We never know what we’ll see on a given day, as animals are not posing for our pleasure. It might be a pride of snoozing lions, pillowy bellies confirming their successful night’s hunt. When they’re full like this they couldn’t care less about the horses, and barely raise a head or half-open an eye to acknowledge our presence. We, on the other hand, have our hands full, holding the reins in one while trying to snap a meaningful photo of non-menacing lions with the other. We might see a family of elephants ambling through the tall gold grass toward a faraway river, stopping now and then to thrash an acacia tree into submission. Their droppings are the exact size and shape of a three-layer cake. It’s a camp tradition to cover one with chocolate icing and present it to whoever is unlucky enough to claim it’s their birthday or anniversary during the ride.
You might think the elephant or lion families are the most dangerous animals you could encounter on a 2-week horseback ride across Kenya’s Rift Valley savannahs and veldt. I can understand why you’d think that, because so many documentaries have captured moments of intense savagery on the part of Elsa and Babar. But you’d be wrong. The most dangerous animal you could stumble upon is a rogue Cape buffalo. And “stumble” is the operative word here, as the rogue bulls, kicked out of the herd and left without the defense that sheer numbers provide, are completely silent and hidden. Until they’re not.
An old or injured buffalo will usually bed down someplace where his massive ebony bulk blends in. Since we’re in a landscape populated mainly by spindly plant life, you might now be saying to yourself, “no worries,” and thinking that something the size of a locomotive should be pretty easily visible. Wrong again. Where there’s a shrub there’s a shadow, and the heaving black flanks of a buffalo look just like a shadow. Even when young and carefree, the Cape buffalo brain has a “me against the world” mentality. They never give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re not interested in “sorry” or “just leaving now” or other last-minute excuses for why you’re disturbing their peace.
So there I am, my horse peacefully walking along while I gaze about trying to remember the difference between a lilac breasted roller and a purple bee eater, or congratulating myself that I finally can recognize a batteleur eagle rising on a thermal at 10,000 feet. Suddenly there’s a snort as loud as a backfiring semi and my horse jumps sideways. Knowing intuitively that this is not the moment for me to be on foot in the bush, I cling with desperate determination to the horse’s mane as my head swivels as if possessed by the Exorcist.
And there he is, showing how true-to-life a caricature of an enraged bull really is. He lowers his head with its massive brow-spanning black horns curling out to the sides. His red-rimmed eyes, like flaring coals, take my full measure. He paws the ground, massive shoulder muscles bulging and twitching, as his head thrashes left, right and his tail whips the bush where he was napping. Dust rises, coating a deep crimson gash in his left haunch that’s buzzing with hungry black flies and you see that that hind leg is sore enough he can’t put weight on it. Despite that, it’s taken him only a nano-second to go from shade splotch to locked-and-loaded, and I know I have only a nano-second more to show him that I am utterly willing to cede him the shrub and go find myself another. Immediately. And so I do.
Afternoon, and the humming of the bush is loud with insects and frogs and birds and monkeys. Hills lush with tall gold grass are climbed, and horses led on foot down a rough, rocky descent. Or perhaps a marshland is skirted, full of migrating storks and herons, with tuxedoed Colobus monkeys splayed in the branches of nearby trees, having a deep mid-afternoon snooze. Later, a deep river must be forded, so I lift my knees to my chest, both to keep my boots dry and to avoid offering any temptation to the crocodiles that may be under the water. Why they would ignore the remaining temptation of my horse’s legs is something I don’t want to think too much about. I suppress the failings of my logic, just as I swat away the thought of what it would be like if a hippo butted my horse in the side and tipped both of us into the drink.
When finally camp is reached at the end of the day, a cold beer tastes like an icy, bubbly, gasp of heaven. Camp staff curry down my horse, dutch ovens stew gently on the cook fire, an apricot sun glides gently down the sky, tinging it with flame as it melts into the horizon. A velvet blue twilight blanket is flung over the bush, and the sounds hush momentarily, to honor Venus rising… then the chatter and chirps resume. A horse snuffles some dust from his nose, another stamps a hoof. Stretched out on my cot, while I wait for sleep to receive me, I hear the insane whoops of a hyena family and the chuffing and shrill of a tribe of baboons discussing where to bed down for the night. And that soft padding of feet I hear passing outside my tent. Is that the night guard? Or perhaps the lion.
If you’d like to know which organization I used for this ride, or more details about it, or have questions about what skill level would enjoy such an experience, post to me below.