Friday, November 14, 2008

Saddle Up

In early November we had a couple of days off with some friends of R's who were over, enjoying their first African experience.

One of the activities we indulged in was a riding safari down the banks of the Nile in Jinja, courtesy of Nile Horseback Safaris.

The company set up some time ago, by a great woman called Natalie who used to be a safari guide and overland truck driver. When she was pregnant with her daughter she decided that heading off on safari was possibly no longer a practical career choice but investing in a bunch of horses and doing guided horseback rides around Bujagali Falls in Jinja would be.

Now her daughter is two and a half years old, she has 16 horses (each of whom she schools at least 3 times a week), several others to help her guide the rides, and a thriving business.

Having said all that, it's still not something most people do when they head to Jinja for a few days which is a shame. I know I have ridden all my life, but I was with three others who hadn't and they were put on perfectly well behaved horses and had a great time.

R had ridden a few times but all before the age of eleven. He's forty next year so it's a while ago now. The other two had never ridden before, except maybe a pony trek once in the dim and distant past.

They were riding good looking, well fed and healthy horses (always a pleasure to see at a commercial operation) who were incredibly well schooled but not 'old riding school nags'.

As for me, I was on an impeccably behaved but slightly more spritely three year old who had only just been broken in the previous six months.

And the ride was fantastic - two long hours through bush and river-side scenery, riding through narrow paths through maize fields and cassava plots, past the beaten red earth backyards of local dwellings filled with chickens, goats and smiling children, up hills for dramatic views of the river and Lake Victoria, glistening in the distance.

Again, I'm romanticising the poverty on display at every turn. But it felt less voyeuristic than passing through local villages and mudhuts has done before, for two reasons.

Firstly, we were clip clopping softly along the red earth tracks and not speeding past in a 4wd, belching diesel and sending wildlife and livestock bleating to the sides of the road.

Secondly, because the stables put back in what they take out, and more.

As my young steed twisted his neck to tear off a passing maize stalk, I winced in embarrassment and asked Nathalie how they offset the potential damage caused to crops by riding through the fields. Apparently they buy pretty much all the maize from this area, as well as buying up the maize leaves and stalks - a part of the plant that normally gets wasted and is usually burnt. The horses love it (as my mount proved, time and time again, trying to snatch the bit away from me so he could grab a quick mouthful) and it proves a good substitute for grass in the dry seasons. And the farmers love it too - suddenly being able to command a price for what was previously a useless part of the harvest.

The goodwill from the locals was evident, with women, elderly men and young children smiling out from doorways and gardens. Children shouted "Jambo!" (we were further East than Kampala so more young kids will be much more likely to speak Swahili). And the rides are always accompanied by a local rider and guide who can speak to the children in Luganda (or Swahili) and warn them if they crowd a horse known to kick, or behave in any other way which may be dangerous.

The guide we were with had only been riding for two years but had the look of a really experienced, confident rider. I asked him what his family thought of him riding horses for a living. They thought he was a little bit crazy, apparently. Ugandans don't have a heritage or culture of riding, the horse is not a common animal here. The idea of someone riding one is very unusual.

So much so, that when the horse I was on was first out on a ride, local people mistook it for a cow.

But then it is a skewbald, i.e. a 'coloured' horse, as the Western world terms it (oh how these terms sit awkwardly with me now), with large brown and white markings.

Not dissimilar to certain breeds of dairy cow.

Anyhow, here are some of the photos. All in all, it was a great afternoon and something I would highly recommend. A beautifully serene way to see the countryside and byways of Bujagali Falls.





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