In a few days’ time I am leaving Italy for Kenya, leaving
the streets for Florence for the Rift valley, leaving renaissance
architecture and marble statuary for the savannah and lions and
giraffes. The purpose of the exercise is to take part in a sponsored
horse ride to raise money for The Brooke whose clinics give free
treatment to the working equines of the world’s poorest people,
those people who feature as a statistic on the news as ‘earning
less than two dollars a day.’ They haven’t been a statistic
for me since I first travelled around Pakistan with The Brooke and
saw the dedication, patience and gruelling hard work of the Brooke
vets who take clean water, medicines, hard cash and hope to the
rubbish tips, clay pits and poor agricultural areas around the world.
We have too much of everything here in the rich world and it’s
easy enough, with a mixture of sentimentality and guilt, to get
a bit of money out of us and ease our consciences. And when we don’t
feel like it, we can fall back on the all too real excuse that only
7p in the pound actually gets to the people we’re supposed
to be helping.
I’ve solved this problem to my own satisfaction: I buy the
books each year for a school for Afghan refugee children in Quetta
where I know the organizer, the headmaster and the children, and
give to The Brooke whose work I have followed in various parts of
the world. None of that 7p in the pound stuff with either of those.
The thing about this sponsored ride, though, is that I have to
collect a large amount of sponsorship money from other people, a
new and alarming experience. I’ve had to extract money from
people who have never heard of the Brooke, don’t ride and
are being asked for money for some charity or other every day. Let’s
say, I’ve learned a lot. My favourite contributors: an English
friend in Vienna who wrote to say, ‘Here’s a cheque
for three hundred. I’ve forgotten what you said it was for…’
and the British consul here in Florence: ‘I’m coming
round to bring you some money—and remember that you’re
a British citizen in my care, so, for God’s sake, don’t
get eaten by lions or I’ll be up to my ears in paperwork for
The money having been collected and sent off to The Brooke, there
are one or two other problems to solve. Information sheets about
the ride talk about 40 kilometres a day. That’s about six
hours in the saddle by my reckoning, an unknown saddle, on an unknown
horse. Someone who did the ride in India last year says her ‘bottom
went through’ on day two and her suffering was great. She
advised a silicon seat saver. That brings me to another problem:
I’ve never ridden in England And I don’t know the English
for anything to do with horses. That ‘bottom went through’
thing, for a start. It sounds like something that might happen to
wickerwork chair—and where do you buy a silicon seat saver?
I’ve been searching Florence for months.
I’m also searching for yellow fever vaccine because I’ve
received a frightening list of illnesses, insects and other dangers.
There’s a worm on the list that I particularly don’t
like the sound of. My investigations have turned up the information
that Europe has run out of yellow fever vaccine and that my only
hope is to find an international airport with emergency stocks.
Found one in Pisa.
Back to the information sheet with the worms and so on. ‘We
are riding and accidents happen. There is the question of AIDS.
Take a supply of hypodermics and intravenous drip needles.’
Right. I’m also taking a supply of antibiotics, wound dressings
and a fast healer for saddle sores, one for me, one for horse. That
leaves the malaria problem. I wish I hadn’t seen that episode
of C.S.I. where that man went mad, murdered his wife and then shot
himself in the head after being given that new anti-malaria treatment
by the army. I’m not taking that-and Chloroquin doesn’t
work in Africa. Sprays. Lots and lots of sprays, for me and for
the tent. The tent, yes. Have to buy a sleeping bag and a torch
and folding hoofpick to carry on my belt. I can deal with this.
I was in the Brownies (but only because we were allowed to wear
the uniform to school on Brownie meeting days. What use will all
that standing in a circle shouting incomprehensible drivel be when
I’m faced with a lion or, if it comes to that, a sinister
worm?) It seems to me that riding through the bush might turn out
to be the easy part of this business. I’m exhausted with shopping
and worrying and keeping track of other people’s money. I
keep reminding myself that it’s all in good cause. We hit
Nairobi on Saturday at dawn. Watch this space.
Nairobi at dawn. After a long and entirely sleepless night in economy
class, we pile into vans for a four hour drive on bumpy roads: At
least it hurts in a different place. I hope my horse is a smoother
ride than this. I never had a blind date in my life until now. Perhaps
you have. They only last an evening, though, don’t they? Whoever
he is, we’ll be spending every waking moment together for
the duration. Hundreds of Malibou storks crouch menacingly on the
tops of acacia trees, watching our progress. Very Alfred Hitchcock.
None of this feels real, probably because I’m very, very tired.
That sleepless night in economy was preceded by a sleepless night
between Italy and London and tonight…tonight, yet another
blind date. I have to share a tent with a total stranger. Am I sure
I want to do this? No, I am not.
Distracted by a stop on the equator where it is demonstrated to
me—for a small fee—that water goes down the plughole
in a different direction according to whether you’re standing
10 metres to the north or south of the equator and straight down
if you stand right on it. I resist being photographed standing on
the equator looking bedraggled. We climb back into the van and bump
along towards Nanyuki where tents and horses await us. Also food.
Very good food. I can’t remember what we ate because my thoughts
were on my blind date with a horse. Named…?
Peppercorn! And well-named, too. The horses are well-bred and well
fed, racehorses, show jumpers, polo ponies. Since there aren’t
enough shows, matches and races to keep them in full employment
they do safari as well. Peppercorn is a pony, light as a feather,
fast, frisky and affectionate. I think I might survive this.
My blind date in the tent is Ruby. I met her once before in Cairo.
We became acquainted on a rubbish tip there but that was a different
adventure. She has a lively sense of humour and she snores. She
tells me I snore. Every so often she rattles me awake. “You’re
snoring!” “Ok.” I stay awake to let her get to
sleep. She starts snoring. I rattle her awake. “You’re
snoring.” “Ok.” And so the long night wears on.
It is a very long night on the equator: twelve hours of day, twelve
hours of dark. Seven to seven. Just before dawn, it’s Good
morning campers, morning sickness from malaria pills, packing up
everything, visit a hole in the ground, a fabulous cooked breakfast,
into the saddle and away. There are about forty riders, a vet, a
doctor, guides, jeeps with a supply of water and fruit.
We have all been given written instructions about everything. My
favourite, intended to stop us frightening the wild life, was the
terse: ‘Keep quiet. Wear brown and green.’ Another was:
‘The temperature will be around 35°C. Use high factor
sun cream. Cover up.’ Once we get underway, I look around
me, astonished. There are electric blue jodhpurs, purple jodhpurs,
and acres of exposed milk white flesh. Every now and then the jeep
drives past, sounding an alarm: ‘Sunburn police! Cover up,
please!’ Safely covered –in brown and green over white
t-shirt, I plaster more cream on the only bit of me that is exposed
to the African sun, my face. I shall have good reason to regret
this as the day wears on. After an hour and a half we stop for a
break and another cry goes up which will become the regular punctuation
of every day: ‘Water police!’ This because it’s
easy to forget to drink sufficient quantities of water if you’re
not used to it and dehydration is a very nasty experience indeed.
The jeep brings us bananas and apples, too. I only want water but
I take an apple for Peppercorn. I lean forward and offer it to him.
He turns and looks at it and then up at me. His expression says,
‘What…?’ He has no idea what it is so I eat it.
We ride on. Almost midday and the sunburn police are getting stroppy.
Lunch stop. The staff have gone ahead and an excellent meal worthy
of the best of restaurants is waiting for us. After lunch, a tarpaulin
is spread on the thorny dry ground and forty riders lie down in
neat rows to ease their aching backs. Getting going again in the
afternoon is probably the hardest bit of the day. Everybody staggers
off behind a thorn bush and then we mount and move on.
The horizon seems limitless, the sky so high and blue and dominant
that, sometimes, instead of seeing land and treetops against emptiness
I see a reverse effect, the heavy sky looming towards me in front
of a dark emptiness below. It makes me dizzy until I can force my
brain to adjust to a proper perception of positive and negative.
Then I can’t see at all. All that sun cream has melted in
the fierce heat and rolled down into my eyes. It doesn’t much
matter that I can’t see, since Peppercorn can, but then all
around me people start calling out, ‘Over there! To the right!
Thompson’s gazelle! A herd of zebra following us! Giraffe!
And I no longer know where the sky is.
At the afternoon water stop I try to clean the wretched cream off
my forehead and eyes but I still can’t see properly. Six hours
in the saddle soon passes when you’re having fun. I must solve
this problem for tomorrow. In the meantime I am content that I’ve
survived my first day. Not everybody has. As Sam Goldwyn used to
say, ‘Bring on the empty horses!’
Evening brings gin and tonic, good food and sunburn consultations
with Fiona, a local woman, owner of many of the horses, safari expert.
Tall, blond and competent, she has terrific style and blue lipstick
and some good advice for me. No more cream above eye-level but leave
protection in that area to the peak of my riding cap and sunglasses.
Now, I’ve tried sunglasses but my friend Peppercorn is a lively
soul and he occasionally gets bitten on the bottom by an imaginary
lion. This involves some acrobatics on the spot followed by a bit
of a cavalry charge before normal service is resumed and I backtrack
to look for my sunglasses. The competent Fiona puts them on a string
like a librarian’s glasses—or like soppy children whose
mums string their gloves through their coat sleeves.It works, though.
And another thing, A low hot sun burns the sides of your neck and
the statutory bandana doesn’t stay in place in case of imaginary
lions. Solution: a long-sleeved white t-shirt under my cap with
the sleeves dangling down at each side. Perfect. Ruby suspects that
we might not look as much like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa as
we like to think but, if there are no bathrooms or laundries in
the bush, there are no mirrors either so we can dream on.
And it really is like a dream. I can see, now, herds of zebra galloping
beside and around us, keeping us company, and a family of giraffe,
mum, dad and baby are as curious about us as we are about them.
They seem so gentle and affectionate. They twine their necks in
a spiral caress. Someone asks how many cervical vertebrae they have.
Answer: seven, the same as you.
Peppercorn pursued by imaginary lion - Drawing by Ruby Grimshaw
“Ok.” I turn over, fighting with the constraints of
my sleeping bag and force myself to stay awake until Ruby is safely
asleep. Something is rustling about outside the tents. Rustling,
stopping, sniffing, rustling again. The night before, there was
a lot of noise, racings about, crashing and galloping. That was
Peppercorn. The nights are cold, the horses corralled. Older, sensible
animals get some sleep. Peppercorn takes advantage of the refreshing
night air to break out with his three stable mates and go on a jaunt.
The rustling outside doesn’t sound at all like a naughty pony
and it isn’t, as the grooms will tell us next day. The imaginary
lions are real. We don’t see them but the horses smell them.
At night they investigate our camp site. Although, even that first
night, it crosses my mind that this is the case and I did promise
the British Consul not to get eaten…
It’s no use. What can I do about it, anyway? I’m too
exhausted to run away, so if whatever is out there wants to eat
me, buon appetito. Ruby is snoring gently. I fall asleep.
Day follows dreamlike day. Giraffe peer at us over the treetops.
Snow capped Mount Kenya is always on the horizon. A fellow rider
tells us that when they ruled a line across the map of Africa to
divide Kenya from Tanzania, Queen Victoria insisted they made a
little wiggle in it so that Mount Kilimanjaro lay on the Tanzanian
side in the German protectorate. After all, the story goes, she
had Mount Kenya so it was only fair that cousin Willy should have
a mountain, too. So she gave him Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s a
good story and if you don’t believe it, look at that wiggle
on the map. Not a word of truth in it, though. The fate of Kilimanjaro
was decided in 1886 when Victoria didn’t have it to give and
when Kaiser Wilhelm I was Emperor. He had better cards to play than
the British and he drew that border to suit himself. Another version
of the story is that Victoria gave the mountain to her grandson
Kaiser Wilhelm II for his birthday ‘because he likes anything
high’. Although it’s a fiction, it does give an idea
of the arrogant and arbitrary manner in which Europeans divided
up other people’s countries. However, I once read a letter
from Queen Victoria—I think to her daughter Alice—in
which she said that she thought this habit of taking over other
people’s countries was a dreadful business. As a matter of
fact, she thought her grandson was pretty dreadful, too, but it’s
a good story about Kilimanjaro and will probably never die. We did
take over this country, though, and, riding along, hour after hour
in the heat, there’s plenty of time to gaze at the blue mountain
and wonder the opposite of what Americans are currently wondering:
why do they not hate us? Why do Masai herdsmen pause and wave? Certainly,
their thoughts are taken up with baked brown grass and bare thorns.
The rains have failed for two consecutive seasons and their animals
are dying. The coffee planters in the hills have irrigation plants.
In our modern world there is no famine, only poverty.
Our itinerary mentioned a lunchtime stop beside a beautiful lake.
There was a photograph of the lake with giraffe beside it. I supposed
they went there to drink and that our horses might drink there,
too. To sit beside water would feel like a benediction after so
many miles of bush.
Towards midday we make our way down a short steep slope and then
start across a flat, treeless plain. Someone asks, ‘It’s
nearly twelve--shouldn’t we be able to see the lake by now?’
One of the guides answers, ‘This is the lake.’ Brown
sand and stones as far as the eye can see. Not even a puddle remains.
Lunch is waiting for us on the other side. Nowhere for the horses
to drink and no shade either. We eat and rest. Usually, I sleep
for twenty minutes or so but not today. It goes against my upbringing
to eat and rest when the horses—who, after all, are doing
all the work—are without shade or water. Above us, a complete
rainbow--or rainring--circles the sun. What drop of water caused
that? I don’t understand a rainbow without rain. I go in search
of Peppercorn and try to get him to drink from my plastic bottle
but it’s like the apple. He looks at me, not understanding.
I slip him a lump of sugar. He understands that and seems pleased.
Tomorrow night we are to camp by a river—but will there be
any water in it?
There is water, though not a lot. The good news: we’re staying
two nights, so tomorrow we don’t have to pack at dawn. Also,
there are long drop loos and showers in a field! Paradise. The bad
news: Hippo in the river. Well, it’s their river but I do
question their habit of coming out of it to kill passers-by, given
that they are vegetarians. Some people go looking for them –successfully—to
take photographs. I hate being photographed myself, makes me tense
and cross and I wouldn’t want to meet a hippo who felt the
same way. We are taught to distinguish hippo poo from elephant poo
and buffalo poo. Brilliant blue and green birds join us each morning
to eat crumbs from our breakfast.
A shame to leave here but tomorrow we must move on. We are given
a bedtime lecture about elephants. Apparently, they are sticklers
for etiquette. We must never cross their path, even if they are
at a distance. We must wait until they pass. If we meet them head
on we gallop away as fast as possible. Last line of the lecture:
“Always behave in a predictable manner.”
“Why aren’t you asleep? I always have to wake you up
“I’m thinking. How do I know what an elephant predicts?
Do you know?”
“No. And you know how when I went out of the tent for a pee
last night, and met Anthony coming the other way, clutching his
torch and toilet paper like me? I didn’t speak to him and
perhaps I should have done. What do you think the correct form is?
More etiquette problems.
The elephants, when we reach them are standing about looking peaceable,
at a distance. We concentrate on the problem of crossing a dry river
bed. I look down what looks like a vertical stony drop to the bed
and think I wouldn’t dream of putting my own horse to this
descent. Still, there’s no way to go but forward. I drop the
reins. “Peppercorn, you deal with it. You’re the expert.”
And he certainly is.
He’s down there, across the giant slippery stones of the bed
and scrambling up the other side, in no time without so much as
a raised eyebrow. He has the advantage of being unshod. Horseshoes
on those smooth humped stones might be another matter.They are.
We’ve gone on quite a way before news gets around that four
riders are missing. We halt and wait. A guide and the vet ride back
to look for them. They are gone for a long time. We start worrying,
the horses start fretting. At last they appear on the horizon. Two
horses slipped on the smooth stones of the dry river bed and fell,
taking their riders down with them. The riders of two more dismounted
to help them and they slipped and fell. They reappear now under
escort, both horses and riders bandaged and bruised but more or
less all right. I slip Peppercorn a sugar lump, grateful to him
for looking after me.
Today, for some reason, lots of people have horribly swollen lips.
The effect varies from looking like a gorgon that could be stuck
on the side of a cathedral, no questions asked, to looking like
Meg Ryan after the silicone job. Those who can speak say they must
have been bitten by something—or ‘itten aye hunhing’--but
what? We’ve all spent a small fortune on mosquito sprays and
creams and malaria pills but there isn’t a mosquito to be
seen on this windy, burning plain, so? It’s the windy burning
plain. Fiona comes to the rescue and plasters them all with her
blue lipstick. Wanting to be fashionable, I queue up and have blue
lipstick on, too, though my lips aren’t swollen.
Late in the afternoon we come to a halt. The trail we are on has
been blocked by an unexpected elephant fence. As high as an elephant,
obviously. Also electrified. Wasn’t there last time the route
was checked. Well, it’s there now and no way forward. We turn
right and try for another route. The ground is rough, thorny and
full of craters left by anteaters. Peppercorn makes the decisions.
Jeeps, unfortunately, are useless at making decisions and ours,
with our doctor and water supply, falls down a hole and sticks.
We wait around but they can’t extricate it and have to radio
for help. We leave them there and move on, looking for a better
route. We have to. In an hour it will be dark and we can’t
be out in the dark with lions, leopards and hyenas. We go on for
half an hour or so and stop. Elephants directly ahead. We turn and
run. Another route, through bigger thorn bushes, their silver thorns
as big and dangerous as daggers. Peppercorn navigating again. We’ve
been seven hours in the saddle. My back is aching so badly I could
cry. Not much point, though. Also, I’m tired and sore but
I’ve had food and water. Peppercorn hasn’t had anything
and he has never slowed down or complained. I can’t flop around
on his back, making his job more difficult. He needs to be ridden.
Despite his efforts to keep up, his three stable mates are much
bigger than he is and have left him far behind. He’s as anxious
about that as I am about the approaching darkness. He starts calling
out to them, rearing a little, wanting his head. I give him a pat
and tell him to go for it. He goes, Ghent to Aix, leaping the potholes,
dodging the thorns, fast and surefooted as a hare. The wind sings
in my ears and I forget to be tired. We overtake the rest of the
gang and by the time we catch up with his pals we’re awake
and cheerful from our gallop. Then it’s dark. We’re
very quiet. How far can it be? On and on we walk in silence. At
last, in the blackness ahead, we see torches. The advance party
out looking for us to lead us into the camp. People are singing
and dancing, the fire is lit and dinner is roasting. We fall out
of the saddle and waddle, bow legged as cellists, towards the big
tent and gin and tonic. We’re safe!
And suddenly it’s over. Peppercorn and his friends are on
their way home and we are rattling back to Nairobi. Only one more
stop before the plane to London: Lari. The reason why we’re
here.Lari, a two hour drive from Nairobi. A big field, a shelter
for us, the visitors. Dotted around are groups of schoolchildren
in Donkey Club t-shirts, combed and shining and very excited. Beyond
them are donkeys as far as the eye can see. Donkeys resting, wandering
about, socializing. For once in their short brutal lives not working.
Donkeys in Kenya know little other than hunger, thirst, exhaustion
and fear. There is a myth whose origin no one seems to know that
if a donkey is allowed near your cows they will become sterile.
Another myth is that donkeys spread tetanus. So these unfortunate
animals toil all day, continually caned as they haul massive loads
and bring food and water for the family and all the farm animals,
only to be turned out of the farmstead, without even a drink of
water, to scavenge through the night for scraps or a few blades
of burnt grass. If in their weary, night long wanderings they come
too near someone else’s farm they are slashed or beaten for
trespassing. They live in fear, suffer for two to three years and
die. Properly cared for they would live for twenty eight to thirty
years, work better and enrich the family. KENDAT (Kenya Network
for the Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies) is a grass roots
organization, supported by The Brooke, doing wonderful work to change
all this. They have vets who visit all the farms, they broadcast
on Donkey Radio, they have donkey clubs in the primary schools,
all to teach people that the proper care of working animals makes
economic sense. They teach that a donkey who is healthy can work
more, that harness wounds are easily prevented, that you can carry
a lunch box for you donkey when he works all day, that he needs
shelter from heat and cold. They provide help and medicines at a
nominal cost. We are here to help them and, on this special day,
to admire them. The children have written songs and practised dances.
They sing and dance their little hearts out and there isn’t
a dry eye in the place. Everything else we have seen and done vanishes
from our minds as we remember what it’s all about, the fundraising,
the malaria pills, the burnt lips and aching backs. We’ve
raised over a hundred thousand pounds for these children of a colonial
past and a drought tormented present who are giving us all their
passion and energy as they stand surrounded by their weary, ever
willing beasts of burden and recite for us:
The Donkey’s prayer
Oh, God! Is my family cursed?
Where I found my mother, there I am.
No shelter, no food.
Oh, God! Am I cursed?
The burden my mother used to carry
Is what I carry.
Big, big burden of fodder to feed the cows.
Oh, God! Am I cursed?
The whips my mother used to get
Is what I get.
Whips, whips upon my back. I am full of sores.
Oh, God! Am I cursed?
The place where my mother used to sleep
Is where I sleep.
No shelter, no shade. In rain or sunshine,
My skin is my shelter.
Oh, God! Am I cursed?
Man, man, you say I am useless.
You don’t milk me, you don’t eat my meat.
Yet I am your beast of burden.
Oh, God! You did not curse me.
You gave me to man to serve him.
Who, who will rescue me?
Oh, God! Am I cursed?
There is some light in the tunnel!
I see KENDAT, Brooke, the Donkey Care Club!
Oh, please act quickly.
Save me from the cruelty of man
If You want to help, go to: www.thebrooke.org