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Safari Report: The Migration from Horseback
The Earth’s Greatest Wildlife Spectacle
To many, Kenya conjures up a number of evocative and romantic images cultivated by numerous Hollywood movies and wildlife documentaries. A country made famous over the last century from singular eccentrics like Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham, Denys Finch Hatton, Courtney Selous, Teddy Roosevelt, Hemmingway, Robert Ruark, Donald Ker and Syd Downie.

Our group of eleven represented nearly as many colourful tribes as there are resident in this startlingly diverse country which has delighted generations of safari visitors. Our small band hailed from America, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Our destination and purpose? To experience what is possibly the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, ‘The Wildebeest Migration’ in the Masai Mara. There is nothing unusual about viewing this annual mass movement of over three million animals that march from the Serengeti into Kenya in search of grazing and a faithful water source. Daily, squadrons of safari vehicles scour the open plains of rich savannah, with a profusion of tourist heads peering from viewing hatches, pointing camera lenses at this amazing parade of animals.

Our group had chosen to witness this extravagant show somewhat differently; from the back of an animal we had all shared a lifetime’s affinity with. For the next ten days we would be riding fit and fast polo ponies across the grassy gamelands, stretching from the base of the Oloololo Escarpment which abruptly marks the Mara’s western limit, to the Loita Hills in the east which separate these 6000 foot high plains from the heat of the Great Rift Valley.

Our drive from Nairobi, the safari capital of the continent had taken us to the rim of the eastern escarpment, offering breathtaking views across the Great Rift Valley. We meandered down some 2000 feet where we were greeted by the Longonot and Suswa Volcanoes rising from the dry valley floor. It wasn’t long after leaving Narok, a Masai trading centre that we entered Masai Land into which the migration spills.

As we crested a rise on what had become a flush of radiant green grass, all occupants of our vehicle were breathless as we beheld an awe inspiring view of tree flecked grasslands covered by a mass of animals that stretched to the far horizon. Herds of eland, impala, fleet footed gazelle, zebra and topi were interspersed among thousands and thousands of bearded wildebeest. Numerous giraffe were delicately browsing from flat topped acacias as we drove for miles through a kaleidoscope of wildlife. Someone commented “imagine riding through this!” We didn’t have to fantasise for long. Soon we drove into a well-sited tented camp on the banks of the Mara River which flows swiftly at the base of the huge, verdant green, Oloololo Escarpment. We noticed a string of horses saddled and waiting with grooms in attendance. Our group were hastily shown to spacious tents, we washed down the dust with an ice-cold Tusker beer and then taken to meet our mounts.

Tristan Voorspey
  Eighteen years ago Tristan Voorspey, an eccentric, footloose English army officer, began guiding horseback safaris in the Masai Mara. Tristan and his wife Lucinda, both keen polo players, pioneered Offbeat Safaris based out from their colonial mansion ‘Deloraine’ in 1990. It is this estate which is home to over 60 of their horses, mostly thoroughbreds. These fit and nimble animals play polo and safely carry safari guests across awesome landscapes in exactly the same manner as early settlers, adventurers and explorers did one hundred years ago.

Tristan our host and guide, wisely selected appropriate horses for our cluster of wide eyed and anxious riders. After a brief safety talk we had seated ourselves into comfortable English leather saddles and were making our way through open acacia woodland being ably led by Topper, a border terrier who was to swiftly win the love and admiration of our entire group. The woodland was thick with animals; wherever we looked there were scattered herds of impala, zebra, wildebeest, topi and gazelles. We rode out of the trees, the spectacle that greeted us was that of a massive spreading black ink spot on the open plain.

Thousands and thousands of wildebeest covered the grassland all the way to the distant horizon, which silhouetted them against the soft pastel colours of the evening sky. As we sat astride our unphased mounts, listening to the incessant low drone of bleats and moans, we were taken at a steady walk to the rear of this massive wildebeest herd interspersed with contrasting strings of zebra. It was as if we were herding them, they ambled along, only a few metres in front, ignoring our presence. None of us had ever seen so many animals in one place before and too think they were all wild!

Tristan, with a boyish twinkle in his eye said “Lets start with a little trot and then break into a controlled canter. I suggest each of you take your own line and watch out for holes” As we increased our pace from a walk so did the profusion of wildlife in front of us. It wasn’t long before the air was filled with the noise of a thousand thundering hooves accompanied by the steady beat of our nimble horses. We raced across the short grasslands, one eye on the ground looking out for holes, the other attempting to absorb the spectacle that was unfolding in front of us. As we became accustomed to the ways of our sure footed horses we threw caution to the wind, the ‘controlled canter’ was nearing a flat out gallop as an extended line of mounted riders charged behind more than 5000 wild animals. Eventually we pulled up, exhilarated by such an experience, faces flushed from the adrenalin that had been coursing our veins. To think that we had nine more days of this. As we turned our horses and headed for home, we were treated to an awe inspiring lighting display as the setting sun cast its extravagant reds and gold’s above the thousand foot escarpment that shrouded our camp. Each of us rode in silence reflecting on the overwhelming last hour. We knew how privileged we were to be experiencing such a mass of wildlife in the same manner as the early colonials had done at the turn of the 19th century. As we rode, we realised that over a thousand other humans would be trundling back to their massive safari camps in the Mara, cooped up and bouncing along in their metal rattle traps while we felt the rhythm of Africa pulsating through our horses hooves.

Our thoughts were broken by the high-pitched yapping as Topper chased after a spotted hyena, ten times his size. What a sight to see this scruffy bundle of unkempt wiry hair, hot on the heels of an animal that could crush this over zealous terrier with half a bite. Once the hyena was out of sight Topper strutted back smugly, it made us realise that its not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

We rode into camp at last light. We were welcomed by friendly grooms who took our horses before we made our way to wash off the Mara dust beneath a hanging bush shower covered by the spreading branches of a flat-topped acacia.

A little later we all sat around and stared into the ‘bush TV’, our blazing campfire whose leaping flames warmed us on the outside while good whiskey heated us from within. Timothy, an ever attentive waiter, was decked out in a fine white jacket housing a double row of shining silver buttons, he meticulously laid a dinner table near the fire, beneath a ceiling of a black velvet sky studded by a million twinkling points of light.

We were served a full three-course meal accompanied by good Chilean wine before leaving on a night drive with a powerful spotlight. Tristan’s tireless enthusiasm was infectious, despite the long day we had all experienced, we eagerly set off into the dark of the night to see which nocturnal specialties we could find. The searching beam was shone by Piers, a young Englishman that had cast aside a life in London as a banker in return for the carefree existence as Tristan’s assistant. As the days melted into one another we all came to thoroughly enjoy his company and caring attitude. As Piers swept the light from side to side we were well rewarded with sightings of numerous hyena, genet, bushbaby, jackal, white tailed mongoose and springhare. When the light found one of the outlandish wildebeest herds, thousands of shining eyes reflected back at us like a lonely village on an open moor. On our return we retired to the comfort of our safari tents perched on the banks of the Mara River. The nights sleep was punctuated by honking hippo, screeching bushbabies and whooping hyena.

At dawn we were woken to a friendly greeting of ‘Jambo’ as hot water was poured by one of the camp staff into an outside basin. At sunrise our eager band mounted the same horses and set off, chattering away about the night sounds. Today we were to swim our horses across the swiftly flowing Mara River and then ride up to the top of the escarpment that forms such a dramatic backdrop to this legendary Park. As we assembled at the rivers edge, its swollen waters rushed past towards a pod of hippo less than 50 metres down stream. Tristan assured us that he had never had any of the crocodiles, notorious for attacking wildebeest in their chaotic river crossings, show any interest in the wading horses.

Crossing the Mara
  The waiting hippo gave us good incentive to ensure that our horses weren’t washed into their company. Our crossing was uneventful but exhilarating as the river covered the saddles of some unfortunate riders. We followed a hippo path and made our way up the thousand-foot escarpment. Our birds eye view was stupendous from the rim, it would surely enthrall anyone with an eye for beauty. We stared across the expansive plains of golden grass as massive herds of animals mixed together in their quest for survival. We weren’t far from the place that was used as the burial site for Denys Finch-Hatton in that much loved feature film; Out of Africa.

After a hearty breakfast we took a game drive down to a marsh which had a variety of colourful birds feeding at its edge, while at least twenty elephant tore at the lush grasses within this aquatic oasis. While returning for lunch and an afternoon ride we encountered a young wildebeest hobbling along with a leg that was completely snapped in half. Tristan dispatched it with his rifle, being an honorary game warden he is afforded the right to carry a heavy calibre weapon.

The following day we were to move to the second of our four camps. As we rode out of camp and bade them farewell an untiring crew of sixteen, efficiently began to break camp, ready to pack up and drive to the next location to set everything up once more, in preparation for our arrival that afternoon. The scenery was as enticing as the seductive climate. Our horses, with whom we had all bonded well, took us across magic country of wide vistas alive with animals. It wasn’t long before we were once again walking behind a herd of over 5000 animals, a colourful mixture of topi, wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. There was madness in their numbers. We noticed that special glint light up in Tristan’s eye once again, we knew a ‘controlled canter’ was coming on. Some of us were sent out to the left flank, while others took the right and centre. We galloped and herded them for over a kilometre, our horses seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.

Hundreds of striped horses

How good it felt to be able to go wherever your horse or whim could take you. I was immensely impressed at how nimble and sure footed my thoroughbred bay mare was, she took flying leaps over any holes and suspect looking ground. Syringi was extremely keen, she walked out at a fast pace, ears always perked and seemingly interested in all around her. She gave the impression that she had places to go and things to do. As the safari progressed I became immensely fond of her. I was taken by her courage and zest for life. Nothing phased her, francolin burst from beneath her hooves, dik dik jumped out from nearby thickets, not once did she bat an eyelid.

As we moved progressively east in this timeless African dream, the habitat changed, we gravitated down a valley, remote, wild and inaccessible to mass tourism, a bastion of safari freedom. Ribbons of cathedral forest framed the river which made its way down this hidden valley. Tristan called a halt beneath a stately grove of shady trees. We unsaddled and tied up our horses to graze while we hungrily wolfed down the picnic lunch, carried in our saddlebags. Once our appetite had been satisfied we cooled down with a dip in an attractive little pool of bracing water.

By mid afternoon we rode into an extraordinally beautiful campsite hidden beneath thick woodlands that were tropically luxuriant. Amazingly the whole camp was set up and ready, hot showers were hoisted, tea and biscuits were consumed before setting off on an afternoon game drive. No slouching around on this safari. Our night drive back to camp rewarded us with bat eared foxes and the rare sighting of an aardwolf. While relaxing around the campfire after dinner, Tristan heard lions roaring. Tirelessly he encouraged us to join him in seeking them out with the vehicle and spotlight. We hadn’t gone more than a kilometre when we encountered a pair of majestic honeymoon lions. We sat within metres as the handsome patriarch mated passionately with the queen of the Africa bush. It was after 1:00 am when we left them in their physical brilliance; they could now take pleasure in some intimate privacy.

The following morning those that had retired to bed before the lions lured us away from the warmth of our campfire were understandably disappointed that they had missed such an enthralling spectacle. We rode out of the seclusion of our new camp into champagne weather. Golden grasses, hock deep, shone in the radiant glow of the morning light. Tristan had heard the lions calling in the distance; we headed in their direction. His keen eye soon picked up our honeymoon couple, the male whose massive head and powerful shoulders were illuminated above the swaying grass. It was an incredulous setting, we rode towards them with the sun at our backs, while they strolled majestically across the rich savannah, the perfect couple, unphased by our presence. It all felt just right, here we were in the 21st century experiencing a life that had been frozen in time. I thought of the Hollywood lions that had been brought across the seas to make the Out of Africa movie, set in this very area. Yet here we were, wilderness enthusiasts who had chosen to experience the marvels of the migration from the back of a horse, nothing staged, nor cooped up in a noisy, fume producing vehicle, divorced from the earth by rubber tyres. How very fortunate we were that there are still farsighted adventurers like Tristan.

The lions continued to walk, we persistently followed until they disappeared into the privacy of a thicket. We left them and rode up onto the treeless plain to encounter a herd of 34 giraffe of varying sizes. Once again we saw the sparkle in our guides eye and off we went at another ‘controlled canter’. How overwhelming, to gallop beside such graceful creatures, as their long strides effortlessly ate up the ground, one stride to our three. When our band of adrenalin junkies eventually pulled up, I heard someone exclaim that, that had been one of the finest experiences of her entire life! Quite a statement for someone with nearly three score years behind her.

We returned to camp for a well-earned breakfast after which Tristan informed us that we were going to rest the horses and drive for the remainder of the day deep into the Park to hopefully see the wildebeest make a crossing of the Mara River. I cynically didn’t think this possible but looked forward to exploring a park that never fails to excite. We enthusiastically drove off in our two well-designed safari vehicles, most riders perched up on the roof hatches.

Newly born giraffe
  We hadn’t driven far when Sarah, one of our English riders, asked Piers to stop, we lifted our binoculars in the direction she was looking and there lying on the barren ground was a newly born giraffe, still wet from its mothers waters. For the next hour our index fingers had a work out as we fired away with cameras and lenses of all make and length. The proud and attentive mother licked her gangly son, encouraging him to stand with gentle shoves from her long fore legs. This mottled apparition with folded horns would attempt to stand, only to crash in a heap of twisted lanky legs and extravagant neck. Eighty minutes later her courageous calf stood for the first time and shakily gazed at his new world from a lofty height of a little under two metres. We clicked away as dry transparent skin from his embryonic sack flapped in the gentle breeze on his fluffy rump. We drove off elated as he suckled from his mothers towering udder.

The next treat we were spoilt with was a pride of seven lion sprawled in muscular splendor beneath the shade of a lone, flat topped acacia.

As we admired them in their feline grace they would occasionally raise themselves from their midday torpor, gaze around smugly at the rolling grasslands covered with a thousand meals, before crashing back into horizontal slumber. Our interest quickly waned for want of action and we trundled on, past a massive herd of buffalo that gave us dour looks from bloodshot eyes. We arrived at the crossing point that Tristan had in mind. It looked no different to many of the other sites we had seen on the banks of the Mara River. It had countless wildebeest and zebra scattered close by, but that was a sight we could be accused of becoming slightly blasé over since our arrival. To our amazement within a mere ten minutes, they began to assemble at the waters edge. Over the horizon they kept coming, crowded into wide columns, moving in tight formations, thousands strong. Tristan informed us that they were preparing to cross. It was as if a message had gone out to both these species, as the mass aggregation pushed its way to the rivers edge.

The setting was an exact replica of what so many of us have seen on TV in the comfort of our living rooms. A murky brown river swiftly flowing to a lazy life in Lake Victoria, the stench from bloated carcasses filled the air as they floated by, often with an engorged vulture tearing off putrid flesh, sentinel to a victim from an upstream drowning. On the banks lay overfed crocodiles basking in their full reptilian glory. I never dreamed that I would be so fortunate to see this spectacle unfold in front of me and in only a matter of minutes! I had always presumed that professional photographers waited patiently for weeks on end to capture one of the Mara’s most dramatic events.

The zebra were the first to take a spontaneous plunge, they swam in a slight arc towards the far bank, this striking African horse, bizarrely marked in black and white, nose to tail, struggling on, they scrambled out, bodies wet and shining, continuing their trek to greener pastures. By now the wildebeest were leaping into the river in their hundreds. The muddied water was a mass of black bodies, bearded heads held aloft as they made their stressful way to the western bank. Between bouts of intense camera fire we stared at each other in unbelieving amazement. Between us, hundreds of metres of film was exposed, in the quest of freezing wildebeest in mid air as they leapt from the bank, tails erect, plunging into a river boiling with fellow herd members. Possibly ten thousand animals crossed, although none visibly drowned or were taken by the sunning crocodiles, this outstanding drama wasn’t without its emotions, mothers that had crossed and lost calves would stand and bleat and moan while staring across to the far bank from which they had just swum, yearning to reunite with their young that were lost in a heaving throng of animal life.

Once this remarkable drama was over we drove upstream a short distance and enjoyed testing Tristan’s culinary delights as he barbequed in the shade of the riverine trees. As if we hadn’t been sufficiently spoiled; two lionesses came to lie on the bank opposite us while we enjoyed the various cuts of meat, washed down by spicy Bloody Mary’s. We drove home to our secluded camp under the searching beam of the spotlight, past multitudes of animals, I reflected, that truly, some days are diamonds!

And so the safari continued, we moved camp every second day. The terrain and habitat changed dramatically. We rode through country where hill ranges and animal abound, where game and herdsmen coexist, Masai in their physical brilliance, visibly confident in their identity as a people having kept their cultural heritage intact. As they cling to an ancestral way of life, adorned with beaded jewelry, carrying swords, long spears and clubs, these pastoral nomads herded large numbers of cattle that they had amassed in a life unspoiled by the effects of tourism. We were invited in to their manyattas, flat roofed mud huts, fortified for a rough life in the bush.

Masai and wildebeeste

Dancing Masai

Safari walks
  As time marched on, we took walks when we weren’t riding, watched herds of elephant on foot, climbed into picturesque gorges, swam in rock pools, basked on sun drenched rocks, climbed hills, searched out unusual animals with the spot light, savoured new relationships with our fellow man and continued to enjoy a strengthening camaraderie with our horses. Our riding and hiking boots were polished daily, the ice that chilled our drinks was never depleted, fireside intimacy revolved around comfortable silences, subtle jokes and poetry. Tristan educated us on a host of new birds and trees each day.

Migration, horses and sunset
  Sadly this ten day journey through a region where safari mystique was born drew to an end. How privileged we had been to see it in this manner, a game rich land open to ridiculously wide vistas touching a clear expansive African sky, all thanks to a family who are willing to share their passion for horses and the great outdoors with their fellow man from the modern world.

Other Horse Safari Reports
>The Migration in Masai Mara, Kenya

Sample itineraries
>10 day Mara, Kenya
>10 day Laikipia, Kenya