January 01 2013
On the parched savannah, thorny acacias dot the land like toy trees, their iconic, flat-topped canopies stripped by giraffe and elephant, their branches almost entirely leafless as they wait for the blush of green that will soon return with the arrival of the Serengeti’s short-lived rains. An impala raises its head, a curl of horns piercing the air. A secretary bird picks across the ground, disdainful of the stones. A zebra barks in the far distance, while the little tick-tick noise belongs to a group of Thomson’s gazelle, their short, black tails moving as though metronomes keeping time on this ancient landscape, the sun turning the grass a burnt yellow, the white heat bleaching out the line between land and sky. When I squint towards the plain’s far edge, I distrust the dark smudge where the flat ground rises up slightly to conceal what lies beyond. I suspect it is Cape buffalo; earlier in the day, we’d come across a herd some 200 strong. It could also be elephant; yesterday, a parade had flapped their ears and made a run in our direction. I’m happy, therefore, for the miles that lie between us now.
As always when moving from the city to the wilderness, it is the emptiness that excites me – Africa at her most serene and minimalist. But the open vista is not always like this. In June to July, the land turns green then silver with the backs of a million wildebeest, as the region is consumed by their great migration north into Kenya. They pound the earth, flattening the long grass. Hundreds, even thousands, are pulled to the ground – their picked-dry carcasses still lie there – devoured by cheetah, hyena and lion.
To come here during the migration would, I suspect, be overwhelming, since I’m not looking at this stretch of Tanzania from a four-wheel-drive. Nor am I on my feet, when detail is everything, when one can walk with elephant but also learn about the life cycle of a single butterfly on a bush. This time I’m on horseback for a three-night safari without fence or ditch or road, riding through Singita Grumeti – the 350,000-acre private concession (only 23,000 acres short of Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve) leased to US philanthropist, conservationist and hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. In Africa, horseback safaris might not be about predator viewing, but they deliver their own kind of adrenaline, born of riding on an animal, among animals. While Hemingway famously talked about “the million miles of bloody Africa”, I’m seduced by Blixen’s romantic view of the landscape as “a hundred miles’ gallop”. In this private swath of bush where we see not another soul, the enduring reality of her words is what strikes me now.
After an hour’s more riding, the black strip I noticed on the horizon turns out to be not buffalo but a shift in terrain, where the plain funnels down toward a narrow valley thick with boulders and long grass. There is a run of kopjes on either side. While I’m glad of the shade (the veins show on the horses’ shoulders, their sleek coats shining with sweat), the rush of blood that comes from riding at speed is now replaced by a fear derived from walking this tight cut in the land where at any moment we might chance upon buffalo, elephant or lion. One must be on high alert for those three at all times. Alison Mundy – our South African riding guide, who, with partner Martin Dodwell, heads up Singita Grumeti’s new equestrian safaris – knows the risks only too well. At a previous job, another guide took out Mundy’s favourite horse. A lion jumped on its back and, in the mayhem, both animals were killed.
I try not to think about what could happen, nor the length of the indemnity form I signed. I’ve had quite a lot of practice, riding in Mongolia, Brazil, Canada and Ireland. Equestrian safaris in Africa, however, require more: one has to be skilled enough to turn on a sixpence and ride at speed. (Mundy and Dodwell are rigorous about the ground rules, not letting anyone on the safaris who may put themselves or others at risk.) I’m also aware of how exposed I am; how, despite all the experience in the world, my horse could trip at any time; and how little things, like the sudden appearance of a tiny dik-dik antelope, could put me on the ground.
I manoeuvre so I’m behind the lead horse – ridden by Dodwell, who carries a loaded rifle – while Mundy and two Tanzanian guides, Issa Mohamed and Ramso Hamisi, take the rear. Dodwell’s horse, a thoroughbred wired to race, is a little skittish. Mine, called Koroya, is a sure-footed 15.3-hand Shire-Boerperd cross from South Africa, who is beginning to feel like he will see me well. When Dodwell’s horse spooks at a hare we disturb out of the grass, mine simply throws his head a little, as if batting away a fly. Koroya knows this bush, seems to have a tenth sense for the soft ground created by a termite nest, or a low-hanging thorn. “These safari horses are brave,” says Mundy. “They’ve stood down elephant and lion. I trust them more than anything.”
Suddenly, the valley mouth opens up in front of me into another vast plain finishing in the soft contours of the Mchuli Hills, above which rain is falling as though a plug has been pulled out of the cloud. “If we keep on riding west for two days,” Dodwell says, “we’ll reach the shores of Lake Victoria. Two days that way is Kenya. Two weeks that way is the Indian Ocean, and three weeks that way, Mozambique.” I smile. I realise Africa on horseback has got me by the gut, the sense of freedom overriding any fear as we start to canter alongside zebra, topi and gazelle. Koroya’s pace falls into time with the lolling gait of a giraffe, neither animal concerned by the other, as if this harmony of beast, man and wilderness is the most natural thing in the world.
There have been horses at Singita Grumeti for some years, and the Tudor Jones family has invested in stables whose like I have only ever seen at racing yards in Newmarket. Impeccable tack rooms, feed rooms, veterinary stores and uniformed staff service 18 super-fit, very spoilt animals. Most have been imported from South Africa, all of them sourced, nurtured and trained by Mundy, who is also a horse physiotherapist. “The way the horses behave in the bush, it’s like they are repaying her,” says Mohamed. The connection she has with each animal runs deep. While not a trained vet, Mundy seems to know as much as anyone in that profession; while not a trained farrier, she can sort a horse’s feet if it throws a shoe or punctures its sole. Twice a day our mounts have their temperature taken to pre-empt problems that can emerge from the tsetse fly, scourge of horses across east Africa. Even on safari, the animals are rugged up at night and given sawdust beds, as they eat sweet hay, tied off a high “picket line” between the trees. Rarely have I come across horses fitter, or more responsive to leg and hand. Never have I seen them fed home-baked biscuits stuffed with minerals and vitamins (cooked daily by Singita Grumeti’s kitchen staff). To ride with Mundy and Dodwell, and discover that between them they have bush knowledge equal to some of the best guides in Africa – well, it’s no wonder they’re raising the bar on riding safaris for the whole continent and beyond.
Then throw in the Singita strand – the luxury camps and impeccable service for which this South African-based company is known – and you’ve got something unique. Of course, there are other good riding guides out there, but a friend and recent guest, who has ridden five times in Africa, still puts Mundy and Dodwell head of his list. (They are cautious, confident and not full of the bravado that can put riders on edge, he says.) Other equestrian safaris also use very good locations as bases: Ol Donyo Lodge in south-eastern Kenya, between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks, and Ant’s Nest in the Waterberg, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. But this is travelling for days without once covering the same ground, within a completely private concession where 10 years of hard-core conservation have rehabilitated the stocks of game with extraordinary success. It’s riding hard for hours, then relaxing in exclusive-use accommodation throughout one’s stay – from the recently launched Singita Explore canvas camps to the new, contemporary-styled private villa Singita Serengeti House. It’s being waited on by chefs and masseurs, and having vehicular backup for game drives and bush walks. It’s determining a private journey according to one’s interest, the season’s density of game and the style of residence, which can range even wider to include the barefoot luxury of Faru Faru Lodge (all white linens, rough woods and Lamu‑esque chic) or the grand, colonial Sasakwa Lodge.
This is something new and polished for African horse safaris that is entirely “on brand” for Singita Grumeti, which isn’t interested in volume tourism. Hence the price (from $925 per person per day, depending on accommodation) and the slow gestation of the safaris, trialled last year, now launched fully in conjunction with the Singita Explore concept (there are two sites for the semi-mobile tented camps, with several more lined up to open in the next 12 months). In the past, many guests have taken day rides, heading out from Sasakwa, Singita Grumeti’s flagship lodge. Now, though, there is the sense of a journey, with the ability to get into the nooks and crannies of this vast land.
So when, on my last day, I learn that the horse safaris are in fact confined to the Wildlife Management Areas of Singita Grumeti (other territories have conservation requirements that need to be fully addressed before horses can be ridden there), I am astounded: this is less than a third of the concession. Yet not once have we retraced our steps on an expedition that feels as old as the early colonial pioneers who explored the region by cart-drawing ox and horse – animals that didn’t, I suspect, enjoy the warm, molasses-packed “Singita muffins” Koroya gets to eat circa 2012.