A loud crack came from behind an acacia tree. Then again. Snap. Crack. Snap. Rustle. ‘Shhhh,’ whispered Mzee. ‘Can you see it yet?’ See what? I thought, eyes straining and seeing nothing. Then, with a flurry of snapping, cracking and rustling, a large grey backside swung round and emerged from behind a bush. An elephant, a large one, was less than 200 metres away. My horse shifted nervously beneath me. ‘What do we do if it charges us?’ I breathed, almost as twitchy as my grey mount. A beatific smile spread across Mzee’s face. ‘We will gallop away,’ he answered. ‘It will be fun!’
Deep in eastern Kenya’s Chyulu Hills is the ol Donyo reserve: a 275,000-acre stretch of rolling savannah, pockmarked with rounded hills and bookended by the snowy peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro to the south and Tsavo National Park to the east. Home to all of the big five – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros – as well as zebra, oryx, giraffes and many more large animal species, it is a remote wilderness with just a single lodge. As a result, vehicles are few and far between, and while its large size and strikingly rugged terrain punctuated with acacia thickets makes it challenging to track lions, it makes it perfect for a safari in the saddle.
A veteran of safaris in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Namibia, I had long dreamed of seeing Africa’s magnificent wildlife from the saddle. Most of my safaris had been from the confines of a game vehicle, with the noise of the engine enough to scare off all but the bravest animals. Not here. The muffled clip clop of hooves did nothing more than produce a quick look or, in the case of the giraffes and one tiny jackal, active interest. And it’s not just the animals who feel safe in the Chyulu Hills. Tucked away on the opposite side of the country from Somalia and its pirates, and well out of Nairobi, the area remains one of the safest places to safari in Africa.
Nestled into a dip in the hill in front of a watering hole that drew huge herds of game to its door each morning, the accommodation at Ol Donyo is a series of cosy cottages – all of which were bigger than my London flat – decorated in traditional safari style, with pretty Masaai beadwork dotted about and a gleaming private pool set in a wooden deck overlooking the savannah. The hosts—Anglo-American couple Ray and Alyssa—are entertaining, trading banter back and forth and anxious to make sure you get a safari tailored for you. In my case, that meant riding although there are game drives, hiking and cycling safaris for non-riders.
Five minutes from the lodge down a rutted black mud track, the stables are home to 20 horses and are run by local staff, among them the amiable Mzee (real name David) — ‘Old Man’ in Swahili. Although horseback safaris are available for beginners, if you want to get close to the reserve’s elephants, being able to gallop out of range without falling off is essential; expect to be put through your paces before being allowed to head out into the park. Those who know what they’re doing can race zebras to their hearts content. Beginners, however, have to settle for a sedate walk and a spectacular view of the elephants or whatever else crosses your steed’s path. Rides take place at the crack of dawn and in the late afternoon, when it’s not uncommon to find yourself and your steed shadowed by a dazzle—yes, that’s the right name—of zebra, even when you stop for a drink and some bities, as the locals call safari snacks. For the truly hardcore, seven-day camping safaris compered by Mzee await.
Exhilarating though racing the zebras across the savannah was, the best part of my three-day safari came early one morning. As we picked our way through a thicket of spiky acacia and hunch-backed trees, a tiny black-backed jackal appeared, delicately sniffing the air and watching us warily. I had seen one or two from a distance on previous safari trips, but they always ran away as soon as they heard the engine of our approaching truck. Not this time. Pacing along behind us, the little creature came within two metres of where I was sitting. ‘You would not have seen that in a car,’ Mzee observed. Yet there it was, almost close enough to touch. Not even my horse seemed to mind.
KENYA’S MAGNIFICENT COAST
The majority of people who travel to Kenya on safari combine a couple of days in the wilderness with a further two or three days at the beach. The country is home to a magnificent 536km stretch of coastline that begins on the Somali border in the north and finishes in Tanzania to the south. Currently, much of the northern part is out of bounds thanks to unrest on the Somali side and terrorist attacks on once-thriving hotspots such as the gorgeous Lamu island. Further south, it’s a different story with much of the coast, in particular around Malindi, as lovely as it ever was.
It was to Malindi and a tiny resort called Watamu that I travelled for my Indian Ocean beach break. At Medina Palms, a colonnaded rabbit warren of a hotel with huge sunny white-painted rooms, there’s a private beach and a fleet of helpful staff to help you enjoy it. But there’s more to Watamu than beaches and barbecues. While I was there, I spent a morning with Watamu Turtle Watch, an organisation that rescues and releases animals caught by fishermen or trapped in nets. Nothing quite beats the feeling of watching a newly-healthy turtle arrow out through the crystal clear Indian Ocean water to the open seas and freedom. Should you wish to follow them, the hotel can arrange diving trips.
While there’s not much to Watamu itself beyond rows of brightly painted houses and the buzzing streets that are so typical of Kenya, the town isn’t without history. Most famous is the fascinating Gede Ruins, a crumbling derelict sprawl just outside Watamu that was mysteriously abandoned around 1500. No one knows exactly what happened to the people who once lived there, although theories ranging from plague to war have been put forward. Whatever happened, the ruins of their home are hauntingly beautiful and not to be missed.
NEED TO KNOW…
A stay at ol Donyo Lodge (www.greatplainsconservation.com/oldonyolodge) starts at £411 pp, per night. The lodge is 85km from Nairobi, a one hour flight with Boskovic Air Charters Ltd (£2,061 for a 12 seater plane including taxes, www.boskovicaircharters.com) or a four-hour drive. Return flights to Nairobi with Kenya Airways from London cost £821.