In September 2012, Ker & Downey President David Marek and his wife Gana traveled through Tanzania. He recalls his journey – an incredible adventure of unexpected wildlife and unrivaled luxury on the edge of the Great Migration – in the current issue of BESPOKE magazine.
September 2012 found my wife, Gana, and me headed to Tanzania, our “reward” after completing an emotionally draining two weeks at a medical mission in Uganda, handing out 12,000 mosquito nets and assisting doctors and nurses who saw more than 20,000 sickly individuals – most of them women and children. The dichotomy of this trip was going to slap us in the face: One day we were surrounded by 5,000 desperate people just wanting to give their children a chance at life, and the next we were wrapped in the soothing views of Mount Meru at the Legendary Coffee Lodge. But we’ve been confronted with the realities of travel in Africa many times. In Africa one can go from utter despair to ultimate luxury in a heartbeat. We were eager to begin the “ultimate luxury” portion of the trip, which would take us from the Legendary Coffee Lodge to Mwiba Camp; then to the northern Serengeti for visits to Legendary’s mobile camp, Nomad’s Lamai Serengeti Lodge, and Asilia’s Sayari Lodge; and on to the western Serengeti and Singita’s Grumeti Reserves.
But before all this, we had to visit a school. Golgatha School lies at the edge of Arusha in an area of slums where homes are constructed of any discarded piece of tin, wood, or cardboard one can find, similar to other slums in any sizable African city. The school here is supported by individuals from the United States and England, and is a testament to what can happen when dedicated people share a vision of hope. After an afternoon with the children and discussions with the staff, we were back to the luxury of the Legendary Coffee Lodge. The lodge is managed by Russell Hastings, a chef from South Africa who knows how to dish out the luxury. The setting at LCL shouts Out of Africa, especially in the dining experience: When you’re sitting on the veranda looking out over the coffee estate with a South African wine in hand, images conjured by Karen Blixen come easily to mind. The accommodations at LCL are impeccable with fresh-cut roses in each room, satellite television, and wireless Internet – little details that are enhanced by the stunning views of Mount Meru from each room.
After breakfast we met Brad Hansen, our guide for the first portion of the trip. Brad was born in South Africa and came to Tanzania looking for a new adventure. Over the course of the next week I would find that Brad’s knowledge of the bush was almost as incredible as his ability to patiently put us in the right locations to capture unusual moments with animals. A Safari Air flight took our party of three to Mwiba Tented Camp in the Mwiba Wildlife Reserve.
The reserve is a 300,000-acre diverse landscape of acacia forests, riverine bush, massive rock kopjes, and open savanna. The beauty of this scene is that it is all yours – it’s a private concession with just you, the animals, and the blanket of stars at night. During our stay we embarked on game drives, safari walks, and night drives, and we sat in elevated tree “houses” over water holes. One of the highlights for me was walking with Brad through the bush and ending up at a magnificent rock structure with a water hole down below, a place that happens to be the site of Mwiba’s next lodge. As we walked up, we surprised a leopard drinking at the water hole – two strides and he was gone. We sat on top of the outcropping and imagined herds of buffalo below drinking at the water hole, all the while looking toward the endless savanna in the distance.
Mwiba Camp is a six-bed property overlooking a water hole. Each luxury tent has its own private en-suite bathroom with a flush toilet, double basins, and shower, plus views from the veranda toward the stream below the camp. We spent many moments at leisure watching waterbucks, zebras, and impalas in this stream, and even had a nighttime visitor: a curious leopard that decided to walk through camp. The main dining tent serves three great meals a day with drinks included, naturally. This camp is a must for anyone who wants to get away from the safari crowds. Where else can you have 300,000 acres all to yourself?
The next stop on our trip was the Lamai Wedge area of the Serengeti, a region that got its name from the wedge-shaped stretch of land formed by the Mara River on the south and the Kenyan border to the north. Safari Air once again got us there quickly and efficiently, anticipating the properties we would be visiting: Serengeti Legendary Camp, Nomad’s Lamai Serengeti, and Asalia’s Sayari Camp, all located just south of the Mara River. Access to the Wedge is via a concrete river crossing that can be impassible during the rainy season.
Game viewing in this area can be spectacular. Many people visit just for the chance of seeing a wildebeest river crossing, which is incredible, but travelers shouldn’t spend their days waiting on a crossing when there are so many interesting things to see. On one of our morning drives Brad decided to continue past the 10 cars waiting at the river for a crossing and drive into the Wedge to look for rhinos. We didn’t find any, but we did spend lunchtime with a beautiful male cheetah, and while having lunch with the cheetah Brad saw something in the distance that piqued his interest. We headed up a dry creek bed and found a pride of lions lazing in the shade. While many tourists would have left the sighting and moved on in search of more active sights, Brad encouraged us to stay and watch these lions interact. As we waited, off in the distance we saw another lioness approaching us with her two little cubs in tow. There was a lot of posturing when this lioness and cubs approached the pride. Brad theorized that this female had left the pride to have her cubs, and had now chosen this time to introduce her new cubs to their extended family. One by one the cubs moved from one pride member to the other, with a proud mother finally “showing” them to the pride male. What a great photo op!
The three camps we visited in this area were all unique, and each had its own charm. The Serengeti Legendary Camp is a mobile camp that relocates each season. It has the old safari charm of bucket showers but the modern convenience of flush toilets. With views toward the valley below, during the day it’s not unusual to see topi, zebras, giraffes, buffalo, and other animals from your tent. The primary reason for discerning guests to consider this camp is that it doesn’t mix clients: You and your spouse or your family will be the only guests. If you would like a private adventure, this is it.
Nomad’s Lamai Serengeti has an exquisite location high on Kogakuria Kopje, netting some pretty stunning views. Lamai Serengeti has just 12 rooms folded into and around the features of the Kopje. The lodge has a relaxed feel with whitewashed wood and a minimalistic approach to decor. Meals are served in the main dining room, again with outrageous views of the surrounding plains. If you like to skip the occasional game drive and read a book or just take in the scene, Lamai Serengeti is your place.
Sayari Camp lies closer to the Mara River than Serengeti Legendary Camp or Lamai Serengeti. From Sayari it’s only 10 minutes to the river, whereas from either of the other properties the drive was up to half an hour longer. Choosing this camp means you can get to the action earlier in the morning and stay later in the evening. Sayari is a permanent camp of 15 tents divided into two wings. Although the largest of the three, the camp has a smaller feel thanks to its two dining rooms; one for the six tents on the right and the other for the nine tents on the left. The camp commands excellent views of the surrounding savanna, and on rare occasions the migration can be at your doorstep. During the heat of the day, the extra-large and billowy tent design and the pool provided a nice respite. Sayari remains one of our favorite safari properties, made more so by the excellent couple managing it, John and Clare Upton.
There are many other properties around the Lamai Wedge that we did not include on this trip. One of my all-time favorites due to its location on the Mara River is Ole Kira camp. It’s a mobile camp with all the amenities, but did I mention that it’s located next to the river with views of one of the crossings? Something to consider, however, is that game drives in this area must follow established tracks, whereas game drives in private concessions are able to move about more freely.
The final leg of our trip took us to Singita’s Grumeti Reserves, where we stayed at Sabora Plains tented camp and Faru Faru Lodge. Also located in the reserve is Sasakwa Lodge: Together, this trio was voted the Best Hotel in Travel + Leisure’s 2011 World’s Best Awards. Singita’s Grumeti Reserves is 350,000 private acres of pure safari nirvana. The three properties are strikingly different, yet they all rely on that exquisite level of detail and service that has helped build Singita’s stellar reputation. Their focus expands beyond opulence, however, as Singita helps the local communities earn income by assisting them in growing the produce that lodge chefs use to prepare unforgettable cuisine.
Sabora Plains is a nine-tent luxury camp on the plains, which allows for near-limitless sight lines in every direction. While relaxing in camp we saw an army of 17 giraffes make their way to the water hole, along with countless gazelles and other animals. It was quite a display while we were relaxing on our private deck with G&Ts. The tents are decorated with trunks and other campaign furnishings of a bygone era, all brought up to modern-day standards with the addition of air-conditioning, wireless Internet, direct-dial telephones, hair dryers, outdoor showers, and your personal Swarovski spotting scope on the deck. There’s a tennis court and swimming pool near the main dining tent for those who want a bit of exercise, as well as mountain bikes, an archery range, and a stable of 16 horses near Sasakwa Lodge for a rather unique horseback game drive.
Faru Faru is Singita’s contemporary property and one of Gana’s favorites. Stone and canvas building materials meld with the two rim-filled pools to create a tranquil yet inspiring setting just above the water hole. Meals can be taken in a variety of locations around the main area, providing for quaint and private dining. There are eight suites and one villa, each with unobstructed views through their floor-to-ceiling, wall-to wall windows. As at Sabora Plains, each suite is fitted with all the modern conveniences and, yes, even your own personal Swarovski spotting scope.
During our two-night stay at Faru Faru, we saw lions, leopards, cheetahs, buffalo, elephants, and many species of plains game. At the nearby rhino reserve, one can observe the black rhinos that are being reintroduced to this area through the efforts of the Singita Grumeti Fund, Tanzania National Parks, and Frankfurt Zoological Society. The annual migration makes its way through Grumeti between June and September, but the resident game in the area is absolutely incredible and makes this an ideal year-round destination.
At each of the properties we visited on this trip, we found the local guides to be knowledgeable and ready to please. That said, I prefer to use a private guide like Brad on my trips into the bush. As someone who likes to get the best out of my limited photographic ability, I find that private guides generally have a better understanding of how to set up a viewing so you can capture it effortlessly. Brad’s patience rewarded us with a fairly rare lion sighting – I venture to say that most guides would have left that particular viewing before the real drama unfolded.
Are you ready to visit yet? Consider that the long rains in Tanzania are historically during April and May and the short rains are in November. I would advise travelers to broaden their horizons, and not to rely too much on seeing the migration, which can limit the opportunities to see other very interesting things. If the migration is non-negotiable, be prepared to pack a lunch and drive all day. This annual spectacle is fluid and wildly unpredictable: It could be in one spot one day and 20 miles away the next. Regardless of when you choose to travel to Tanzania, there is no shortage of amazing sights and luxurious accommodations to keep you thirsting for more of this beautiful, untamed region.