to), because the plains and plateaux are filled with trees broken and laid sideways by elephants. And you may wish — you may even be ordered — to ford the Mara river in spate. At night, tired and chafed, and sometimes (it twice rained heavily during our visit) having been soaked, you will sleep in a tent with no electric light, baboons fighting loudly in the trees above your head and lions making their distinctive ‘ugh’ noises nearby. There will be no running water. Your lavatory will be a well-dug hole in the earth. You will be woken at six.

In fairness to Offbeat Safaris — and they deserve not merely fairness, but the highest praise — no guest has been killed in more than 25 years of operating. (One cook, attacked by an elephant while climbing a hill outside the camp to get a phone signal, was not so lucky.) But the small dangers in these holidays need to be accepted, and embraced. It would be cruel and untrue to say that Sophie’s misfortune contributed to the happiness of the rest of us, but there is no doubt that shared perils are bonding, especially afterwards. Sophie has now seen the pictures, and I think she likes them.

Besides, it is the riding which makes the safari. If you have to spend almost all your time in a Land Rover, with perhaps the odd cautious poddle across a bit of scrub, you will feel frowsty and earthbound. If you ride, you will have the illusion — and it is an illusion because, without your guide, you are lost — of being free.

On horseback, your eye-level is much better for big beasts and for looking through the bush than it is on foot. The beasts themselves seem more relaxed about you, and you have the comfort that, except over a very short distance, you are faster than your foes. And Tristan is on hand to explain what it is you are seeing.

It is the most lovely, transforming experience to get really close to African wild animals. In one way, they look exactly as you imagine. A cat and mouse do not look like Tom and Jerry, but elephants really do look very like Babar and Celeste (and the old ones like wise, wrinkly Cornelius). Crocodiles look quite laughably evil, giraffes quite surreally tall. In another way, though, nothing can prepare you for the proximity — the power implicit in each movement of a leopard or a lion, the precise twirl of the impala’s horn, the white remains of sleep in the corner of the elephant’s eye, the raggedness of his ears if he is elderly, the anxious absurdity of warthogs as they flee your approach.

One morning on the Oloololo escarpment at the extreme west of the Masai Mara, quite close to the Tanzanian border, we found ourselves on green, springy pasture. It was like English parkland, except that, in front of us as we cantered, a giraffe cantered too. We had the dreamlike experience of riding fairly fast to keep up with an animal whose gait is so silently graceful and whose legs are so long that it seemed barely to be moving at all.

On another occasion, we put up a troop of mongoose (‘NOT mongeese,’ said Tristan). They hurried away from us and plopped into their holes, except for two which carried on running. Suddenly, exactly as in a cartoon, the pair braked on their heels, screamed, and ran as hard as they could the other way. They had run almost into the jaws of a hyena lying in a bush.

The best horse/wild animal encounter was with a breeding herd of elephants. We got close, and observed them quietly in all their charming peacefulness. There is something infinitely touching in the way they seem so family-minded. Then we got too close, and suddenly the lead female threw up her trunk and flapped her ears and turned on us. When 20 elephants charge, they do so in automatic hierarchy, with the biggest at the centre and in the front. A great, flapping pachydermous pyramid came towards us. As investigative reporters used to say, we made our excuses and left.

I felt so grateful in all this to Starling, my smart, hogged polo pony with her pretty action and phenomenal, unstoppable turn of speed. The Kenyan grooms all pronounced her name ‘Stalin’, and she was indeed intolerant of her fellow horses, ears right back if any came near. But one had to love her as, after six hours’ riding through heat, and then rain and thunder, she tried to canter straight up the path of the rocky escarpment over wet boulders to our new camp. Bad horses are a famous hazard of exotic riding holidays: the Voorspuy mounts are the best.

I came to love the shape of the day — the slop of hot water poured into a basin beside my tent at dawn, the sleepy early ride and the late, delicious breakfast of kidneys and (on one occasion) scrambled ostrich egg; then the early coolness giving way to the strength (never unbearable, because one is 5,000-6,000 feet up) of the equatorial sun, the rest in the middle of the day, the long ride in the late afternoon; then the ‘bag’ shower (hot water hoisted in a sack with a tap above your head), the sudden dusk, the plentiful alcohol and food all smartly served at a long table beside the fire, Tristan reciting Hilaire Belloc or ‘The Fox’s Prophecy’; finally, some nights, a search with a handheld spotlight and a land rover, suddenly picking up a bushbaby or a lion about to chase a Thomson’s gazelle. Then sleep.

The ages of our party ranged from the early twenties to 70, the latter in the form of David Robinson, who many years ago broke his neck playing rugby, and so took up drag-hunting ‘for safety reasons’. David became the hero of our journey and could be relied on to lead the field over any jump, includin
g market stalls outside Masai villages (the villagers cheered, but don’t try it at your church fête).

On our last day, after camping beside the Mara river, Tristan decided that the flood from the recent rains had subsided enough for us to ford it. But the fearless David quietly opted out. He’d done it the week before, he told me, and the water had been too high: it was higher now. We filed down to the water’s edge, and David stood above us on dry land with a camera and an expression of detachment. To our left, about 50 yards away, a group of hippo — more hostile to human beings, said Tristan, than crocodiles — watched with unwelcome interest. As soon as I entered the water, I could feel its current forcing poor Starling leftwards, pull as I might at the right-hand rein. Some of the smaller ponies were up to their necks, threatening to entangle with one another. As the riverbed deepened, Starling started to swim with a plunge which felt wonderful but was hard to sit. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see David, standing with an ‘I told you so’ look on the bank we had left behind. I felt frightened, but I also felt that, if it had to be my last sight on this earth, it was a happy one.

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