Luxurious lodges, romantic camps, remote campsites, quirky treehouses… there are masses of wonderful-sounding places to stay on safari. So how on earth do you choose? If you want to be certain of finding accommodation that suits your interests, fits your budget and makes a positive contribution to conservation and community development, you’ll need to do some careful research – or consult a travel specialist you really trust. Emma Gregg is here to help you on your way.
Where do I start?
reality is that nearly every destination offers a range of facilities,
often through the whole budgetary scope and many with specific
strengths. There are some simple questions to consider when narrowing
down your options.
Are you set on going
bushwalking with one of the best safari guides in the business? Dining
on the very best campfire cuisine? Or just sinking into a bath with an
unforgettable view of the sunset?
We all have a slightly
different idea of what makes a place to stay perfect. To work out what’s
right for you, start by consulting guidebooks and websites and talking
to safari experts at specialist travel companies.
When I say
talk, I mean it. An open conversation can be amazingly productive. As
Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa explains: “When someone asks my advice,
I’ll spend a good half hour chatting about their past holidays and their
ideas for this one. It takes a proper conversation to get a feel for
what they’re likely to enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily come across
straight away in a quick chat or an email.”
For a few more
pointers, we also asked safari experts Amanda Marks of Tribes, Bill
Adams of Safari Consultants, Chris Roche of Wilderness Safaris and Nicky
Brandon of Ker and Downey to share their own ideas on how to narrow
It is clear that certain questions will quickly set you on a clear path:
What’s in your wallet? How much are you prepared to spend? “Rates
vary wildly,” says Amanda Marks. “The minimum daily cost of a
low-season African camping safari is roughly £120 per person. Mid-range
accommodation in shoulder season costs around £350 per day. In high
season a top end lodge can cost £750 per day or more.”
good value properties for £150 per person per night in South Africa,”
says Bill Adams, “although you’ll struggle to find much for that in the
top East African safari destinations.
“If money’s tight, consider a self-drive camping trip in Namibia, or join a small group camping holiday,” says Chris McIntyre.
Bill has a word of caution: “To someone who wants something really
cheap, I say, don’t waste your money – save up till you can do it
properly. Three nights at a really good lodge beats a week on a
cut-price minibus tour.”
Solo, couple or crowd? How many people will there be in your group? “Some
trips are amazing if you’re travelling on your own,” says Chris. “The
smaller camps and lodges tend to be best. They can be like visiting
friends: you’ll dine with your hosts and fellow guests, whilst spending
your days enjoying safari activities together. Walking in a small group
is particularly sociable. And when you move camps, you’ll meet
different, like-minded characters at each stop.”
For couples, of
course, the choices are endless. Book a safari lodge for your honeymoon
and, however modest the accommodation, the staff will do their utmost to
make your stay unforgettable.
If you’re travelling in a group,
you could enjoy a lodge or camp all to yourselves. “There are a lot of
very good quality private safari houses,” says Bill. “Try the Mara Bush
Houses (Mara, Acacia and Topi) in Kenya, Robin’s House, Luangwa Safari
House or Chongwe River House in Zambia, Singita Serengeti House in
Tanzania or Selinda Explorers Camp in Botswana.”
“Places like The
Enclave at Shinde in the northern Okavango Delta make a perfect,
exclusive hideaway for friends or a family,” says Nicky. “It’s a
camp-within-a-camp with just three twin tents, a private chef and
everything else you’d need.”
All about the animals? Would you be happy to rough it a bit for the sake of the wildlife-watching? “If
you’re mad about wildlife, I’d recommend a private mobile camping
safari in the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park or the Makgadikgadi
Pans,” says Amanda.
“A highly qualified guide will help you see
the species you’re hoping for. If it’s a private trip, everything will
be tailored to your interests. In wilderness campsites, Africa really is
very much at your doorstep. This can even include elephants wandering
“True wildlife lovers should choose a camp where
guiding is more important than the accommodation,” advises Bill.
“Goliath Safaris Tented Camp in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, and Tafika Camp
and the Chikoko Trails Camps in South Luangwa, Zambia, are all
Luxury at all costs? Are you looking for superb comforts, amazing food, fine wine? If
the answer is yes, would you prefer the classic vintage style of a
property such as Cottar’s 1920s Camp in Kenya, or somewhere sleek and
modern like Ulusaba or Molori in South Africa?
luxury, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Singita properties in South
Africa and Tanzania, Royal Malewane in South Africa, Beho Beho in the
Selous, Zarafa in Botswana and Mara Plains in the Maasai Mara,” says
Need know-how? Would you like a top-notch guide? “This
is a really interesting starting point for any search,” explains Chris.
“I’d suggest someone like Nick Murray, Paul Hubbard, Dave Carson or
Spike Williamson in Zimbabwe, or Lloyd Wilmot, Grant Truthe, Brent Reed,
Grant Reed or Paul Moleseng in Botswana. We’d then work out which camps
you could visit.”
Nicky adds: “Of all our guides, I’d
particularly recommend Omphile Kaluluka and Paul Moleseng for their
knowledge of the Okavango Delta combined with an easy-going nature and
infectious sense of humour.”
Keen to feel grounded? Are you looking for a place with a strong connection to the local community? “These
days there are more and more options which are community-owned, or
which support communities directly,” says Amanda. “One of my favourites
is Sarara Camp in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, northern
Kenya. This very comfortable tented camp is owned by the local Samburu
community. Their cattle mean the world to them, but they never let them
touch the swimming pool, even during droughts. The chief believes they
need to look ahead, that the rains will come, and they should protect
the camp because it gives them so much. It provides funds for schooling,
medical care and anti-poaching.”
Bill agrees that Kenya has
several interesting options. “Community properties like Tassia Lodge, Il
Ngwesi and Sarara offer a really good experience.”
recommend Damaraland Camp in Namibia,” says Chris Roche. “It’s owned and
staffed by the community and the rhino viewing is exceptional.”
might suggest places like Nhoma in Bushmanland, Namibia, and Kawaza
Village in South Luangwa, Zambia, which are actually in communities,”
adds Chris McIntyre.
Eager to break away from the herd? Looking for somewhere none of your friends have been? “For
something different, I’d probably choose one of the camps in Katavi
National Park, Tanzania,” says Amanda Marks. “It’s a remote destination
and you’ll have it almost to yourself.”
Chris McIntyre recommends
one of the newer camps such as Chinzombo in Zambia, while Chris Roche
suggests you head well off the beaten track to Odzala Wilderness Camps
in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of Congo, to look for lowland
Bill votes for Liuwa Plains in western Zambia: “Only special people have been there!”
So, should you ask an expert? These
days, everyone has instant access to reams of information online. It’s
perfectly possible to work out your own itinerary and book your
accommodation by emailing each lodge separately. However a safari
specialist who knows the options inside out can help you make better
choices – and can often save you money, too.
often make it their business to visit as many places as possible in
person. “Take the Okavango, for example,” says Chris McIntyre. “We have
stayed at the vast majority of the camps, in different seasons. This is
the only way to see what they’re really like; it’s far better than
reading what the owner wants you to read. Booking through us will
usually be significantly cheaper than booking directly, especially for
high-cost trips, and we take responsibility for the whole itinerary – so
if an airline fails, an airport closes or a lodge doesn’t deliver,
we’ll bend over backwards to find an alternative for our travellers.”
Marks of Tribes agrees that detailed, comparative advice is invaluable:
“We like to think that coming to us is like asking for advice from a
trusted friend who’s been everywhere. Going direct to a lodge will only
get you subjective advice. You might have it in mind that a lodge in
South Africa is the best place for you, but once we’ve listened to what
you want, it might be plain to us that you’d much prefer a camp in
Zambia. Since we’re independent, we can sell any lodges we like. And of
course you get financial protection through our ATOL or ABTOT bond.”
you pay money directly to a lodge or a non-ATOL accommodation company
in Africa,” Chris warns, “you have zero protection if it goes bust. You
lose your money; end of story.”
first glance, the cost of safari accommodation may seem daunting. But
why are prices the level they are, and do they offer good value?
Mut of Cheli and Peacock is convinced it can be: “A luxury safari can
be one of the most romantic and adventurous vacations you will ever
take. If you can afford it, it’s well worth paying extra for high
quality hosting and guiding, homemade food and personal service, off the
beaten track, with the wilderness to yourself.”
cost of a safari may seem high,” says Nicole Walsh of Sanctuary
Retreats, “but unlike many other holidays, once you’re there, there’s
very little to pay for, as most luxury lodges have all-inclusive rates.
you pay a premium for exclusivity, but the experience you’ll have in a
bush lodge which sleeps just 24 will always be superior to that in an
“You also pay a premium for remoteness. Building,
furnishing and maintaining a bush lodge is expensive. We have to cope
with tricky road access, extreme sun, termites, fungal wood rot and
three-tonne pachyderms that sometimes think it’s appropriate to use a
room built on stilts as a rubbing post.”
The hidden costs of
running a wilderness lodge can be far higher than the costs of running a
city hotel. Essentials that need to be covered include fuel for
vehicles and for lighting, cooking and refrigeration (in lodges which
are not solar powered), long-distance transport for food, drink,
building materials and other consumables, waste disposal, concession
fees, community projects and charity funds.
Room to manoeuvre?
safari, your bed for the night can be anything from a mattress and
mosquito net in the wilds to a four-poster in a palatial lodge – each
with service, facilities, atmosphere and culture to match. Which is best
suited to you?
campsites with communal water, washing and cooking facilities are
relatively rare in Africa. You’ll find them in South Africa and Namibia.
Elsewhere, independent travellers can stay at elementary sites in some
national parks and reserves, and in the grounds of some lodges. You’ll
need to be fully equipped.
State-run accommodation The
chalets, rest huts and lodges managed by national park authorities and
wildlife services in some national parks and reserves get you close to
the action. They tend to be comfortable yet fairly basic, but reasonably
priced, especially if you choose a no-frills self-catering option.
Tented camps Some
safari tents feel much like hotel rooms, complete with elaborate
furniture and plumbed-in en suite bathrooms – they just happen to have
canvas walls and wilderness on the doorstep. Others are simpler. Guests
dine together in a central meeting place and there’s always a firepit
for after-dinner storytelling.
Fly camping For
total immersion in the wilderness, this is unbeatable. The options
range from luxurious – with staff setting camp in a different location
each night and cooking gourmet meals on the spot – to basic, where
everyone mucks in. For ultimate simplicity you could just stretch out
on a mattress under a mosquito net.
Safari lodges A
permanent lodge may lack the inherent romance of a camp, but the best
are beautifully designed with artful use of local timber, stone and
thatch. Some lodges have the added attraction of swimming pools, lawns,
tennis courts, spas and other facilities which would be impractical to
create in a camp.
lodges or camps offer a particular character, a feeling rooted in the
location, back story, architecture, hosts or guides. To demonstrate,
Emma Gregg picks a few that caught her imagination.
Chobe Game Lodge Chobe National Park, Botswana What makes it special? All-female guiding team In
Africa, female safari guides are still rather rare. As far as we know,
this is the only lodge where all the guides are women. It’s also the
only permanent lodge inside Chobe, Botswana’s oldest and most diverse
Karkloof Safari Spa Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa What makes it special? Africa’s largest bush spa This
luxurious lodge stands in a magical little reserve with a beautiful
waterfall. The resident wildlife includes rhinos and antelopes which are
lucky enough to have no lions to hassle them. You’ll be ultra-relaxed,
too, after a session at the spectacular spa.
Wasa Lodge Kasanka National Park, Zambia What makes it special? Africa’s biggest mammalian migration Kasanka
is famous for the enormous numbers of straw-coloured fruit bats which
visit for a few weeks each October and November to feast on ripe loquats
and waterberries. They roost in a small patch of forest near Wasa,
filling the skies at dawn and dusk. The lodge is a very simple,
unpretentious waterside retreat for nature lovers.
Governors’ Camp Masai Mara, Kenya What makes it special? Big Cat Diary The
Masai Mara has always been famous for its thriving populations of
lions, leopards and cheetahs, but the BBC’s Big Cat Diary series really
put it on the map. The crew always stayed at Governors’, whose trackers
know the local cats’ every hangout.
Royal Malewane Thornybush Private Game Reserve, near Kruger National Park, South Africa What makes it unique? It’s Elton’s favourite Elton
John is so keen on the Royal Suite at Royal Malewane that they call it
the Elton Suite. Bono, Bieber and big Bollywood stars have stayed here,
too. You can expect Persian carpets, Ralph Lauren linen, private butlers
and sumptuous meals.
Saadani Safari Lodge Saadani National Park, Tanzania What makes it special? Bush and beach in one park This
is the only lodge in Tanzania with its toes in the Indian Ocean and a
national park as its back yard. You can snorkel with turtles in the
morning, have a leisurely lunch at the lodge, then head out on a classic
game drive in the afternoon.
Rutundu Log Cabins Mt Kenya, Kenya What makes it unique? Fit for a prince Prince
William proposed to Kate Middleton while the pair were staying in this
remote spot on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya in October 2010. It
has just two cedar-and-moss cabins with crackling fires and rustic
Choosing a positive environment?
you want to stay somewhere with ‘green credentials’? What does that
mean, exactly, and how can you find out what your proposed hosts are
doing to support the environment and community? David Bristow and Colin
Bell, co-authors and founders of Africa’s Finest, make the case for
choosing accommodation with impeccable responsible tourism pedigree.
wild places of Africa are magnetically attractive to us. They show us
the world far beyond the paved, hermetically sealed, air-conditioned,
sanitised life that is the universe of most urban dwellers today.
Africa is changing fast. Our population is increasing at an
unsustainable rate and natural resources are being harvested, exploited
and in some places plundered in record quantities. Africa’s wilderness
areas and wildlife sanctuaries are being pressurised by human
encroachment and the inevitable activities that follow.
us want to travel on safari in Africa at least once in our lives, to
explore these wild places and to connect with our collective human
experience. But how, and where, should we go?
Africa’s Finest as a gateway to the lodges, camps and resorts that exist
primarily to preserve the balance of human impact and nature, and which
are best located to show Africa at its wild, primeval best. It is a
showcase of places that are run by people with heart and soul, rather
than those marching mercenary-like to the “ka-ching” of the tourism cash
The still-vast wild parts of Africa are the last places
on earth where you can still see that tableau we often refer to as the
Garden of Eden: a place where wild animals and ancient cultures do, in
places, live in a semblance of balance.
Sad that then some of the
iconic and the most ‘prehistoric’ of creatures, such as our elephants,
lions and rhinos, in many areas are now hanging on for survival. But
heartening that there are safari operators and conservationists working
selflessly to protect them and other species, often through the
enterprise of ecotourism.
It has been with much satisfaction that
we are able to recognise and celebrate those who talk the responsible
talk and who truly walk the sustainable walk. It is a road that leads
not to the dominion over nature that has left it gasping for survival,
but to a stewardship that will, if managed well, ensure the integrity of
the remaining wild places far into the future.
The big green lie We
are living in precarious times. Scientists tell us that we have, by
means of our own intelligence, shrugged off the bounds of evolution by
natural selection. That is an astonishing thought to contemplate,
because the consequences for ourselves and our planet are mind-blowing.
other side of the scenario is that, while we have caused many of our
problems, we also have the ability – if not always the will – to reverse
the process. That is principally what the Africa’s Finest project and
book are about. As a group of environmentalists, we care deeply about
the natural environment; each member of the Africa’s Finest team is a
dedicated nature devotee and most of us are qualified environmental
Tourism often operates at the interface between
nature and civilisation. Unmanaged, insensitive tourism has the ability
to impact negatively and relentlessly on our environment. Yet if safari
tourism is carefully structured and managed, it can become the prime
industry that ensures the preservation of the planet’s remaining
Our principal aim has been to ferret out the top 50
lodges in Africa that are the catalysts for positive change and to
showcase their work. Some of them were located in the most remote,
unexpected places, others well-established industry leaders. In doing so
our aim was to help set a reliable and measurable benchmark in the
safari industry for responsible and sustainable tourism that others will
strive to emulate and improve on.
We also hope to nudge the
environmental fence-sitters into making a move by providing them with
the information and motivation needed to lead them into a better,
greener future. Green technology is now sufficiently advanced and cost
effective for all safari lodges to embrace. The days of lodges
continuing to spew out carbon pollution to create electricity should be
The process will also subtly expose the green-washers
who pose under the umbrella of ‘ecotourism’ and tourism awards in order
to blind or bleed the industry.
When the term ‘ecotourism’ was
first coined back in the 1980s it had real substance: it meant a tourism
operator had a strong conservation and education ethic; that they
looked after their neck of the woods and used part of the proceeds from
their business to help benefit local neighbouring communities.
many irresponsible tourism companies have since soiled that word to the
extent that it has become its own antonym for non-ecotourism: real
ecotourism operators rather speak of responsible and sustainable
tourism, and sometimes conservation tourism.
Many shades of green Beyond
the designer-chic dining rooms and sumptuous bedrooms of the wildlife
lodges is a back-of-house area few guests ever see – although they
should. This is where their staff live, where food is stored and
prepared, where energy is created and waste is processed. More often
than not, this is where greasy and oily game-drive vehicles are fixed.
it looks like back there differs vastly from place to place and this,
more than just about any other factor, reveals the real character of
that lodge, whether it has a black heart or a green one.
some lodge owners were still stuck in the old colonial ways of doing
things with a discernable ‘master and servant’ mentality. Conversely,
others had embraced modern standards and treated staff as partners.
get to the very core of an enterprise, we found the best place to look
was around the staff quarters: were they hidden away; did they have the
necessary comforts and modern facilities; was it in fact a decent place
to live? Given that many lodges have a staff-to-guest ratio of up to
three or even four staff per guest, the staff have a bigger
environmental impact than do the guests.
At one extreme we
discovered a camp that had, among numerous negative impacts, an unfenced
open food and garbage pit behind the camp, where wild animals could
forage at will among the refuse. We also found that they were allowing
untreated waste water to flow directly into a natural wetland nearby.
the other end of the spectrum were the places like one family-run lodge
where there was no discernable separation between front and back. The
workshop area could have passed for the service centre of a German car
Then there was the case of a private game reserve
with a lodge located in an extremely poor area. It is not shy to
advertise that it offers the very highest levels of luxury imaginable on
safari. No carbon molecule has been spared to make sure its visitors
never have to experience a moment of discomfort while on safari. You
might think it would be among the first to be dumped by us, until you
look at its conservation and community footprints, which are among the
largest of any operation in Africa.
Africa is now at its tipping
point in terms of wilderness preservation. The next decade or two will
determine whether we take the high road or the low road. A thriving
green safari industry that expands the amount of land under formal
conservation protection, coupled with an industry that meaningfully
brings local communities into the tourism business, will help ensure we
keep to the high road and do not end in the drink, or loch, as the old
What did we look for? We drew up a
list of what we consider to be the core ingredients of a superb green
camp or lodge, and used this as a basis for our 102-item site survey
evaluation. The places which scored the highest in our study made it
into our Top 50. Although our ‘science’ was sound, bear in mind the
final selection of places featured was based on our own considered,
Our study included the following criteria: • Sustainable design and construction
A new facility needs to be designed and built to blend into the natural
setting, installing the latest technologies to ensure minimal impact,
and using sustainable, renewable materials wherever possible.
• Lodge operations As much as possible, all decorations and produce should be from local, natural, sustainable sources.
Must be hygienic, using environmentally sensitive cleaning materials
and bio-gas, and producing menus which reflect local flavours,
ingredients and culture.
• Water supply Borehole water should be pumped by a solar pump; filtered local water should replace bottled water.
• Electricity Solar and wind power should be used wherever possible.
• Hot water Water should be solar heated wherever appropriate, and low-flow showerheads fitted.
• Sewage and grey water Correctly engineered above-the-ground sewage or grey water systems are essential.
• Waste management There should be a careful purchasing policy, reducing, re-using and recycling waste wherever possible.
• Wildlife and conservation
Safari operations should strive to expand existing protected areas
through buffer zones and conservancies, support bona fide researchers,
conduct wildlife censuses, strive to help or reintroduce and protect
endangered species and employ the best guides.
• Staff All members of staff should be content, safe and motivated and should ideally be recruited from neighbouring communities.
• Community and governments
Development projects should include education, health, nutrition,
family planning and women’s empowerment; operators should pay
communities or park authorities a guaranteed minimum rental.
• Conservancies Effort needs to go into creating community conservancies around formally protected areas.
• Lodge activities
There should be a clear wildlife disturbance policy and off-road
protocol; red filters should be used on spotlights for night drives; no
hunting should be the rule and lodges should offer a large range of
low-impact activities such as walks, horse riding, hides and birding.
• Vehicles and boats
Should be well-maintained, well-equipped and never overloaded; a
biofuel mix should be used; 4-stroke boat engines should be used.
Guest payments should be paid into bank accounts in the country in
which the lodge is located. To do otherwise is akin to money laundering.
Travelling resposibly In addition to carefully selecting your accommodation, there are things you can do to help the local community.
camps and lodges support local schools or other projects. Ask your
hosts about these programmes and donate to the lodge’s project of a
wildlife NGO working in the area if they appear and sound effective.
Do not give sweets to kids – take a pack of pens and writing paper if you wish your gift to be more productive.
Check out the ideas and advice at www.stuffyourrucksack.com
If you wish to sponsor a rural project, focus on education and nutrition. Donate e’Pap (www.epap.co.za), for example, the most nutritious and best-absorbed food supplement around.
following camps or lodges scored the highest in the Africa’s Finest
evaluation process – conducted over three years – and represents what
the project’s adjudicators deem to be the 50 premier safari properties.
Botswana Delta Camp Meno A Kwena Tented Camp Mombo Camp Zarafa Camp
Central African Republic Sangha Lodge
Kenya Campi Ya Kanzi Elsa’s Kopje Lemarti’s Camp Mike’s Camp
Madagascar Eden Lodge Madagascar Island Safaris Masoala Forest Lodge
Malawi Majete National Park Mumbo Island Lodge Mvuu Lodge
Mozambique Azura at Gabriel’s Gorongosa National Park Nkwichi Lodge
Buy your copy of Africa’s Finest Africa’s
Finest is a truly impressive production that will intrigue anyone with
an interest in exploring and conserving Africa’s wilderness areas. Its
400 pages boast magnificent full colour photography, detailed background
on the project and their selection criteria, and lengthy profiles on
all the accommodation facilities that made their final selection.