Monday, October 24, 2011

Safari Adventures Post #2 - Cheating Death

By Terri Rocovich

At the end of my last blog, I left you all wondering how it was that my friends and I cheated death not once or twice but three times on our first day of Safari in Kenya. After our successful crossing of the Mara River, albeit not gracefully, we proceeded with our first ride on the Masai Mara of Kenya. We traveled single file after the river crossing since we were weaving in, out and hopefully around Acacia trees. Acacia trees are proof that plant life can bite as much as an animal. They are trees with an attitude. Their thorns are several inches long and catch and snag on everything. You do everything to avoid the thorns because even the slightest encounter will leave a stinging, nasty scratch. The terrain was also uneven and rocky as we made our ascent up a moderate size hill.

There was little talking since all of us were mesmerized by our new environment. Your eye could hardly take it all in let alone your brain process it. We had been riding for about an hour after the river when our tranquility came to an abrupt end. I was the 5th rider in the line of our group of 11 when I heard a sound that was unlike anything my ears had ever heard. Tristan, the Safari guide, and 3 riders in front of me, including my friend Carolyn, had rounded a curve in the trail dropping temporarily out of site. There was the deafening roar of an Elephant and then together Hallum and Carolyn came back toward me with panic in their eyes frantically saying, “Go back, go back. “ These instructions were more difficult to follow then you might think since turning around on a narrow trial bordered by Acacia trees, and doing it quickly was tricky to say the least. I let Carolyn and Hallum pass me and was attempting to turn my horse around when I could hear the Elephant roar several more times and I could hear Tristan crack his bull whip while screaming, “Get back, get back you cow” at a massive Elephant Cow who was in full charge stance with her huge ears out wide and her trunk up. She made several short aggressive charges at Tristan but was backed off by the sharp crack of the bull whip that simulated the sound of rifle fire.

Realizing that it would be almost as dangerous to turn and run from a group of charging elephants in this terrain, Tristan had decided to make a stand. David, an old friend of his from England and a veteran of many Safaris, stayed with him to face down the elephant cow. It was one of the most surreal and frightening experiences of my life time. I could only partially make out the silhouette of the massive elephant through the trees but my ears took in everything else. It was like a scene from a movie, yet I was in it and could at any moment either be mulled over by elephants or shredded by Acacia trees trying to escape. Not exactly the choices I thought I would be faced with my first ride on Safari.

We had inadvertently surprised a small matriarchal herd grazing and the dominant cow clearly did not have a sense of humor. After the elephants had backed down and moved away from us, we continued down the trail. Tristan said that it was very unusual to see elephants in this area and he thought that the cow that had made the charge may have had a bad experience with horses in the past and that would explain why she was so aggressive in defense of the group and their calves. My heart was still pounding to the point that I could feel my veins pulsing in my neck. I cannot recall a time when I have been more frightened or more out of my element.

After spending the next several minutes looking behind us to make sure we were clear of the elephants, we traveled in silence I think all a bit shell shocked. The terrain had smoothed and flattened and when she could my friend Carolyn rode up beside me. Our eyes were still practically popping out of their sockets and we just shook our heads without saying a word. Trying to change the mood Tristan started to talk about the area and the elephants. It did get us all to relax and although I will admit I was still a little rattled.
When we came across some downed trees and logs, Tristan, knowing we were 3-day event riders, looked at Carolyn and I and half suggested and half dared us to jump it. My friend Carolyn is as game as they come and she picked up a canter and jumped over the downed tree. Not to be out done, I followed as well as a few of the others. The horses that Carolyn and I were riding had been 3 Day Event horses so they jumped with spunk and enthusiasm. The other horses jumped honestly, some with more scope than others. We had great fun jumping this and that until we started our descent back to the Mara River and then camp.

I had pushed our encounter with the elephants to the back of my mind until we came upon two bachelor Cape Buffalo bulls glaring at us. Tristan lead us at as far of a distance as the downhill trail would allow explaining that the Cape Buffalo was one of the most aggressive and dangerous animals in East Africa so we would give them a wide berth. Hyper sensitive after our elephant encounter the group moved as stealthily as possible and my heart was once again pounding at a velocity I did not think possible without being on my treadmill. The bulls stood side by side watching us with what seemed like venom in their eyes as we passed. Now I was downright freaked out. I never had any illusions that this Safari was a trip to the zoo, I wanted it to be an adventure, but I had not had this expectation of risk. To try to calm myself down and make light of the situation I looked at Carolyn and said “Dorothy, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”

We laughed but were still anxious especially considering we had to cross the Mara River, with the potential of a run-in with the hippos, in order to get back to camp. We reached the river after about another 20 minutes and I noticed that the current looked stronger and the river deeper. But neither of these facts was going to change the fact that camp was on the other side, so in we went. Within 10 feet across, my horse was swept into the current and could no longer touch bottom. She swam with all her strength and I did my best to support her with the reins as we fought our way across. Tristan had warned us of an area near the far bank with rocks hidden beneath the surface of the murky brown water. I was doing well to swim to the bank avoiding them when one of the other rider’s horses was also swept up by the strong current and then into me taking us both into the rocks.

My horse Sage nearly went down struggling over the rocks but miraculously managed to get over the rocks and onto the bank. What amazing horses they all were and as the trip progressed I would learn to appreciate them more and more. Nearly fearless and tough as nails, these horses cross the Mara several times a season through sometimes treacherous terrain. Event riders pride ourselves on knowledge of conditioning horses but even my most fit event horse could not hold a candle to these not to mention that they would go lame within days walking on the terrain. My dressage horse would have curled up into a ball and asked for a lawyer, or the humane society, within 5 minutes.

After making it back to camp and we all ate and toasted our survival. The late hour dictates that I need to finish here but next blog I will tell you about yet another elephant encounter (and not a friendly one), out ascent up the escarpment and my first encounter with lions while on horseback.


Laura Crum said...

Wow, Terri. That is amazing (and scary) stuff. I think that if I had booked such a trip, like you I would have been expecting something exciting, but not quite so life threatening. I will now remember to ask any potential tour guides how many tourists they've lost recently (!)

This reminds me of our river rafting trip this summer. The river was much higher than I had ever seen it, and it turned out that someone had drowned on a raft trip just a week before we were scheduled to go. Yep, I rescheduled for two weeks later and we had a great time. So maybe I am getting a little wisdom in my old age. Or I'm just more of a chicken. I definitely do not want to be chased by wild elephants. But what an adventure you had. Can't wait to hear more.

Alison said...

Holy Cow! Is the only response I can think of to your adventure! And I was writing about an adventure with a blowing plastic bag. I would label this severe "twilight zone"!
And why don't we have fearless horses like that here? (Oh, right. No elephants to train next to.)

Once Upon an Equine said...

That's amazing! You are very brave and those horses are phenomenal. I was so proud of my mare on a recent trail ride when we encountered a couple pushing a baby stroller along the trail. But an angry female elephant? Holy Cow! (pun intended) I can't imagine such a thing. And what a "water crossing"! Wow! Great pictures.

Equine Mum said...

Great blog - why not come and post this for more to follow at Haynet - a new Equine Blogging Network?!