Best Of Travel

Stephen Bailey
Here's a luxury African experience you mustn't miss
Here's a luxury African experience you mustn't miss
Stephen Bailey

Picture yourself in a safari tent. Can you imagine opening the flap in the morning to see zebra, and finding the prints of a leopard that went past silently in the night? Can you see yourself drifting off at night while hearing the trumpets of an elephant herd in the distance?

The great thing about safari camps is that you feel everything. You hear all the different sounds. And the African bush is more alive than ever at night. Many animals, especially the bigger ones, are most active during the hours of darkness. You are lying there and you can hear lions roar. You don’t know where they are. There’s a mystery to it. And you feel that you are exploring their kingdom.

You can smell the wild. And I don’t mean smelling a bit of wildebeest or buffalo dung. I mean you can smell the changes in the atmosphere, the freedom of fresh air.

And you’re not being transported to the safari. That’s the great thing. A safari camp puts you centre stage for the action. It’s not like staying in a hotel, where you wake up in the morning, have your breakfast and only then drive to your destination and do your activity. No, you’re waking up, opening the tent and seeing animals. You are in the middle of it, all day, all night.

When you set off on your game drive, you might be seeing those lions you’ve heard within a few minutes. You are going straight to find out where they are and they were roaring so much. What about those elephants, are they still there? They are still so close that we can hear them and their trumpeted calls.

Safari camps are not what you are thinking

Safari camps are absolutely breathtaking. But they are quite misunderstood. Because if I ask you to picture yourself in an African safari tent, what do you thing of?

You probably think you are roughing it. It’s uncomfortable, with bugs everywhere. A lot of people get the wrong impression, because they hear “camp” and think, “I’m not a camper.” It’s easy to hear the word “camp” and think of some amateur setup in the rain in Northwest England where you once went camping. It’s easy to think of tents as small things.

But in African safari camps, they do camping better than anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t even call it glamping — it’s far beyond glamping. This is high-quality accommodation with canvas walls.

Why a safari camp is better than staying in a lodge

And the canvas is really important, because it helps you maintain the connection with your environment 24 hours of the day. When you stay in lodges, they are permanent features in the landscape. Animals get used to that big lodge being there, and they don’t often get as close.

When you’re in a lodge, it’s got stone walls, so you can’t hear and see as much.

True, a lodge is generally a little bit more comfortable, more like a hotel. But camping is how to experience an African safari.

Most camps are temporary. They set up the camp and it stays in that location for nine months of the year. During the rainy season, they take it down, wash everything, and take a break. Then they put it back up in the same location.

Mobile camps move day-to-day, so you can be in a camp that’s erected just for you, for one or two nights. Then that’s it. The camp’s gone. And those camps, animals find them quite surprising. The guides will light fires at night to keep away hyenas and dangerous cats.

The great other advantage of a camp or any camping setup is, it’s small. It’s very rare they have more than 20 guests. Most camps have around 10 guests. They have a very limited footprint. The animals are unaware of what this is, so they just wander past.

I’ve listened to gazelle, kudu, zebra, eating grass literally next to my head, just on the other side of the canvas. I’ve listened to all these animals and wondered, can I even sleep? When is it going to be light, so I can see who is this animal that is so close?

How a safari camp can be a luxurious experience

Most African safari camps are incredibly comfortable. Sure, they might not have the opulent marble bathrooms of a five-star hotel in the city, but they have the service and amenities of a top-class hotel. You have the comfortable bed, the bathroom, the hot showers. The water’s heated up especially for you at the time you want it. You have great food. It’s amazing how they get all those amenities out into the middle of nowhere.

And that is something that makes us a safari camp quite expensive. A lot of people are surprised by the price. They think, ” I’m going to Africa. It must be cheap.” Do you know how expensive it is to set up a luxury camp a thousand kilometers from a city, in a land where hyenas and lions and elephants roam freely?

Picture a five-star hotel in the city. It’s easy for them to get their food. If they need hot water, they’ve got plumbing. Imagine moving that setup into the middle of the Serengeti, among 2 million wildebeest. It’s a huge operation to make these camps really comfortable for guests. And that is part of the reason why it is quite expensive.

Of course, there are different levels of luxury in a safari camp. I’ve stayed in camps where it really is camping — you need a flashlight to go to an outside toilet at night, and they give you a safety talk on what to do if you encounter different animals if you have to make this walk.

I have also stayed in camps which were opulent, designed to be like the explorer camps of a hundred years ago, but with all the amenities.

Often the luxury you can get — and I’m talking about luxury in terms of classic things, like running water — is dictated by the destination. Some destinations, especially the smaller ones, are able to offer more amenities. In the big national parks, where it’s really wild, even the most luxurious camps won’t feel as luxurious. They will still feel a bit more like camping — very comfortable, but not a hotel room. But the luxury is in the location where you get to be.

If you can afford it, I think all African safaris you go on should involve a camp. If you’re unsure about it, I’d recommend mixing it up. Stay at a lodge first, feel a bit more comfortable, then go to a camp. Camps generally can go to more remote locations, and be deeper within the national parks. Which means you’re going to get away from other visitors and just get closer to the animals.

How safe is it on a safari camp?

People ask me, there are hyenas and elephants and hippos and lions around — is it safe to be in a camp? And yes, it is very safe. What you have to remember is that your guides and the people working at the camp have grown up in this kind of environment. They’ve grown up in villages and areas that have co-existed with wild animals for many generations. Your security at this camp have been for many years security for their village.

Often, there are a lot of rules. You won’t be able to walk on your own between your tent and the dining tent. You’ll have a little bell that you ring, and then a guard comes out and walks with you — especially in the dark. Because this guard, for his whole life, has understood what it means to walk in the dark in lion country. All night, he has been listening for the clues that you will miss. He will know there are lions in this vicinity, so he’s going to implement higher security measures tonight.

I remember being in a camp in Ngorongoro and a huge bull elephant came through. It was scary. He was one of the biggest elephant bulls I have ever seen. But everyone at the camp was calm. They said, “We know this elephant. He comes through around us pretty much every night. And we’ve just learned to respect each other. He takes his path, we make sure that visitors don’t get too close and upset him. And we just co-exist.”

The opportunity to camp amid the animal world is so raw, so real. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Once you’ve done it once, you will want to go on safari camp again and again.

By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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