If you’re contemplating an African safari, no doubt it’s the extraordinary wildlife that’s top draw. But many safari camps and lodges are highlights in their own right. While most are not for the faint of budget, they are peerless when it comes to enhancing the “trip of a lifetime”!
As more safari operations “go green” by committing to environmental and community sustainability, the selection of alluring eco-minded camps and lodges continues to grow. Here are six that will have you online in a heartbeat to secure your deluxe tent beneath the stars — or at least daydreaming about it.
For details on how you can arrange your own custom Africa safari to these extraordinary locations (or 300 other camps in a diversity of price ranges), explore Natural Habitat Adventures’ easy new online tool, the Africa safari planner. It’s free, it’s fun — so start playing!
1. Leleshwa Camp, Kenya
Leleshwa Camp offers the legendary wildlife of the Masai Mara in an exclusive, uncrowded setting. Replete with the ambiance of the classic safari era of a century ago, Leleshwa is a modern-day leader in ecological camp operating practices.
Leleshwa Camp epitomizes the romance of East Africa. Set within the exclusive 29,000-acre Siana Conservancy bordering the world-renowned Masai Mara game reserve, Leleshwa enjoys one of the best wildlife-viewing locations in Africa. Myriad plains animals roam the grasslands, from gazelle and impala to zebra and giraffe. Predators flourish here, too; the Mara is famed for its lions.
Leleshwa Camp’s seven tents rest along a stream valley with expansive views overlooking the Loita Hills and rolling plains. From the annual Great Migration of wildebeest to the Serengeti, to village visits and cultural encounters, a stay at Leleshwa offers a multitude of activities.
“Simple elegance” defines the camp’s classic style, with large canvas tents, rich teak furnishings, porcelain washbasins, and private verandas with 180-degree views. Meals are served beneath canvas or under the stars, and a table set with white linens and crystal offers a surprisingly refined setting in the wild. At night, hurricane lamps bathe the camp in a warm glow while a blazing campfire illumines the black sky.
Leleshwa is a leader in eco-friendly camp practices. Water is collected from the adjacent river in a sub-surface tank and purified for drinking and other camp uses. Drinking water is provided in glass decanters in the tents, and guests get reusable water bottles to take in the safari vehicles. Glass waste is returned to Nairobi for recycling, while biodegradable trash is placed in a deep pit inaccessible to animals. Water for showers and dishwashing is heated in kuni boosters over log fires with wood collected from trees that have been damaged by elephants. The kuni boosters are insulated to ensure high efficiency, though they will soon be replaced with solar water heaters. All wastewater and gray water runs through the camp’s septic systems that discharge into soak pits that release clean water back into the environment.
Leleshwa is deeply committed to bringing the benefits of ecotourism to the surrounding community. Through its location on the Siana Conservation Area, Leleshwa promotes wildlife preservation in conjunction with local communities that depend on healthy animal populations. Tourism provides income and employment and supplements livestock as the traditional Maasai economic base. The camp also supports a local primary school.
2. Zarafa Camp, Botswana
Founded by National Geographic filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert (The Last Lions), Zarafa Camp offers vintage-style luxury among Botswana’s extraordinary wildlife. Enjoy both land- and water-based activities at this 100-percent solar-powered camp.
Zarafa Camp, inside Botswana’s 320,000-acre private Selinda Reserve, defines classic luxury in the bush. Just eight guests are accommodated in four enormous tented suites sheltered beneath ebony and red ivory trees, with vistas of Zibidianja Lagoon. Though its feel is old, the camp has been completely redesigned to incorporate Africa’s safari heritage with contemporary eco-consciousness, including generating all its energy from solar power.
The camp is owned by Great Plains Conservation, co-founded by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, award-winning documentary filmmakers at National Geographic whose work has focused extensively on conservation in the Selinda region, including the acclaimed film The Last Lions.
In Zarafa Camp, the Jouberts have sought to embody the perfect balance of authenticity, luxury and simplicity, with special touches like a copper fireplace in each tent, en-suite bathrooms featuring a copper soaking tub and indoor and outdoor rain showers, vintage furniture like wooden safari trunks and writing desks, and a broad wooden veranda with director’s chairs positioned to survey the wildlife activity in the lagoon. The camp’s main area is furnished in the same ‘campaign’ style and evokes the refined safari ambiance of a century ago.
Wildlife activities include game drives, walking safaris and pontoon boat cruises. The broad floodplains are home to a tremendous diversity of species, from resident prides of lion to huge herds of elephant and packs of wild dog. It also supports great numbers of ungulates, from the rare roan to the prolific zebra. For each guest’s stay of four nights or longer, Zarafa Camp will donate $25 per person to the NG Big Cats Initiative to help curb the sharp decline in Africa’s population of lions and other large felines.
3. Gorilla Forest Camp, Uganda
Tucked within the dense rainforest of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Gorilla Forest Camp is the optimal base from which to track these charismatic and critically endangered animals. True to its conservation ethos, the camp is a leader in a host of sustainable practices.
Gorilla Forest Camp is nestled deep inside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, the realm of about half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas who live within this landscape of jungle-covered volcanoes, valleys, waterfalls, lakes and dramatic mountain ranges. This camp is the ideal base for a gorilla tracking adventure, offering surprising luxury and sophistication in such a remote setting,
The only accommodation located within the park itself, the camp offers an unrivaled location. Private verandas overlook the lush forest, and it’s not uncommon to see a gorilla or several wandering the grounds as you’re relaxing with a cup of tea. Cozy tent suites have comfortable beds with down comforters and deep soaking tubs to ease tired muscles after a day of arduous tracking in the rainforest. Dinners are served beneath thatch or outdoors by the roaring campfire, where local musicians often come to play.
While seeing wild gorillas at close range — an experience that ranks among the world’s premier wildlife encounters — is the top draw for most guests, other wildlife is often sighted here, too. Rare forest elephant, giant forest hog, bushbuck, duiker and 11 kinds of primates, such as red-tailed and blue monkey, black and white colobus, baboons and chimpanzees, also thrive in the forest, along with more than 350 species of birds and 300 kinds of butterflies.
Conservation in integral to Gorilla Forest Camp’s mission. As the only accommodation inside Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the camp holds a privileged place within the protected habitat for the critically endangered mountain gorilla. From its architectural design that honors the local environment to efforts to create a minimal footprint, the camp incorporates measures that respect the land, its wild inhabitants and the local community. Solar energy, careful wastewater management, and biodegradable soaps and cleaning agents are all part of an eco-aware approach. All solid waste is sorted and removed, while scavenger-proof cages are used for temporary waste storage. Wherever possible, local labor and sustainable materials are used in construction and maintenance, and local people are hired and trained as camp staff. The camp also supports local projects such as schools and healthcare initiatives.
4. Serra Cafema, Namibia
Serra Cafema is a camp as unique and extraordinary as its setting within the austere Namib Desert. Explore the dunes and riverside oases in an exceptionally remote location. A stay here benefits the Namibian Sea Turtle Project as well as the local Himba community.
Serra Cafema, located in the extreme northwest corner of Namibia, is one of the most remote camps in all of Africa. The camp is tucked beneath shady trees on the banks of the Kunene River, the only permanent source of water in the austere Hartmann Valley. The river creates a lush ribbon oasis as it winds through the lunar-like landscape of the Namib Desert, one of the world’s most arid environments.
The intimate camp offers surprising luxury in such a rustic setting. Eight canvas and thatch chalets blend harmoniously with the desert environment, appointed in natural materials in a serene palette of muted earth tones. Each suite has a private wooden deck overlooking the river. A sunken lounge, bar and swimming pool also survey the life-giving water that beckons hoofed game.
Activities at Serra Cafema explore the Namib Desert and the lush oases along the Kunene River, a vivid study in contrasts. Informative nature drives and carefully guided, ecologically sensitive quad bike excursions through the dunes allow guests to experience the unique habitats of the Namib in all its arresting power. Boating on the river provides an opportunity to view crocodiles and water birds, which seem out of place in these moon-like environs. A cultural highlight is visit to a Himba tribal camp — one of the last true nomadic peoples in Africa.
A visit to Serra Cafema Camp supports the Namibian Sea Turtle Project, which protects green, loggerhead and leatherback turtles that nest just north of the mouth of the Kunene River in Angola from poachers and other threats, and which provides resources to monitor and research the animals in Namibian waters.
The land on which Serra Cafema sits is leased from the 741,000-acre Marienfluss Conservancy, inhabited primarily by the Himba people. The camp trains and employs local community members with the ultimate vision of making Serra Cafema a venture that is wholly staffed, run and owned by the Himba.
5. Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, South Africa
Earth Lodge is a remarkable blending of design, materials and colors drawn straight from its bushveld setting. Proceeds from the lodge go in part to cutting-edge environmental management practices on the private Sabi Sabi Game Reserve that surrounds it.
Taking its cue from its wild surroundings, Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge has been called the most environmentally sensitive lodge in Africa. Each deluxe suite is a unique work of art, featuring individually designed furniture crafted of natural materials, glass-fronted bathrooms with indoor and outdoor showers, a private plunge pool, and personal butler service.
The dining area overlooks a waterhole frequented by game, while the walls of the outdoor ‘boma’ are evocatively sculpted from tree roots. A secluded library and meditation garden invite relaxation between game drives and walking safaris. The lodge also boasts an underground wine cellar with more than 6,000 bottles of rare wines to complement the impeccable African-fusion cuisine. Following a day in the bush, retreat to the comforts of the Amani Spa for holistic body, skin and beauty treatments.
Because there are no fences between the private Sabi Sabi Game Reserve and Kruger National Park, great concentrations of wildlife move freely through this unspoiled sector of African wilderness. The diverse habitat is home to a great variety of wildlife including the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant — as well as cheetah, wild dog and more than 300 bird species. Since there has been no hunting here for over half a century, the animals have become habituated to safari vehicles, allowing for exhilarating close-up photography.
Earth Lodge lies within the private Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, which has implemented an extensive Habitat Management Plan that covers a wide range of complex sustainability issues, including wastewater management, alien species eradication and sustainable fire management. Because of the success of its wetlands management program, Sabi Sabi received the Imvelo Award for the Best Practice in Conservation. Recognizing that conservation and community development are integrally tied, Sabi Sabi employs 200 local people who have the opportunity to participate in internal skills-training programs.
6. Kalamu Star Bed Camp, Zambia
One of the most unique safari camp experiences in Africa, Kalamu Star Bed Camp immerses you in the sensory world of the African night. Three timber platforms rise 10 feet above the ground like treehouses overlooking the bush, with the starry sky as the roof!
Kalamu Star Bed Camp puts guests in touch with the African wilderness in a way that few other safari camps can. The simple yet romantic camp on the banks of the Luangwa River is reachable only on foot, as part of a classic Zambian walking safari on the Kalamu Walking Trail.
Three open-air timber platforms tucked beneath shady trees are separated from the bush by just a gauzy mosquito net canopy. It’s as if you’re sleeping out beneath the stars, though in wonderful comfort and safety. Each platform has two twin beds dressed in white cotton linens, plus en-suite facilities with hot and cold running water, and lanterns to light the night. The camp’s dining area is set up on the riverbank with meals served around the campfire.
The camp is situated in the southern sector of South Luangwa National Park, a wild and remote region sustained by the Luangwa River, which supports high densities of wildlife. Home of the original African walking safari, the area unveils its natural treasures in a more intimate fashion to those who discover it on foot (with an armed guide). Watch giraffe and hear elephants trumpet at close range, look for leopards lounging in the trees, perhaps witness a lion take down a buffalo in front of your eyes. There is plenty of wildlife watching to be had right in camp — including the noisy hippos that mill about in the river.
In association with Kalamu Lagoon Camp, where safaris on the Kalamu Walking Trail originate, Kalamu Star Bed Camp was recognized by the South Luangwa Conservation Society in 2011 for its accomplishments in sustainable operations, including solar-heated water. Through participation in The Wilderness Trust, the camp dedicates proceeds to improving education and conservation awareness among community youth, and demonstrating how jobs within ecotourism can help sustain both the environment and the local economy.
Feature photo: An elephant at Zarafa Camp, Botswana
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