Diary from the Kilimanjaro Safari

Dreams Coming True in Tanzania

Text by Tom Yeager

Pictures by Darci Rutherford and Tom Yeager

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Waiting at the airport in Saigon for my flight to Bangkok, Nairobi, and then onto Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, I felt my familiar anxiety facing the unknown and was comforted by the flight attendants saying “sa-wat-dee” (welcome) as I boarded the plane. 

I realize this Kilimanjaro Safari is an “if not now, then never” trip for me, because I have the time, good health, and money to make my dream come true, but sitting by myself at the airport gets old in the middle of the night as I waited for time to pass to board the plane.

I fell asleep somewhere over the Indian Ocean and felt much better as I woke up in the morning, seeing the sun coming up out the window and viewing Mt. Kilimanjaro through the clouds.

Day 1: Saturday, July 1st

Met by Jo, our safari guide, as I walked out of the Kilimanjaro Airport, I learned about her love of Tanzania while she drove me to Kili Villa to rest and eat a healthy and tasty lunch of salad, spaghetti, fruit, and a dish of ice cream for dessert.

Arriving at Kilimanjaro airport

Getting to know our safari companions

Sitting with the other riders by the bonfire we enjoyed our first dinner together. There was Jane and her daughters, Darci and Piper, from Australia, Anne, a well traveled psychologist, and all of us listened to Jo as she gave us a briefing on the week ahead. 

We all enjoyed our soup, tender chicken and rice with gravy, and vegetables, with wine and storytelling over dinner, all laughing and full of anticipation of our ride, I felt at home talking about my favorite subjects…horses..riding, and politics.

Day 2: Sunday, July 2nd

It is six in the morning when I wake up ready for a new day, putting my suitcase outside by the door to be collected and put into the jeep for our safari trip, our horses were waiting for us when we arrived at the Arusha National Park.

I was introduced to my horse “Phoenix,” a warmblood and veteran of many safaris and polo matches. I learned from him that his past was full of riders who were not sensitive to his mouth, and decided it was best to be his friend and not his trainer.

An enjoyable day with the only problem being when Phoenix stepped in a hole, causing his front legs to go down to his knees, so instinctively I sat back and we both recovered.

Soon we were riding in the rainforest passing zebras, giraffes, monkeys, and African buffalo as we made our way to the Maio Waterfall for lunch.

My daily challenge was cantering through the rain forest and trying not to have my legs hit the trees on each side of me, all the while looking ahead to follow the riders on the trail ahead of me, feeling excited and comfortable standing in my stirrups at the hand gallop.

When we reached our lunch destination the crew put the horses on a string line to get a well deserved rest, taking their tack off, checking their temperatures and shoes, giving them food and water, while the riders sat on a nice carpet eating lunch on comfortable pillows “roughing it! “

Jo, who I nicknamed Lara Croft, because of her fearlessness and how she could make her Hungarian Bullwhip sing, was always paying attention to what was going on in the bush and making sure our horses and selves were not in danger.   

We made it to the first camp before the sun went down and were each introduced to our tents, very spacious with a comfortable cot inside and conveniently placed next to a small tent with a portable potty and shower.

I looked forward to our evening before supper, sitting by the bonfire as Mareso, the leader of the crew, offered us the drinks of our choice while our horses enjoyed their dinner tied to the string line.  

We enjoyed our dinner with fresh ingredients prepared by the staff chef, eating a local fish, vegetables, potato slices with a brownie for dessert, and lots of wine making for lots of laughs.

At 10:00 it was time to crawl into bed with night time temperatures of mid fifties, thinking to myself that bringing my long underwear was “so smart,” sleeping like a baby and comforted knowing the horses had guards on duty all night to keep them out of danger.

Day 3: Monday, July 3rd

At 6:00 AM I made my way to the shower and as I was standing naked under the shower head, I pulled the string and much to my surprise there was no water…(oops). So I tracked down Ali and he explained that I needed to tell him when I wanted to take a shower. He then heated the water in a drum placed over a fire and filled the container full of hot water, lifting the container into the air using a rope and pulley and with the miracle of gravity, I got my wonderful hot shower in the bush.

After breakfast at eight o’clock we were ready to go riding, exploring in the rain forest, so lush and green, walking, trotting, and galloping and keeping an eye on Jo for her commands, with Stephano in the rear keeping his eyes on the riders and their horses.

We stopped at  Lake Momella to view on Mt. Meru at about 2000 meters (7000 ft) and we looked over the valley towards our destination, Kenya. Later that morning we rode under Fig Tree Arch, stopping for pictures by Stephano.

We stopped for lunch by a waterfall that we called Shangri La, resting ourselves and horses with a nice nap laying on the carpet and my head on a pillow, before getting up to continue our ride North.

The night was spent in a new camp in an area called Nyumbu, named after its usual frequent abundance of wildebeest, who will  become part of  the greatest migration on the planet in February when they cross  the Mara River into the Masai Mara to fulfill their destiny.

Day 4: Tuesday, July 4th

In the morning we saw the Masai herding their cows and goats along the road and Jo, who speaks Swahili, explained how a young boy becomes a Masai Warrior and about their transition into manhood, living their purpose of enjoying each day and being happy.

Visiting with the locals

As we came down the mountain, passing rivers and  streams, the greens turned to brown and barren with shrubs, we continued our ride north towards Kenya, across the vast and harsh land, an exciting time to be in the saddle and sleeping under the African skies.

I had ridden for six hours and  after lunch decided to take the jeep Safari with Huntsy to the night camp, a new and different experience for me because I didn’t have to convince the jeep to cross the river or go over a ditch.

At our next new camp it was very quiet in the evening and the birds were singing as the sun set in the background,with Mareso setting the table for the guests who would arrive on horseback, and soon the riders appeared on the horizon galloping into camp to beat the setting sun.

After our dinner we went to our tents to sleep in our camp that was located between four powerful  mountains, Mt. Meru, Namanga, Longido and in the shadow of the legendary Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Day 5: Wednesday, July 5th  

We woke up in the morning to a bowl of warm water to wash our faces and enjoyed a hearty and healthy breakfast before starting our ride: eggs of our choice, sausage and bacon, juice, tea or coffee with sweet milk and conversation with a touch of excitement for the day.

Each day Jo would bring extra horses who would run free with us so they can get used to being out in the bush, this morning three wanted to run free as the wind and took off on their own, so Stephano chased them down and brought back home.

We saw a big bull elephant today who was about 50 years old, eating the vegetation when we approached, along with a mother and her young calves. He looked at us and we looked at him, and he decided to keep eating.

We rode about five hours in the desert, fulfilling my dream of galloping with the zebras and herds of wildebeest, and at the same time trying to avoid the prickly oltupai plants with thorns on steroids that the elephants chew to get moisture.

Day 6: Thursday, July 6th  

We started our day at 8:00 in the morning and all of us became concerned when Anne fell off as she slowed down to find her stirrup at the canter, so Jo had her taken back to camp in the safari jeep, reminding all of us that riding hard and fast in the bush can be dangerous.

Sarah and Adam, friends of Jo, came to the camp at lunchtime and all of us enjoyed avocado salad, Mediterranean salad with mousaka, and a delicious dish made with cheese, eggplant, and very lean masai meat under an African umbrella tree.

On our ride we saw gerenuk hiding in the bush, along with giraffes, zebras, antelope, jackals, spotted hyenas and monkeys running between the trees, all pointed out to us by our guide.

I was tired with sore muscles and dust from head to toe as we crossed the dry Sinya riverbed waiting for the winter rains, meeting the physical challenge of  riding six hours a day – covering 300 km or about 180 miles in six days.

Sinya riverbed

Day 7: Thursday, July 7th (Last riding day)

Phoenix had a leg injury and was being rested in the morning, so I started playing polo for the first time on another horse. We divided into two teams and had great fun, finding yet another way to enjoy riding and horses.

Then we rode along the Sinya Riverbed, chasing the elephants and following their tracks, jumping logs along the way and feeling like kids playing follow our fearless leader.

We then rode to the Kenya border and took a picture next to the marker before heading back to our camp and making a cavalry charge with all six horses galloping together so a camera mounted to a drone could capture the return of the conquering heroes.


It was our final night, so we rode to a hill near the camp and climbed to a high spot to witness the setting sun, while the horse crew took the horses back to camp. We enjoyed eating fresh goat meat prepared and cooked by the Masai.

For me this trip was a challenging ride, riding across different types of African landscape, from the rainforest to the savannah to the grassy plains, walking, trotting, cantering, galloping, and the thrill of  jumping logs.

In the evening I thought about how my challenge had been met, making my dream of riding in Africa come true, and it was now time to go home, so we packed our suitcases to be ready to be picked up in the morning.

Day 8: Friday, July 8th  

After our breakfast, we all signed the guest book and I wrote down my thoughts, “Jo, thanks to you and your crew for taking such good care care of us. What impressed me the most about you and your crew was that you cared about your horses as much as your guests.”   

The entire crew

It was then time to jump into our four wheel vehicle and drive back to civilization, to drop off Jane and her daughters at the Kilimanjaro Airport, saying goodbye to Anne, who went on to do more traveling, and I went back to the Killa Villa to wait for an evening flight back to Saigon.

After taking a short nap, swimming in the pool, and eating a delicious lunch with tilapia fish and vegetables prepared by Chappie, I reflected on my unforgettable  experience and what I learned.

The importance of a guide on any new journey, knowing and respecting your own limitations, and being willing to learn more about the world.

We were all blessed to experience Africa and see magnificent  animals, both predators and prey, in their natural world, to witness the world of the Masai, their friendly nature and the stature of warriors, who live their lives with “Hakuna Matata”  meaning  “no worry for the rest of your days.”

Sundown on the African bush