I lost count long ago of the number of times I’ve been on safari. My first was in 1981 — to Kenya — and I’ve been to Africa at least once a year ever since, so the minimum number must be 40. No one has ever had to push me up the steps of the plane. I’ve always loved watching animals and birds, and I’m seldom happier than in wild wide-open spaces. Going to Africa is still a thrill (and, of course, in this context, by “Africa” I mean the famous wildlife areas in the eastern and southern areas of the continent). I also love big cities, and I am as susceptible as anyone to the exquisitely manicured landscape of Tuscany, but it is in wilderness that I feel most calm and centered. And I suspect that the same is true for many people. Sitting beside a fire in the gathering darkness, listening to Africa’s nightly orchestra warming up, I invariably feel elated and intensely alive.
Over four decades, I have stayed in hundreds of camps and lodges. At the outset, the accommodations tended to be quite austere: Air-conditioning was the exception not the rule; showers were often rudimentary; and the décor tended to be colonial in style. It was the fall of apartheid in South Africa that was the chief catalyst for change. A new generation of entrepreneurs, some of whom owned tracts of bush that had once been unsuccessful cattle farms, realized that a market now existed, chiefly in the United States, for safari lodges that were as comfortable as resort hotels and also offered sophisticated cuisine, augmented by a generous selection of wines. The luxury safari had been born. Nowadays, such lavish places are ubiquitous — so much so that occasionally I find myself nostalgic for the simplicity of the old days.
The list below details 10 exceptional lodges and camps that have provided me with an inexhaustible trove of memories. Every time I review it I want to tinker, to add or subtract, but finally decisions have to be made. What is certain, however, is that if you venture to any of these places, you are most unlikely to be disappointed.
With a rating of 99 in The Andrew Harper Collection, Singita Sasakwa Lodge can stake a claim to being the finest wildlife lodge in the world. Part of this is due to its sensational location in a 350,000-acre private concession, on a hillside, overlooking the vast plains of the western Serengeti. Staying at Sasakwa is like having a private balcony from which to survey the world’s most famous national park. This is a particular privilege when the wildebeest migration passes through the area, usually in June each year. The nine cottages (and a villa) are opulent and exceptionally comfortable; the staff are utterly charming; and the food is consistently delicious. Life offers few greater pleasures than sitting with a glass of chilled wine, beneath a white sun umbrella, gazing out across one of the grandest views in Africa.
Traditional in style, tranquil and remote, Ol Donyo seems like a surviving fragment of the Kenya that existed before the advent of mass tourism. Originally created by the well-known environmentalist and walking safari guide Richard Bonham, the lodge is now part of Great Plains Conservation, a company whose CEO is the renowned wildlife filmmaker Dereck Joubert. Located on a 275,000-acre group ranch owned by Maasai pastoralists, the property comprises just seven spacious and atmospheric cottages, all of which come with plunge pools and elevated platforms for star gazing. From a perch on the side of the Chyulu Hills, guests survey a stupendous view of grassy plains backed by snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro. The food is unusually sophisticated for a safari camp. The surrounding area contains a full range of species, including lion and cheetah, and the local elephants are famous for the prodigious size of their tusks. Revenue from the property helps fund community projects and anti-poaching efforts.
This small camp is set in the 35,000-acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy, a private tract of land owned by the local Maasai tribal people, adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. At Mara Plains you can still experience the beauty of the East African savanna, untroubled by tourist crowds. Seven lavish tents, with canopied ceilings, wooden floors and private verandas, are set on a raised deck that commands a spellbinding view of the plains. Public areas include a library-lounge decorated with Oriental rugs and African artifacts and an atmospheric dining room illuminated by oil lamps and a brass chandelier. As elsewhere in the Mara ecosystem, the wildlife is abundant year-round, and lion sightings are routine. The annual wildebeest migration usually arrives in September.
Located at the edge of Volcanoes National Park, Bisate Lodge is set on the slopes of an extinct volcanic cone, a situation that affords dramatic views of the Virunga Mountains (the highest of which, Mount Karisimbi, rises to 14,787 feet). Six thatched hillside villas feature living rooms with stone fireplaces, plus furniture and textiles created by local artisans. The stunning main building, an architectural tour de force, encompasses a restaurant, bar and wine cellar. Each morning, treks leave from the nearby park headquarters to see the famous mountain gorillas. Few wildlife experiences exceed that of standing just 20 or 30 feet from a 600-pound gorilla. Hikes to Dian Fossey’s original research camp can be arranged, as well as less demanding excursions to visit the endangered golden monkeys in a nearby bamboo forest.
When it opened in 1993, Singita Ebony changed the African safari forever. Set on a private 45,000-acre tract of bushveld within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, this riverside enclave offered a hitherto unknown degree of luxury. Today, its 12 expansive air-conditioned suites promote the feeling of proximity to nature with glass and canvas walls, animal-print fabrics and private observation decks with plunge pools. Public areas include a magnificent lounge and library, plus a swimming pool, spa and gym. Refined contemporary African cuisine, complemented by a huge wine cellar, is served in a candlelit dining room. The wildlife viewing in Sabi Sands is unprecedented, and it is often possible to see the so-called Big Five — lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo — within the course of single game drive. (The rainy season from December to March should be avoided, the best time of year for a visit being July and August.)
If there is a South African safari lodge that is even more sumptuous than Singita Ebony, it is probably Royal Malewane, part of the collection of resorts owned by the flamboyant entrepreneur Liz Biden. Set within the private Thornybush Game Reserve along the western fringe of Kruger National Park, it features dramatic open-air living and dining areas decorated with colonial-style furnishings, African tribal artifacts and Persian carpets. Elevated walkways lead to six freestanding suites with log fires, private decks and plunge pools. Two two-bedroom Royal Suites each come with their own chef, butler and guide. The lodge also encompasses a spa, gym, lap pool and hot tub. Fine cuisine and exceptional wildlife viewing, including the big cats, are guaranteed.
The Okavango Delta is a vast seasonal swamp, where the Okavango River fans out into a wilderness of channels and islands, before sinking beneath the sands of the Kalahari Desert. The Botswana government has been careful to ensure that camps and lodges are small and that the structures themselves are temporary, with the result that the Okavango remains almost entirely unspoiled. Situated at the tip of a large island, Mombo Camp faces a flood plain in an area particularly rich with wildlife, including a large leopard population. The two camps — Mombo with eight guest quarters and Little Mombo with four — are raised on stilts and linked together by elevated walkways. The spacious, fan-cooled tented suites come with hardwood floors, private verandas and plunge pools. At the larger camp, a series of thatched pavilions shelter a dining room, bar, library and gym. Little Mombo is perfect for an extended family or a group of friends traveling together.
Overlooking the serene Zibadianja Lagoon in the 470-square-mile Selinda Reserve, Zarafa Camp is a small, remote and exceptionally romantic camp surrounded by savannas and floodplains that teem with game, including huge elephant herds and sizable populations of lions and leopards. Its four classically styled tented suites come with private verandas and plunge pools. (There is also the two-bedroom Dhow Suite, which has its own vehicle, guide and private chef.) Evocative interiors feature freestanding copper bathtubs and custom-made campaign-style furnishings. Public areas include a full-length deck shaded by ebony trees, a library and an open-air gym. Notably friendly and hospitable staff create a gracious private world, set in an untouched and timeless landscape.
Located at the edge of the remote Makgadikgadi salt pans and surrounded by the immensity of the Kalahari Desert, Jack’s Camp is centered on an enormous main tent filled with a treasure trove of fossils, skulls, spears, books and maps. Campaign furniture, dark wooden floors, sisal mats, kilim-covered cushions and exotic textiles create a glamorous “Arabian Nights” atmosphere. The nine guest tents share this nostalgic décor and come with private verandas and plunge pools. Other public spaces include a Persian tea tent and a swimming pool set in a tented pavilion. This is not a camp primarily for wildlife viewing, but a nearby waterhole draws desert creatures such as oryx, eland and hyena, and guests are taken on excursions to a nearby meerkat colony. Activities include walks with the local San hunter-gatherers. Few places in the world can boast such a dazzling night sky, with the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds seemingly close enough to touch.
The remote and stylish Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is surrounded by the dramatic desert landscape of Namibia’s Kaokoveld. Located on a private concession just outside Skeleton Coast National Park, it is close to the dry bed of the Hoanib River, home to populations of desert-adapted lions and elephants. Eight tented suites feature canvas walls, large glass windows and shaded outdoor decks. Public areas with steeply pitched tented ceilings flow unimpeded into the stark and sculptural terrain. The Skeleton Coast, with its crashing surf and huge fur-seal colonies, lies a four-hour drive away by Land Cruiser. (Guests make the return trip by light aircraft.) This is a place for more-adventurous spirits who will relish its otherworldly atmosphere.