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Africa From the Saddle


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In Kenya, Matson worries that horses, like zebras, are “meat treats” for lions.

From the July/August 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Approaching Kenya’s wildlife via horseback makes you feel truly alive (if a bit nervous).

Ernest Hemingway said Africa was the one place "it pleased me to live, to really live. Not just let my life pass." I'm in East Africa determined to have a Hemingwayesque experience. Well, Hemingway minus the avid shooting and stuffing of wild animals to ship home to decorate the walls of a den. I want that connection with the primal self, being on the edge, completely alive and engaged in the moment. I've been to Africa many times, but I want something more this trip, more intense, something other than just sitting and watching wildlife from the safety of a vehicle.

That's why I've come to this wilderness practically smack in the middle of Kenya. "You've got our Honeymoon Suite," the manager of the Loisaba Lodge says proudly, despite the fact that I'm traveling alone. I gamely hang out the "Do Not Disturb" sign, then turn in early to rest up for tomorrow's big adventure: a wildlife safari—not by Land Rover, but on horseback.

Here's a tip: Never tell anyone you're from Texas before going horseback riding. Texans are inevitably given the biggest, most spirited (cowboy speak for uncontrollable) horse in the stable. Barrow Boy, which might as well be Swahili for Bad Boy, is so big he comes with his own set of steps to help riders climb into the saddle.

That brings me to the next problem: no handlebars. I'm a Western guy, and in Kenya they ride English. As if the British didn't do enough damage teaching millions of people to drive on the left side of the road, they also deprived their former colonies of saddle horns.

As we head out into the bush, Adam Dida, my guide, assures me: "You won't need to hang on for dear life, because these horses have been raised around wild animals, and they won't bolt at the first sign of an elephant or a zebra."

"Zebras? Lions eat zebras, don't they?" I ask in a voice I last used at age 12. Of course I know the answer. What I'm really asking is: "Aren't horses just zebras without stripes? Then why are we riding these meat treats into a herd of lion food?"

Dida brushes aside my concerns with a simple, "Lions have never come after the horses." Before I can ask why, he diverts my attention to a Hemingway moment, pointing out a group of elephants a hundred yards away. Slowly and quietly we ride closer. Elephants have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and sense of smell. The wind is in our favor, and we maneuver into position for a good picture. Then, like Hemingway raising his rifle and carefully sighting down the barrel, I lift my camera and fire off three quick shots before the elephants ever notice us.

On we ride, encountering several different groups of zebras and giraffes as well as impalas and warthogs. I'm so caught up in where we are and what we're seeing and how close we're getting to the animals that lions have dropped off my mental radar.

Finally Dida leads me to the edge of a watering hole, where four giraffes have come to drink. It's comical to see these gangly creatures splay their legs out to the side, lowering their bodies close to the ground, then extending their long necks down to the water. It's a bit like watching Shaquille O'Neal squeezing into the backseat of a MINI Cooper.

Giraffes are usually skittish in this vulnerable drinking position, but today they seem unruffled. The same can't be said for the horses. The giraffe contortions spook Barrow Boy. He rears up, spins, and is ready to run. Dida reaches from his horse to grab my reins near the bit to hold my mount's head down. Barrow Boy keeps trying to get away, and both horses are now spinning and prancing.

I quickly grab the reins and pull a full Hemingway, shouting, "Yee-haw! I've got it! Let him go!" You don't get that kind of excitement sitting in the back of a Jeep.

On my second night, I transfer from the Honeymoon Suite to one of Loisaba's remote Star Bed accommodations. Moses Lesoimara, a 20-year-old Samburu warrior, sits with me outside by the fire and pulls me deeper into the magic of Africa with songs and stories of tribal life. Accompanying himself on the nchamonge, a traditional homemade six-string instrument, Moses sings for me.

"What's that about?" I ask.

"It's an old song from my father's time about stealing cattle," he answers.

"Do the young Samburu have any new songs in their language they like to sing?"

"Yes, this one about AIDS is very popular. It speaks of the disease for which there is no cure and talks about the need to have only one wife and to practice safe sex." As he sings this contemporary number, I can't help but compare it to the carefree love songs of my youth. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" seems like a century ago.

My Star Bed cottage is built up high on stilts on a hillside overlooking a valley. The side walls connect to a back wall that's really a granite boulder embedded in the hill. There's a thatched roof, but the front end is completely open to the elements.

My bed rests on a car axle with two tires. I lift the end and roll the bed onto the deck, where it has an unobstructed view of Kenya's brilliant night sky. The stars are so bright that I can see animals approaching the watering hole in the valley below.

Lying back, I look out to the Southern Cross on the horizon and then up to Orion's Belt, thinking, "If I lived here, I'd have to learn more constellations."

And then I reflect on my day and realize the truth of Hemingway's words, that in Africa you have to be a participant in life, not just a spectator. So I fall asleep dreaming of tomorrow, when I will begin my walking safari in Kenya. But that's a story for another time.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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