Amazing African safaris that will inspire and give back
Safari vacations are all about enjoying the environment: the diverse topography, the rich wildlife and the unique local cultures. So it’s only natural that protecting the environment—and all who inhabit it—is a crucial part of running a safari camp. We recently checked out some new and notable safari spots to see how they are getting green right.
With the soul-stirring landscapes and vast migrating herds of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park (and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park just over the border), East Africa is considered the most “iconic” safari destination—the land of Out of Africa and vintage Hemingway, and a must for first-time safari-goers. It doesn’t take long to see why: Before we even made it to the year-old Elewana Sand River Maasai Mara (elewanacollection.com), we spotted nursing baby elephants, mama lions protecting cubs and herds of grazing giraffe and zebra just steps from the jeep.
To help preserve this secluded slice of the Mara game reserve, the 16-tent Sand River uses solar power to heat water and filter the pools, and has built an ingenious charcoal wine “cellar,” which is cooled by fresh water. They also have a policy of not allowing drivers to radio other jeeps if they come across something interesting on a game drive—which means guests are able to enjoy the experience and take their time watching the wildlife, without being swarmed by other cars.
Though the topography around the 12-tent Olare Mara Kempinski (kempinski.com) is rockier and more rugged, the wildlife riches continue here, with sightings of wildebeest, hippos, leopards, buffalo and more. Originally built as a private family retreat along the Ntiakitiak River, Olare opened to the public in 2013, and now features several river-view dining areas, a bonfire nook, an organic garden and a grove where guests can help plant trees to repopulate areas munched on by hungry elephants. Therapeutic massages, performed in-tent and using nourishing, herb- and flower-scented African oils, help soothe muscles after bumpy game drives.
As with many camps in the region, Olare’s staff includes some Maasai tribesmen, and guests are welcome to visit a nearby Maasai village during their stay. Though within walking distance to a small town with shops, schools and services, the residents here still live traditionally; visitors will tour the low-slung mud-and-dung huts, learn about rituals and daily chores, and shop an open-air market for beaded belts and bowls, carved wooden tableware and colorful jewelry made by the tribespeople.
Perched on a cliff overlooking a part of the Serengeti National Park that is full of thick foliage and massive boulders, Elewana Serengeti Pioneer Camp (elewanacollection.com) is a 10-tent, zero footprint camp designed to evoke the mobile camps of the 1930s—with stylish, vintage-inspired furnishings, but no open power outlets in the tents. Instead, guests are encouraged to plug-in devices in the “charging tent,” then spend their time enjoying stunning sunrise views from the open-air lounge or heading off on drives to look for “big cats.” All tents are powered by solar panels, and in keeping with the camp’s “lowest possible footprint” motto, everything, including the swimming pool, can be packed up and all trash is taken to Arusha, the closest big city, for recycling—minimizing the intrusion on the environment.
The Serengeti Park is about as large as Connecticut, so the panoramas are totally different at the private, 350,000-acre Singita Grumeti Reserve (singita.com), which borders the Western Corridor of the Serengeti. This reserve is home to several Singita properties, including three tented camps (one of them mobile), two lodges and the private Serengeti House villa, each set in a different area for maximum game-viewing opportunities. Stretched atop a plateau, the stunning Sasakwa Lodge has several unique facilities, from a world-class wine cellar and an equestrian center to a fully equipped spa; at the latter, services use ingredients like natural loofah from the Tanzanian coast and the bark of the indigenous Mwarubaini tree, believed to help heal 40 ailments.
Because Singita oversees so much land in the area and employs so many locals, they have implemented a number of eco-friendly programs to help protect and preserve the region. The Environmental Education Center welcomes a group of teens (ages 13-18) each week and trains them on conservation, recycling, designing sustainability projects and more; the teens then go back to their schools and villages and help spread the word.
A dedicated Singita community outreach department also oversees introduction of at-home poultry farms, so villagers can earn extra income; anti-hunting and –poaching education; sunflower oil pressing co-ops; forest beekeeping projects producing organic honey; and Ghomacos, a co-op of about 70 herb, vegetable and fruit farmers from whom Singita is committed to purchasing produce. The company has built several village schools and created scholarship and vocational-training programs. With all this support and outreach, the community is able to see the positive effect that tourism can have in the region—and why protecting the environment is important for tourist and local alike.
Gorilla Sighting: Rwanda & Uganda
My massage in the hut overlooking the ancient volcano and the mist-enshrouded lake at Rwanda’s Volcanoes Virunga Lodge was well-earned. I let the therapist’s gentle pressure and the perfume from the locally made, lavender-infused oil seep into my senses, but while I was relaxed, I couldn’t keep silent: I wanted to tell her about my day hiking the steep, muddy, bamboo-fringed trails of nearby Volcanoes National Park—and about the heart-stopping moment my guide and I encountered a family of gorillas, including a colossal Silverback patriarch amid the trees. Only 80 visitors a day, split into small groups, can have access to the park, so the ranger-led forays ensure the protection of these fascinating, endangered apes.
The solar-powered Virunga Lodge, composed of locally styled bandas (huts), facilitates gorilla tracking and other sightseeing in northwestern Rwanda (with all the outdoor activities, a stay here also includes one complimentary massage per day). The camp is overseen by eco-tourism pioneers Volcanoes Safaris (volcanoessafaris.com), which also runs three other camps in gorilla- and chimpanzee-rich parts of Rwanda and Uganda. Not that the experience is just about primates: At the culturally rich Volcanoes Gahinga Lodge in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the mountain setting allows for a village immersion program with the region’s Pygmies—a one-time forest dwelling population known for their knowledge of local herbs and plants. —Becca Hensley