Travel

6 Things I Learned on My African Safari

I still cannot believe that my trip to Gerti and Philip Kusseler’s Wait a Little Horse Safari was so many months ago (like maybe 12 of them).

But in all honesty, it’s taken me this long to process the experience.

From glorious sunsets spent riding alongside giraffes, to thrilling encounters with lions and cheetahs, this is an adventure that lives up to every hope and dream. If you’re considering your own riding vacation across the savannah or into the thick (and thorny) bush, here were a few things that might help sway your mind:

1. You’ll show up as strangers, you’ll leave as a family

When I first signed up for my safari, I got a ton of questions about whether I was going with any riding friends. For me though, this trip was not just about the riding. I was going through a transitional period of my life (read: mid-life crisis), and knew this was going to be my last opportunity for the foreseeable future to travel while knocking a few things off my bucket list. With a tight timeline, the cost, and some fairly strict requirements about what type of safari I was looking for, it just made sense to go it alone.

I was not alone for long, however.

While I may have been initially nervous to meet the six other strangers that would make up the group I would be spending my week with, that feeling lasted all of about 30 minutes after I landed in Africa. Regular safari goers (especially those from a wide variety of countries like our group) might be at a loss for common conversation topics. For our group, it was evident from the get-go that we’d have no trouble bonding over what brought us here in the first place: horses and a true love of riding.

We quickly fell into discussing our horses back home, trading stories about our chosen disciplines, and (of course), sharing whether we were feeling more nervous or more excited to set out on our first ride.

After a week of shared meals, horses and adventure, we were like a group of old war buddies, promising to meet up again on the other side of the trenches. We still occasionally send a message over the group chat to this day, and I have no doubts that if I found myself in the same town as one of my fellow safari-goers, we’d meet up to reminisce about our baby hyena sightings, or our favorite morning gallop.

In short, over sundowners (perhaps my favorite safari tradition) and wildlife sightings, you’ll bond with your group in a way that just can’t be replicated anywhere else.

2. When they tell you to get prepared, they’re not joking

The information packet I received prior to the ride advised me that I would spend many long hours in the saddle, and should prepare accordingly, especially with becoming comfortable galloping in a two-point position. I felt pretty good prior to the ride, as I was riding a few horses a day in the field and through miles of woods, and was spending some time without stirrups (mostly on purpose). While I’m not going to be a contender for the Olympics anytime soon, I felt that I was in pretty good riding shape and that I had a fairly good seat. If nothing else, I would describe myself as “scrappy,” which can go a surprisingly long way in the riding world.

Guys and gals. Hear my warning: Including my military training, my one marathon, and my several ill-fated attempts at Crossfit, I have never, EVER been as sore as I was on the second day of my trip. Ever.

Not only was I sore in places I didn’t know it was possible to be sore in, but the riding was every bit as fast-paced and definitely as advanced as advertised. Long canters and gallops through the winding brush, steep climbs uphill and drops downhill into dry riverbeds, riding through water and sand and the thick, thorny brush were all in a normal day’s ride.

3. And it was all completely awesome

I will say, even having ridden for years, I was blown away by the riders I was with. Show jumpers, polocrosse players, dressage riders, and just general badasses could be found all around me. I don’t mind admitting to you all that I was the weak kid of the bunch (I am perfectly comfortable entering divisions of schooling shows that begin with phrases like “Baby,” “Beginner” and “Grasshopper”), and while I survived (see earlier comment about being scrappy), I wish I had been a little stronger when I showed up.

So if you’re looking to do a safari yourself, you’d be wise to learn from my experience, invest in some lessons and do a LOT of riding both in and outside of the arena before you go. (Also, bring plenty of painkillers).

4. There is no reason my pony should be afraid of a plastic bag

While on my trip, we rode a variety of horses. There were South African Boerperds, Friesian crosses, and one feisty Icelandic pony who bravely galloped next to giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, and various types of antelope.

We came face to face with elephants, rhino, hyena, lions, and the most adorable baby warthog I have ever seen.

We crossed rivers, we rode up and down terrain, and we did it all with horses that stood steadfast and brave, and quietly grazed as animals that could smush us like bugs watched warily from nearby.

These were the type of horses I imagine charging into battle without a second thought, and they gave me a new respect for what good, patient, consistent training could do. One day at lunch, we watched while Gerti practiced various complicated dressage moves while a family of baboons played on the fencepost beside her. If that’s not good training, I don’t know what is.

Coming back home, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been making just a few too many excuses for the spooking, snorting monster that my pony can sometimes turn into. If I had to pick one big takeaway from my trip, it was that I truly saw what bravery in a horse looks like.

All that being said, I did see the horses get nervous about one thing. A pile of old elephant poop near our last sundowner of the trip caused quite the ruckus with several of the younger horses, and in an odd way, it was reassuring. It showed that even the most well-trained horses are still just horses sometimes.

5. You will be scared, and it will be great

I am a control freak. I can admit that. I like having some sort of control of whatever situation I’m in, even if it’s as simple as having input into what restaurant we’re headed to or what time we leave for the show. I thrive on routine, and when it comes to riding, I tend to get a little nervous about introducing anything new.

So obviously the right choice for my vacation was to head to Africa and spend a week riding through the wilderness searching for the most dangerous game, right? Right.

I’ll admit, I was pretty thrown off my groove thing when we first arrived at the camp. I wasn’t sure what the camp staff would be like (utterly amazing), what other guests would be like (friendly and wonderful), or what the horses would be like (like all my favorite lesson horses rolled into one).

Would I make friends? Would I be able to have fun in an environment where everything was out of my control? Would my mom be right, and I would get mauled by a lion or perhaps a very aggressive meerkat?

To put it simply, I was more than nervous, I was downright scared about everything. At first.

But the evening we arrived, as the sun was setting and we rode around a bend in the road to see a REAL LIVE giraffe in front of us, I felt a swelling in my heart and my shoulders lighten (and possibly heard “The Circle of Life” playing in my head). I was riding a horse in Africa, a dream I’d had since I was nine years old. There was a giraffe looking at me, and not through the fence at the local zoo. I was currently in control of absolutely nothing, and in that moment, in love with everything that was going on around me.

Were there more moments throughout the trip when I was scared? Yes, definitely. Did I love even those moments? Oh you bet I did.

6. No words can do justice to the experience

I could give you a play by play of the riding, the facilities, the food, or the staff, all of which were wonderful. Gerti and Philip Kusseler have created a virtual paradise at the Wait a Little Camps, and there was not a single thing about the trip that didn’t meet my expectations (or better put, exceed my wildest dreams).

But none of that is really the important part of my safari vacation. My one regret now is that I am simply not a talented enough writer to convey to you the EXPERIENCE of this trip, the feeling of what riding in Africa is all about.

From the nights drinking wine around the fire and hearing the crashing of hippos through the underbrush, laughing and telling stories of the crazy and wonderful horses we had each known, to galloping up dusty lanes in the bright morning light in hopes of catching a distant herd of elephants, there is nothing I can say here that will give you the same feeling in your chest that I have when I think back on this trip.

So if you’ve been looking for a sign, for permission to give yourself a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, this is it. Get yourself on an African safari and experience a little bit of the world, outside your comfort zone and outside your control.

My guess is you’ll come back exactly as I did. A little happier, a little stronger, and a whole lot braver.


About the Author

When Aubrey Moore isn’t riding her horse Flynn, new pony or doing near-constant maintenance on her truck, she can be found with a glass of wine in hand, chatting happily with her cat Frankie.