A SAFARI IN EAST AFRICA IS EVERYTHING YOU COULD IMAGINE IT TO BE – AND THEN SOME. CREAM PACKS LIGHT, TREKS FAR, WITNESSES PLENTY OF AWESOME, AND RETURNS HOME FEELING BLESSED…
Story and photography by Antonino Tati
Anyone who says they’ve been to Africa yet hasn’t been on a safari is, quite frankly, missing out on the real Africa. A trip to the hot continent would not be complete without a visit to a game reserve (or four), and one of the most reputable companies to book your safari through is without a doubt &Beyond.
A word of warning, though: often getting there is not as fantastic an adventure as actually being there, for it can take a good number of small flights to get from, say, the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to the heart of the Masai Mara, which is where we were headed for the start of our travels.
Located in the northwest of the Masai area, Kichwa Tembo is a tented camp perfectly stationed where forest and savannah meet on a private concession officially leased from Masai landlords.
It took us around four hours to get here from Nairobi airport, only because we had to board six different small planes, making no less than 10 stops. This stop/start nature of small-craft flying doesn’t happen in vain, mind you. It exists for the sake of fuel economy – that is, getting as many travellers off to various campsites while filling up planes as effectively as possible and comfortably (just). Naturally, this means much criss-crossing from camp to camp – somewhat tiresome even for the most seasoned traveller, especially one who might suffer from a bit of claustrophobia… There is, of course, the option to drive to any given inland camp all the way from Nairobi airport, but then you could argue about the long hours there, too. Mind you, it might have been nice to see much of the bushveld (that’s bush-laden landscape to the uninitiated) via a decent road trip.
But I digress, let’s just skip to the first campsite and pretend there wasn’t four hours of cramped flying in between…
Really, it is all worth it in the end, when you are greeted at Kichwa Tembo landing strip by a couple of locals who are part of &Beyond crew, there to hand you a Tusker beer with a smile, while Masai singers put on a welcome song. The Masai’s costumes are an amazing array of colours and patterns – red and purple checks, block colours of bright greens and royal blues – and the sounds of their melodically layered voices are enough to put you in a trance-like state.
These, and the sweeping vistas of the Masai around you, are so surreal you’ll feel like you’ve landed on another planet or been transported to another era.
At the time of the year we were visiting Kenya – early December – the Great Migration of wildebeest (and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of them) has already passed through and would now be making its way across the Kenyan/Tanzanian border, but you can almost taste the dust kicked up by the beasts, still sifting through the air.
That said, once the sun goes down in this quarter of Africa, there’s no purer and more picturesque a sight. The air gets cooler. The sky shifts from a burnt red to a cobalt blue and then pitch black. And millions of stars fill up the sky like you’ve never seen back in the big smoke.
By the time the sun officially set, we had arrived at Kichwa Tembo camp: to more singing; more smiling; more drinking; more of everything. Unlike your average three-star campsites, everything is a lot grander at Kichwa. The tented suites are huge. The smorgasbord of food is lavishly laid-out. The space between residences is massive. And the vistas from every angle seem endless…
GAME DRIVING: THE BIG REASON YOU’RE HERE
Kichwa Tembo provides professionally executed, top-tier game drives, led by only the best rangers in the business. Most drives are conducted in semi-open 4WD vehicles with a maximum of six people per truck, and while it’s not wise to have your limbs sticking out of one of these Jeeps, it’s good to know there’s plenty of room to move.
On our first morning, I met with my travelling guest – a journo from The West Australian – for our first game drive of the week. Only a couple of hundred metres away from the campsite and already we were spotting herds of elephants, prides of lions, armies of warthogs, and families of towering giraffes. To think… this was only day one and already the wildlife was running rife.
Our guide, the gorgeous Lucy, spotted a lone baby antelope that looked lost, so we followed it alongside the veld until it encontered a dazzle of zebra to temporarily call its ‘family’. Sure enough, the mother zebra began licking the antelope down and treating it like one of her own. So touching a scene, I’m sure it would have triggered a tear or two even in David Attenborough.
Now, if you’re a safari first-timer – here’s a tip: if you’re wanting to take photographs of your adventure (which I’m sure you would) be sure to bring along a digital camera, not an old-school SLR. While the results with an SLR might be all rustic and arty, the hardware will certainly weigh you down. You want something simple you can point and shoot with. Even a Panasonic Lumix – a steal at around $300 – does a brilliant job at taking wildlife action pics. And don’t get too caught up with capturing that ‘perfect shot’. Just snap away when you’ve got decent enough framing/composition and take care of the editing later. Do not waste your experience staring for the full time at the animals through the lens of a camera. It’s. Just. Not. The. Same. You want to see the wildlife close up and in the flesh; not through a lens for the entire trip.
OH, THE THINGS YOU’LL LEARN!
Kichwa Tembo, like most lodges, offers twice-daily game drives, the first at dawn (up at 4.30am for coffee at 5am, followed by a four-hour morning drive); the second at dusk (afternoon tea at 5pm followed by awesome creature-spotting as the sun sets).
In the mornings, most of the mammals are only just getting it together themselves. To see a group of six or seven giraffes (or a ‘journey’ of giraffes, as they’re biologically referred to) poking their heads out of a clump of trees and munching on a breakfast of acacia leaves is a stunning sight… To then see their babies dawdling out from under said trees, occasionally looking for a mother’s leg to lean on, is an absolutely awe-inspiring one.
By about lunchtime and in the afternoons, it seems the animals get a lot cheekier, depending of course on their population per region. In Kenya and Tanzania, for example, the hyena tend to travel in pairs and do a lot of lazing about in water holes. In South Africa, closer to the border of Botswana, you might otherwise find packs of painted dogs causing more chaos than a gang of lions.
Once, on a game drive offered by &Beyond near the Botswana/South Africa border, I found myself in a semi-open vehicle surrounded by a pack of 15 painted dogs who’d just pulled apart an impala (another relative of the antelope) and were busy ripping pieces out of venison out of one other’s mouths, all the while whirling around and around. Creating a kind of vortex around us, and delivering half-yelping sounds with their mouths half-full, they actually sounded in culmination like a flock of screeching birds (and indeed looked like one as their whirling picked up speed). If our ranger hadn’t told us these were “easy-going creatures that don’t harm humans” I’d have thought I was in the scene of one very scary Cujo-like movie – with a bit of Roadrunner/Coyote animation thrown in for good measure.
The great thing about having a fulltime ranger with you is that he or she is so full of National Geographic-type titbits of information, you’ll wonder why they aren’t editing said magazines. If it wasn’t for these amazing game drives, I don’t think I’d ever have discovered, for example, that zebras congregate regularly so that their combined stripes dazzle and confuse their predators (or in fact that a group of zebras is actually referred to as a ‘dazzle’); that giraffes sleep only two hours per night, the least of any mammal; that lions often refuse to eat an entire kill, preferring to let it be finished off by other predators like hyenas and vultures; and that elephants spend up to 16 hours a day eating.
Discovering this kind of information while seeing a lot of the action take place is an experience you’ll treasure forever. Photographs in geography books and narration on documentary programs only tell you the half of it. Being in the thick of it, in the heart of the jungle – now that’s the real thing.
LUXURY CAMPING IS DEFINITELY WHERE IT’S AT
The wildlife sightings on any safari are enough to satisfy even the most ardent traveller. After two game drives a day, you’re usually so tired that even a flat rock would seem like a comfortable option for a bed. But if you’d prefer to experience the most luxurious level there is in camping, look no further than Bateleur Camp, the sister site to Kichwa Tembo. Yep, she is the more paired-back, stylish, posher big sister.
Set among the forests on the edge of the Masai Mara, each elegant tent at Bateleur replicates the style and glamour of a vintage Africa. A palette of hardwood floors, polished silver and sparkling crystal is juxtaposed against the romance of the open Mara plains with their abundant herds of wildlife.
Bateleur – whose name comes from the broad-shouldered African bird who serves as &Beyond’s logo – is exclusive and intimate, providing the ultimate in personalised service. Your own personal butler will see that everything is taken care of, from your dining preferences to your laundry services, game drive itineraries to tips of where best to pick up Wi-Fi.
By about midday, it’s only fair to treat yourself to an in-room massage with the lodge’s in-house therapist using only natural oils to sooth muscles after a busy morning of safari-ing. You’ll feel revved up and ready to jump on the vehicle for another game drive come afternoon, for sure.
While breakfast, lunch and dinner in any &Beyond establishment sees guests dining like kings, Bateleur places a particularly fussy focus on quality cuisine. Breakfast alone is an array of cold continental options and delectable a la carte. If you’re lucky, while indulging in your big brekkie, you’ll spot baby bucks just only metres away under the trees.
The exceptional food at Bateleur, along with the culinary delights of Kichwa, are expertly prepared by chefs who literally operate from paddock to plate. Just behind the Kichwa camp, in fact, is a massive garden where everything from stone fruit to root vegetables are harvested. If you ask nicely, you might be given a tour of the garden and get to meet the talented folk behind the glorious cuisine. Oh, and you’ve got to try at least one bush breakfast for the real deal in safari dining.
FIVE MUST-DOS IN THE MASAI MARA
- Game drives (of course!).
- Bush walks along the Mara River or the Oloololo Escarpment.
- Early morning hot air ballooning; preferably seeing the balloon cross the Kenyan/Tanzanian border.
- Catching sight of the Great Migration (you can witness herds of wildebeest heading north-east through June/July and south in November/December).
- Visiting a local village or primary school and learning about their progress, perhaps even shopping at the local pop-up markets.
SERENGETI UNDER CANVAS: A MOVING EXPERIENCE, QUITE LITERALLY
Back in the old days, rich white folk who would visit Africa regularly went on ‘mobile safari’ – effectively making it possible to follow the Great Migration. That is, they would literally move from camp to camp, having their tents, beds and the rest of their belongings lifted and carried by strong African locals.
Today, the moving experience is a little easier, thanks to trucks with wheels in place of heat-inflected camels, but the excitement of being a part of a camp that’s forever ‘on the move’ still exists.
During this trip, we had the pleasure of experiencing Serengeti Under Canvas, a luxurious semi-permanent tented camp that literally moves around the Serengeti, bringing guests within closer range of the massive herds.
Just a short flight from Kenya to Tanzania, it’s like landing some place far further than it actually is. Indeed the vast Serengeti plains are very different in landscape to the more fertile Masai plains. And the experience is as different to traditional tented camping as can get – including dining under the stars, his and hers hot showers where buckets of boiled water are used in place of plumbing, and very, very big pop-up tents decorated with practical furnishing and the odd bit of excessive decor (I had a chandelier in mine!).
While we missed out on seeing the Great Migration, our Under Canvas experience nonetheless provided a cool change of environment. Suffice to say, our nights were filled with excellent conversation around a campfire, and some the best bush tucker we’ve eaten. Oh, and ironically, here amid the great Serengeti plains, we were least-pestered by mosquitoes.
THE GLAMOUR OF GRUMETI
Moving back to more traditional luxury camping again, we spent our last nights in Tanzania at the very glamorous Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp – home to exceptional year-round resident wildlife.
The design of the accommodation here pays the greatest homage we’ve seen yet to an Africa of yesteryear, with each tented suite decked out in furnishings of natural, locally-sourced material. Each suite features a lounge quarter, massive double bed, his and her wardrobes (complete with pairs of Welly boots), twin-basins, vanity mirror, flush-toilet, and outdoor shower.
The look of the tented suites is one of authentic rusticity, right down to the detail. Woven copper screens serve well to keep out the occasional mozzie, while even the door knobs play practically with traditional African motifs: carvings of shield shapes that literally act as locks; comfy cushions with hippo patchwork paying homage to the laughing hippo in the lake just metres away.
They say that a certain ‘soulfulness’ can be sensed when visiting such rural regions of Africa as Grumeti, and the definitive sense of security and positive energy that breezes through this particular lodge is testament to this.
Fancying myself as a bit of a scribe, when planning for travel I tend to not do much research before visiting a particularly exotic area, preferring instead to be surprised and to enjoy my discovering there and then on said terra. And I must say, laying on a deckchair, sipping black tea, while flicking through the pages of a comprehensive book on ornithology while dozens of brightly-hued birds are chirping away in front of you is an utterly magical experience: beautiful enough to tempt you to take up bird-watching as a fulltime job.
Suffice to say: if you haven’t been on a safari yet, don’t wait till you reach the ‘bucket list’ age, for you could be too old to take in all the excitement then. Get onto it now. And be sure to make either side of the Masai Mara / Serengeti border your first stop!
&Beyond is one of the world’s pioneering luxury ecotourism companies, providing first-class experiences for travellers including all-inclusive safaris. They own and operate more than 50 lodges and camps in breathtaking parts of Africa and India including those referenced in this story. For more information about their various safari packages visit andBeyond.com, email safaris@andBeyond.com or phone +27 (0) 11 809 4441.
Air Mauritius provides flights to Nairobi, Kenya via Mauritius. For package deals including overnight stays in Mauritius visit www.airmauritius.com.
OTHER SOURCES OF INFO + AWESOME IMAGERY
THE BIG FIVE & COUNTLESS LITTLE CRITTERS
East Africa has a rich biodiversity of mammals, including ‘The Big Five’. These are the African Lion, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard, and White/Black Rhinoceros.
Kenya and Tanzania are also excellent for bird-watching with over 570 species of birds sighted in the Masai Mara area alone, including of course the majestic Bateleur, the bird that lends itself to &Beyond’s logo.
WHAT TO PACK FOR THE BEST SAFARI EXPERIENCE
Light cotton trousers
Light cotton shirts (long and short sleeved)
Comfortable walking shoes
Waterproof rain jacket / windbreaker
Fleece jacket (it can get cold at night)
Gloves, beanie and scarf (for winter only)
Insect repellent (one that is particularly high in DEET)
Suntan lotion (one that is particularly high in SPF)
Camera (digital preferred so that you’re not fussing about)
And, go on, a pith helmet… BECAUSE YOU CAN!
Acknowledgements: Antonino would like to thank the following people for an amazing safari experience: Maggie at Kichwa/Bateleur, Joshua + Francis in the garden at Kichwa, James the chef, Stephen our trusty barman, our great guide Lucy, chefs Elia + Joachim at Serengeti Under Canvas, chef Jonesta at Grumeti, Nosim for the marvellous massage, our host Donald, awesome and know-it-all guide Waseri, and all the fantastic butlers. Asante sana!