Early Morning Ride

By guest Debbie Parrott – who won the a trophy for this piece in the Guernsey Eisteddfod Society Competition, English Literary Section.

A snorting, grunting growl rumbled over the crest of the kopje. My eyes snapped open. What was it? Hyena or lion? Near or far? Could they get to me? Our armed maasai guard was motionless and apparently asleep. Then, blushing into the night and with an embarrassing shiver, I realised where the noise had come from. I’d been snoring. I wriggled comfortably, stretched my arms out of the sleeping bag and tiptoed my fingers along the rock beneath me. It was unbelievable; I was lying fifty metres above the plains on a huge, isolated outcrop of granite. How had that happened?

“It’ll be fun,” Annie had said, “we’ll have supper as the sun goes down, breakfast as it rises, the boys will bring the horses out in the morning and we can ride back to the lodge. Are you up for it?” I was.

The night sky, stuffed with jostling stars, was wrapping itself loosely round the curve of the earth. I tried to pick out patterns amidst the muddle but I couldn’t isolate a single constellation; it was a celestial mess. I tried to memorise the detail so that when I was home, and overwhelmed with the everyday, I could conjure the memory and smile. With eyes heavenward I waited for sleep.

By dawn, when the birds began to sing and squawk I was dozing; curled up and snug. Twittering arias floated up from the savannah as they bombarded the riot of insects. I was too high up to see them but I knew they would be swooping and darting, beaks primed, enjoying a chaotic breakfast.

I sat up, the sky burned an intense orange as the sun announced her imminent arrival and, as the star rose higher, garish brushstrokes of vivid pink swept the horizon. “Cup of tea, Debbie?” Annie sat down beside me and we stared at the paint palette until it dissolved and the sun took control of the day. Obediently, the sky slowly began to turn a Forget-Me-Not blue. Looking east I could see the Chyulu Hills in the distance, a tumbled collection of snaking cinder cones. Ol Donyo Lodge was impossible to see, I knew it was there but it had been built to blend and it was pressed, chameleon like, into the volcanic hillside; a master of camouflage. From my room at the lodge the huge granite kopje that I had just spent the night on looked like a distant and isolated wart.

Annie was gingerly poking branches in the fire. “Sorry, this is on its last gasp, but it’ll do another cuppa.” She lifted the elephantine kettle and poured. As I sipped, I marvelled at how delicious a cup of floating leaves could taste. Looking West, Mount Kilimanjaro rose majestically, a mere 60 miles away and only just managing to keep her foothills in neighbouring Tanzania. The snow was creeping down from the summit, like icing on a bun. Sitting atop my own personal monolith I felt, at the very least, equal to the majesty before me.

“Come on Debbie, I can see them coming,” she shaded her eyes with a hand and pointed, “over there.” I followed her finger and, in the distance, I could see puffs of dusty clouds billowing behind ant-sized horses. The ‘Kopje Housekeeping’ had already arrived in the form of a Land Cruiser and two Maasai staff from the lodge; the latter were already scrambling up and down the rocks transporting the overnight paraphernalia. Despite the ice-boxes now being considerably lighter, it was still a challenging ‘room service’.

Riding Ol Donyo's Great Plains

Riding Ol Donyo’s Great Plains

The horses and guides arrived. “Habari ya asubuhi!” shouted Paul, “Good morning! The horses are a little jumpy; we have just disturbed some lion.” A lead ball set off at a gentle roll around my stomach.

Twenty years ago there were only 2000 lion left in Kenya; the decline was largely the result of the Maasai killing them to protect their livestock or to prove their manhood. The situation on this vast ranch was so dire that the lion population was threatened with extinction. Not now. The tribesmen are compensated for any losses, as long as a herdsman was with the animals and the height of his fences sufficient. The success of Big Life Foundation’s Predator Compensation Fund has proved unprecedented and lion killing has virtually stopped. There are a lot more lion around which, in turn, means that I am potentially riding the main course for a leonine lunch; while offering myself as dessert. It wasn’t a thought that filled me with confidence.

“Are we going back the same way?” I asked tentatively. “We go that way,” and Paul waved an arm airily in no particular direction, then added, “if they attack they will go for the horse at the back but they had full stomachs so it shouldn’t be a problem.” We mounted and set off, I swallowed nervously – and rode at the front. We weaved along a flattened, grassy path. The savannah was reaching and stretching to its inevitable collision with the horizon.

“Ready to trot, then canter?” called Paul. “Ready!” – and showing off – “twende, twende,” – ‘let’s go,’ in Swahili. We picked up a canter and left the track to head across the plains; the horses loved it and the riders loved it. Looking out for holes, created by the savannah night-shift, we rushed on, fanning out to find our own pockets of freedom.

A family of wart hogs broke cover and ran for it, their tails held aloft like aerials on remote control cars; the youngsters barely visible above the seed heads apart from ears and tail tips. The plains were studded with umbrella acacia trees, their parasol branches spreading to create much needed shade. As we got closer to the lodge and the trees became denser, I scanned the half-light under leafy canopies for flicking ears and amber eyes; a waste of time, the horses would get twitchy and springy long before I saw anything. As if reading my mind Paul said, “A baby giraffe will make a better meal for a lion than you, you’re a bit scrawny.” He laughed and his teeth were like white doors in the moonlight. Giraffes could be seen everywhere, their heads poking up above the blossom like a sea of periscopes. They had thickened, blue tongues that were capable of chewing through the vicious acacia thorns and when we strolled passed them on horseback, barely metres away, they merely fluttered long lashes at us. Occasionally, if we surprised them, they would burst into life and gallop off; left legs then right legs, their necks acting as balancing joysticks.

The horses picked their way through scrubby thicket, stepping neatly over stones of larva and cracking twigs underfoot. Then a large crack came. Then again. Snap! Crackle! Rustle! Paul whispered, “Can you see it yet?” See what, I thought. Eyes straining. Acacia, a few large boulders, logs, bushes… nothing. Then a ‘boulder’ started to tremble; with a furious flapping of ears and an irritated shaking of its head, an elephant trampled towards us flashing long, curving tusks. The ‘hugeness’ advanced and I shrank into the saddle. My horse shifted nervously beneath me. We turned and walked slowly away; resisting the violent urge to charge off in a choking dust storm. Fortunately, the elephant was only disgruntled at having his privacy disturbed and he stomped off like a teenager (which he probably was) to address the needs of his stomach rather than his territory – we had merely caught him unawares.

“What would we have done if he had charged us?” I asked Paul. A smile spread across his face, “We would have galloped away,” he answered, “it would have been fun!” Would it, I thought. We walked on meandering in and out of trees until we came to a soft track of lava ash; we cantered on surprising a small herd of impala that scattered before us like escaping fire sparks. We rounded a bend and Paul stopped, we concertinaed behind him, “Leopard! Leopard…” I stopped. Beneath the stillness a frenzy of heartbeats clattered; first lion, now leopard. Paul stood up in his stirrups and peered into the scrub. An ambush? I followed his stare and emerging from the bush waddled a beautiful Leopard … tortoise.

Sensing us there it retracted its legs, pulled in its head and plopped to the ground. The sun glistened on its puckered, checkerboard shell; it was a rare and lucky sighting, “You wouldn’t have seen that in a car,” observed Paul… or the pair of black backed jackal we had seen yesterday I thought; the little creatures had paced along beside us as if it was part of their daily routine. The horses had not taken the slightest notice of them; it had also been a unique sighting.

The lodge could now be seen moulded into the hilly contours; it looked as if it had grown there from a seed. The horses, sensing breakfast and a loosening of girths, instinctively popped a little bounce into their pace. With the stables in sight, and while congratulating myself on a lion-free ride, I carelessly destroyed hours of meticulous work. A large slender thread draped over my riding hat and the remnants of a vandalised spider’s web clung precariously to the branch of a tree. A magnificent Golden Orb spider glared out at me from the ruins. I was slightly mollified to see that she had not lost her pantry; a long sticky line dangled, swinging gently in the breeze with an assortment of insects still firmly glued to it. I thought, ruefully, that at least she wouldn’t go hungry as she set about rebuilding.

We walked on with long reins into the yard and the grooms came to greet us. “Good ride? Good ride?” “Good night? You sleep well? “You like the stars?” “Did Mawingu canter well for you?” Questions bounced around the yard as the stable boys practised their English. “Breathtaking! Amazing! Fantastic,” I fired back. Peter strolled over; he was animated, throwing his arms around as he chatted with one of the grooms.

“Peter, thank you, I‘m pleased to see that you’ve enjoyed it too.” “Oh yes,” he chuckled, “it was an especially good ride this morning because I have got back to learn that Manchester City have beaten Arsenal… 2-1! He caught my stunned expression, threw his head back and roared with laughter before exclaiming, “Riding here is always fun, no matter what we do or don’t see. Riding safari is crazy, like football, you can never absolutely predict the outcome. It is the most exciting job in Kenya.”

How could I disagree…?!