The entrance hall of Singita Sasakwa Lodge opens onto an expanse of sunlit lawn, at the end of which the ground falls away precipitously to the Serengeti plains 300 or 400 feet below. From this natural balcony, the immense view of bleached grassland, dotted with acacia trees and patterned with shifting cloud shadows, is one of the grandest in Africa. It is epic, timeless and untouched. Quite simply, it is what everyone instinctively feels East Africa ought to look like.
Travel is notorious for its tragicomic disasters, but once in a while, things work out far better than could have been foreseen. I arrived at Sasakwa Lodge on a hot day in mid-June. Having accepted a cold drink and a chilled flannel with which to wipe away the dust, I wandered to the edge of the lawn in the company of the manager. “It looks like you may have picked the best day of the year,” he remarked. The Serengeti’s Great Migration comprises approximately 1.5 million wildebeest and around 750,000 zebra, but for much of the time, the herds are quite spread out, and knowing precisely where they will be is problematic). By extreme good fortune, however, my arrival and that of the main body of wildebeest had been perfectly synchronized. From the edge of the lawn, tens of thousands of grunting animals could be seen trudging forward in long, straggling lines. It was a scene of such overwhelming splendor that I found myself dumbstruck and on the verge of tears.
Sasakwa is located on the Grumeti Reserves, a 350,000-acre private concession that borders the western edge of Serengeti National Park. Back in 2003, a 99-year lease was acquired by American hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. Ten years ago, the reserve had been poached to the brink of oblivion: The populations of large mammals were in free fall, while the wildebeest were being butchered to feed the contending armies of Central Africa’s pitiless civil wars. A mere decade later, 120 former poachers have been trained as game scouts; outreach programs have persuaded local communities that wildlife is an economic resource; and rhino are being reintroduced. At a time when the news about East African wildlife tends to vary from bad to dire — elephant are being decimated to feed the insatiable Chinese demand for ivory; and lion, under pressure from an exploding human population, are being poisoned at a rate that leaves the long-term viability of the species in doubt — Grumeti Reserves offers an inspiring vision for the future.
The main lodge building at Singita Sasakwa was modeled on British colonial architecture, especially that of the famous Muthaiga Club in Nairobi. A dignified structure of reddish stone, it has a wide veranda from which to contemplate the stupendous view. Chandeliers, gilt-edged mirrors, polished wood floors, zebra rugs, wingback chairs, silver ornaments and African sculptures create a romantic and nostalgic atmosphere. Sasakwa opened in 2006, and this was my second visit, but I found myself marveling anew at the astonishing attention to detail.
The property comprises 10 one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom cottages, all with private gardens, outdoor dining areas and plunge pools. Our cottage featured a large living room appointed with French inlaid furniture, as well as pieces fashioned from heavy Indian mahogany. A cream sofa faced a working log fire, while Maasai spears, faux-leopard cushions, mohair throws, leather armchairs and crystal decanters all contributed to an environment that was both opulent and supremely comfortable. The bedroom came with a four-poster bed, while the marble bath provided a glass-enclosed shower and a claw-foot soaking tub.
Amenities at Sasakwa include a spa and a new equestrian center. The cuisine at the lodge is reliably delicious; the wine cellar is exceptional; and the service is invariably charming. In short, by the evening of my first day, my previous opinion had been reconfirmed: Singita Sasakwa is the finest luxury safari lodge in the world. It is far from inexpensive, but the cost is justified by the unrivaled quality of the experience.
Faru Faru is decorated in a contemporary style, and its accommodations include a two bedroom villa with a private pool that is particularly suitable for families.
Aside from Sasakwa, Singita Grumeti offers contrasting experiences at Faru Faru Lodge and Sabora Tented Camp. The properties are located within short drives of one another, and guests frequently opt to spend time at each. Faru Faru is situated in a wooded ravine, a setting that provides a sense of immersion in the wilderness. Its nine suites are decorated in a more contemporary style and include a two-bedroom villa that is particularly suitable for families. Sabora, on the other hand, is located on the open plains, and grazing animals frequently crop the grass within a few feet of the nine lavish tents. Its design strives to recreate the atmosphere of a classic 1920s hunting camp and is even more nostalgic than Sasakwa in its appeal.
Recent developments at Singita Grumeti include Serengeti House, a magnificent self-contained residence suitable for up to eight people, which debuted in January 2013. There, two double bedrooms flank an open-plan dining and sitting room, while two self-contained one-bedroom guest cottages are situated a short walk away. The centerpiece of the house is a spectacular wooden terrace, in which are set a fire pit and an 80-foot infinity pool. For a family or a group of friends in search of complete privacy, Serengeti House is close to perfection. Apparently, other houses are planned, as is an additional tented camp in the western part of the reserve.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The spellbinding view of the Serengeti; the comfort and style of the cottages; the charming staff.
DISLIKE: Nothing I can think of.
GOOD TO KNOW: Sabora Tented Camp provides a wonderful counterpoint to Sasakwa Lodge.
Singita Sasakwa Lodge 99 One-bedroom cottage, $3,700 for two, including all meals, open bar, two daily game drives and transfers. TEL. (27) 21-683-3424.
For now, however, the most significant addition to Singita’s Tanzania portfolio is Singita Mara River Tented Camp, which opened at the end of 2012. This is located in the remote Lamai Triangle, a 98,000-acre section of Serengeti National Park defined by the Mara River and the Kenyan border.
We took off from the Grumeti airstrip for the 30-minute flight, and from the window of our Cessna Caravan, the Great Migration was visible as a series of dark stains on the landscape. Each June, the herds head for fresh grazing in southern Kenya, but to reach their objective, they must first cross the crocodile-infested Mara River. This annual drama generally takes place in August or September, when it is not unusual for 50 or more safari vehicles to congregate at known crossing points in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. However, the herds also ford the river in the Lamai Triangle, where the pressure of tourism is less intense but the wildlife spectacle is no less impressive.
The Serengeti is widely regarded as the world’s greatest national park. About the size of Connecticut, it takes its name from the Maasai word siringet, meaning “endless plains,” and in places, the majesty of the landscape would provide a compelling reason to visit even without the teeming wildlife. But of course, it is the fact that the Serengeti plays host to the world’s largest terrestrial mammal migration that elevates the park to its unique status. If it proves impossible to protect the Serengeti, the outlook for Africa’s other great wild areas will be doubtful at best.
Alas, this may be the future. Despite an international outcry, the Tanzanian government seems intent on building a major highway across the northern Serengeti to connect the vast resources of Central Africa — oil in Uganda and the metallic ore coltan (used in cell phones and laptops) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — with Tanzanian harbors on the Indian Ocean. (A huge new $11 billion port, intended to handle 20 million containers a year, is currently under construction by the Chinese at Bagamoyo, north of Dar es Salaam.) The German government and the World Bank have proposed an alternate southern route for the road that avoids the Serengeti and have offered to help finance it, but to no avail. Political rivalries, plus the vast sums involved — a significant proportion of which will doubtless find its way to the bank accounts of corrupt lawmakers — may soon put an end to the planet’s greatest animal migration.
The wildebeest usually arrive at Lamai in July and August, but there is a resident wildlife population, and on the 45-minute drive to camp, we paused to watch elephant, giraffe, zebra and numerous species of antelope. Singita Mara River Tented Camp overlooks a huge U-shaped bend and provides a front-row seat from which to observe the annual river crossings. Comprising just six tents — four doubles and two intended for families — it is intimate and comfortable, but lacks the lavish style of the Grumeti properties. Solar panels generate electricity for lights and fans, but there is no air-conditioning. Our tent was sufficiently spacious for two adults and provided a functional bath with an effective rainfall shower, plus a wonderful outdoor tub. The interior was decorated in a style that can perhaps be described as “contemporary meets steamer-trunk classic,” and was furnished with a double bed, a writing desk and leather-bound aluminum cabinets. A private outdoor terrace came with a small dining table and chairs, plus loungers from which to survey the river.
The public areas are set on an expansive deck and are centered on a lounge tent appointed with white sofas, sisal mats, African beaded artifacts and piles of large-format illustrated books. (Those who prefer their safari camps to be infused with the masculine spirit of the Hemingway era are destined for disappointment.) One side of the deck is taken up by a plunge pool. As might have been expected of a Singita property, the food was excellent and the staff proved consistently obliging. However, this camp exists primarily for the three months of the year — July, August and September — when the wildebeest herds are either in the vicinity or actually crossing the river. Outside of this period, it felt slightly like a ski resort with no snow. The camp’s location inside the national park is also a constraining factor, as off-road driving and bush walks are forbidden.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The attractive and romantic riverside location; the obliging staff.
DISLIKE: The restrictions on game-viewing required by national park regulations; the extremely bumpy dirt road from the airstrip.
GOOD TO KNOW: Outside of the July-September migration season, the area sees few visitors and feels extremely remote.
Singita Mara River Tented Camp 92 Tented Suite from $2,750 for two, including all meals, open bar, two daily game drives and transfers. TEL. (27) 21-683-3424.
From Lamai, we flew southeast to Seronera, the principal focus of tourism in the Serengeti. A drive to the north of around 45 minutes brought us to the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti. One of the stranger things about this property is the convoluted name, which seems intended to obscure the fact that this is a luxury resort that happens to be in a game park, rather than a “safari lodge” in the accepted sense of the term. Originally managed by Kempinski, it was taken over by Four Seasons in 2012, since when the décor has, apparently, been modified with local textiles and artifacts to give it a more indigenous feel. During our stay, a Discovery Center devoted to African culture and history was being expanded.
The property comprises 60 rooms, 12 suites and five villas. Rooms come with elevated open-air terraces, while suites and villas provide outdoor showers and private pools. In keeping with the Four Seasons ethos, the accommodations are stylish and the marble baths are exemplary. What you might not expect to find in the middle of the Serengeti are flat-screen televisions and high-speed Internet access. Amenities include Kula’s Restaurant with a menu of both international and African cuisine, a spa and a 24-hour business center. The latter provides a clue that a principal market for the property may well be upscale conferences. Unlike at most wildlife lodges, game drives are not included in the rate, or, as the resort’s website puts it, “Charges apply for safari services.”
Although I am a great admirer of many Four Seasons hotels, the Serengeti property left me unmoved. It is well-run and the staff are pleasant, but the resort, frankly, could be anywhere. Next time, I think I’ll stay at the Four Seasons on East 57th Street and take the subway out to the Bronx Zoo if I feel the urge to see a lion.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The extremely comfortable rooms and baths (which will reassure inexperienced safari travelers); the spacious outdoor terraces overlooking a water hole.
DISLIKE: The sense of being in a resort, rather than on safari; the closed (as opposed to open-sided) safari vehicles; game-viewing on the overcrowded Seronera circuit.
GOOD TO KNOW: The property is well-managed; there is a spa; and the horizon pool is spectacular.
Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti 89 Horizon Room from $1,000, including all meals and house wines; game-viewing extra. TEL. (255) 768-981-893.