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<< Back to Robb Report, February 2013

A Site to Behold

Bruce Wallin

With a few quick turns of the wheel, Lee Bennett steers his Land Rover away from the airstrip at Singita Grumeti Reserves, over a wooded hill, and out to the infinite savanna of northern Tanzania. Gesturing as he goes at the passing wildlife—a herd of zebras here, a troop of baboons there—the safari guide launches into a story about the kill he witnessed just the day before. In the morning, in a remote corner of the 340,000-acre game reserve, a mother cheetah chased down a baby Thomson’s gazelle and handed over the helpless but still living creature to her four cubs. The mother watched with pride—and Bennett’s guests with horror—as the cubs proceeded to play with the gazelle for an hour before finally killing and devouring it. The process was enough to leave at least one of the safari-goers in tears.

"Everybody comes in thinking they want to see a kill," says Bennett, a head guide who has worked at several of Singita’s camps throughout South Africa and Tanzania. "But a kill is almost never quick. Many guests, after they’ve seen one, say they would have preferred to see the chase, and perhaps the aftermath, but not the killing itself. The reality is a bit much for most people."

Bennett’s sentiments could apply equally to the African safari itself. The romantic notion of the classic safari experience—a mobile adventure in the spirit, if not the purpose, of the big-game hunters of the early 20th century—is often outweighed by the discomforts such a pursuit might entail. Cot-fitted fly tents, however, would not be in keeping with the otherwise extravagant accommodations at Singita Grumeti Reserves, where, as Bennett is about to show his new guests, an effortless alternative to the mobile safari has emerged.

Vast and privately controlled, Singita Grumeti Reserves in many ways recalls the bountiful and less-traveled East Africa of the colonial era. The sweeping stretch of savanna and woodland shares an unfenced 128-mile border with Serengeti National Park, and wildlife—including the more than one million wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles that graze through the area during the annual Great Migration—travel freely between the parks. But Grumeti Reserves, which covers an area larger than the city of Los Angeles, is open only to guests of its five small lodges and camps, and it is not uncommon at the concession to spend an entire day on safari without seeing another human being.

The most exclusive of Grumeti Reserves’ camps is also its most adventurous. Introduced in 2011, Singita Explore is a private-use camp that offers what a company brochure describes as "pure, distilled Africa." In Singita terms, the distillation process involves refining the mobile-safari experience into a lavish and intricate undertaking. Explore’s six stylish tents, which host from two to 12 guests, lack fences, platforms, and plunge pools, but otherwise incorporate all the requisite comforts of their luxury-lodge counterparts. Singita does not have set campsites for the tents, but rather relocates them from time to time according to where the animals are, often in the most remote areas of the reserve.

Though solitary in its settings at Grumeti Reserves, Singita Explore is certainly not alone. The camp is one of several exclusive-use mobile-style camps launched recently by some of Africa’s top safari lodges. While not always technically mobile—some move seasonally, some not at all—the new camps combine the privacy and on-the-ground immersion of a fly-tent safari with the indulgences of an upscale lodge.

"It’s a way to be truly out in the wild on a private basis, but with many of the creature comforts of a lodge," says Dennis Pinto, the managing director of the Kenya-based Micato Safaris’ New York operations, who calls the outposts a "hybrid of quasipermanent mobile camps."

Pinto says the camps represent an evolution of the traditional tent safari, which dates to the White Hunter days at the turn of the 20th century. Escorted by entourages that could number in the hundreds, the hunters traveled in style—with fine china, linens, and other accoutrements in tow—but not necessarily in comfort. With the decline of the hunting safari and the rise of the photographic safari, style began to suffer as well.

"You were setting up tents not far different from when you went Boy Scouting with your troop as a child," Pinto says of the photographic safaris that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s. "But where the mobile camp really excelled was in terms of the experience and of being away from large groups of people."

Today, throughout East Africa and southern Africa, safari lodges with amenities rivaling anything in the world’s finest city hotels are commonplace. (See "The Robb Report Essential Safari Guide" on page 93 for examples.) More elusive is an empty stretch of savanna, away from other Land Rovers and camera-clicking tourists. "For that sense of privacy," says Pinto, "camps like Singita Explore are a great way to go."

In addition to Singita Explore, Micato Safaris incorporates several other exclusive-use tented camps in its top-level bespoke journeys. In Kenya’s Maasai Mara region alone, Pinto cites Naibor Camp’s two-tent Little Naibor, Saruni’s three-tent Saruni Wild, Seri­an’s private helipad–equipped Ngare Serian, and the brand-new Mara Toto and Ngerende in the Wild camps from Mara Plains and Ngerende Island Lodge, respectively.

Micato also offers true mobile safaris, including a private-plane adventure that can hop from Tanzania to Kenya to Rwanda. But Pinto says the demand for most mobile safaris is diminishing. "We’ve done less and less of it through the years as some of these luxurious tented camps have come onstream," he says, adding that a lack of land has also contributed to the demise. "Thirty years ago, if you didn’t like where you were, you could pick up your camp and go to where you needed to be. Today that’s virtually impossible because sites are booked far in advance, so you’re restricted to a given area. Once you’re there, you’re not going to move."

Space is not an issue at the 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana, where Great Plains Conservation recently opened the four-tent Selinda Explorers Camp. Designed as an adventurous complement to Selinda’s two lodges, Explorers Camp debuted in August on the banks of the Selinda Spillway, a deep-blue seasonal river that spreads throughout this private concession near the Okavango Delta.

Traditional in style—with campaign furniture, copper sinks, and bucket showers—Explorers Camp is a seasonal operation that typically sets up in one location for an extended period of time. Great Plains, which also offers canoe-based mobile safaris at Selinda, staffs the camp with guides trained to deliver a "closer to the ground" adventure. "It’s the excellence you experience when you go to a fine restaurant in Paris, where the sommelier comes out and gives you the best bottle of wine," says Dereck Joubert, a National Geographic filmmaker and a co-owner of Great Plains. "That’s what we offer, with a bushman tracker who knows how to walk up to an elephant."

Great Plains also owns Mara Plains and its new Mara Toto camp in Kenya. Scheduled to open early this year, Mara Toto’s five colonial-style tents are located on a bend of the Ntiakitiak River, in an area Joubert says is popular with leopards and other predators. "You go to Mara Plains for all the luxury and also for a good wildlife adrenaline shot," he says. "But if you want to go a bit deeper, Mara Toto gets you a little closer to it. Lions come in and call; leopards walk through camp."

Predators prowling through camp—especially a camp with no platforms or solid walls—is not for everyone, but Pinto agrees that the closer-to-nature experience has insider appeal. "These types of camps allow people to get behind the scenes in a very accessible way," he says. "The Mara Plains lodge is in a great location, but I like the option of going into Mara Toto for a night or two if you want that more intimate experience."

For its bespoke safaris, Micato often pairs a few nights at a mobile-style camp with stays at permanent lodges on either end. Ngerende Island Lodge—a seven-suite retreat on a manicured oxbow overlooking a hippopotamus pool—is a frequent stop for Micato clients in the northern Maasai Mara. In August, the lodge opened Ngerende in the Wild, a two-tent outpost on a rushing stretch of the Mara River, close to one of the major crossing points of the Great Migration.

Ngerende in the Wild’s sprawling military-style tents feature netted patios looking out to the river, and dining areas, massive beds, and tiled-floor bathrooms inside. The camp’s setting, about a two-hour safari drive from the lodge, is in a game-rich area where it is possible to see all the Big Five in a matter of minutes. The water flowing just below the camp, however, is too rough to be popular with hippopotamuses—which is reassuring, given that canvas walls are the only barriers to the surrounding environment.

"This is the real wild—no fences, nothing," says Philip Rono, a Micato safari director who has led trips to Ngerende Island Lodge but is visiting Ngerende in the Wild for the first time. Not a minute later, Rono’s eyes widen at the sound of a high-pitched growl coming from the nearby bushes. "Big cat," he says with a smile, "probably a young one."

Rono is seated with Robert Glenie, one of Ngerende’s co-owners, at a small table draped with a red Maasai tablecloth and set for a three-course breakfast in the bush. "The staff saw a leopard come through camp last night," Glenie says, "and a bull elephant this morning."

Glenie plans to keep Ngerende in the Wild in its strategic position along the river, but he says the camp, despite appearances (and tiled floors), is indeed mobile. "Everything is modular," he explains.

Permanent or not, the camp provides what Glenie sees as a complement to his contemporary lodge. "The one problem with Ngerende Island Lodge is that it’s a bit tame," he says. "We wanted to add something where you could do two days there and two days here in the wild. We want guests to feel like the original explorers who came out with their butlers, their linens, and their gramophones, with 50 people carrying their gear."

The delicate balance between tame and wild is perfected at Singita Explore. The camp’s counterparts at Grumeti Reserves—including the incomparable Sasakwa Lodge—are remarkable in their refinement and remoteness. But if croquet lawns, tennis courts, and private swimming pools seem a step removed from an authentic safari, Explore extends the reserve’s lofty pedigree while offering a down-to-earth adventure.

Operating year-round at Grumeti Reserves, the Explore experience is facilitated by an entourage of private guides, guards, a chef, and several other staff. Even the army of workers, however, does not make the camp mobile in the fly-tent sense. Explore can move, and between groups it frequently does. But it takes more than a day to disassemble and rebuild, so most safari-goers remain planted in the same spot for their two or three nights in the bush. (The only way to go truly mobile at Explore is to reserve all six tents and have them set up in two different locations.)

The fact that Explore can be relocated in anything less than a week is nothing short of astonishing. The spacious guest quarters are accompanied by six to 10 staff tents plus a two-room "mess tent" with a 10-seat dining table, leather sofas, bookshelves, chandeliers, and other seemingly stationary furnishings. As designed by the South African firm Cécile & Boyd, every detail of the mess tent’s contemporary-colonial decor has a place and purpose. Trunks, for instance, are used as side tables, but they also store plates, glasses, decanters, backgammon boards, and bottles of gin on moving days.

Outside the mess tent, an always-burning campfire is surrounded by custom canvas-and-aluminum folding chairs equipped with drink holders shaped to accommodate coffee-mug handles. Even Explore’s silverware is custom made. The three-piece sets, in the spirit of rudimentary camping utensils, stack together inside holders that double as bottle and can openers—not that guests ever need open their own bottles or cans.

Intricately arranged as it is, the Explore experience excels in part because of its lack of planning. The exclusivity of Explore, and of Grumeti Reserves at large, allows for complete flexibility on safari, with no set times for game drives, meals, or anything else. In addition to the standard drives, guests can head into the bush by foot, bicycle, or horseback, or venture into the pitch-black savanna on a night safari, when floodlight-wielding guides are fast to find bush babies scrambling in trees and spring hares scurrying from their holes.

The morning after leading his guests on a night safari, the Singita guide Bennett greets them with news of a cheetah sighting near the border of Serengeti National Park. Setting out in the Land Rover, the group soon locates the two male cats under the shade of an acacia tree. Such a sight in the Serengeti would likely be accompanied by a swarm of safari vehicles, but here at the reserve the cheetahs are alone, lying on their backs and settling in for a morning nap.

"Take a look at their bellies," Ben­nett says, indicating the cats’ bulging white undersides stretched like water balloons to the sky. "It looks like we just missed a meal."

 

Great Plains Conservation, www.greatplainsconservation.com; Micato Safaris, www.micato.com; Ngerende in the Wild, www.ngerende.com; Singita Explore, www.singita.com

This article was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Robb Report. Click here to read more articles from this issue.

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