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MY VERO: Ocean Grill owner on African horseback safari

There was this one moment during his recent African horseback safari when Ocean Grill owner Charley Replogle wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings.

Fortunately, his horse was.

As his 11-person party came upon a male lion lounging in the grass only 25 yards away, Replogle said he was “fiddling with his camera” – trying to adjust the zoom lens while holding the reins – in hopes of getting a photo of the regal animal.

Suddenly, he heard someone yell, “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

“The lion got up and started trotting toward me, but I was looking down and didn’t notice,” Replogle recalled. “My horse saw him, though, and did a 180 and ran into the brush.”

The lion didn’t follow and, as it turned out, the Sandpointe resident was never in any real danger. But as Replogle’s son, Joey, told him: “That was a little close, dad.”

The story is one of several the Replogle men – his younger son, Cole, also made the trip – brought back to Vero Beach from their October adventure in Kenya and Tanzania.

Spending nine hours in the saddle some days, and covering as much as 40 miles on horseback, the Replogles saw, photographed and recorded on video African wildlife in its natural habitat.

In addition to lions, the riders encountered elephants, giraffes, leopards, zebras, wildebeests, cape buffaloes, rhinos and hippos. Often, Replogle said, the party was able to get within 30 yards of the animals.

“Elephants are more aggressive than lions, but the animals that kill the most people over there are hippos,” Replogle said. “They’re 3,000 pounds of fun.”

The only time the guide carried a gun, though, was when the group walked to the river, where hippos swam nearby.

“And that was only because we were walking and not on horseback,” Replogle said. “These animals are used to seeing people on horseback. They know the horses. But when you’re on foot …”

The group’s guide, Tristan Voorspuy, has been giving horseback tours in the same area for more than 30 years. He knows the terrain. He knows the animals that roam the savanna-like territory.

When an animal did get too close, Voorspuy would crack the bullwhip he carried at all times. The sound would stop the animal in its tracks and, usually, send them scampering away.

As for the crocodiles along the Mara River, the group relied on someone else to scare them off.

“We saw an 18-foot crocodile that flipped underwater when we started crossing the river, but the guide told us not to worry – because the hippos would chase him away,” Replogle said. “The crocs were huge, but we didn’t see many of them.”

No shots were fired during the 10-day excursion

“There was no hunting,” Replogle said, adding that he’s not a hunter. “That’s not what this was about.”

This was about riding and getting an up-close view of the animals in the wild – something Replogle had been wanting to do for years.

It was about eight years ago that the local restaurateur began thinking about taking such a trip. He and his sons played polo – they have been riding all their lives – and are strong horsemen.

Finally, after doing some online research, he made a call last March to schedule a safari.

“I realized I was getting older and decided that I better do it sooner rather than later,” said Replogle, who will turn 62 next month. “So I called Equitours, a Wyoming-based company that does horseback tours all over the world, and told them what I was looking for.

“They hooked me up with Offbeat Safaris.”

Seven months and $30,000 later – $10,000 per person, all expenses included – the Replogles were jetting to Africa. They flew 16 hours from Orlando to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, then five hours from Dubai to Nairobi, Kenya.

Picked up at the Nairobi airport, the Replogles were driven 12 hours across the next two days to the safari’s Masai Mara headquarters in southern Kenya.

“It was a pretty miserable flight over,” Replogle said, adding that his misery had nothing to do with Emirates’ airline service. “We left on Oct. 5, so I was worried the whole way.”

That’s because Hurricane Matthew was headed directly for Vero Beach – and Replogle’s historic, beachfront restaurant. It wasn’t until after the group had left Florida that the storm changed direction and only brushed the Treasure Coast.

On the evening of Oct. 7, however, Replogle received a text from Vero Beach Public Works Director Monte Falls, who sent him a photograph of the Ocean Grill.

“It was still standing tall, which was a huge relief,” Replogle said. “That’s the first time I was away during a hurricane, but we had already paid for the trip, so we had to go.

“Besides,” he added, “it was a rare opportunity when both my sons could go at the same time.”

Riding every day and traveling almost exclusively by horse – a Land Rover was used for night expeditions – allowed the group to experience the countryside and wildlife in a unique way.

Replogle said there was almost no nose-to-tail riding. The riders were usually spread across an open field that provided plenty of room for cantering. The 6,000-foot elevation prevented the temperatures from getting above a comfortable 80 degrees.

Though much of each day was spent on horseback, there was enough down time to relax when the group stopped to camp. The riders slept in two-man tents, but they also enjoyed gourmet dinners that included beef tenderloin, chicken and wine.

At night, the Masai tribesmen who tended to the horses and the camps would dance for visitors.

“It was an incredible experience,” Replogle said. “My sons said it was the best trip they’ve ever done. I’d go back in a minute.”

Next time, though, he’ll be sure to keep his eyes on the lion.

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