I went on my first safari more than 30 years ago, spending five unforgettable days under canvas in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve. Like most first-time visitors to Africa, I sat beside the fire in the darkness listening to the lions roar and felt myself succumb to the atavistic allure of the wild. And at dawn, I would head out with my guide to discover a world magically made new, teeming with life, the terrors of the night dispelled. By the time I boarded the international flight in Nairobi, I was hooked.
Back then, most safari travelers found their way to East Africa. Southern Africa was still in the grip of apartheid and the regional conflicts it provoked. And inspiration for Americans was still provided by Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 Kenyan expedition and Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa,” published in 1935. Indeed, until the 1980s, the ethos of upscale safaris derived from such prewar hunting trips in pursuit of the so-called “Big Five” (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo). Most lodges were middle-market, and luxury meant a private tented camp erected on your behalf by one of the famous outfitters such as Ker & Downey. The point of such safaris was total immersion in the sights and sounds of the wild, with simple bathroom arrangements and the occasional frisson of fear being accepted parts of the experience.
Of course, it is still possible to camp on the East African plains or amid the epic landscape of Kenya’s Kenya’s North Eastern Province (formerly the Northern Frontier District). And nowadays, the tents erected by companies such as Abercrombie & Kent are a great deal more comfortable and sophisticated. Personally, I think that a private tented camp in the southern Serengeti is still the best way to see Africa’s greatest wildlife spectacle: the migration of the wildebeest and the birth of their young in January and February each year. But times have changed: Many safari lodges now provide levels of comfort equivalent to those at a top five-star resort.
The event that revolutionized the nature of safari travel was the election in April 1994 of Nelson Mandela as president of a post-apartheid South Africa. Peace abruptly broke out in places such as Namibia and Mozambique, and the South Africans themselves were suddenly liberated from the shackles of economic sanctions. Private game areas adjacent to vast Kruger National Park (and just 75 minutes by air from Johannesburg) could be developed with a minimum of bureaucratic delay. As a result, pioneering lodges such as Londolozi and MalaMala were soon joined by places like Singita and Royal Malewane; the modern luxury safari was born. Such places now offer air-conditioned suites with private plunge pools, baths equipped with walk-in power showers, gourmet cuisine, climate-controlled wine cellars and even spas and gymnasiums.
Today, arguably the most important question that any prospective safari traveler can ask is, “Just how comfortable do I want to be?” Specifically, “Do I want air-conditioning, or do I prefer to lie in bed listening to the lions, the hyenas and the grunt of hippo in a nearby lagoon?” Although opulent lodges can now be found throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, the most lavish are still in South Africa. Generally, these are surrounded by intensively managed reserves, which are either wholly or partly fenced. In contrast, the game areas of Botswana, Namibia and Zambia tend to be vast areas of wilderness that have changed relatively little since Europeans first saw them 150 years ago.
In my view, for a first safari it is sensible to opt for a “resort” lodge such as Singita. You will certainly not be unhappy, and even if you discover that being bounced about in a Land Rover or mock-charged by an elephant is not your idea of fun, you will still be able to swim, lie in the sun and eat delicious food. However, if after three or four days you find that you have been bitten by the African bug, on a return trip you can opt for somewhere a little more adventurous.
The ideal location for a second safari is Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Here, the upscale camps such as Mombo, Abu Camp and Sanctuary Chief’s Camp are extremely comfortable, with spacious and attractive accommodations, but they feel much closer to nature. Permanent structures are not permitted in the Okavango, so wood and canvas are the customary building materials. Most of the Okavango camps are not air-conditioned, and communication with the outside world is usually difficult or impossible. The compensation is the excitement of being somewhere truly wild, where vast herds still roam over great distances unimpeded by fences and oblivious to the modern world. Here, you will be surrounded by a primeval Africa that has scarcely changed in the past 20,000 years.