Every year I like to bring a group of riders to one of our newer destinations and, as it was three years since I’d been to Africa, this year I decided it would be great to visit GoWild in Kenya. GoWild had been recced for us by Siobhan English, a couple of years ago, as they had established themselves as a horse safari operator and it sounded like a good, new option.
Altogether there were 7 of us: 6 women and 1 lone male – poor man! But he didn’t seem to mind and fitted right in. We arrived in Nairobi at lunchtime, were whisked through immigration, and then picked up by mighty efficient drivers and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the Karen area of Nairobi at Macushla House, a delightful stopover boutique hotel in a secluded leafy suburb. The hotel had a pool with monkeys chattering in the trees overhead. For September it was unseasonably cold in Nairobi so I didn’t swim, but some of the braver ones did. There is a giraffe sanctuary right beside Macushla, which could be an interesting detour for other visitors; we opted for drinks and a delicious curry dinner.
The following morning, we were picked up in 2 minivans at 8am and headed off to Laikipia where our base, Olepangi Farm, was situated. We all agreed transferring by vehicle was far preferable to flying since we got the most wonderful insight into everyday Kenyan life: dozens and dozens of unfinished concrete buildings, half abandoned projects; street markets selling 2nd hand clothing and fresh fruit and veg; traders selling beautiful, ornate, wrought iron gates – each invisible boundary bringing a new trading post and new story. We saw the lands that Del Monte purchased which now produce 90% of the world’s tinned pineapple chunks; we saw beans being picked and packed for Aldi and other supermarket giants and 1000s of acres of roses that are cut and flown overnight to destinations like London. I have to say that it did bring a new perspective to “buying and eating local” of which I am normally an advocate. Nevertheless, these huge producers in these fertile lands are important to Kenya’s economy and without an international market one wonders how the locals would earn a living and feed their families. Hmm…complicated as always!
Onto to our riding safari – all I can say is this was an epic trip and two months later I am still reeling with thoughts of the whole experience. This is coming from someone who has had the luck to experience some of the top riding safaris in the world, so that’s something! However, whilst I honestly can’t say one is better than another – they are all brilliant – what I personally loved about this Lolldaiga trip and what changed it from Fantastic Safari to an Epic Trip for me was:
I love a journey and anything that transports me into the make believe land of being a “pioneer” and Gowild creates this feeling more than other safaris. We started at the hosts’ farm and then rode the horses through multiple, massive ranches and game parks to reach the Lolldaiga area which was, in total, a full on 6 hour ride covering a lot of ground and varying landscapes. Along the way we happened upon massive herds of Elephants and literally 100s of Zebra. We had to navigate electric Elephant gates and apart from herdsmen there was no sign of human life along the way; it’s all very remote. The scenery itself is stunning and one can see for 100s of miles. These were for sure the most stunning views I have ever seen in Africa and we really felt like we were pioneers. All these massive lands are broken into enormous private ranches which stretch all the way to Tanzania. Owned by mostly billionaires, we spotted one owned by Hamish Keith, a Scot; another specialising in Rhino breeding owned by descendants of Barclay Cole; another, rumour had it, previously owned by a Saudi arms dealer, now taken over by a trust and another by a Norwegian oil billionaire and so it goes on…suffice to say the hosts have done well to network and be given permission for us to ride through these private lands to reach our destination!
The hosts – As always the hosts make or break a trip and, honestly, Clinton Lucy and Elizabeth Loker are dream hosts. They are ultimately expats, Clinton from the UK and Elizabeth from the USA, who have spent many years living in Kenya and made it their home. Their absolute appreciation and love for the country and culture, and enthusiasm for their life is completely infectious. In addition, Elizabeth must be one of the most educated, well read and researched people I’ve ever met. She’s like an inspirational encyclopaedia on all topics from the local history, to anthropology and current affairs. When you come home with an amazing booklist as long as your arm that you are dying to get into, you know you’ve met someone special. I left Kenya wishing I had the wherewithal to spend a month in Elizabeth’s library in that beautiful “party house”, holed up with books! Meanwhile, I have yet to tackle the Gerard Diamond books as I think I need a clever person to make a synopsis of them for me, but I do plan to read Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night” soon!
The horses – Those who know us know how fussy we are about the horses and horse care. Clinton’s stable of 15 or so safari horses is perfect. There is a good variety for all types from schoolmasters to a couple of feisty youngsters. All are well shod and in great condition and behave really well in front of big game. A couple went lame on our trip due to the hard ground which is extremely unforgiving, but Clinton had backup horses and a good plan to deal with these inevitable problems. There are also 6 or so polo ponies kept specifically for polo. Clinton invites guests for a few chukkas when they return from safari. These ponies are all small thoroughbreds and gorgeous, so I couldn’t resist having a shot. So much fun and the ponies are impeccably schooled.
The riding – Now, back to the safari riding. The pace is determined, as always, by the level of the least experienced rider. We had a mixed group so we got in a few nice, long canters and couple of wild gallops but, of course, like all long rides where the horses have to work incredibly hard we also walked a good bit too. The riding is amazingly varied due to the landscape and terrain which makes is much more interesting than some safaris I have been on. There was lots of climbing steep hills to make the best of the superb vistas. It really did feel like “Out of Africa” most of the time. We had two long days getting in and out of the Lolldaigas with 6 hours riding and only a short break – that’s hard in the heat! The other days, we mostly rode mornings for 3 hours or so and then either had a short afternoon ride (1-2 hours), or went off on another adventure like tracking down Lion with a tracker; visiting the local community; checking out Elizabeth’s organic garden or playing polo!
The game – These rolling lands are absolutely teeming in game and I saw more Elephant and Zebra than I’ve encountered anywhere else. Big herds of Zebra were popping out from everywhere, fairly wild and creating big dust bubbles and we came across some great big herds of Elephant and enjoyed watching them at a distance. The game is not used to horses and humans here, so you don’t get as close as say in the Mara or some game parks in South Africa. We also saw many Giraffe, Cape Buffalo, Grant’s Gazelle, Camel(!), Gerenuke, Waterbuck, Striped Hyena, Beisa Oryx, Eland, Jackal, Masai Ostrich, Secretary Birds, Impala, Egyptian Geese, Eagles, Bald Headed Vulture and Mongoose! And that’s just the animals I remembered to write down each day as they were pointed out to us by Clinton or spotted by one of our beady eyed trackers!
The accommodation and food – The start and end point at Olepangi is straight out of a Vogue magazine. Remote (about 20 minutes down a dirt track from a one horse town), set on top of a hill with 100s of stone steps built in between the cottages and party house (which we most certainly puffed up, due to the altitude), flower gardens galore (everything grows abundantly here) and the most stunning décor I think I’ve seen. Elizabeth’s collection of textiles and art from markets around the world are a feature as well as the silver service and fine bone china used at dinner which has been painstakenly collected and scouted from many trips to London’s Portobello market. It’s a home not a commercial lodge and one tangibly senses that warmth and personal care for the guests.
Now, on to the Lolldaigas where we camped for three nights. This was very different – dome tents with camp beds and sleeping bags and shared toilet/shower tents. BUT we all loved it as this was a real adventure! We got up and had to watch out for the lone male buffalo at the water hole who could be quite vicious. We enjoyed the fantastic food prepared on the camp fire and we drank the camp dry of beer and wine! (“First time ever”, they said!). We could hear Lion skirting around the camp most nights and on the last night we didn’t sleep a wink as the Lion sounded like they were surrounding the camp and getting closer all the time. However, it turned out not so close that the night that the watchman had to let off flares and a gun, but very close…yes, definitely it was time to move on!
Kenya – On this trip I really felt I got a taste of the “real” Kenya which one doesn’t usually experience on riding safaris as you are normally flown in and out of the bush directly, whereas our journey down and then passing some of the small villages and farmland, which were clearly untouched by tourist development, gave us some sense of how the locals live plus our hosts were extremely informative. Clinton also invited us to join him on his weekly food shop. We piled into the jeep and headed to the local village where the shopping consisted of heading into the market, picking up a sack of potatoes you fancied and haggling the price. Of course, the sight of Clinton with a jeep full of white tourists meant that every stall seller was crowding around trying to sell their wares and Clinton is great at manoeuvring gently around everyone and managing to only buy what he wants without offending anyone – I think I’d end up with a jeep full of rubbish! On the last day which was the only non riding day we headed through a forest on a 45 minute hike (so Clinton told us…more like 2 hour hike each way!) to a secluded crystal blue water pool with waterfall! It was worth it and on the way we saw our first sight of other tourists…they were kakhi clad, clean sitting in the back of a pristine 4×4 jeep driven by a driver dressed in Masai gear…so fake and not how we’d want to holiday we declared as the dust of their jeep covered us from head to toe!!
The group – We were 7 people who all shared a love of horses but came from different walks of life. At the end of our adventure we all shared a certain bond: there were no fights or agro, just an appreciation of riding, all being quiet in front of big game, and having a good laugh and few drinks and lively debates at night. I think we all looked out for each other and took our different roles in a natural, easy manner. Of course there were adventures and mishaps; a hard fall from one of our experienced riders and one of our group had a whole pharmacy in her suitcase so our faller was medicated to the eyeballs for the week and carried on; the time our novice rider on her schoolmaster broke away from her wedged in part of the group and gaily cantered off taking on every large tree and crater in sight as if training for a one day event! All we could hear was her “minder” back up rider Wills going “oh ****”! But guess what she hung on and stopped with a smile on her face! It was a really great group and that made the ride all the more enjoyable. In fact, we have even all met up for dinner since we’ve returned! I hope we can all take another adventure together in the near future.
If you’d like to visit and arrange a trip to Kenya and to visit and be hosted by wonderful Elizabeth and Clinton, then I highly recommend you do the 7 night trip we did, which includes 3 nights camping in the Lolldaigas and 2 nights of comfort either side! You can also stay in the old farm manager’s cottage in the Lolldaigas if you think camping is going a step too far for you and you really need a proper shower and bed at night. It’s a very authentic, rustic, quite simple and quite historic place, so I’d recommend that too. Even if you are on a short trip to Kenya and need a few nights of relaxation, I’d highly recommend spending a few nights at Olepangi where you can ride, walk and visit the local community – it’s definitely a place you leave with all your senses tingling, with a new appreciation for the daily struggles of the average Kenyan and their complex issues, but most of all you feel a renewed invigoration for life and travel, and incredible respect for the environment and the project Elizabeth and Clinton have created. But hurry, come here quickly before others hear about it! Clinton and Elizabeth will only run 6 trips a year and stays are tailor made and suited to small groups. They don’t do set dates so it doesn’t suit solo travellers.
Check here for more information on this trip and get in touch if we can organise one for you.