Spoilt for choice

Luxury safari tent, Okavango Delta, Botswana by Dietmar Rauscher, Shutterstock (Travel Africa magazine)
Image copyright Dietmar Rauscher, Shutterstock

Luxurious lodges, romantic camps, remote campsites, quirky treehouses… there are masses of wonderful-sounding places to stay on safari. So how on earth do you choose? If you want to be certain of finding accommodation that suits your interests, fits your budget and makes a positive contribution to conservation and community development, you’ll need to do some careful research – or consult a travel specialist you really trust. Emma Gregg is here to help you on your way.

Where do I start?

The reality is that nearly every destination offers a range of facilities, often through the whole budgetary scope and many with specific strengths. There are some simple questions to consider when narrowing down your options.

Are you set on going bushwalking with one of the best safari guides in the business? Dining on the very best campfire cuisine? Or just sinking into a bath with an unforgettable view of the sunset?

We all have a slightly different idea of what makes a place to stay perfect. To work out what’s right for you, start by consulting guidebooks and websites and talking to safari experts at specialist travel companies.

When I say talk, I mean it. An open conversation can be amazingly productive. As Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa explains: “When someone asks my advice, I’ll spend a good half hour chatting about their past holidays and their ideas for this one. It takes a proper conversation to get a feel for what they’re likely to enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily come across straight away in a quick chat or an email.”

For a few more pointers, we also asked safari experts Amanda Marks of Tribes, Bill Adams of Safari Consultants, Chris Roche of Wilderness Safaris and Nicky Brandon of Ker and Downey to share their own ideas on how to narrow your search.

Certain questions will quickly set you on a clear path:

What’s in your wallet?
How much are you prepared to spend?
“Rates vary wildly,” says Amanda Marks. “The minimum daily cost of a low-season African camping safari is roughly £120 per person. Mid-range accommodation in shoulder season costs around £350 per day. In high season a top end lodge can cost £750 per day or more.”

“There are good value properties for £150 per person per night in South Africa,” says Bill Adams, “although you’ll struggle to find much for that in the top East African safari destinations.

“If money’s tight, consider a self-drive camping trip in Namibia, or join a small group camping holiday,” says Chris McIntyre.

But Bill has a word of caution: “To someone who wants something really cheap, I say, don’t waste your money – save up till you can do it properly. Three nights at a really good lodge beats a week on a cut-price minibus tour.”

Solo, couple or crowd?
How many people will there be in your group?
“Some trips are amazing if you’re travelling on your own,” says Chris. “The smaller camps and lodges tend to be best. They can be like visiting friends: you’ll dine with your hosts and fellow guests, whilst spending your days enjoying safari activities together. Walking in a small group is particularly sociable. And when you move camps, you’ll meet different, like-minded characters at each stop.”

For couples, of course, the choices are endless. Book a safari lodge for your honeymoon and, however modest the accommodation, the staff will do their utmost to make your stay unforgettable.

If you’re travelling in a group, you could enjoy a lodge or camp all to yourselves. “There are a lot of very good quality private safari houses,” says Bill. “Try the Mara Bush Houses (Mara, Acacia and Topi) in Kenya, Robin’s House, Luangwa Safari House or Chongwe River House in Zambia, Singita Serengeti House in Tanzania or Selinda Explorers Camp in Botswana.”

“Places like The Enclave at Shinde in the northern Okavango Delta make a perfect, exclusive hideaway for friends or a family,” says Nicky. “It’s a camp-within-a-camp with just three twin tents, a private chef and everything else you’d need.”

All about the animals?
Would you be happy to rough it a bit for the sake of the wildlife-watching?
“If you’re mad about wildlife, I’d recommend a private mobile camping safari in the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park or the Makgadikgadi Pans,” says Amanda.

“A highly qualified guide will help you see the species you’re hoping for. If it’s a private trip, everything will be tailored to your interests. In wilderness campsites, Africa really is very much at your doorstep. This can even include elephants wandering through.”

“True wildlife lovers should choose a camp where guiding is more important than the accommodation,” advises Bill. “Goliath Safaris Tented Camp in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, and Tafika Camp and the Chikoko Trails Camps in South Luangwa, Zambia, are all excellent.”

Luxury at all costs?
Are you looking for superb comforts, amazing food, fine wine?
If the answer is yes, would you prefer the classic vintage style of a property such as Cottar’s 1920s Camp in Kenya, or somewhere sleek and modern like Ulusaba or Molori in South Africa?

“For ultimate luxury, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Singita properties in South Africa and Tanzania, Royal Malewane in South Africa, Beho Beho in the Selous, Zarafa in Botswana and Mara Plains in the Maasai Mara,” says Bill.

Need know-how?
Would you like a top-notch guide?
“This is a really interesting starting point for any search,” explains Chris. “I’d suggest someone like Nick Murray, Paul Hubbard, Dave Carson or Spike Williamson in Zimbabwe, or Lloyd Wilmot, Grant Truthe, Brent Reed, Grant Reed or Paul Moleseng in Botswana. We’d then work out which camps you could visit.”

Nicky adds: “Of all our guides, I’d particularly recommend Omphile Kaluluka for knowledge of the Okavango Delta combined with an easy-going nature and infectious sense of humour.”

Keen to feel grounded?
Are you looking for a place with a strong connection to the local community?
“These days there are more and more options which are community-owned, or which support communities directly,” says Amanda. “One of my favourites is Sarara Camp in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, northern Kenya. This very comfortable tented camp is owned by the local Samburu community. Their cattle mean the world to them, but they never let them touch the swimming pool, even during droughts. The chief believes they need to look ahead, that the rains will come, and they should protect the camp because it gives them so much. It provides funds for schooling, medical care and anti-poaching.”

Bill agrees that Kenya has several interesting options. “Community properties like Tassia Lodge, Il Ngwesi and Sarara offer a really good experience.”

“I’d recommend Damaraland Camp in Namibia,” says Chris Roche. “It’s owned and staffed by the community and the rhino viewing is exceptional.”

“I might suggest places like Nhoma in Bushmanland, Namibia, and Kawaza Village in South Luangwa, Zambia, which are actually in communities,” adds Chris McIntyre.

Eager to break away from the herd?
Looking for somewhere none of your friends have been?
“For something different, I’d probably choose one of the camps in Katavi National Park, Tanzania,” says Amanda Marks. “It’s a remote destination and you’ll have it almost to yourself.”

Chris McIntyre recommends one of the newer camps such as Chinzombo in Zambia, while Chris Roche suggests you head well off the beaten track to Odzala Wilderness Camps in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of Congo, to look for lowland gorillas.

Bill votes for Liuwa Plains in western Zambia: “Only special people have been there!”

So, should you ask an expert?
These days, everyone has instant access to reams of information online. It’s perfectly possible to work out your own itinerary and book your accommodation by emailing each lodge separately. However a safari specialist who knows the options inside out can help you make better choices – and can often save you money, too.

Specialist companies often make it their business to visit as many places as possible in person. “Take the Okavango, for example,” says Chris McIntyre. “We have stayed at the vast majority of the camps, in different seasons. This is the only way to see what they’re really like; it’s far better than reading what the owner wants you to read. Booking through us will usually be significantly cheaper than booking directly, especially for high-cost trips, and we take responsibility for the whole itinerary – so if an airline fails, an airport closes or a lodge doesn’t deliver, we’ll bend over backwards to find an alternative for our travellers.”

Amanda Marks of Tribes agrees that detailed, comparative advice is invaluable: “We like to think that coming to us is like asking for advice from a trusted friend who’s been everywhere. Going direct to a lodge will only get you subjective advice. You might have it in mind that a lodge in South Africa is the best place for you, but once we’ve listened to what you want, it might be plain to us that you’d much prefer a camp in Zambia. Since we’re independent, we can sell any lodges we like. And of course you get financial protection through our ATOL or ABTOT bond.”

“If you pay money directly to a lodge or a non-ATOL accommodation company in Africa,” Chris warns, “you have zero protection if it goes bust. You lose your money; end of story.”

Where does your money go?
At first glance, the cost of safari accommodation may seem daunting. But why are prices the level they are, and do they offer good value?
Julia Mut of Cheli and Peacock is convinced it can be: “A luxury safari can be one of the most romantic and adventurous vacations you will ever take. If you can afford it, it’s well worth paying extra for high quality hosting and guiding, homemade food and personal service, off the beaten track, with the wilderness to yourself.”

“The up-front cost of a safari may seem high,” says Nicole Walsh of Sanctuary Retreats, “but unlike many other holidays, once you’re there, there’s very little to pay for, as most luxury lodges have all-inclusive rates.

“Naturally you pay a premium for exclusivity, but the experience you’ll have in a bush lodge which sleeps just 24 will always be superior to that in an 800-bed hotel.

“You also pay a premium for remoteness. Building, furnishing and maintaining a bush lodge is expensive. We have to cope with tricky road access, extreme sun, termites, fungal wood rot and three-tonne pachyderms that sometimes think it’s appropriate to use a room built on stilts as a rubbing post.”

The hidden costs of running a wilderness lodge can be far higher than the costs of running a city hotel. Essentials that need to be covered include fuel for vehicles and for lighting, cooking and refrigeration (in lodges which are not solar powered), long-distance transport for food, drink, building materials and other consumables, waste disposal, concession fees, community projects and charity funds.

Room to manoeuvre?
On safari, your bed for the night can be anything from a mattress and mosquito net in the wilds to a four-poster in a palatial lodge – each with service, facilities, atmosphere and culture to match. Which is best suited to you?
Campsites
Western-style campsites with communal water, washing and cooking facilities are relatively rare in Africa. You’ll find them in South Africa and Namibia. Elsewhere, independent travellers can stay at elementary sites in some national parks and reserves, and in the grounds of some lodges. You’ll need to be fully equipped.

State-run accommodation
The chalets, rest huts and lodges managed by national park authorities and wildlife services in some national parks and reserves get you close to the action. They tend to be comfortable yet fairly basic, but reasonably priced, especially if you choose a no-frills self-catering option.

Tented camps
Some safari tents feel much like hotel rooms, complete with elaborate furniture and plumbed-in en suite bathrooms – they just happen to have canvas walls and wilderness on the doorstep. Others are simpler. Guests dine together in a central meeting place and there’s always a firepit for after-dinner storytelling.

Fly camping
For total immersion in the wilderness, this is unbeatable. The options range from luxurious – with staff setting camp in a different location each night and cooking gourmet meals on the spot – to basic, where everyone mucks in. For ultimate simplicity  you could just stretch out on a mattress under a mosquito net.

Safari lodges
A permanent lodge may lack the inherent romance of a camp, but the best are beautifully designed with artful use of local timber, stone and thatch. Some lodges have the added attraction of swimming pools, lawns, tennis courts, spas and other facilities which would be impractical to create in a camp.

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