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?
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.
It is clear that 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chobe Game Lodge
Chobe National Park, Botswana
What makes it special? All-female guiding team
In Africa, female safari guides are still rather rare. As far as we know, this is the only lodge where all the guides are women. It’s also the only permanent lodge inside Chobe, Botswana’s oldest and most diverse national park.
Karkloof Safari Spa
Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa
What makes it special? Africa’s largest bush spa
This luxurious lodge stands in a magical little reserve with a beautiful waterfall. The resident wildlife includes rhinos and antelopes which are lucky enough to have no lions to hassle them. You’ll be ultra-relaxed, too, after a session at the spectacular spa.
Kasanka National Park, Zambia
What makes it special? Africa’s biggest mammalian migration
Kasanka is famous for the enormous numbers of straw-coloured fruit bats which visit for a few weeks each October and November to feast on ripe loquats and waterberries. They roost in a small patch of forest near Wasa, filling the skies at dawn and dusk. The lodge is a very simple, unpretentious waterside retreat for nature lovers.
Masai Mara, Kenya
What makes it special? Big Cat Diary
The Masai Mara has always been famous for its thriving populations of lions, leopards and cheetahs, but the BBC’s Big Cat Diary series really put it on the map. The crew always stayed at Governors’, whose trackers know the local cats’ every hangout.
Thornybush Private Game Reserve, near Kruger National Park, South Africa
What makes it unique? It’s Elton’s favourite
Elton John is so keen on the Royal Suite at Royal Malewane that they call it the Elton Suite. Bono, Bieber and big Bollywood stars have stayed here, too. You can expect Persian carpets, Ralph Lauren linen, private butlers and sumptuous meals.
Saadani Safari Lodge
Saadani National Park, Tanzania
What makes it special? Bush and beach in one park
This is the only lodge in Tanzania with its toes in the Indian Ocean and a national park as its back yard. You can snorkel with turtles in the morning, have a leisurely lunch at the lodge, then head out on a classic game drive in the afternoon.
Rutundu Log Cabins
Mt Kenya, Kenya
What makes it unique? Fit for a prince
Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton while the pair were staying in this remote spot on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya in October 2010. It has just two cedar-and-moss cabins with crackling fires and rustic wooden furniture.
Choosing a positive environment?
The wild places of Africa are magnetically attractive to us. They show us the world far beyond the paved, hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, sanitised life that is the universe of most urban dwellers today.
But Africa is changing fast. Our population is increasing at an unsustainable rate and natural resources are being harvested, exploited and in some places plundered in record quantities. Africa’s wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries are being pressurised by human encroachment and the inevitable activities that follow.
Most of us want to travel on safari in Africa at least once in our lives, to explore these wild places and to connect with our collective human experience. But how, and where, should we go?
We conceived Africa’s Finest as a gateway to the lodges, camps and resorts that exist primarily to preserve the balance of human impact and nature, and which are best located to show Africa at its wild, primeval best. It is a showcase of places that are run by people with heart and soul, rather than those marching mercenary-like to the “ka-ching” of the tourism cash machine.
The still-vast wild parts of Africa are the last places on earth where you can still see that tableau we often refer to as the Garden of Eden: a place where wild animals and ancient cultures do, in places, live in a semblance of balance.
Sad that then some of the iconic and the most ‘prehistoric’ of creatures, such as our elephants, lions and rhinos, in many areas are now hanging on for survival. But heartening that there are safari operators and conservationists working selflessly to protect them and other species, often through the enterprise of ecotourism.
It has been with much satisfaction that we are able to recognise and celebrate those who talk the responsible talk and who truly walk the sustainable walk. It is a road that leads not to the dominion over nature that has left it gasping for survival, but to a stewardship that will, if managed well, ensure the integrity of the remaining wild places far into the future.
The big green lie
We are living in precarious times. Scientists tell us that we have, by means of our own intelligence, shrugged off the bounds of evolution by natural selection. That is an astonishing thought to contemplate, because the consequences for ourselves and our planet are mind-blowing.
The other side of the scenario is that, while we have caused many of our problems, we also have the ability – if not always the will – to reverse the process. That is principally what the Africa’s Finest project and book are about. As a group of environmentalists, we care deeply about the natural environment; each member of the Africa’s Finest team is a dedicated nature devotee and most of us are qualified environmental specialists.
Tourism often operates at the interface between nature and civilisation. Unmanaged, insensitive tourism has the ability to impact negatively and relentlessly on our environment. Yet if safari tourism is carefully structured and managed, it can become the prime industry that ensures the preservation of the planet’s remaining wildernesses.
Our principal aim has been to ferret out the top 50 lodges in Africa that are the catalysts for positive change and to showcase their work. Some of them were located in the most remote, unexpected places, others well-established industry leaders. In doing so our aim was to help set a reliable and measurable benchmark in the safari industry for responsible and sustainable tourism that others will strive to emulate and improve on.
We also hope to nudge the environmental fence-sitters into making a move by providing them with the information and motivation needed to lead them into a better, greener future. Green technology is now sufficiently advanced and cost effective for all safari lodges to embrace. The days of lodges continuing to spew out carbon pollution to create electricity should be long over.
The process will also subtly expose the green-washers who pose under the umbrella of ‘ecotourism’ and tourism awards in order to blind or bleed the industry.
When the term ‘ecotourism’ was first coined back in the 1980s it had real substance: it meant a tourism operator had a strong conservation and education ethic; that they looked after their neck of the woods and used part of the proceeds from their business to help benefit local neighbouring communities.
Too many irresponsible tourism companies have since soiled that word to the extent that it has become its own antonym for non-ecotourism: real ecotourism operators rather speak of responsible and sustainable tourism, and sometimes conservation tourism.
Many shades of green
Beyond the designer-chic dining rooms and sumptuous bedrooms of the wildlife lodges is a back-of-house area few guests ever see – although they should. This is where their staff live, where food is stored and prepared, where energy is created and waste is processed. More often than not, this is where greasy and oily game-drive vehicles are fixed.
What it looks like back there differs vastly from place to place and this, more than just about any other factor, reveals the real character of that lodge, whether it has a black heart or a green one.
We found some lodge owners were still stuck in the old colonial ways of doing things with a discernable ‘master and servant’ mentality. Conversely, others had embraced modern standards and treated staff as partners.
To get to the very core of an enterprise, we found the best place to look was around the staff quarters: were they hidden away; did they have the necessary comforts and modern facilities; was it in fact a decent place to live? Given that many lodges have a staff-to-guest ratio of up to three or even four staff per guest, the staff have a bigger environmental impact than do the guests.
At one extreme we discovered a camp that had, among numerous negative impacts, an unfenced open food and garbage pit behind the camp, where wild animals could forage at will among the refuse. We also found that they were allowing untreated waste water to flow directly into a natural wetland nearby.
At the other end of the spectrum were the places like one family-run lodge where there was no discernable separation between front and back. The workshop area could have passed for the service centre of a German car manufacturer.
Then there was the case of a private game reserve with a lodge located in an extremely poor area. It is not shy to advertise that it offers the very highest levels of luxury imaginable on safari. No carbon molecule has been spared to make sure its visitors never have to experience a moment of discomfort while on safari. You might think it would be among the first to be dumped by us, until you look at its conservation and community footprints, which are among the largest of any operation in Africa.
Africa is now at its tipping point in terms of wilderness preservation. The next decade or two will determine whether we take the high road or the low road. A thriving green safari industry that expands the amount of land under formal conservation protection, coupled with an industry that meaningfully brings local communities into the tourism business, will help ensure we keep to the high road and do not end in the drink, or loch, as the old song goes.
What did we look for?
We drew up a list of what we consider to be the core ingredients of a superb green camp or lodge, and used this as a basis for our 102-item site survey evaluation. The places which scored the highest in our study made it into our Top 50. Although our ‘science’ was sound, bear in mind the final selection of places featured was based on our own considered, collective opinions.
Our study included the following criteria:
• Sustainable design and construction A new facility needs to be designed and built to blend into the natural setting, installing the latest technologies to ensure minimal impact, and using sustainable, renewable materials wherever possible.
• Lodge operations As much as possible, all decorations and produce should be from local, natural, sustainable sources.
• Kitchen Must be hygienic, using environmentally sensitive cleaning materials and bio-gas, and producing menus which reflect local flavours, ingredients and culture.
• Water supply Borehole water should be pumped by a solar pump; filtered local water should replace bottled water.
• Electricity Solar and wind power should be used wherever possible.
• Hot water Water should be solar heated wherever appropriate, and low-flow showerheads fitted.
• Sewage and grey water Correctly engineered above-the-ground sewage or grey water systems are essential.
• Waste management There should be a careful purchasing policy, reducing, re-using and recycling waste wherever possible.
• Wildlife and conservation Safari operations should strive to expand existing protected areas through buffer zones and conservancies, support bona fide researchers, conduct wildlife censuses, strive to help or reintroduce and protect endangered species and employ the best guides.
• Staff All members of staff should be content, safe and motivated and should ideally be recruited from neighbouring communities.
• Community and governments Development projects should include education, health, nutrition, family planning and women’s empowerment; operators should pay communities or park authorities a guaranteed minimum rental.
• Conservancies Effort needs to go into creating community conservancies around formally protected areas.
• Lodge activities There should be a clear wildlife disturbance policy and off-road protocol; red filters should be used on spotlights for night drives; no hunting should be the rule and lodges should offer a large range of low-impact activities such as walks, horse riding, hides and birding.
• Vehicles and boats Should be well-maintained, well-equipped and never overloaded; a biofuel mix should be used; 4-stroke boat engines should be used.
• Payments Guest payments should be paid into bank accounts in the country in which the lodge is located. To do otherwise is akin to money laundering.
In addition to carefully selecting your accommodation, there are things you can do to help the local community.
Increasingly camps and lodges support local schools or other projects. Ask your hosts about these programmes and donate to the lodge’s project of a wildlife NGO working in the area if they appear and sound effective.
Do not give sweets to kids – take a pack of pens and writing paper if you wish your gift to be more productive.
Check out the ideas and advice at www.stuffyourrucksack.com
If you wish to sponsor a rural project, focus on education and nutrition. Donate e’Pap (www.epap.co.za), for example, the most nutritious and best-absorbed food supplement around.
Meno A Kwena Tented Camp
Central African Republic
Campi Ya Kanzi
Madagascar Island Safaris
Masoala Forest Lodge
Majete National Park
Mumbo Island Lodge
Azura at Gabriel’s
Gorongosa National Park
Desert Rhino Camp
Etendeka Mountain Camp
Serra Cafema Camp
Rwanda & Uganda
Gamkaberg Nature Reserve
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve
Hamiltons Tented Camp
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
Chole Mjini Lodge
Singita Grumeti Reserves
Kaingo and Mwamba Bush Camps
Little Makalolo Camp
Natureways Canoe Safaris
Singita Pamushana Lodge
Varden Horse Safaris
Have your say!
We’d like to know what you think of this selection, and also what your favourite lodges or camps are, and why? What makes it special, and why would you recommend it to fellow readers?
Buy your copy of Africa’s Finest
Africa’s Finest is a truly impressive production that will intrigue anyone with an interest in exploring and conserving Africa’s wilderness areas. Its 400 pages boast magnificent full colour photography, detailed background on the project and their selection criteria, and lengthy profiles on all the accommodation facilities that made their final selection.
This article was first published in Travel Africa edition 65, Winter 2013/14.