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Green Hills of Africa - Horse Riding at Ol Donyo Lodge, Great Plains Conservation


ricmiles

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Having spent most days horse riding, I do not have many photos to share. But, given how excited I am to come back from what I have concluded is for me the most beautiful place in Africa, I still hope sharing my experience will motivate readers to go and check out the Chyulu Hills. 

 

This breathtaking piece of land sits beneath Mt. Kilimanjaro, in between the Tsavo and Amboseli ecosystems. It acts as a vital corridor for wildlife, being able to roam freely across these destinations. Within the Chyulu area, there are a number of private conservancies. Based on my knowledge, it seems like Mbirikani Group Ranch and Kuku Group Ranch are the two best destinations. The first is exclusively for guests staying at Ol Donyo Lodge, owned by Great Plains. This is where I have been for the last 5 nights. The second one has a camp named Camp Ya Kanzi, which I look forward to visiting sometime in the future. Both groups are community owned conservancies by the local Maasai. As per Mbirikani, it is mostly flat grass plains, surrounded by Green Hills and Kilimanjaro. It is in my opinion the most special landscape in Africa. Hemingways wrote the famous ‘Green Hills of Africa’ about this piece of land. 


 

Edited by ricmiles
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madaboutcheetah

@ricmiles- I loved my time at ODL in 2017 when I visited. It’s a special place in kenya far and away from the maddening crowds !! 

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Personally I think that horse riding and African wildlife safaris are not a good mix. The wildlife are not used to seeing horses and certainly not used to seeing people on horses. They are likely to stress/ alarm some of the wildlife and could lead to serious problems where elephants, lions or wild dogs come into close or unexpected contact with them.

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Atravelynn

Never been, but I understand it is a beautiful area.

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@madaboutcheetahHave you been during the dry season? I understand that the density of cheetah in the area is noticeable. I am considering giving it another shot when the area gets very dry and the wildlife goes back to see if it can rival Namiri in cheetah sightings, or at least come close to it. The exclusivity of the area, along its beauty, are two big pros.

 

@JulianI partially agree. Yes, there can be some danger and I get where you are coming from. However, giraffes, zebras and antelopes seemed much more comfortable grazing along us than being close to vehicles or humans on foot. Personally, the intimacy of getting so close to the above mentioned species and them being so relaxed made it for me. On top of that, just riding across the grass plains, surrounded by such beauty and with no car engine to pollute the experience was pure magic. 

 

@Atravelynn I can't stress that enough and don't think photos or words do it justice. 

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The Lodge benefits from a spectacular view of Kilimanjaro, or so I trust it does from others’ photos, as Kili hid from me behind the clouds for the whole duration of my stay. I was quite disappointed and woke up hopeful every day, but it never did really show up unless for a few brief minutes on my last day. I climbed the mountain some years ago and had enjoyed taking some photos of elephants with it as a backdrop in Amboseli as well. Other than the disappointment due to this, I can’t speak highly enough of the Lodge. The rooms are as luxurious as safaris can get. They each have their personal inside bathtub and outside jacuzzi with some sunbeds. I don’t use these amenities, but if you look for some relaxation on safaris, this property has everything you could possibly desire. 

 

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Other guests also spoke highly of the masseuse and the SPA, but again, I have not used it myself. Coming to what I know of, the food and drink selection were outstanding. Being a Relais & Chateaux property, my expectations were high, and the team (Ben, Head Chef and Peter, Head Waiter) did not disappoint. The wine selection was also very good.

 

As per the activities offered, you are free to do anything that one can think of. From day and night game drives, to bushwalks, to horse riding, soon they will keep a helicopter at the property for scenic flights too. I also got to hire a Big Life Foundation ranger and hiked on top of a hill I was told was never hiked before. Such a memorable experience. 

 

The property also has a waterhole with a hide and an underground hide just in front of it. During the dry season, I heard many guests don’t even bother going on game drives due to the sheer abundance of wildlife taking turns at drinking from the waterhole every single day. Right now, Kenya has been subject to one of its heaviest rainy seasons of the last 20 years. Therefore, the wildlife scattered a lot. This meant working hard for every sighting I had on the few game drives I went on, which I always somewhat enjoy, as the feeling when and if that happens is a big reward. Because of the heavy rain, the grass was very high. You will notice by the photos I will post, which I will get into sometime today or next few days at the latest. 


 

Edited by ricmiles
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madaboutcheetah

Rival namiri for cheetah ??? Not a shot .... but we did see a pair of cheetah brothers.  Was there in March 2017 and waterhole in front of camp was super active still with lots of big bull tuskers.

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madaboutcheetah
4 hours ago, madaboutcheetah said:

Rival namiri for cheetah ??? Not a shot .... but we did see a pair of cheetah brothers.  Was there in March 2017 and waterhole in front of camp was super active still with lots of big bull tuskers. 

 

I did a scenic flight with Big Life .... Stunning !! 

 

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@madaboutcheetahmaybe not necessarily in terms of quantity, but more so in terms of quality of sightings, especially if there will be more camps built in Eastern Serengeti. Among others, there are 3 big cheetah brothers I was told can hunt almost any prey and were sighted by other guests at the lodge. Even if not as good, it could be an alternative destination for such good cheetah sightings. 

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madaboutcheetah

Not a cheetah destination IMHO ....... 3 big brothers can probably move long distances over a wide range of territory so over a 3-4 night stay can be anywhere!!   

 

In a place like Namiri, I would have no issue getting away from the crowds or even other vehicles with a guide like Moinga. 

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Day 1: 

Woke up during the bush plane landing at the local airstrip at around 3:30pm. Was quite frustrated about not waking up before as the view must have been insane. Once landed I was greeted by Sandra, the lodge Manager, and Isaac, my guide for the stay. On my way to the lodge we saw thomson gazelles, grand gazelles, hartebeests, wildebeests, impalas and so many giraffes that I just lost count of. 

 

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Day 2: 

Because of how loud, and close, the local pride of lions was, I had serious trouble at getting much sleep. My plan was to start horse riding at 7:30am, which gave me one and a half hours for a short game drive and to look for the lions. Goal partially achieved literally 3 minutes away from the lodge, but no sign of the male. The light was still so dim I didn't even try to take a photo. The pride moved into the thick bushes and we lost track of them. Moving on, we saw some giraffes and gazelles. 

 

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The ride was very pleasing but we decided to go towards the hills, where there isn’t as much wildlife. We did see a few giraffes and hartebeests, but did not get too close. 

 

In the afternoon, I felt like going on a game drive to explore the area and get a better feel of it to decide where to ride on the following day. Was slightly disappointed as we did not find any cats and the only elephant we did see was not very happy to see us and went hiding in the thick lava flow bush. 

 

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The area is famous for big male super tuskers roaming around. However, it seems like most migrated following the rains. Some friends went on safari to Tsavo a few days prior and did see an incredible amount of elephants, so that might be where they went. 

 

On our way back we encountered a few gerenuks and many gazelles and hartebeests. 

 

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Day 3:

Following a similar plan to the previous day, I headed out at 6am. Not much activity, but I took a photo of a hartebeest in the morning mist and mostly covered by the high grass I really like. 

 

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After going around with little success, we sighted a Jackal with what appeared to be a prey in its mouth. Getting closer, we realised it was a bell a maasai cow must have lost. It was funny to watch the Jackal play with it for a while before driving towards the stables for my morning ride. 

 

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This time around, we decided to go on a ride in the open plains and wow, it was worth it. Cantering through the high grass in the middle of such a beauty was such a fun and unique activity. When we sighted some giraffes we got closer. I was told that to make them feel more comfortable, you need to let your horse graze. We spent 10 or more minutes just enjoying it. 

 

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We ended the ride arriving at a bush breakfast set under a tree with some truly stunning views. Food was delicious. 

 

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We then headed back to the lodge for lunch and a little siesta time. We then headed on a brief and peaceful ride in the afternoon.


 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Day 4:

The following morning we went for one of the most rewarding rides of my stay. We headed very far away up a hill. On our way back, it started pouring in rain. I decided to keep on riding. The feeling was special to say the least. 

 

In need of some rest and a hot shower, I had some time in my room and then some delicious food at the lodge. During lunch time, some guests were talking about a cheetah encounter they had in the morning. Cautiously excited, I decided to go on a game drive to look for that same cheetah quite early in the afternoon. Following the heavy rain, the sky opened up and some light came out, setting the stage for some good photo opportunities. As we looked for the cheetah, I got to see a tower of giraffes with somewhere in between 25 and 30 individuals. Behind them, a beautiful green hill. There was something different about the hill and I asked Isaac if we could hike it. He said it was quite steep and because of the danger of buffaloes and elephants, we would need a ranger with a rifle to join us. I insisted we should go in that moment, but Isaacs’ wisdom and responsibility led him to resist, rightly so. I was still determined to make it happen, but would need to have a chat with the manager once back at the lodge. Then, while we were driving around the hill, we spotted the cheetah, hiding in the tall grass. She was not alone, her 3 cubs were with her and they were all feeding on a fresh gazelle kill together. Fair to say missing the decision to skip my ride had been a good one. 

 

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We spent quite some time with the family and I decided to join the feast by taking out my sundowner bitings and gin & tonic. Once we had enough, we started driving towards the lodge. On our way there, we found an elephant. He did not look happy to see us and made it very clear. We moved on, not before taking a few photos. 

 

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Once at the lodge, I had a quick chat with the manager and she explained to me that the hike was possible if and only if I would hire a ranger from the Big Life Foundation. I agreed and it was planned for the following afternoon. 


 

Day 5:

On my last full day, I couldn’t skip my morning ride. The guide made it extra special by taking us on top of a hill with a beautiful view of the Chyulu range. 

 

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After enjoying a bush breakfast on top of the hill, we headed back to camp. On our way we saw some giraffes in the distance. I am not too sure if they were fighting or just playing. 

 

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Once I got to the lodge there were somewhere between 15 and 20 giraffes at the waterhole. It was the first time since I was there that the waterhole had so much activity. I was very tempted to actually go down there up close, but I decided to enjoy a pre-lunch drink with a better view from the top. 

 

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Following lunch and siesta time I was ready for my hike. Both Isaac and the ranger were waiting in the car and off we went. On our way to the hill we didn’t see much. As we were looking where to park the car, we encountered a buffalo. I guess Isaac’s wisdom the prior day saved me from an uncomfortable situation should we have met this grumpy guy. DSC_6678.JPG.6a74d6da53caa8a6f20f1b3f41642a05.JPG

 

 

 

As we started our hike it was immediately clear it wasn’t as easy as it looked like. Other than being quite steep, the terrain was also fully covered in lava rocks which made it very slippery. On top of that, the Maasai ranger had no intention of slowing down and I was too proud to ask him to stop. After a while I had to swallow my pride and ask for a short break. That was the right choice as it actually gave me a few minutes to look around and enjoy the view. Just enough time to catch my breath and off we went again. 40 min into the hike we reached the top and wow was it worth it. Felt very blessed to be in such a unique place. Asked the ranger if I could steal his rifle for a quick photo:

 

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We then sat on the grass and stayed on top of the hill for like 15 minutes or so before we decided to head back down. On our way back, the slippery rocks became a nightmare for all of us. In fact, even the ranger slipped twice. As we reached the car Isaac prepared a few drinks for us and improvised a sundowner. 

 

Our way back gifted us a special sighting with the big lion male taking advantage of some lonely time away from the pride. 

 

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Was hoping for some movement from the big boy, but he had no intention to get up whatsoever and having little energy left following the hike, it didn’t take long before we moved and went back to the lodge. That was a good choice as we were welcomed by the first visible sunset of my stay. I ordered my gin & tonic and sipped it slowly, fully aware that it would have been my last in this very special place.

 

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Day 6: 

On my last morning at Ol Donyo, I decided to skip my ride and go look for some cats. My decision was compensated as we found two young but big lions with a female. They gifted me some decent photo opportunities. One of the males was hiding in the tall grass with the female, which was basically completely covered by it. 

 

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After a while I got hungry and we decided to look for a spot to have a bush breakfast. I think I can safely say we picked a good spot.

 

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A perfect end to this safari. After breakfast I went back to the lodge and packed my stuff.

 

Ol Donyo really is a unique lodge situated in a remote and pristine location. Wildlife was very scattered, but I trust sightings are significantly better during the dry season. In any case, what makes this place really worth your time is the range of activities and the connection you feel with the wilderness around you given the exclusivity of the conservancy. My goal and ambition is to visit every major wildlife destination in Africa, so I don’t usually care about going back to the same place again. However, Ol Donyo, just like Namiri Plains, will definitely become a guilty pleasure to go back to again and again.


 

Edited by ricmiles
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Atravelynn

Nice to see the cheetah family up close.  Hope you are able to return to Ol Donyo and fit in all those other destinations as well.

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@AtravelynnThank you. That cheetah family was a special treat. The kill must have happened a few minutes prior to us sighting them!

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