Men’s Journal Magazine – November 2006
Conjure East Africa in your mind’s eye and you’ll pull up archetypal images of an undulating grass savanna teeming with the Big Five: Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Buffalo and Rhino. What you’re seeing is the classic safari circuit that winds through Tanzania and Kenya. This is where men like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemmingway came to see, then shoot the great African beasts. Hordes of tourists followed, with good reason. Classic safaris seldom fail to impress. Traditionally, camera-toting tourists book overland tours with a safari outfitter who escort you to long-standing camps and lodges. But today’s East Africa offers alternatives. You can craft your own itinerary, fly directly to choice camps aboard new light-carriers, and there are dozens of boutique lodges, camps and outfitters to choose from, including several who are hip to sustainability and promise to bring you closer to East African people and wildlife than ever before.
The most popular safari in Africa, Tanzania’s Classic Northern Circuitincludes stops in four national parks: the renowned Serengeti, Lake Manyara, a great place to spot bathing elephants, Ngorongoro Crater, an extinct volcano that is home to thousands of animals, and the vastly underrated Tarangire. In terms of quantity and quality of wildlife and the health and diversity of the ecosystem in which they live – Tanzania has the best safari game going. The big five are virtually guaranteed.
The Serengeti is a must-do. Stay at the Grumeti River Camp, a funky, permanent encampment on a river that wildebeest herds cross twice annually during the great migration. If you’re looking for some colonial panache, book the Kirawira Camp. There are smoking chairs, Persian rugs, and a mahogany bar where you can order sundowners.
Classic Kenya begins and ends with “the Mara.” Every July enormous herds of wildebeest migrate from the southern reaches of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya, where from August to October the plains seethe with these snorting grazers in search of fresh grass. Predators, like lions, leopards, cheetah, and crocs, lurk by river crossings and in the high grass. This is the stuff of Animal Planet. This is why you come to the Mara.
The best way to get here is to fly-in to a private camp adjacent to the Mara that offers game drives and bush walks. Richards Camp has an intimate, down-to-earth vibe with a history of environmental conservation. Cottars Camp is Redford and Streep decadent. “The Cottars are the original safari guides,” says Nairobi-born Sunit Sanghrajka, owner of Safari Outfitter, Luxury Trips. “They’ve been in the business for nearly 100 years.” The Cottars’ permanent tents are furnished with colonial antiques; they offer butler service and a member of the historic family will likely lead you into the Mara wilderness.
If you’re looking for new school East Africa, head into Samburu country in Northern Kenya and book a few nights at Elephant Watch. The brainchild of Africa’s foremost elephant conservationists, Oria and Ian Douglas-Hamilton, it’s set on the banks of the red, crocodile-patrolled Watchinuroo River, and offers five stand-alone bungalows, crafted from driftwood and trees that local elephants knocked down. With grass roofs, hand-painted bucket showers, Tempurpedic beds and colorful accents, it’s a Robinson Crusoe in the new millennium experience that enables a total immersion in nature. Your expert guides will be loquacious young Samburu men who are trained as safari guides by Ian’s Save The Elephants – a world leader in elephant research. “We’ve been watching elephants for last 30 years,” says Oria. “Our Samburu guides have lived with them their whole lives. It’s our job to show people what elephants are all about.” Afterwards, link up withSafari’s Unlimited for a deluxe camel safari. Part walking, part riding safari, this trip is co-led by local Samburu warriors through stunning desert country where guests mingle among kudu, elephant and wild dogs, with no other tourists in sight.
WHEN TO GO: July and August are the best months for game viewing. December-January is the biggest tourist season.
AIR TRAVEL: British Airways (www.britishairways.com) and KLM(www.klm.com) fly regularly to Dar es Salam and Nairobi via London and Amsterdam. Safari Link (TK) is the best bet for flights between the major national parks.
OUTFITTERS/RESOURCES: There are scores of outfitters in East Africa. For high-end classic safaris, choose among micatosafaris.com,abercrombieandkent.com, mtsobek.com, wildernesstravel.com, andwww.luxurytrips.com . To make your own camp reservations log on towww.grumeti.com, www.serenahotels.com/Tanzania/kirawira/home.asp,www.richardscamp.com, and www.cottars.com. Samburu enquiries can be made on-line: www.elephantwatchsafaris.com, www.safarisunlimited.com.
Outrageously beautiful coastline, quintessential African wilderness, and very few tourists; this is why you come to Mozambique, a country that has quickly recovered from a civil war that ended in 1992. The untrammeled beaches are not to be missed, but neither is the diverse and undiscovered interior, best accessed in Gorongosa National Park.
Once considered among Africa’s best wildlife safari destinations – Gorongosa’s 3,770 square kilometers of thick grasslands, lush forested mountains, and deep, sculpted gorges, were poached clean by ravenous military squadrons during the war. But former Prodigy CEO, Greg Carr, has made it his personal mission to restore it. “We have all the cats, hippos, huge herds of elephant, quite a few antelope varieties, and extraordinary birdlife,” says Carr. “What we’re missing are the large numbers of herbivores.” Not for long. Carr’s team of conservation biologists have imported Cape Buffalo from South Africa and Zebra from Zimbabwe, where poaching is intense. The Carr Foundation has invested considerably in park infrastructure, but this is no luxury destination. Gorongosa is for trailblazer-types who understand the rewards inherent in the road less traveled. “No other park in Africa has the variety of activities we have here. You can go on game drives, but we also have extraordinary mountains that are rarely hiked, huge unexplored caves and incredible waterfalls,” says Carr.
Then there’s the coast. Think silky, cloud-white sand and tropical turquoise coves. Adventure hounds can dive with pods of the rare dugong manatee, as well as 600 varieties of fish off Benguerra Island in the Bazaruto archipelago, or head to Tofo Point one of the two best places on earth to dive and mingle with resident whale sharks.
WHEN TO GO: The dry season: May -November.
AIR TRAVEL: South African Airways flies direct from New York City to Johannesburg ($1,783; www.flysaa.com ). Connect to Chimoio, for Gorongosa or Vilanculos for the Bazaruto Archipelago on Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique (www.lam.co.mz ).
OUTFITTERS/RESOURCES: Explore Africa offers an ideal Gorongosa-Tofo Point itinerary, www.exploreafrica.net. Alternatively, lodging and camping reservations for Gorongosa National Park can be made on-line,www.gorongosa.net. Guides can be hired on the ground upon arrival. Tofo Scuba, www.tofoscuba.co.za, is the most experienced whale shark outfitter at Tofo Point, and you can make reservations for hotels in the Bazaruto Archipelago at www.bazarutoarchipelago.com. Another reliable on-line resource: www.mozguide.com.
South Africa is arguably the most accessible safari destination. International flights are frequent, its infrastructure is sound, and it’s the kind of place where “five-star” means, “five-star.” But South Africa is also culturally and naturally rich, and the countryside is wild. That’s why there’s no better place to either indulge in boutique, luxury safaris on private game reserves, or to grab a map, rent a Landcruiser and hit the parks on your own.
Guided Safaris in South Africa don’t get much better than those offered in the Manyaleti and Sabi Sand Game Reserves bordering the massive 12,400 square-mile Kruger national Park. The brand-new, plush, Tintswalo Lodge, the architecturally impressive Singita Resort and Richard Branson’s eco-elegant Ulusaba are all surrounded by miles of open savannah that is home to Africa’s great beasts. At Ulusaba, which includes the cliff-side Rock Lodge and riverside Safari Lodge, game drives are offered twice daily, and night drives in Kruger National Park can also be arranged. Or ditch the vehicle altogether and take a guided safari walk with native Shangaan trackers. “The walks focus on the subtleties – wildflowers, game tracks, smaller birds, things you miss when you’re driving,” says Chris Schoombee, Ulusaba’s Manager. The resort is top-notch and all-inclusive. There’s a spa, workout facilities, and pool, and the design blends into the landscape. Ceilings are palm-thatched and beamed. Living trees rise from beneath the dining-room floor through the roof. Zulu masks and shields hang on the walls. At Rock Lodge, there are even breathtaking bathtub vistas. “Our view overlooks the whole of Kruger and Sabi Sand,” says Schoombe. “It’s one of the best in South Africa.”
For middle-class South Africans, family safaris are akin to our childhood Griswoldian road-trips. Meaning, it’s relatively simple to explore South Africa sans guide. Just rent an SUV in Jo-burg, make campsite reservations, and roll. Try the enormous Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Its multi-day 4X4 tracks include stops at permanent luxury camps set near rolling red sand dunes. And the wildlife is unique and plentiful, think: rare desert antelope and black-maned lions.
WHEN TO GO: June-October
AIR TRAVEL: South African Airways flies direct from New York City to Johannesburg ($1,783; www.flysaa.com ). Virgin Atlantic departs regularly from LAX and NYC via London to Johannesburg ($1559;www.virgin-atlantic.com)
OUTFITTERS/RESOURCES: Reservations at luxury lodges in private game reserves can be made on-line; www.ulusaba.com, www.singita.com,www.tintswalo.com. For 4WD track information and campsite reservations in Kgaladi National Park log onto www.sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi. Car rental, maps and road information can be found athttp://www.southafrica.info/plan_trip/travel_tips/getting_around/driving.htm.www.offroadafrica.com offers rentals and a wealth of 4WD information for do-it-yourselfers.