tony church
Tony Church

Growing up as the eldest son of missionary parents, on the forested slopes of Mt. Kenya, my early years were shaped by immense freedom, and the friendship of local Kikuyu peoples. I was schooled in Kenya and then England, but the call of Africa was too strong to resist and I found myself travelling back, but to Rhodesia as it was then, as a young man full of hope and dreams. Life in Zimbabwe started with service in the Southern Rhodesian Police force, which provided a solid foundation for future challenges, but soon I put my wife and baby daughter into an old Mercedes Benz and drove from Zimbabwe to Kenya, where I found work on a tea plantation. This was in 1964, a year after Kenya attained independence.

In 1969 I left agriculture and decided tourism was an interesting new industry to enter. My work in tourism started with a stint at Flamingo Tours and then Abercrombie & Kent, and having gained invaluable experience with these two companies, I decided I must go it alone. I had so many ideas on designing and leading adventure expeditions to remote areas in East Africa as well as the newly created National Parks and Game Reserves.

In 1971 I mortgaged my life insurance policy for £500 and incorporated Safaris Unlimited (Africa) Ltd. I was fortunate to have moral support from Geoff Kent of Abercrombie & Kent, and one of the first safaris he asked me to guide was a gorilla expedition to the Congo with four American guests. We travelled to Bukavu and trekked into the jungle with Adrian de Schriver to visit the newly habituated lowland gorillas, which we followed up successfully with the help of pygmy trackers. It was a thrilling experience, all the more fascinating when one of my guests brought out her clarinet and played a piece of Mozart to this family of curious primates deep in the Central African rainforest.

Besides viewing wildlife from a four by four vehicle or on foot, the concept of riding on horseback amongst the game, as I had experienced as a schoolboy, captured my early thinking. Sleeping under canvas away from frequented routes was uppermost in my notion of a true African safari. How much better to wander the African plains on horseback with a mobile lightweight camp?

Without any capital at my disposal, it took time to get these ideas off the ground. However, in 1971, I heard of three horses with tack for sale. I sold my golf clubs and with the proceeds bought the ponies and started day rides on the beautiful Ngong Hills just west of Nairobi. My Anglo-Somali ponies were kept on our Langata farm on the outskirts of Nairobi. These hills, made famous by Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’, command spectacular views across the Great Rift Valley. Its forested valleys were home to Cape buffalo, bushbuck, waterbuck and Colobus monkey. In the open glades, eland, hartebeest, zebra and reedbuck could be found. On occasions we even spotted black rhino crashing through the woodland. So started one of the most unusual safaris in the world – on horseback amongst Africa’s spectacular wildlife.

These were the early beginnings. Soon I was taking those intrepid equestrians on a five day safari across the Great Rift Valley to Lake Naivasha.”

In spite of much negative sentiment in Nairobi, I persevered. Soon I recced new routes across Masailand reaching the now famous Masai Mara Game Reserve. The general opinion was that lion would eat me, my horses or all of us! My first encounter with a lioness which did not charge on sight, neither did my horse stampede, gave added confidence to my ambition to conduct horseback safaris into the most inaccessible and beautiful areas in the sparsely inhabited highlands of Kenya. But I always exercised caution in this risky endeavour; I could not afford any mishap if this novel way of experiencing the real raw Africa was to progress.

Gradually, I capitalised out of income and bought support vehicles, tents, horses and tack. I also recruited and trained camp staff and syces (grooms) to ensure a slick operation. Masilia, my trusted headman, joined me in 1971. Today his three sons work with the camp crew.

My lucky break came in 1973, when Ray Corliss of Rancheros Visitadores in California brought his first Cabalgata Africana group to ride in Kenya. This was a 21 day bonanza with 23 guests of whom 16 were horsemen; including America’s top lasso and bulldogging champion, Harley May. The safari was divided into two riding sections with visits to Treetops and the Sankuri Tented Camp on the Tana River in between – with the use of air charters. We shot game for the pot on licence whilst riding across the Rift and then the horses were transported by train to Nanyuki. The ride continued across the Lolldaiga Hills and down the Mukogodo Escarpment to the Uaso Nyiro River in Samburuland.

In the meantime, I was planning and guiding safaris for the Sierra Club of California and Mountain Travel based in Berkeley, outside of San Francisco. These were medium weight camping expeditions on foot and by vehicle into every corner of Kenya. Many of these safaris included climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro. Most of the trips required mental and physical preparation. Occasionally we visited luxury lodges whilst the camp was being moved ahead. The riding safaris did not see civilisation for up to 12 days, living in tents as we trekked across the African veldt.

Guests from all walks of life joined these safaris, including some famous personalities such as Sir Harry Llewellyn, an equestrian gold medallist at the Rome Olympics and later chairman of the British Olympic Show Jumping Committee. Through my 15 year connection with Anne Mariage, I met Dominique Lapierre, best-selling author of ‘City of Joy’, ‘Is Paris Burning’ and ‘Freedom at Midnight’, amongst other popular books.

In January 1985, Universal Pictures began filming ‘Out of Africa’ (Karen Blixen’s classic) in Kenya with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep as the lead actors. All the horses, very much in evidence in this Oscar winning film, came from our stable of bush ponies. We were thrilled when Meryl Streep and Michael Kitchen came to our stables at the Langata farm to brush up on their horsemanship.

By now horseback safaris were becoming well known. Agents such as Equitour and In The Saddle were supporting my endeavours to deliver a riding experience in wildest Kenya. Guests could expect fantastic encounters with elephant, buffalo, lion and all the plains game, breathtaking scenery as well as intriguing contact with the Masai – some guests have been present during a tribal circumcision.

By 2001, my son Gordon, who had accompanied me on many safaris as a young boy, was ready to take the reins of an acclaimed luxury riding and photographic safari company with an exemplary record of pure enjoyment, safety, reliable horses, loyal staff, great food and personalised and professional leadership.

Those who sign up with Safaris Unlimited can expect a unique introduction to Africa’s great horizons.