“Knock, knock!” It’s 05h30 and still dark in Ruaha National Park as the friendly tent attendant delivers my morning coffee, biscuits and hot water, leaving them on a table outside my tent.
Although it is very early, I jump out of bed and quickly get ready for another wonderful day on safari. As the sky begins to lighten I sip my coffee and breathe in the cool morning air. What will today bring?
Almost immediately I receive my answer. Faintly at first, quickly getting louder and louder as the whole pride joins in. A reverberating rendition of deep, gravelly roars which pulse across the grassland. The lions are in residence and letting everyone know. Standing there on my own in the heart of Africa, looking into the half-light, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
It’s hard to convey the excitement and anticipation of a new day in the African bush. The unknown is what makes the experience so thrilling.
To many of us, the joy of safari is getting away from it all and experiencing something new. As we zone out of one lifestyle, we temporarily adopt another which challenges our senses in different ways. Tuning in to the unspoilt natural world is the perfect antidote to our hectic modern living, and at this moment in time it has never been needed more.
Right now, the question everyone is asking is ‘when’? When can I be back in the bush listening to lions roaring, or sitting around the camp fire gazing at the setting sun?
But before the question of ‘when’ started dominating our thinking, and working from home became normal, here at Safari Consultants we would often have wide reaching discussions about what makes the perfect safari. One of the key topics was always the balance between comfort and authenticity – at which point does too much luxury detract from the bush experience?
My personal African adventures began when I was very young and I have subsequently travelled to some wonderful places on this great continent, experiencing a wide range of camps and lodges with differing levels of style and comfort. Since starting at Safari Consultants in 2016, my experiences have grown exponentially, and I have had the privilege of staying at some of the most luxurious lodges in Africa.
There is no doubt that there are some incredible safari lodges out there, and nowadays you can combine high levels of comfort with wonderful safari experiences in genuine wilderness areas.
For me though, the absolute best places to really tune in to the natural world, and to escape the stresses of daily modern life, are authentic wilderness camps.
I just love their rustic appeal and the close to nature experience they offer. Their emphasis is on the location, hospitality and simple comforts, with only minimal impact on the surrounding environment. There is something reassuringly authentic about their simplicity.
Of course wilderness camps can vary greatly in style. Zambia is known for ‘bush camps’ which are constructed seasonally from local materials. Predominantly though across Africa, wilderness camps tend to be under canvas or ‘tented’ which allows their footprint to be as gentle as possible, especially when they are mobile or seasonal camps. For the ultimate ‘sleep out’ adventure there are opportunities to stay in treehouse/platforms under the stars, or even simple ‘fly camps’ providing little more than a camp bed and a mosquito net around the camp fire.
Despite being different in style, they all have the same thing in common and that is a real sense of living in the midst of nature. Wildlife can, and often does, wander through camps – especially at night – very often just feet away from your tent, chalet or mosquito net.
Hearing a hippo grazing grass just a canvas width away from you, watching as large bull elephants delicately step over the tent guy ropes silhouetted in the moonlight, and listening to the pitter-patter of a genet’s footsteps on your tent roof, all heighten the wilderness experience and remind you of the world you are part of. Then there are the magical sounds of the African night – cackling hyenas; lions’ earth trembling roars; the hypnotic call of a Scops Owl, or the more dramatic warning calls of baboons and impala.
I vividly recall staying at Remote Africa’s Chikoko Camp (part of their Chikoko Trails) in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. I must have been 12 years old and there was a stampede of impala and baboon through the camp in the middle of the night. The panic stricken baboons made a ruckus after what was most likely a leopard stalking them. It was both scary and thrilling at the same time. The adrenaline rush and closeness to nature was so real and so special and it has stayed with me ever since.
Nowadays and especially at a time like this, with limited Africa travels over the last year, I long to be woken by the sound of a coughing leopard or a buffalo brushing past my tent. I certainly do think ‘when’ to myself quite often!
There is also something cosy, comforting and intimate about staying close to nature. Wilderness camps tend to be small with very personal service. You feel as if you are guests at a private party, and this sense of welcome is achieved largely by the warmth and attentive nature of the camp staff.
In all good wilderness camps the staff are a crucial part of your experience. Not only do they make everything happen, from early morning coffee and biscuits to hot showers and delicious bush dining but they bring soul and character to your stay. Whether it is the enthusiastic welcome on arrival, a hot towel after a dusty game drive, the charisma of the barman or the enthusiastic announcement of the menu for the evening meal – they make your experience special.
After dark, almost everything revolves around the camp fire or ‘bush television’ as the staff often refer to it. It is the setting for cold gin and tonics, after a lovely hot bucket shower, before supper around a communal table. Guests exchange stories and experiences beneath the velvet African sky, punctured by a myriad of twinkling stars. Many long lasting friendships have been cemented around a bush camp fire.
Safari is the Swahili word for journey. A safari can be about more than just the wildlife. Meeting people, embracing culture, challenging your fears and witnessing things you wouldn’t see in your day to day lives is all part of the journey. It’s an escape from the norm, and nowhere offers this better than a true wilderness camp.
You can enjoy the authenticity of wilderness camps throughout Africa, from the open plains of East Africa to the pristine wilderness regions of southern Africa. Levels of comfort may vary but the objective is always the same – to immerse yourself completely in the natural world.
Joe’s Top 5 Wilderness Camps:
1. Offbeat Mara Camp, Masai Mara
Located in Kenya’s Masai Mara, Offbeat is a wonderful tented camp in the heart of the exclusive Mara North Conservancy. It is exclusive, simple in style and all about the people that call it home. The manager, waiters, tent attendants and guides are warm, friendly and make you feel at ease in the wild setting. It also helps that it is in arguably the best game viewing area in Africa.
2. Chikoko Trails, South Luangwa National Park
The Chikoko Trails is a walking trail operated by Remote Africa Safaris in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. It is a two night trail (although can be longer) split between the simple Chikoko and Crocodile bush camps. This was one of my first experiences of feeling right on the edge of comfort and nervousness when on safari. The camps are small, simple and incredibly remote. One highlight for me though is the resourcefulness of the staff. Watching the camp chef cook a perfectly risen cake in a hole in the ground will stay with me forever!
3. Kigelia Ruaha, Ruaha National Park
Owned and operated by Nomad Tanzania, Kigelia is located in the breathtaking Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania. The tented camp offers a lovely blend of simple comfort and the refinement and attention to detail that you find at Nomad’s more upmarket lodges. They have thought about everything and fine tuned their bush camp to perfection.
4. Footsteps Across the Delta, Okavango Delta
In a remote corner of the Okavango Delta, Footsteps is a very simple tented camp owned by Ker and Downey Botswana. It is made up of just three tents and designed for those who love getting out on foot and close to nature. The charm of the camp in my view is the exclusivity of the game viewing area. It is completely private, so you feel like you have your own portion of the Okavango Delta to explore.
5. John’s Camp, Mana Pools National Park
Arguably one of the most stunning destinations in southern Africa, John’s Camp is set on the banks of the Zambezi facing the Zambezi Escarpment across the river in Zambia. Established by legendary Zimbabwean guide John Stevens it is now run by his family and trusted staff. It has the atmosphere of a bygone era and offers a wonderful base to come back to after a day of searching for wild dogs on foot in Mana Pools.