Doing what I do for a living means that I am constantly asked what my favourite safari camp is, and what makes any one camp or lodge special. It’s always such a difficult question to answer, because there are SO many wonderful places out there in the “Dark” continent offering some truly magical experiences.
So how do you compare one against another? Is it possible? Is it fair?
The short answer is no, it isn’t. In both instances. Outstanding safari experiences are made up of so many things, you see, not the least of which is your personal interpretation of where you are staying and the impression it makes on you.
But there are some key ingredients which, when you add them all together, tend to have something in common when considering what makes a place truly memorable…
First up is location. And by location I don’t necessarily mean country or region, but the actual setting of the camp and how it fits in with its surroundings.
I absolutely love lodges and camps which “creep” up on me and suddenly appear, ghostlike, out of the blue. By this I mean that they blend seamlessly into their environment and don’t stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise perfect landscape.
Ol Donyo lodge in Kenya’s Amboseli region is a prime example of this because it magically manifests itself as you draw near on your drive from the airstrip or game viewing, even though it’s slightly elevated on a hillside. This is because it has been designed to melt into the surrounding acacia trees and peek out from in between them.
Another great example of “blending in” is Lugenda Wilderness Camp in the Niassa game reserve in northern Mozambique, whose tents are artfully concealed beneath a canopy of towering fig trees on the banks of the Lugenda river.
The same can be said for Kapinga Lodge in the Kafue National Park in Zambia. This camp is “hidden” away on a treed island at the edge of the Busanga Plains, with only the occasional peek of tent canvas giving it away to unsuspecting passersby (animal and human).
I also love dramatic settings. The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille in the Laikipia region of Kenya is a perfect example of this, strung out along the crest of a string of rocky koppies overlooking the Great Rift Valley with views of forever.
Likewise, South Africa’s Leshiba wilderness retreat in the magnificent Soutpansberg mountains of northern Limpopo is simply breathtaking because of its stunning position on a high plateau.
Then there’s accommodation. Now I tend to not set too much store on the thread count of linen, walk-in wardrobes, private plunge pools and the whole super-luxury thing. I enjoy being pampered, but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge a camp or lodge based entirely on the amount of money that’s been spent on the finer things in life.
However, there are a few places which stick out in my mind as absolutely incredible because of their attention to detail in their rooms, whether they be rustic or 5-star.
Umlani Bush Camp in South Africa’s Timbavati private game reserve is one. Its thatch-and-reed huts are simple and faithful to the environment without being stark and boring, thanks to lovely finishing touches and the use of locally sourced fabrics and the creative use of natural materials.
At the other end of the scale, Singita’s Ebony Lodge in the Sabi Sands is pure heaven, being an homage to colonial finery and splendor without going over the top.
Next up is the wildness of the area and its game. This is what safari is all about, after all, immersing yourself in the wilds of Africa.
In this respect I love Singita Grumeti Reserves. 100,000 hectares of privacy and wilderness on the edge of the Serengeti. Now that’s wild!
Botswana’s Kwando Reserves also spring to mind, especially Lagoon and Lebala camps in the Linyanti region.
Likewise, Botswana’s Deception Valley Lodge in the heart of the Kalahari is marvelously remote.
And Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa’s northern Cape is truly awesome. The game in all of these areas is equally outstanding, mostly as a result of the remoteness of the regions in question.
Food is always a good measure of a place, but not necessarily the be-all and end-all because individual tastes differ so widely.
But for me, people make a place truly special. Whether it’s the housekeepers, the gardeners and the bar staff or the managers, guides and trackers. It’s people who really make a safari camp or lodge stand out from the crowd and who most often make the difference between a good experience and an outstanding one.
Djuma Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Sabi Sands is an all-time favourite in this respect, because its people are quite simply awesome. Most of their staff come from local Shangaan villages on the edges of the reserve, allowing you to immerse yourself in this unique culture.
Then there’s Ol Malo in Laikipia in Kenya, where Rocky and Colin Francome add value to any stay with their fabulous brand of post colonial hospitality and eccentricity.
So. The burning question is this, I suppose: Is there a place which combines all of the above into one, awe-inspiring package? In my book there is, indeed. The one place that I would drop everything to go to and stay there forever if I could. My “perfect” safari camp… And it is Chongwe River Camp in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi Valley.
Set under a canopy of winterthorns at the confluence of the Chongwe and the Zambezi, with views over the Muchinga escarpment and the floodplains of Mana Pools, this camp has it all. Place. Comfort. Wilderness. Great Food. And fantastic people.
This means that even on the odd occasion when there aren’t elephant in camp, when the lions aren’t hunting, when the leopards aren’t stalking and the hippos fall silent, when the bed hasn’t been turned down quite at 90 degrees to the wall and when the steak isn’t as rare as it could be, and everyone’s taking an afternoon nap – you thank your lucky stars that you are there, and nowhere else on Earth!