Ann Abel forgoes the bells and whistles and gets back to bush basics for a truly authentic experience at Tanzania’s Kwihala Camp. This article first appeared in Ker & Downey’s Quest Magazine.
Thirty minutes into my first game drive from Kwihala Camp into Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, I’ve learned more than I’ve learned on dozens of game drives on six previous trips to East Africa: exactly why certain biological adaptations came about, how long elephants are pregnant, how it is that lions can sleep 20 hours a day, and some new details on that endlessly-amusing topic of mating. My curiosity was stoked, and I began asking questions I’d never before thought to ask.
I had known that excellent guiding is something that Asilia Africa, which took over Kwihala
last year, prides itself on. But it took getting to the safari operator’s camp to realize how fully they realize that promise. While some other operators emphasize luxurious accommodations or orchestrated experiences like lantern-lit bush dinners or sundowners under the most photogenic baobab tree, Asilia keeps the focus on the wildlife that’s the primary reason most of us go to Africa in the first place. The experience serves up heavy doses of education, without getting into un-fun, eat-your-peas territory. I wasn’t learning in Ruaha because I thought it would be good for me; I was learning because I was with a guide who made it fascinating for me.
“The more questions you ask, the more fun we’ll have,” was Pietro Luraschi’s opening line as we set off in the Land Cruiser. Although he’s something of a rock star guide—he trains national park rangers to lead walking safaris during his months off from Asilia, and has been profiled in Italian Vanity Fair—he’s humble about his role.
“Guides aren’t these magicians who can find animals anywhere,” he said. “We are interpreters of nature and translators of the language of tracks and droppings and sounds and other animals looking nervous.” It helps that he knows every inch of Ruaha, having spent 6 of his 11 years in Tanzania guiding here.
He may not be magician, but he certainly made game drives feel like exciting adventures. When he got a call about a leopard sighting, he tore off like a racecar driver in hot pursuit—it worked, and we saw a young lion carrying his recent kill into a gulley. Other times, he would drive slowly while standing on the side rail of the Land Cruiser, foot on the gas and hands on the wheel, but head outside for better game spotting. And he seemed to know just how close he could get to wildlife, and how to stand down elephants when that became necessary. (More on those later.)
This isn’t just about Pietro. He’s one of several freelancers who have been serving as head guide
at Kwihala several months of each year, but he’s indicative of the caliber of in-demand guides Asilia hires. Steven Roskelly earned his stripes with the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa, considered one of the most rigorous training programs on the continent. He now teaches there, and has guided privately and professionally from Tanzania to Namibia. Marius Swart grew up in the Kruger National Park region in South Africa and has been guiding for more than 20 years, mostly in lesser-traveled concessions and little-known regions. The year-round second in command, Lorenzo Rossi, is passionate, knowledgeable and personable as well.
About those elephants: Pietro estimated we saw 500 of them in one day, some of them quite close-up. He had to clear parades of them from the road six times that day. (The “What do you call a group of…?” game is as reliably entertaining as esoterica about mating habits, and “parade” is the answer for “elephants.”) We waited patiently while an adolescent female probed around the grille of the Land Cruiser with her trunk, until she started to approach from the sides and Pietro shouted to scare her away. Another time we found ourselves between two small family groups, unable to drive in either direction, and I found myself in my first-ever mock charge. Breathless, I plastered myself against my seat until she stood down—and Pietro pointed out that there were three feet of strong metal between her and us the whole time. Then I regretted not picking up my camera to record video as she’d charged.
This wasn’t a fluke. Ruaha, in addition to being the largest national park in Tanzania that no one has heard of, is home to incredible wildlife diversity and density. The park is said to be home to 15,000 elephants, 10% of the world’s lion population, 500 bird species, a sizable number of leopards and one of few sustainable populations of cheetahs in East Africa.
Despite that, there are near zero people. There are only six camps, each with a small number of beds, in the park, and none of them are very close to each other. We could drive for hours and see only one or two other vehicles—a big change from the great Land Cruiser migration that regularly takes place in well- known parks like the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. That emptiness adds to the sense of wildness. And it’s wild, alright: Weather patterns here have resulted in an unusually harsh environment, and animal behavior has evolved accordingly. If the Serengeti is Safari 101—many people’s first stop in East Africa—Ruaha is Safari 401.
Kwihala Camp is appropriate for its frontier setting. It’s the park and the knowledge that are the greatest draws, not the fine linens and the plunge pools. Guests are well fed, but it’s not the kind of place where “safari” might as well be Swahili for “eating and drinking.” There are no bush dinners (though dinner is outside, down a hill from the mess tent) or destination-sundowners. The guides will generally stop and open some beers or mix a few G&Ts, but they aren’t going to turn away from a great animal sighting to do it. There will be other opportunities to get that perfect baobab-at-sunset photo.
As for the camp, Asilia certainly spruced it up after taking it over. Relief manager Michelle Attala, who moves between several Asilia camps and helps curate their excellent boutiques, added aesthetic flourishes like orange and purple cushions in the guest tents and main pavilions. The six tents are plenty spacious, and the beds are comfortable.
The overall style, though, is decidedly simple. Kwihala is at the low end of Asilia’s wide spectrum of luxury, a far cry from the company’s upscale flagship Kayari, where the rooms have wood and glass walls, full plumbing and big bathrooms with soaking tubs hidden behind sliding shoji screens. Personally, I like the rusticity—especially the idea that when the camp is taken down, the land will show little evidence of any structures ever having been there. That small footprint speaks to me, even if it means using a bucket shower. (To be sure, Kwihala’s are nice bucket showers: refilled on demand and with a 20-liter capacity—I ran out of body parts to wash before I ran out of water.)
For those of us who go to Africa to be observers of nature at its most wild, the point is to be as much as part of it as possible. Asilia’s incarnation of Kwihala Camp gave me the chance to do just that.