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Essential Safari Guide

Scott Goetz

At its core, the African safari is a simple undertaking that requires little more than a good guide, a sturdy vehicle, and the built-in entertainment of a wildlife-filled forest or savanna. Too often, however, the process of planning a safari is unnecessarily complicated by the dizzying array of companies claiming to offer the best and most authentic journeys. To help whittle down the many options, Robb Report presents the Essential Safari Guide, an exclusive yet comprehensive compendium featuring only the very best lodges, outfitters, and expeditions in Africa.

Each of the following lodges—selected for privacy, location, activities, quality of guides, and, of course, accommodations—delivers an exceptional safari experience in its given setting. The best safaris, however, combine diverse regions and various modes of exploring them, from lodges and villas to permanent camps and mobile tents. How one combines these experiences is a matter of personal taste, but one best facilitated by a trusted outfitter (see the "Safari Spotlight" boxes throughout the guide) that can handle the complex logistics of African travel while steering you clear of the crowds. No matter the destination—the plains of Kenya, the deserts of Namibia, the rain forests of Rwanda, or a combination of all three—Robb Report’s African-adventure guide will help ensure a simply splendid safari.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all pricing information is listed in U.S. dollars per person per night (based on double occupancy), all-inclusive.

EAST & CENTRAL AFRICA 
Kenya is the birthplace of the African safari, and the country—from its deserts in the north to the savannas of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in the southeast—attracts travelers seeking a classic colonial-style experience. Kenyan safaris also afford culturally rich encounters with the Maasai and Samburu peoples, as well as front-row seats to the Great Migration (usually June and July), when more than a million wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles cross the Mara River from Tanzania’s Serengeti plains. The spectacle can often be seen at its best in Serengeti National Park, one of several prime safari destinations in Tanzania, including the raw and wild Selous Game Reserve. To the west of Tanzania, the jungles of Rwanda and the Republic of the Congo are home to chimpanzees, gorillas, and other elusive primates.

KENYA
Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp and Private Homestead, Cottar’s Private Conservancy
The Cottar family has been leading adventures in East Africa since 1919, and its colonial-themed camp (opened in the 1990s) offers an experience rooted in safari’s golden age. Visitors stay in any of six en suite tents, four tented suites for families, a honeymoon tent, or a new five-bedroom house. After a day sighting the Big Five in Cottar’s Private Conservancy—in the Maasai Mara reserve, bordering the Serengeti—guests sip sherry while listing to a Victrola in the main tent. (From $525 plus $100 per-person conservation fee; house from $4,325, excluding conservation fees, for up to 10 people) www.cottars.com

Elsa’s Kopje, Meru National Park
Built on the hill made famous by Elsa, the lioness from the 1960s book and film Born Free, this 10- cottage camp offers near-private safari experiences on the vast plains of Meru National Park, which is home to Big Five wildlife and a sanctuary for the group’s most endangered member, the rhinoceros. The two- bedroom Private House includes gardens and a swimming pool. ($450–$550) www.elsaskopje.com

Ol Donyo Lodge, Mbirikani Group Ranch
Set on a 275,000-acre Maasai-owned ranch, this grandiose, 10-room lodge with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro was rebuilt in 2008 and acts as a living testament to Great Plains Conservation’s sustainable-tourism model. Activities range from observing the continent’s last great large-tusked elephants and mountain biking among towers of giraffes to hiking through underground lava tubes and sleeping in rooftop beds under an incomparable canopy of starlight. ($450–$975) www.greatplainsconservation.com

Saruni Samburu, Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy
These five villas perched north of Samburu National Reserve overlook watering holes where elephants, reticulated giraffes, oryx, and endangered Grevy’s zebras gather. Guests can immerse themselves in the ways of the Samburu people by participating in Saruni’s interactive Warriors for a Week safari. (From $425) www.sarunisamburu.com

Sasaab, Ngutuk Ongiron Group Ranch
A favorite among the chic safari set, this nine-tent lodge and spa balances on a hillside above Kenya’s third largest river, in the Northern Frontier District. Guests venture daily from the eclectic Swahili- and Moroccan-influenced home base to visit Samburu markets and go on camelback safaris. They return for dips in private plunge pools that overlook elephants bathing in the river below. (From $550) www.sasaab.com

Sirai House, Borana Conservancy
This contemporary estate in the Laikipia District debuted in January and immediately set a new standard for bush luxury in Kenya. Six sophisticated suites host a single party of visitors who can helicopter to the shores of nearby Lake Alice for breakfast and fly-fishing. Back at home base they can enjoy Sirai’s art collection, cinema, billiards room, and gym; play a game of tennis; go on walking safaris; or ride horseback through the Borana Conservancy in the shadow of Mount Kenya. (Estate from $50,000 per week) www.siraihouse.com

REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Odzala, Odzala-Kokoua National Park
Opened last August, this two-camp destination by the Botswana-based safari operator Wilderness delivers an unparalleled primate experience in the northwestern Republic of the Congo, a region that is home to lowland gorillas and 15 other primate species. Guests split time between the camps, each of which has six rooms and a design scheme inspired by the traditions of the local Baka people. Lango is close to savannas and rivers populated with forest elephants; two and a half hours away by car, Ngaga sits on stilts in a tropical rain forest inhabited by more than 100 gorillas. ($5,875 for six nights) www.wilderness-collection.com

RWANDA
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Volcanoes National Park
Set in the foothills of 15,000-foot-tall volcanoes, this lodge offers the best access to the rain-forest territory of the highly endangered mountain gorilla. Eight stone cottages with fireplaces offer views of lava eruptions across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Minutes away from the lodge, guests embark on treks into the shrouded world of the silverbacks in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. ($425– $725 plus $64 per-person community fee and $500 per-person gorilla permit) www.governorscamp.com

TANZANIA
Beho Beho, Selous Game Reserve
Beho Beho embraces the wild spirit of Tanzania’s last frontier, the northern Selous. Eight stone bandas and one private villa flank a main lodge and swimming pool and feature verandas with mounted telescopes. Guests can sight elephants and other local wildlife from the decks and on guided walking safaris. A two-hour walk from the main lodge, Beho Beho’s new tree-house accommodation offers total isolation for adventurous couples. (From $925 plus $75 per-person reserve fee) www.behobeho.com

Four Seasons Lodge Serengeti, Serengeti National Park
Four Seasons arrived in sub-Saharan Africa in November, when it took over management of the Bilila Lodge Serengeti, the first of what the Canadian company says will be several safari resorts. Catering to safari-light travelers who want all the comforts of a full-service hotel, the Four Seasons features 60 rooms, 12 suites, five freestanding villas with pools, a spa, two restaurants, and two bars. (From $1,300; $3,000–$10,000 per villa) www.fourseasons.com

Greystoke Mahale, Lake Tanganyika
The Mahale Mountains are among the last places left where chimpanzees can be seen in their natural habitat. This remote camp of six wood-and-thatch bandas sits on the shores of the mountain range’s Lake Tanganyika and is accessible only by boat. Chimpanzees scream from the adjacent jungle while warthogs forage in the front yard—a white-sand beach leading to water so clear guests can see hippopotamuses swimming beneath the surface. (From $725 plus park fees and transfers) www.nomad-tanzania.com

Kiba Point, Selous Game Reserve
Hippopotamuses and crocodiles rule the bank of the Rufiji River in front of the four cottages at this exclusive-use lodge. Located a mile downstream from its larger sister camp, Sand Rivers, Kiba Point offers fully flexible times and itineraries for safaris by foot, 4x4, or boat. The camp also leads fly-camping expeditions, which allow guests an up-close experience with elephants, lions, and other wildlife of the Selous. (From $625) www.nomad-tanzania.com

Singita Grumeti Reserves, Serengeti
This 340,000-acre private reserve bordering Serengeti National Park is open only to guests of its four small lodges and one mobile camp. The country-club-like Sasakwa Lodge sits high on a hilltop and features tennis courts and multiple swimming pools. Sabora Tented Camp harks back to the golden age of safari, with 1920s-?style tents and claw-foot bathtubs. Faru Faru Lodge is a contemporary retreat overlooking a watering hole, while the mobile camp Singita Explore (see “A Site to Behold,” page 109) blends modern comforts with yesteryear’s adventure. Opened in late 2012 near Sasakwa, the exclusive-use Serengeti House hosts as many as eight guests, who are looked after by a dedicated staff. ($925–$1,775) www.singita.com

Singita Mara River Tented Camp, Serengeti
Opened in November, this beautiful bohemian-glamour camp offers a viable escape from the hordes of minivan travelers that descend on Kenya’s Maasai Mara for the annual wildebeest migration. The six tents are located across the border in Tanzania’s game-rich Lamai Triangle, a watershed and refuge for wildebeests during the late dry season of August through November. ($950–$1,275) www.singita.com

SOUTHERN AFRICA 
Home to Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa offers the most accessible wildlife viewing—and several of the most refined lodging options—for first-time safari-goers. The country also caters to travelers with wide ranges of interests, from fine wine and cuisine to golfing, surfing, scuba diving, and other sports. Just to the north, Botswana is best known for its wildlife-rich Okavango Delta, which safari-goers can explore by canoe, and the barren Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. In neighboring Namibia, the oldest desert in the world stretches along the ghostly Skeleton Coast and is home to rarely visited groups of nomads. Zimbabwe and Zambia are ideal for active, under-the-radar safaris in parks such as Zambia’s Luangwa and Hwange reserves. The two countries share the vast Victoria Falls, which serves as an ideal starting or ending point to a southern Africa safari.

BOTSWANA
Abu Camp, Okavango Delta
Safari-goers become part of the Abu herd while riding through the delta atop Cathy, the 44-year-old matriarch of this first-ever elephant-back safari camp. Six expansive tents built in 2011 draw from the elephants’ elegance with gray-and-bone color schemes. Guests interact with Abu’s seven pachyderms during twice-daily activities and can opt to sleep above the animals’ paddock in a new star bed that is possibly Africa’s greatest safari indulgence. ($1,950) www.abucamp.com

Uncharted Africa Safari Co. Jack’s and San Camps, Makgadikgadi Salt Pans
Founded in honor of the legendary adventurer Jack Bousfield by his son, Ralph, and Catherine Raphaely, Jack’s Camp sits alone near vast salt pans and features 10 tents that channel the spirit of a sophisticated 1940s safari. A few miles away on the edge of the salt pans is the seasonal (April through October) and more private San Camp, offering six tents and running showers. Travelers at both camps walk with Bushman trackers and take part in paleontological and biological discussions with a team of guides. (Jack’s Camp from $1,400; San Camp from $1,100) www.unchartedafrica.com

Jao Camp, Okavango Delta
To maximize views and minimize human impact on the surroundings, Jao’s nine wood-and-canvas rooms are connected by a network of raised decks. After game drives or a canoe ride down hippopotamus paths among the delta reeds, guests can book treatments in the camp’s open-air spa and view the surrounding floodplains over a meal in the second-story dining room. ($1,200–$1,975) www.wilderness-safaris.com

Mombo and Little Mombo Camps, Moremi Game Reserve
The game is rich and the action is fierce on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, where Mombo’s nine tents and the exclusive- use Little Mombo’s three tents are the best places to stay for those hoping to see a predator make a kill. The camps’ legendary service standards include regularly extending game drives to watch a pride of lions on the hunt. In such cases, meals can be delivered to the delayed safari vehicle. (From $1,700) www.wilderness-safaris.com

Zarafa Camp, Selinda Reserve
On the edge of a lagoon heavily trafficked by elephants and giraffes, Botswana’s most exclusive camp delivers an ultimate safari experience. Guests can learn to track lions and leopards through the 320,000-acre private reserve in the manner of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, the National Geographic filmmakers who co-own this Great Plains Conservation property. Back at base camp, guests can join elephants for sundowner cocktails on the deck of one of the four 1,000-square-foot tents, which feature copper fireplaces and bathtubs, World War II–era crank phones, private pools, and outdoor showers. ($1,275–$2,025) www.greatplainsconservation.com

NAMIBIA
Serra Cafema, Kunene River
The three-hour flight by single-engine propeller aircraft from Windhoek is worth it for the chance to interact with the nomadic Himba people who reside in this beautifully barren region. Bordering the Namib Desert, this exclusive camp sits at the edge of the Kunene River. After spending the day exploring the desert dunes on quad bikes, guests fall asleep in one of eight riverside canvas-and-thatch villas to the sound of rushing water. ($825–$1,200) www.wilderness-safaris.com

Zambezi Queen, Chobe River
Zambezi Queen is southern Africa’s first high-end river safari. The floating hotel hosts two- and three-night excursions between Botswana and Namibia on the Chobe River. Guests of the ship’s 14 contemporary cabins explore the region that is considered Africa’s densest in wildlife, with more than 120,000 elephants, 400 species of birds, and countless hippopotamuses and crocodiles. (From $925 for two nights) www.zambeziqueen.com

SOUTH AFRICA
Londolozi Private Granite Suites, Sabi Sand Game Reserve
This elegant three-suite camp within the larger, family-run Londolozi reserve is set amid scenic granite outcroppings along the Sand River. Oversize bathtubs—some of them perfectly and privately shaded by 500-year-old ebony trees—sit riverfront outside each of the rooms, which also have individual swimming pools. Guests have spotted as many as eight leopards in a day on the surrounding Londolozi concession and Sabi Sand Game Reserve. ($1,450) www.londolozi.com

Royal Malewane, Thornybush Reserve
Adjacent to Kruger National Park, this lodge and private residence is bush luxury at its best. The 6 one- and two- bedroom suites feature expansive decks draped in Persian carpets that pad the way to private pools. Each of the six bedrooms in the Africa House residence includes an outdoor shower and deck overlooking the surrounding private reserve, where Big Five sightings are frequent. (From $1,425; Africa House from $13,900 for as many as 12 people) www.royalmalewane.com

Singita Boulders and Ebony Lodges, Sabi Sand Game Reserve
The flagship lodges of the luxury-safari leader Singita are set within a private 45,000-acre property considered to be one of the best locations for Big Five interaction in South Africa. Recently refurbished, the 20-year-old Ebony offers colonial charm, while the contemporary Boulders was inspired by the massive rocks along the Sand River that were incorporated into its design. The two camps have a combined 24 suites. ($1,200–$1,525) www.singita.com

Singita Lebombo and Sweni Lodges, Kruger National Park
Inspired by eagles’ nests, the 15 glass-enclosed suites at Lebombo rise high above the N’wanetsi River on the Lebombo cliffs, overlooking more than 33,000 acres of private land within Kruger National Park. Nearby, the intimate Sweni sits low on the banks of the Sweni River, affording regular views of sunning terrapins, cruising crocodiles, and feeding jacanas. Guests can mountain bike to brunch, camp outdoors overnight, have a monkey-orange massage in the spa, and shop in the expertly sourced boutique. ($1,525) www.singita.com

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, Southern Kalahari
Eight suites made from local stone, red clay, and traditional Kalahari thatch are nestled at the foot of the Korannaberg Mountains. Visitors venture through South Africa’s largest private game reserve, hunting for Kalahari truffles or tracking black-maned Kalahari lions and desert black rhinoceroses. Large groups at Tswalu can book Tarkuni, the owner’s private home, which includes five suites and a swimming pool. (From $1,025; Tarkuni from $5,650 for as many as 10 people) www.tswalu.com

ZAMBIA
The Bushcamp Company Bilimungwe and Chindeni, South Luangwa National Park
From May to December, the Bushcamp Company operates six camps and one year-round lodge spaced to accommodate walking safaris from one to the next. The two best camps, Bilimungwe and Chindeni, each have four tents and facilitate night drives to view leopards, walking safaris to witness herds of roaming elephants, and strolls along the Luangwa River for sundowners on a sandbar. ($650) www.bushcampcompany.com

Royal Chundu, Kazangula Province
Upriver from Victoria Falls, Royal Chundu comprises the sophisticated River Lodge, with 10 suites on stilts over the Zambezi River, and the Island Lodge, which consists of four villas on a nearby private island. Activities range from canoe rides and day trips to the falls to bungee jumping, fishing expeditions for tiger fish, and whitewater rafting. (From $500) www.royalchundu.com

Tongabezi, Livingstone
Livingstone’s first river lodge also lies upriver from Victoria Falls and today offers five chalets and five open-fronted houses with large living spaces on the riverfront. Guests can boat to the tiny Tongabezi-managed Livingstone Island for heart-stopping views from the top of the falls, as well as for a daring dip in Devil’s Pool, located right on the falls’ edge. ($475–$725) www.tongabezi.com

ZIMBABWE
Little Makalolo Camp, Hwange National Park
This classic six-tent safari camp lies in an untouched region of Hwange National Park, home to an enormous assortment of wildlife. Game drives by Land Rover, walking safaris, and visits to hideouts near watering holes prove daily why this is one of Africa’s top spots to view elephants and lions. ($600–$750) www.wilderness-safaris.com

Singita Pamushana, Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve
This hilltop retreat offers privacy, dramatic views over the Malilangwe dam, and the added bonus of philanthropy. Funds from guest stays in any of the six suites or the five-bedroom home help feed 25,000 school children in the surrounding area. Guests’ time at the reserve can be spent tracking rhinoceroses, fishing, and touring San Bushman rock-art sites. ($1,000; house from $6,000 for as many as six people) 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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Photo by Dana Allen
Photo by Cheryl Zibisky