Written by Siobhan English
There is something truly spectacular about Kenya and its wildlife. Having visited other parts of Africa over the years, it was always on my wish list, and so I was thrilled to have it feature in my package as part of a press trip for Zara’s Planet last autumn.
This would form the last leg of an unforgettable 16-day trip which saw me traverse remote Tanzania on horseback for seven days, before taking a well-earned break on a private farm close to Lake Naivasha. From there I travelled four hours by road to Nanyuki, a market town north west of Mount Kenya close to the Equator. Another 35 minutes across the Kikuyu Highlands had taken me into the stunning Olepangi Farm, and home to the exciting new equestrian venture, Go Wild Safaris.
Public transport in Kenya comprises of a large network of buses, and sadly, it is not always for the faint-hearted. Before leaving Ireland I had already made the decision to hire a private driver, and I was thrilled to have the services of Ritoch, a Kenyan native who acted as my personal guide as we negotiated the busy network of roads across some of Kenya’s most picturesque countryside.
Having worked as a safari guide for many years Ritoch had immense knowledge of his native land. In addition to the countless hilarious stories of his days in the bush, I was equally fascinated to learn more about Nanyuki itself as we neared this bustling town.
Not only is it home to the Kenyan Air Force, but also the British Army, who keeps a base at the Nanyuki Show Grounds, and so it was not surprising to meet members of that same British Army at dinner that evening as we gathered for the first night of our Kenyan adventure.
Both Catriona May and her colleague Lizzie Cranfield had taken leave of absence to join us for a five-day ride across the spectacular Lolldaiga Hills, along with fellow Britons, Ruth Asquith and Kirsty Liddon, who had travelled over from Scotland to fulfil a lifelong dream of ‘riding with the elephants’.
So too had Go Wild Safaris been a life-long dream for owners Clinton Lucy and Elizabeth Loker, who had spent the previous three years investing in this stunning property in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Both are keen polo players and also keep a smashing string of ponies on the farm.
On arrival to Olepangi in the early afternoon I was greeted by their manager Louise Holman-Baird, another Briton who had been drawn in by the beauty of Kenya and who had been instrumental in getting Go Wild Safaris officially up and running some months earlier.
Designed by an American architect, the lodges resembled something out of a fairytale book, with their thatched roofs and wooden balconies. But inside they were finished to the highest standards, with four-poster beds a welcome retreat after a long day in the African sun.
Head chef Stephen learned much of his trade in Spain, and he did not waste any time in impressing us with his culinary skills at lunch and again that night at dinner, with fillet steak being the order of the day.
A few hours earlier we’d all had an opportunity to meet our horses at the stables, and enjoy a leisurely ride across the farm in high-quality English saddles to give Louise an idea of our riding ability, and also to ensure we were suitably matched with our trusty steeds. Although the riding is not as fast-paced as other outfitters in Kenya, riders must be competent at all paces on varied terrain.
Over dinner I had a chance to meet Clinton’s son Stewart, another polo fanatic who had returned from a stint in Australia to lead some of the busy rides through the Lolldaiga Hills. A high-goaler with many wins under his belt, he was equally at home on one of the many thoroughbreds used as safari horses on the farm.
Many have come on the back of short careers on the race track, with others being sourced through Louise’s many connections within the Kenyan equestrian community.
Following a lazy evening chatting in the spacious lounge, myself and my fellow guests along with our hosts were happy to retire to bed before 11pm in order to be fit and ready for our journey into the unknown the next morning.
After a wonderful night’s sleep a 7.30am start for breakfast saw us in the saddle nice and early ahead of what would be a four-hour ride into camp.
I was mounted on the delightful Segera, who, I was assured, would take good care of me owing to my rustiness in the saddle after a lengthy absence.
I need not have worried, as within the first hour I was completely relaxed and enjoying every minute of our regular canters across the vistas.
Stewart takes guiding in his stride and his quick wit made for an entertaining few hours as he shared with us the history of the Lolldaiga Ranch. Set on some 49,000 acres, it is said to be one of the most beautiful farms in the country, and we were not disappointed as we encountered zebra, giraffe, elephant and a wide range of antelope as we weaved our way through a network of trails in the morning sun.
It is home to countless species of game, and each year only a select number of riding guests staying at Olepangi have the privilege of viewing them from horseback.
Such is the immense organisation of companies such as Go Wild that our campsite had been hand-picked weeks earlier to ensure the best views of this stunning landscape.
As we rode into camp just in time for lunch there before us was wilderness as far as the eye could see. It was truly breathtaking.
Riding safaris are all about adventure and everyone was keen to check out our camping arrangements, especially our bathroom facilities. Fly camps on safari are certainly not for everyone, with one-bucket showers and hole-in-the-ground loos among the facilities provided by many outfitters.
After a lazy lunch and power nap the sight of a herd of elephant passing through camp was followed by a fun evening on the hills, where local guy Hunter Marian treated guests to spot of paragliding from one of the highest points of the ranch. It was truly spectacular, and even more so for those who took to the skies while the rest of us enjoyed sundowners on the rocks.
After another delicious dinner served up by Stephen and his team from their mobile kitchen that night we headed to the campfire to share our travel tales before retiring to our tents for a good night’s sleep.
Wake-up calls at 6am are essential on riding safaris to avail of the cool morning air, but Kenya in autumn is perfect for riding, with temperatures never rising about the mid-70s. Nights, however, can be cool, so much so that our horses were always snug in their rugs along their pony lines adjacent to camp.
As I was keen to get some photographs of the horses and riders for the Go Wild team, for my second day in the Lolldaigas I decided to follow them in the jeep courtesy of guide Richard.
Elephants are in abundance in the Lolldaigas, and it wasn’t long before a close encounter with the riders made for some exciting viewing. Soon after they encountered some buffalo, and again Stewart gave them an equally wide berth so as to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.
Long canters across open terrain made for some wonderful images before the riders made their way to a nearby watering hole to give the horses a welcome drink before returning to camp. It had been a five-hour ride and lunch was calling.
Another relaxed afternoon saw us jump in the jeep for some more game viewing across the western side of the ranch, where again sundowners were on tap as Hunter took to the skies.
Deep in the valley we spotted some more elephant cows and their calves on the move, while our road trip back to camp gave us a prime opportunity to spot some nocturnals such as the adorable bush babies heading out on their night-time feeding ritual.
Back at camp after our fish and chips dinner we again sat around the campfire before retreating to bed to recount on another busy day in the wild.
A tip-off that night had kept me unusually silent the next morning as our riders headed for a surprise bush breakfast on the hill overlooking Mt Kenya. This was one of the many highlights of the week for everyone as we gazed in amazement at a large journey of giraffe as they passed just a few hundred yards from our table.
As the riders moved on after breakfast Jules and I took the game jeep towards one of the many watering holes, only to see a herd of some 40 elephant wandering in for a morning dip. Jules quickly alerted Stewart by radio, but the riders were already on their trail and arrived soon afterwards to witness one of the most spectacular sights I’d ever experienced on safari. To be able to watch such a close family wallow in the mudbath was truly memorable and the main topic of conversation that night as we reflected on another great day topped off by a brief sighting of leopard while sipping our gin and tonics during sunset.
That had set us up nicely for a spot of midnight dancing by the fire, but there was little sleep had that night anyway as we all lay awake listening to lions’ roars in the distant hills.
It was approaching our final morning and not surprisingly no one wanted to leave, but our time at Lolldaiga Ranch had sadly come to an end and we prepared to make the four-hour ride back to Olepangi Farm, where, after another sumptuous lunch, we went our separate ways.
We had arrived as strangers, but left as good friends in the hope that, one day, we could all reunite in Kenya to do it all again.
Thank you for your article Siobhan!
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