FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

African Game Reserves: A Whole New Game

Feb 1, 2005
2005 / February 2005

Sitting in an open Land Rover, the New York lawyer in front of me surveys the scene. Thirty feet away, three lions are gorging on a warthog. Jackals and hyenas skulk among nearby trees. Vultures circle overhead. “I didn’t need to come to Africa for this,” he says brusquely. “It’s like a regular day at the office.”

Then he does something that proves that any similarity between the African wilds and his life back home is merely superficial. He stands up. It is a fundamental breach of safari etiquette. As long as we remain seated, the lions regard us as an integral part of the vehicle. The lawyer has blown our cover, and the lions react instantly. Two of them bare their teeth; the other charges.

The next few seconds are a blur. The ranger orders the lawyer to sit down, starts the engine, accelerates away, and lifts his rifle from its mount above the dashboard. Seeing us retreat, the lion pulls up, huffing in indignation, and returns to the carcass. We stop on a ridge. As our pounding hearts settle, the ranger laughs: “This is my office, and here there’s no such thing as a regular day. Anything can happen at any time.”

That is one of the reasons why African safaris are so addictive. Every game drive is different. There are occasional adrenaline moments — and being charged by a lion ranks high among them. But there are also moments of sublime perfection. Half an hour later, we park beside a water hole and sip cold drinks at sunset. Elephants wade through the shallows to drink and wash, and under the dusk sky the water turns to liquid gold.

When we return to our lodge, Ngala Tented Camp in a private reserve adjoining South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park, there is ample evidence of the other addictive element of modern safaris. Luxury. Thirty years ago, my childhood safaris were often pretty basic. But in the last decade there has been a dramatic transformation at the high end of the safari industry, both in the quantity of five-star lodges and in their quality.

The private reserves bordering Kruger National Park represent the epitome of this kind of upmarket safari, providing ever-spiraling levels of comfort. The rooms often come with their own plunge pools, and the bathrooms often have panoramic windows that allow you to view the wildlife while you soak. Lately, several lodges have also begun to provide sumptuous spa facilities, giving rise to a new tourism genre: spafari.

Ultimately, though, any safari destination must be judged on the quality of the game viewing. Most set a premium on the “big five”: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo — the species most prized by the early white hunters. These days most of the shooting is done with cameras, and in that respect the private reserves offer a considerable advantage over government-run national parks, where significant sightings are usually attended by fleets of zebra-striped minibuses.

There are no zebra-striped minibuses at Ngala. All game drives are made in open-topped Land Rovers, which comfortably accommodate up to nine tourists together with a ranger and a tracker. In the national parks, off-road driving is usually prohibited, but there is no such restriction here, and we are able to follow the animals as far as the vehicle will permit. Although it is not always a comfortable ride, we are rewarded with some stunning encounters.

Our days revolve around game drives and meals. We usually start at 5 a.m., heading out into the bush after a quick coffee and slice of toast. The African mornings can be chilly, especially in winter (May to August in southern Africa), and warm clothes are essential. As the sun begins to gain strength, the layers come off. By 9 a.m., we’re down to shorts and T-shirts, and most of the animals are settling down in shade to escape the heat of the day.

Breakfast is at 10 a.m., followed by a nap until lunch at 2 p.m. Then it’s time for a siesta until around 4:30 p.m. when we embark on the evening game drive that will keep us out until 8 p.m. Then it’s dinner and an early night to prepare for the next day.

An African safari is certainly no place to start a diet. At Ngala, our evening meal is a multicourse extravaganza. We sit out on a wooden deck under the stars, enjoying silver service and fine wine. Periodically we can hear the lions roaring; they sound disconcertingly close.

“Do they ever come into the lodge?” asks the lawyer, weighting the question with characteristic legal rigor. I sense that he’s wondering how watertight the disclaimer is that we all signed on arrival.

“Sure,” says the ranger. “We don’t have a perimeter fence, so the animals are free to wander through the grounds. That’s why you must always be escorted by one of our guards after dark.”

The tents are tents in name only. In reality, they are spacious and beautifully furnished, the work of celebrated interior designer Chris Browne, whose distinctive imprint draws quirky inspiration from African culture, both ancient and modern.

A plush room is not necessarily a guarantee of a good night’s sleep. On my first night, I woke abruptly at the sound of a troop of baboons leaping out of a tree and sliding down the canvas roof. At the time it was hard to work out what on earth was going on, but I got the full story from the security guards in the morning.

Ngala is one of 34 lodges in eight African countries operated by Conservation Corporation Africa (www.ccafrica.com), an innovative company that aims to use ecotourism as a means to restore natural habitats, to promote environmental awareness, and to improve the lives of local people. Through its Africa Foundation (www.africafoundation.org), CC Africa has donated more than $4 million to rural development projects in the past 12 years.

Another major African tour operator, Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com), is similarly using safaris as a force for good. Their profits help fund research projects, reintroduction programs for endangered species, and educational schemes for underprivileged African children.

So while tourists enjoy increasing levels of opulence in the lodges, they do so in the knowledge they are helping to preserve the environment they’ve come to see. And the people living on the fringes of the reserves also benefit directly, through employment and development programs.

The morning after our lion encounter, a few bones are all that remain of the warthog. “There but for the grace of God…,” says the lawyer, though from his tone it would appear that he isn’t imagining his own bones there but those of the lion that charged us.

Of the lions there is no sign. They are probably sleeping off their meal nearby. We drive on, and soon come across an elephant herd. They are reaching up to feed from trees on both sides of the road. The ranger stills the engine, and we sit with them for 30 minutes or more. All the cares of the world recede.

These are moments of rare privilege. No matter how many times you’ve been on safari, every encounter with wild elephants may as well be the first. The thrill never diminishes. The lawyer is as entranced as the rest of us, and for once he sits in complete silence. At last he seems to truly understand what it means to be on safari.


TOP SAFARI DESTINATIONS AND LODGES

SOUTH AFRICA

The private game reserves next to Kruger National Park pioneered the concept of five-star safaris. Among the best are Mala Mala, Sabi Sabi, Londolozi, Singita and Ngala. Northwest of Johannesburg, the newly established Madikwe Game Reserve boasts several upmarket lodges. In Kwazulu-Natal, north of Durban, there are luxurious options at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve and at Phinda Game Reserve.

MALA MALA

The oldest, the biggest and arguably the best of the private reserves bordering the unfenced southwest boundary of Kruger National Park, Mala Mala is the safari destination of choice for a legion of international celebrities and politicians. Accommodation is in luxurious thatched chalets overlooking a river. The game viewing is spectacular: “The big five” are seen almost every day. Mala Mala’s airstrip is served by daily South African Airways Express (www.saexpress.co.za) flights from Johannesburg.
MALA MALA GAME RESERVE
P.O. Box 55514
Northlands 2116, South Africa
tel 27 11 268 2388
www.malamala.com

NGALA TENTED CAMP

Ngala is the first private game reserve to have been formally incorporated into Kruger National Park. This exclusive tented camp, with accommodation for just 12 people, is situated beside the Timbavati River, which is dry for most of the year. In addition to game drives, wilderness walks are also available, escorted by an armed ranger. Federal Air (www.fedair.com) flies every day to Ngala airstrip from Johannesburg.
NGALA TENTED CAMP
CC Africa, Private Bag X27
Benmore 2010, South Africa
tel 27 11 809 4300
www.ccafrica.com/accommodation-1-id-2-7

PHINDA FOREST LODGE

There are five luxury lodges at Phinda Game Reserve, a three-hour drive north of Durban on South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. The most photographed is Forest Lodge, which brings Zen chic to the African bush: The 16 chalets are glass-walled and nestle within a rare expanse of sand forest. One of the highlights of a stay at Phinda is the “Flight of the Fish Eagle” — an incredible hour-long flying safari in a Cessna, from which you’ll see elephant herds, hippos, and then, out over the ocean, whales and manta rays.
PHINDA FOREST LODGE
CC Africa, Private Bag X27
Benmore 2010, South Africa
tel 27 11 809 4300
www.ccafrica.com/accommodation-1-id-2-1

BOTSWANA

The Okavango Delta, a world-renowned wetland in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, has long pursued a deliberate policy of high-quality, low-volume tourism. There are dozens of spectacular lodges throughout the Delta, easily reached by light aircraft from the tourist gateway town of Maun. In eastern Botswana, the Tuli Block is an extensive area of game-rich wilderness subdivided into several private reserves.

JAO CAMP, OKAVANGO DELTA

Designed by Sylvio Rech and Leslie Carstens, Jao Camp is a fusion of African, Asian and South Pacific influences. It works beautifully, setting a new standard for safari luxury. Depending on the water levels within the delta (which fluctuate throughout the year), game viewing is by Land Rover or by boat, or by a combination of the two. A wide variety of game can be seen here. Jao’s airstrip is a 35-minute flight from Maun, which has daily connections to Johannesburg.
JAO CAMP, WILDERNESS SAFARIS
P.O. Box 5219
Rivonia 2128, South Africa
tel 27 11 807 1800
www.jaocamp.com

NAMIBIA

Etosha National Park, in the north of the country, is one of the greatest reserves in Africa, home to the world’s tallest elephants, the heaviest lions, as well as black rhino and huge herds of antelope. The three government-run lodges within the park are basic and often crowded. The private Ongava Game Reserve on the southern boundary is an upmarket alternative. On the Atlantic coast, the massive sand dunes of the Namib Desert create one of the most amazing landscapes on earth.

LITTLE ONGAVA

With just three suites, Little Ongava is the most exclusive of the three camps in the Ongava Game Reserve. Every suite has its own plunge pool, outdoor shower, dining area and lounge. The views are spectacular. There is good game viewing within the reserve, as well as access to neighboring Etosha National Park. Ongava’s airstrip can be reached by air charter from Windhoek.
LITTLE ONGAVA, WILDERNESS SAFARIS
P.O. Box 5219
Rivonia 2128, South Africa
tel 27 11 807 1800
www.littleongava.com

ZAMBIA

South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia is popular with safari connoisseurs. Most of the lodges overlook the beautiful Luangwa River. Mobile safaris, which involve walking between tented camps, are an attractive option here.

NKWALI LODGE

Owned by Robin Pope, one of Africa’s leading wildlife guides, Nkwali offers comfortable accommodations in six bamboo chalets. The lodge is situated on private land overlooking South Luangwa National Park; the park is accessed by pontoon ferry or boat. Nkwali is served by the small airport at Mfuwe, which has flights to Lusaka, gateway to South Africa and Europe.
NKWALI LODGE, ROBIN POPE SAFARIS
P.O. Box Mfuwe
South Luangwa, Zambia
tel 260 6 246090
www.robinpopesafaris.net

MALAWI
This unsung country is one of the friendliest in Africa. Liwonde National Park offers outstanding river-based elephant viewing. In the north, the high-altitude Nyika Plateau National Park is reminiscent of Scotland: pine forests, rolling hills and trout dams — but with African wildlife.

MVUU WILDERNESS LODGE, LIWONDE

Mvuu means “hippo,” and here, beside the Shire River (which was famously explored by David Livingstone), there’s no getting away from them — dozens can be seen wallowing close to the lodge’s five luxury tents. Large numbers of elephant can also be seen, as well as 266 bird species. The lodge is reached by road from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, from which there are flights to South Africa and Kenya.
MVUU WILDERNESS LODGE, WILDERNESS SAFARIS
P.O. Box 5219, Rivonia 2128, South Africa
tel 27 11 807 1800
www.mvuu-lodge.com

TANZANIA

Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania is one of the largest protected wilderness areas on earth, and is an excellent venue for walking safaris. Ngorongoro Crater is a huge volcanic bowl famous for its high densities of wildlife. The open plains of Seregenti National Park are legendary, and are best visited in May-June when more than a million wildebeest and zebra migrate westward in search of grazing.

NGORONGORO CRATER LODGE
An architectural marvel situated on the rim of the crater, with panoramic views from every room. The interiors are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Imagine blending an English country house with an African mud hut, and you’ll have some sense of the unique ambience. Access is by air from Dar-es-Salaam.
NGORONGORO CRATER LODGE
CC Africa, Private Bag X27
Benmore 2010, South Africa
tel 27 11 809 430
www.ccafrica.com/accommodation-1-id-2-12

KENYA

Masai Mara National Park adjoins Tanzania’s Serengeti, and is another great place to witness the wildebeest migration. Amboseli National Park provides wonderful game viewing with snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro — Africa’s highest peak — for a backdrop. The thickly forested Aberdares National Park in the Kenyan highlands is the location of one of the world’s most famous safari lodges, Treetops (www.aberdaresafarihotels.com).

GOVERNORS’ CAMP, MASAI MARA

The location is prestigious: The camp occupies a corner of Masai Mara National Park that was previously reserved for Kenya’s colonial governors — hence the name. The 36 tents provide the kind of classic safari experience you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read Hemingway or if you’ve ever seen the movie Out of Africa. Access is by air or road from Nairobi.
GOVERNORS’ CAMP, MASAI MARA
P.O. Box 48217
00100, Nairobi, Kenya
tel 254 020 2734000
www.governorscamp.com

TORTILIS CAMP, AMBOSELI

The 17 luxury tents face one of the signature sights of Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro. The open plains of the national park are busy with big game. This is also the domain of the famous Masai tribe, and a visit to a tribal village is one of the highlights of a stay here. Amboseli is served by daily flights from Nairobi.
TORTILIS CAMP, CHELI & PEACOCK LTD.
P.O. Box 743
00517-Uhuru Gardens, Nairobi, Kenya
tel 254 020 891124
www.chelipeacock.com

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