Book ID 425
Jackman, Brian Safari Elite, 2000
Extract Author: Brian Jackman
Extract Date: 2000 June 4
Africa's five-star lodges and camps have truly raised their game
As you drive across the savannah in your Toyota Land Cruiser, or fly above it by light aircraft en route to your next cosy camp with its swimming pool and candlelit cordon-bleu dinners, spare a thought for the old safari hands of the 19th century who did it the hard way - who rode on horseback or travelled on foot for hundreds of miles, who ate roasted locusts when all else failed, endured malaria and never heard the clink of an ice cube at the end of the day.
Now 'soft adventure' is the name of the game, and a new generation of upmarket camps and lodges have sprung up to cater for today's more finicky clientele. Among them are the small, low-impact, luxury tented camps - often with no more than eight beds - as pioneered so successfully by Wilderness Trails in Botswana, where clients pay handsomely for the exclusive use of a private safari concession area.
Faced with this kind of competition, several older, traditional camps and lodges have either been given a makeover or have been demolished and completely rebuilt, as at the swanky new Khwai River Lodge in Botswana's Moremi Game Reserve. What it means is that today, unless you choose a mobile safari, your canvas home is likely to be equipped with all mod cons, from electric light and ensuite bathroom to cool-air fan and four-poster bed.
For the uninitiated it is probably worth including a word to the wise about the differences between safari camps and lodges. Lodges are solid, permanent structures, built of local stone and timber under a thatched roof. Some of the older ones (Hwange Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe, Voi in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park) are simply bush hotels with gardens and swimming pools. But the best lodges are those like the Manyara Serena - a cluster of twin-bedded rondavels scattered around a central bar, dining area and pool with stupendous views of Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park.
Different again is the luxury tented lodge, where the main building is a permanent construction but all the living accommodation is under canvas. Boy-scout camping this is not. Instead, you are welcomed with ensuite luxury, in spacious, twin-bedded, walk-in tents, often on wooden decks. Tented camps, on the other hand, can be just as luxurious and even more expensive as they tend to be smaller and more exclusive. But the biggest difference between sleeping in a room or a tent is that living under canvas brings you closer to the magical sounds of the African bush without in any way compromising your safety.
What makes a good safari camp? Good food, comfortable beds, hot showers and friendly, smooth-as-silk service; these should be taken for granted. But the best camps and lodges offer more besides. Each one is furnished with individual flair and style, which creates its own special atmosphere. Even the smallest camps boast a plunge pool and their overall design is often stunning and always ingenious in the ecofriendly way they blend with their surroundings.
Congenial, bush-savvy professional guides are another bonus. Ambience, too, is important. Places with a feelgood factor, like Ndutu Lodge in the Serengeti, will always attract their devotees. But to fall back on estate-agent jargon, the three best selling points will always be location, location and location. How can you put a price on the view from Ngorongoro Crater Lodge? And great game-viewing, of course. After all, that is still the main purpose for being there.
10 of the best
Elsa's Kopje, Meru National Park
Meru, home of Elsa, the Born Free lioness, is Kenya's least- visited park, and Elsa's Kopje, which opened last summer, is the country's newest lodge. Built on a rock overlooking George Adamson's first camp site, it has a swimming pool, bar and dining room, and eight thatch/stone ensuite cottages with sunken baths and stunning views.
When to go: either early June to mid-October or late December to mid-March; these are the dry seasons, and good for viewing the wilderness with few other tourists around.
Ol Malo, Laikipia
Ol Malo - 'The Place of the Greater Kudu' - was designed and built by Colin and Rock Francome on their idyllic 5,000-acre ranch and game sanctuary in the Laikipia high country. Just half-a-dozen cottages and a swimming pool, built into the rock on what feels like the edge of the world, looking over a water hole to the distant, broken-tooth silhouette of Mount Kenya. Small and intimate, with bags of atmosphere.
When to go: November to March for elephants; January to March for the best game.
Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Ngorongoro Crater
If you're looking for unashamed luxury and romance, this is the one. It's worth coming for the view alone - to see dawn break over the lost world of the crater floor 2,000ft below. Although the lodge sits right on the crater rim, it is virtually invisible from below. Architecturally, it's a fantasy marriage of ethnic Africa and old-world Europe: king-size Zanzibari four-poster beds, banana-leaf ceilings, chandeliers and gilded mirrors. Hence its nickname: the Masai Versailles. Some old safari hands can't abide its over-the-top opulence. My advice: lie back and enjoy the greatest night out in Africa.
When to go: there is plenty of game (and minibuses) year round, but avoid the wet months of April, May and November.
Sand Rivers, Selous Game Reserve
For the wilder side of East Africa, head to southern Tanzania and Selous, Africa's biggest game reserve. Elegant Sand Rivers has an idyllic setting on the banks of the Rufiji river, where you can watch crocodile and hippo from open-to-the-bush rooms on stilts. Though it's hard to drag yourself away from the good food and fantastic service, you should - taking a bush walk to an Out of Africa-style fly camp on a river of white sand makes for a unique safari.
When to go: the season runs from June to March; until November it is dry and good for general game. January and February are also good, but hotter.
Nsefu, South Luangwa National Park
Completely rebuilt for 1999, Nsefu's six thatched rondavels blend perfectly into their riverine woodland setting. Shady verandas at the front; ensuite showers at the back. What more do you need? And the dining area, dwarfed by a giant termite steeple, provides a wide-screen view of the winding Luangwa River, with its hippos, elephants and waterbirds.
When to go: the June to October dry season for general game viewing, particularly leopards.
Chikwenya Camp, Mana Pools National Park
A superb location in its own exclusive safari area at the confluence of the Zambezi and Sapi rivers. All the rooms are raised off the ground on teak decks, with ensuite bathrooms, canvas walls, indoor/outdoor showers and shady thatch canopies. Lots of big game to see - elephants, buffaloes, lions - either on a canoe safari or on foot beneath a lofty canopy of giant winterthorns.
When to go: the dry season is from late May to October; but the best time for big game is July to October.
Abu's Camp, Okavango Delta
The home of Randall Moore's elephant-back safaris and named after the giant tusker that is Randall's favourite riding elephant. Luxury accommodation is in five custom- designed tents, with teak decks, four-poster beds and verandas overlooking a peaceful delta lagoon - and a private concession area of half a million acres.
When to go: the season runs from March to December, but the best time to go is May to October for riding elephants.
Jack's Camp, Makgadikgadi Pans
Jack's Camp is in a class of its own; a quirky, one-off, 1930s time capsule, set in a palm grove on the threshold of the Kalahari. It was founded by Jack Bousfield, a Botswana adventurer, and is now run by Ralph, his desert-wise son. Thousands of migrating zebras arrive during the wet season, pursued by Kalahari lions, but this is not big-game country. Instead, Jack's Camp offers the complete desert experience - quad-biking across saltpans the size of small countries, searching for Stone Age axes and sleeping out under the stars. All this plus damask tablecloths, bone-handled silverware, Persian rugs and chambray sheets.
When to go: year round; the wet season (November to March) when the pan fills and attracts flamingos and other birdlife, or the dry season (April to October) for desolate landscapes.
Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge, Namibrand Nature Reserve
The newest lodge in Namibia (opened in December 1999) consists of 10 air-conditioned thatched cottages with inside/outside showers, plunge pools, and the main lodge. Perched on a rocky pile, it looks out across a sweeping baked-earth plain to a distant desert horizon of Martian-red dunes, some of the highest in the world. There are lots of nice touches - including a high-powered computerised telescope for desert star-gazing. The isolation factor is impressive.
When to go: year round for the dunes and wilderness, but this is not a destination for game viewing. Namibia is a desert country, so the rains from November to March are not heavy.
Londolozi Tree Camp, Sabi Sand private game reserve
A 35,000-acre slice of Lowveld with three secluded camps overlooking the Sand River, it was the first reserve in the world to be accorded Relais & Châteaux status. Meals at Londolozi Tree Camp are served on a balcony perched 70ft up in a riverside ebony tree. There are only six cottage suites, all equipped with every conceivable creature comfort, from air con to indoor/outdoor showers. Completing the picture are a plunge pool fed by a forest cascade, and Big Five game-viewing - famously for leopards.
When to go: year round, but the best time for game viewing is in the dry season of April to October. If combining this with a stay in Cape Town, it is better to go November to March.
The best camps and lodges don't come cheap. You may be under canvas, but the prices would not look out of place at a five-star hotel. For example, a five-night elephant-riding safari at Abu's Camp in Botswana will set you back more than £4,000pp. The camps featured above are not all as expensive, but be prepared to splash out at least £3,000pp.
Most safaris combine two or more camps set in different terrain and therefore attracting varied wildlife. Three nights at Elsa's Kopje and three at Ol Malo in Kenya, all-inclusive with British Airways flights and private air transfers, costs £2,730pp in high season (July and August), with Safari Consultants (01787 228494). Two weeks in Botswana staying three nights each at Jack's Camp and three other good camps - Eagle Island, Little Mombo and Zibalianja - all- inclusive, with South African Airways flights, costs from £4,330 with Hartley's Safaris (01673 861600).
Some companies offer escorted departures but most do tailor-made packages. They include: Abercrombie & Kent (020 7559 8500; www.aandktours.com); Africa Exclusive (01604 628979); Art of Travel (020 7738 2038); Carrier (01625 582006; www.carrier.co.uk); Cazenove & Loyd Safaris (020 8875 9666; www.caz-loyd.com); Hartley's Safaris (01673 861600); Journeys by Design (020 8332 2928; www.journeys bydesign.co.uk); Okavango Tours & Safaris (020 8343 3283; www.okavango.com); Safari Consultants (01787 228494); Scott Dunn World (020 8672 1234); Sunvil Discovery (020 8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk); Union-Castle Travel (020 7229 1411); and Worldwide Journeys & Expeditions (020 7381 8638).