Horses have been preyed upon for millions of years. Long before they were domesticated they were hard-wired to be good at reading a predator’s body language. It’s as though they have a built-in instinct to avoid becoming lunch. The same can’t be said of herds of animals on the African plains. Watching footage documenting their annual migration from the Maasai Mara you can see a gazelle snacking on grass while a lioness lazily grooms her cubs in the midday sun. But would you put yourself in the gazelle’s position, albeit from the saddle on our friend, the humble horse?
The Australian-based Classic Safari Company and its Kenyan counterpart, Safaris Unlimited, have been testing this proposition for more than 40 years. Classic Safari is run by the dynamic Julie McIntosh, who also happens to be a keen horsewoman and, in her spare time, president of the Windsor Polo Club. It is fitting that Julie represents Safaris Unlimited’s boutique safaris in Australia as this experience is built for the horse lover who wants bit more than a trail ride. That bit more includes every conceivable game animal from lions and giraffes to gazelles, elephants and the occasional hippo. Yet, when I was given the amazing opportunity to join the first tour of the annual June-to-September migration of the great Maasai Mara herds, I found myself at Sydney International Airport bawling my eyes out. The trigger was that I had forgotten my hairbrush, but the reality, I am ashamed to admit, was that I was scared. I turned 40 this year and I thought I had it dialled. But as it turns out, the fear of travelling to Africa alone, especially with the political unrest in the region, was wreaking havoc with my psyche.
Those doubts were quickly dispelled once I landed in Nairobi and met my first hosts for the trip, Cheli and Peacock. Arriving at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport my first impression is that I’ve landed somewhere resembling Adelaide. How deceptive that is becomes apparent when I step outside this quiet international airport’s customs area into an assault on the senses. There’s a crowd looking for new business, looking for a client, looking to take you for a ride. Thankfully though, through the cardboard signs, the touts and the heckling, I’m greeted by a very well-presented guide with a big plastic sign. He promptly spirits me into an air-conditioned transporter to do battle with Nairobi’s peak hour. After 40 minutes’ navigating a combination of beaten up dirt bikes, unroadworthy trucks and foot traffic from what appears to be a large proportion of Kenya’s 40 million people, we arrive at an oasis. Based in Karen, the Beverly Hills of Nairobi, Hemingways at Nairobi is the perfect antidote for the 24-hour flight from Australia. Owned by a group of British and Scottish directors, the hotel could be straight from the set of The Great Gatsby and captures what life may have been like in Africa in the colonial days. Having my own butler is just one of many luxuries to which I quickly become accustomed.
After a very long shower and a good night’s sleep early in the morning I meet with another driver and the first of my tour partners, Alice and Damien from WA. As we make our way to Wilson Airport the traffic is like peak hour on Sydney’s M5, with added challenges of unruly pedestrians, unhelmeted bike riders and the constant risk of someone driving down the wrong side of the road. At the airport a Safaris Unlimited representative introduces us to the rest of the group. There are 12 of us, one from Ireland, one from England, four Aussies and six endlessly entertaining Americans. We pile into our first light plane for the flight to Keekerok airstrip and then board another small aircraft for the 10-minute flight to Naboisho airstrip. At Naboisho we are met by our hosts for the next eight days, the owner/operator of Safaris Unlimited, Gordie Church, and his support driver, James. As we board a four-wheel-drive, an offer to sit on the roof is extended. The Aussie contingent doesn’t need to be asked twice. Alice, Damien, Tanya and I climb onto the roof for absolute pole position on what turns out to be an incredible number of game sightings in the trip’s first 40 minutes. Safaris Unlimited was started by Gordie’s father, Tony, in 1971 so Gordie has grown up on safari. He has an intimate knowledge of the conservancies of the Maasai Mara and the land, the people and wildlife that live there.
On arrival at Olare Lamun camp we are now officially guests at the under-canvas home of Gordie and his wife, Felicia. Gordie and Felicia’s love story is one of the reasons this experience is impossible to replicate with any other safari outfit. Four years ago Felicia came to take care of a brokenhearted Gordie’s horses and found the love of her life. There is still some debate regarding who fancied whom first but the chemistry between this couple is palpable and a pleasure to be around. Their business extends beyond riding tours to all aspects of safari, which can be tailored and personalised to guests’ specific requirements. Horses are very much a part of the Churches’ personal lives and their 28 safari ponies live a perfectly lovely horsey life for the nine months of the year that they are not required to work. While on tour, every four horses have a full-time groom to ensure they get the best of care.
On arriving at the camp we meet the crew, settle into our tents and are matched with our pony friends. The camp consists of a series of guest tents, a bar area, a dining room and staff tents. The furnishings are as classy as the rest of the operation with no detail left to chance. Your wash basin and vanity are positioned at the entrance to the tent, the beds are comfortable and as you slide under the Egyptian cotton sheets each evening one of the best surprises of all is a hot water bottle tucked inside. Make no mistake, this is exceptionally well-executed glamping.