By Doris Degner-Foster
Did you ever yearn to live like they did in the movie “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford? Meryl played Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, a Danish aristocrat with a large coffee estate in Africa that employed several native servants. When she went on safari in the bush, she lived just as elegantly in a tent as in her beautiful home. Now, you can do that, too.
There are a variety of safari outfitters in Africa, offering different options for seeing the land and wild animals, and safaris on horseback are a favorite among those who ride. Some people have told stories of galloping madly across the African plains. Others are thrilled enough just to see the plethora of wildlife and perhaps canter alongside gazelles at a less frantic pace.
“I’ve spoken to some people about their safari experiences, and they’re hair-raising,” said Linda Keely, a riding instructor and foxhunter in Oklahoma. “I don’t want hair-raising, I like to have fun and adventure but be safe.”
In Good Hands
Linda went on her first riding safari in 2010 with some foxhunt friends, and promised herself that she’d go back and do it again. Impressed with Safaris Unlimited outfitters on their first trip, Linda and her friends unanimously chose to book with them again, and weren’t disappointed. Linda said, “The horses at Safaris Unlimited are so well trained and so well behaved you feel totally safe — totally taken care of.” They chose the Masai Mara ride, which goes through rolling savannah, acacia woodlands and forests on the banks of the Mara and Olare Orok rivers. It’s an extension of the Serengeti ecosystem and Kenya’s most impressive wildlife sanctuary. The area is also home to the Masai people, who herd livestock across the region.
Safaris Unlimited is a family business that’s the oldest and most experienced riding outfitter in Africa. It was started in 1971 by Tony Church, whose idea of a true African safari was sleeping under canvas tents away from the beaten path. Much has remained constant through the years of operation. Tony spoke of his Masai employees when he said, “Masilia, my trusted headman, joined me in 1971. Today his three sons work with the camp crew.” After earning a degree in wildlife management from the Royal Agricultural College in England, Tony’s son Gordie returned to Kenya and took over the business in 2001.
Gordie’s wife, Felicia, specializes in the training and management of their horses. She began to acquire her skills growing up in a family that bred polo ponies in Leicestershire, England, where she hunted regularly with the famous hunts in the area. Horses aren’t routinely imported into Africa because of the expense and the threat of African horse fever, which limits the supply.
“Owners who wanted to retire their horses would reasonably be concerned about sending them to an outfitter where the horse would be ridden for several days at a time, but Felicia said that she’d built up some great relationships and contacts for horses after they learned how well she takes care of her horses,” Linda said. “During our safari, Felicia was on a retired polo pony and Gordie was riding a Southern African Boerperd horse. They also have some retired race horses and some Somali crosses.”
On safari, Gordie leads the group and Felicia rides among the guests, offering advice and encouragement if needed. The group is followed by Mina, a Masai warrior who keeps a watchful eye for any possible dangers. Gordie said, “I believe Felicia and I are the only riding outfitters where we, the owners, actually guide every single ride.”
The safari is far from being a boring, sedate experience, however. Gallops alongside of migrating wildebeest and gazelle are common for those who wish to take part. Gordie is very familiar with the area and knows just where to lead the group for the best wildlife sightings. They also offer the option of riding in a truck, which is especially good for closer sightings of the big cats.
Civilization In The Bush
On all day rides where the camp moves and sets up in a different location, lunches are picnics in the bush. Sandwiches are made with bread freshly baked in the charcoal camp ovens and eaten from china, never paper plates. The horses are untacked, groomed and allowed to graze under supervision as guests enjoy lunch and rest. The location is left just as it was found with care to remove any evidence of human occupation. They are very ecologically responsible.
As the sun sinks lower in the sky, the smell of a wood fire is in the air and the tents of camp are a welcome sight. The syches (grooms) meet the riders, bringing a bucket of carrots riders can feed their horses as a thank you before they’re whisked away to be untacked and fed. “Sundowners” or cocktails and canapes await, to be savored around the campfire with laughter and conversations about the day before dressing for dinner.
Each bedroom tent has its own “bathroom,” a separate tent complete with shower rigged up with an overhead bucket-type arrangement. “You’re not roughing it; it’s all very nice,” Linda explained. “For nighttime trips to your bathroom, your bedside table comes equipped with a flashlight with solar lamps that charge during the daytime. At night, 1920s-style hurricane lamps sit in the covered area just outside your bedroom tent where there’s a mirror and vanity table.” Fires burn around the perimeter of the camp, watched all night by Masai men for safety.
Each tent has a double or two twin beds luxuriously made up with Egyptian cotton sheets and duvets. Bedside tables and rugs on the floor complete the furnishings. “When you go to bed, they’ve turned down your bed and put a hot water bottle down by your feet,” Linda said. “You aren’t freezing; it’s probably in the upper 50s and the weather is pretty perfect.
“They do your laundry every other day and they iron it!” Linda said. “You have a laundry bag in your room and the days when we’re staying in camp, they come and pick it up and when you come back from a ride, it’s all ironed and done for you in your tent. It dries really fast because there’s no humidity. It’s all included, no special charges. You’re beautifully taken care of.”
Dinners are elegant candlelit events in the dining tent with china and linens. “Sampson, the maitre d’, folds the napkins into the most amazing shapes every night. You’ll have a giraffe head or different birds made with linen napkins,” Linda remembered. “Every dinner has three courses and it’s just all fresh and beautifully seasoned and it’s really good.”
Before this trip, Linda had said that she wanted to go on safari “just one more time,” but now she doesn’t want to stop there, and plans to return again. “I think one of the things I like most about going to Africa is the excitement and anticipation of never knowing what you’ll see next,” Linda said. “And there are so many beautiful things to see and experience.”
Snuggling down into a warmed bed in an elegantly appointed tent while listening to the distant roar of lions, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in Karen Blixon’s time. And, as it turns out, Tony Church of Safaris Unlimited supplied the horses for the movie “Out of Africa.”
For more information, visit www.safarisunlimited.com.
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she isn’t interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is working on a novel where a horse appears mysteriously in people’s lives to help them through a crisis. She’s also writing a middle-grade series about kids who ride horses and solve mysteries.
Photos courtesy of Linda Keely