Horse and Hound
The lion was angry. He got up and suddenly we could see just how big and menacing he was. Then it got worse. With a roar that was the ultimate expression of jungle rage he leapt into the air and started across the forty metres of open African ground between us and his thorn tree. It was set to be the most terrifying moment any of us had experienced on horseback.
But it wasn’t. After ten rushing metres he stopped, snarled and, with a contemptuous whisk of his tail, turned away to follow his lioness into the thicket. We were shaking with the shock but not actually with terror. Not because of our own confidence or courage, but thanks to that of the horses beneath and the man ahead. That’s what can happen if you follow Tristan Voorspuy across Kenya’s Masai Mara.
At 58 Tristan has spent more than 30 years leading horseback safaris in Africa. There is nothing he has not seen but it’s best to reserve his goriest stories until you have got to the end of what, as in our case, are likely to be the best eight consecutive days of your riding life. The lion charge was on the very first morning from our opening camp. As we rode across the game-filled Savannah to where our tents would have been newly pitched, the canvas showers erected and the earth closets dug, the experiences only mounted. But terror didn’t. That is what others’ experience and confidence can give you. And it’s best if it comes from both horse and rider.
The first time I rode at Sandown was on a little mare called Dhobi Mark so small that she could hardly see over the first fence when we showed it to her. But she could jump like an Impala and John Oaksey was beside me and clearly enjoying himself. I enjoyed the race even more than he did. He was second. My first time over the banks in Limerick was 45 years later. But I was on a great big never-going-to-fall conveyance called Tipper who had transported John Francome over about three hundred banks a few seasons earlier. And I was following the legend that is Enda Bolger. With him, as with Tristan, it is just a matter of trust. While they might like to give you a life-changing experience, it really would not suit them if you ended up buried at the bottom of an Irish bank or in the jaws of some mighty predator.
The trick is the thrill without the apparently imminent penalty. When the big bull elephant flapped his ears and came sharply towards us on those vast but noiseless feet, it was time to turn but not to panic. When our canter took us perilously close to some notoriously short tempered buffalo, there was the need to hurry but not to scarper. Mind you when the task was to cross the Mara River with the crocs on the bank and the hippos in the stream, there was a need for more than confidence. As the horses plunged flank deep in the water and one particularly big croc could be seen sliding into the current, we were reduced to riding’s most basic of options – keep a leg either side and “just do it.”
For fear is never helpful and anyway it is likely to be the unexpected that will nail you. Just as it did for me on Day Seven. One moment my little mare was sailing across the long yellow grass on the plain beneath the towering Rift Valley escarpment. The next she had her forelegs in a wart hog hole and the ground was coming up to whack us. She was all right but I lay there sore and winded remembering other times, other days. This is written with a broken rib – but that’s nothing for the fun we had.
You might like to know that we saw the lion again that first morning.. When he got up this time he had other things on his mind. The lioness had walked away and he had started to follow. “I think they are going to mate,” whispered Tristan Voorspuy. And they did. Graphically and noisily right there in front of us. There is more to life than roaring if you are King of The Jungle.