It’s hard not to feel exultant as you gallop across the savannah stage with the theatre of the wild playing in the space between your horse’s ears. Herds of zebra, momentarily transfixed, career away in a flurry of dust and flailing hooves. A lone kongoni, startled out of his long-faced contemplation, skitters away across the carpet of rain flowers, putting a grey heron into flight as he goes. Plum-coloured topi stare from atop their termite mounds, delicate dik-dik dive for cover and, as the posse of riders approaches, a group of browsing giraffe erupt into stately motion and sail majestically off across the plains.
Not all of the actors in your one-act wilderness play are alarmed by your arrival: two old bull buffalos regard you with a metaphorical shrug of their horns; a troop of elephants gaze in polite but placid enquiry; and the hyena loping purposefully in pursuit of the wildebeest and their day-old calves, throws you no more than a knowing leer. And so he might, because you’re a very privileged spectator in an arena seldom visited by anything other than people on wheels.
Riding through the African bush, however, is not a walk in the park. It’s a canter into a wild world of predators, kills and creatures of unnerving size and unpredictability. Best then, to be very sure that your horse won’t bolt at the whiff of an elephant, and that the chap in front knows exactly what he’s doing.
Good to know, then, that Martin Dodwell, Equestrian Projects Manager of Ride Kenya, has twelve years’ experience in leading African wilderness horse-back safaris; and that his carefully trained stable of 15 horses are not only in their prime, but also what he calls ‘sensible’, which roughly translated means that they regard the ‘Big Five’ with the slightly detached but appreciative gaze of a seasoned tour guide.
As the lead rider, Martin is the scout. He scans the horizon, picks his way through the dry riverbed in advance of the rest of the group and, when his gloved hand is raised, everyone halts. ‘Hippo,’ he says, ‘just coming out of the river.’ He’s got eyes like a hawk. But sure enough, there in the middle-distance is the glistening brown-and-pink humbug shape of a young hippo. It presents no great threat, but the fact that you’re confronting it on an equal (four-legged) footing pulls the experience into sharp focus.
And therein lies the thrill. And, according to Martin, it’s addictive.
‘Once a rider has spat the dust from between their teeth as they ride in the wake of the wildebeest migration,’ he says, ‘they’re straight back for more. Some come for days; some for weeks.’ He holds up a hand as a bachelor herd of gazelle explode from the undergrowth and bound stiff-legged and ‘pronking’ across the plains.
‘But it’s never enough,’ he says.