My luxury tent at the end of the day

What happens when you step away from the safety of the light on a velvet Kenyan night

The tinkling of glasses and laughter drifted out into the skies. Our group was celebrating about eight days of gorgeous riding: great horses, excellent guides, experiences with the Kenyan wild that most folks will never ever have. I was wrapping up my horse riding trip with Offbeat Safaris in 2020,  about to head back to a country which had collectively lost its mind over Covid.

Happily, that was far, far away. The bliss of the moment included nothing but what surrounded me.

This night was all about being completely present in the moment, for tomorrow it would come to an end.

Our group, primarily made up of "eventers," or experienced riders who regularly compete with their horses and a few of us oddballs mixed in, happily toasted a fine trip.

Except for two.

The guide I was watching had slipped into the dusty bush, leaving a quiet hole in the night. Neti, an older Maasai man and our tracker, had moved silently, as he always did, out of the light.

Towards the harsh barking of the lions in the near distance.

The very near distance, in the bush, easily only half a mile a way or so.

Maybe closer.

Just as silently, I slowly slipped down the side of our vehicle and followed him. I moved softly, until I could make out his outline against the last of the light.

I stood close enough to hear Neti's breathing. I could feel the heat from his body and the slight sounds of the wind as it touched his shuka cloth. Above us, the velvet night shone in that way of deep Africa, so dark, so all-enveloping.

We stood in companionable silence. Neti knew why I was there.

I trusted him completely. If Neti felt comfortable in the rich dark of the African night this close to mating lions, so could I.

From the start, when we were picked up at the Maasai Mara airport, I wanted to sit on top of the vehicle or on the hood, where I could take everything in. He often sat next to me, grinning back at my untrammeled joy.

There's a lot to take in, too. Almost from the moment your plane starts its final run on final approach, you can see the herds of animals, make out the hyenas. You see why people are willing to pay to experience one of the last great expanses of truly wild African bush. I can't get enough of it if for no other reason than it is so threatened.

Exploring the Mara point-to-point by horse is, for my safari dollar, one of the best ways. That's not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for people who don't have good riding skills. I may not be an eventer, but I can hold my own. Riding all over the world is my favorite adventure.

Exploring by horse with fine guides and a well-oiled operation immerses you in the bush, allowing you close-up encounters with wildlife which are impossible almost any other way. There is a team which precedes you to each campground. Everything is completely set up by the time you arrive, tired and happy, so that you can retreat to your tent(above) and wash up for dinner.

Dinner with the group Julia Hubbel

After all our adventures, the night drives to see the lions eating a recent kill, the long rides where a Black rhino might rise from the mud without warning and spook us all, we were done.

We'd arrived back at our starting point, tired and happy. It was after dinner, and we were back out in the bush, where lights from the vehicle formed a protective pool where everyone stood, drank and talked excitedly.

Except Neti and me.

This was hardly my first trip to Africa. Nor my first such ride, nor my first time in Kenya or even the Maasai Mara.

It had however, been the best.

We had crossed the crocodile- and hippo-infested Mara River, twice. We had galloped alongside giraffe and zebra, and come face-to-face with enormous bull elephants.

We had spent hours tracking lions, watching them mate, then facing off with them as our guide kept us calm and quiet.

The skills you learn in such places.

It was all done, but this. This final night.

Like a camera changing focus, the vehicle with its pool of light encircling the guide faded. I wanted to take in the secrets of the night.

The lions roared and coughed their rough bark in the bush. Mating season. They were very close, but we were downwind.

We stood perfectly still, the light winds touching our skin. I could hear small things moving in the brush nearby. I relaxed totally, my body one with my environment.

I felt Neti turn his face towards me and grin. I grinned back.

The party beyond us continued. My party was with him, taking in the smells of the African night. Tracing the lines of the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

Feeling ancient and young. Suffused in magic and in immediate and terrible danger all at once.

That is Africa.

Eternal and dangerous, beautiful and endangered.

The time to go is now. For to see these places, part of what you pay goes to save these places, the people and the animals. You don't have to ride; you can do a traditional safari. The point is to go now, see it before it changes, and experience it. You will never be the same.

Neti and the author. Julia Hubbel

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