Safari: The secret seven

Seven luxury safaris you probably haven't heard of — until now. The epic wildlife and landscapes still play a big part, but not in a way you'd expect

By Emma Gregg
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:20 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:22 BST

01 The luxury walking safari: Chinzombo Camp, South Luangwa, Zambia

Ever wished you could switch off all the distractions of modern technology — rumbling engines, chattering radios, chirruping mobiles — and just listen to what nature has to say? On a walking safari, you do exactly that. Whether you're travelling long-distance or simply taking short bushwalks, there's something thoroughly delicious about exploring on foot with a trained guide and an armed scout — scanning the dust for tracks or searching the bush for a glimpse of grazing elephants.

In June, old hand Norman Carr Safaris launched Chinzombo, a luxury walking safari camp in Zambia's outstanding South Luangwa National Park. This is the park where photographic walking safaris were invented — and Carr was arguably the man who invented them. Designed by award-winning architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, each of Chinzombo's six spacious villas has a private plunge pool and a massive bathroom. The site has gorgeous river views and private access to one of the richest wildlife areas in the park. The team already know it well — they've been exploring the area since the 1970s.

How to do it: High-season (July to October) rates at Chinzombo Camp start at $875 (£570) per person per night, including full board, activities and transfers to and from Mfuwe Airport, excluding national park fees ($60/£39 pppn). 

02 The private jet safari: Cross the continent with Abercrombie & Kent

If you're travelling to just one or two countries, zipping around by light aircraft allows you to visit a variety of habitats, adding depth to your safari experience. In Kenya or Tanzania, for example, chartering a piloted Cessna Caravan from a reliable local firm such as Yellow Wings makes a lot of sense, especially for groups.

But what if you've a hankering to travel over vast distances, seeing as much of the continent as possible, in just three weeks? This 19-day private jet adventure in March/April 2014 could be just the thing. Travelling by 40-seater Boeing 737, you'll visit eight countries, with VIP access to highlights such as mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda, a helicopter trip over Victoria Falls and a cruise on Botswana's Chobe River. Each stop will be overseen by expert guides, including Abercrombie &Kent's founder, Geoffrey Kent, who'll lead the group on a three-day safari in Tanzania's Serengeti at the height of the migration. 

How to do it: A&K's 19-day, all-inclusive Africa: Across a Continent by Private Jet costs from £55,000 per person (single supplement £9,675). 

03 The desert elephant safari: Hoanib Skeleton Coast, Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Ecotourism specialist Wilderness Safaris used to run the only camp for miles in Namibia's forbidding but fascinating northwest coastal desert. There was much disappointment when Skeleton Coast Camp closed in 2011, but it's soon to be reincarnated on the Hoanib River, 55 miles south east of the old site. The river, which is dry for much of the year, is a lifeline for desert-adapted elephants. Patrolling it in small groups, they feed on the ana and mopane trees, which grow here.

When it opens in 2014, the new camp, Hoanib Skeleton Coast, will have just seven tents. Like its predecessor, it will be the only accommodation in a vast region of remote wilderness. Expert guides will lead you on foot, by vehicle, in hides and by air.

How to do it: Safari specialists offering stays with Wilderness Safaris include Expert Africa and Mahlatini.    

04 The luxury group safari: Cottar's Homestead, Olderikesi Conservancy, Maasai Mara, Kenya

Since when was the Maasai Mara a secret destination? Countless wildlife documentaries — including the BBC's Big Cat series — have brought this spectacular region global fame. Dozens of lodges and camps now flourish here; if you don't pick your safari carefully, you could find yourself sharing each lion or leopard sighting with hordes of other camera-toting wildlife-watchers.

To find out if it's possible to see the Mara from a different perspective, I'm heading for a private concession just beyond the quiet, southeastern end of the national reserve. My plan is to visit Cottar's Homestead, the Mara's first luxury safari property for private parties of up to 10. Perched on a leafy slope of the Olderikesi Hills, on the doorstep of the Serengeti, its surroundings are exclusive and secluded. No chance of budget-safari minibuses photo-bombing your best shots here, then.

The Homestead is the latest venture from Cottar's Safari Service, a family business dating from 1919. Its owner, Calvin Cottar, inherited his love for the African bush from his American great-grandfather, Charles Cottar, a legendary guide, hunter and film-maker. Calvin, 50 this year and with 35 years of professional experience under his belt, is a Gold Level guide who leads one of the top teams in East Africa.

As you'd expect from a family whose ancestors used to take royalty out on shooting safaris, the Cottars are at home around celebrities. As well as the Homestead, they run Cottar's 1920s Camp, a nearby collection of gorgeous, Edwardian-style, marquee-like tents whose past guests include Keira Knightley, Steve Coogan and Angelina Jolie.

I love how homely the Homestead feels. With three large reception rooms, five en suite bedrooms and a staff of eight, it's wonderfully spacious, but handmade details give it a soft, cosy atmosphere. The twisted trunk of an ancient brown olive tree serves as a mantelpiece and walls are hung with a quirky mix of family heirlooms, tribal antiques and contemporary photomontages by conservation artist, Anthony Russell. Natural materials, and careful energy and water management minimise the building's carbon footprint, and balconies frame views of the surrounding woodland and valley. The first-floor hall is a triumph, with a soaring ceiling of Kenyan cedar and eucalyptus and a wide deck that draws you straight out to sniff the air and take in the panorama of the northern Serengeti.

"During the annual migration, that whole valley is black with wildebeest", says Calvin, who has adored this view since childhood.

In a step forward for conservation, the 6,000-acre expanse of bush surrounding Cottar's will soon become Kenya's newest community-owned wildlife conservancy. The transition, due for completion this summer, has been something of a labour of love for Calvin, who believes the best way to safeguard this key wildlife corridor is to ensure its Maasai custodians have a financial incentive to keep it clear of settlements and farms.

We head into this conservancy-to-be with one of Cottars' top guides. We leave before sunrise, our roving spotlight revealing the tail end of the night shift — scrub hares, jackals and early-rising birds. When dawn light finally dissolves the darkness, our Maasai spotter, dressed in scarlet shuka and beads, switches onto full alert.

It's not long before we discover elephants, buffalo and big cats. Their ancestors dodged the worst the big game hunters and local pastoralists could throw at them. Now, thanks to the efforts of a new generation, their future seems more secure.

How to do it: Luxury African travel specialist Mahlatini has bespoke safaris in Kenya, staying at Cottar's Homestead, Elsa's Kopje in Meru and other properties. High-season (July to September), rates at Cottar's Homestead start at $6,480 (£4,224) a night for six adults, including full board and activities.

05 The bush skills safari: Sanctuary Baines' Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana

"First gear, steady on the wheel, take it easy — go!"

Take it easy? Tuelo, my Botswanan guide, is telling me to drive our safari vehicle headlong into a flooded stretch of sandy track, and I'm supposed to take it easy? This is no puddle. Saddlebill storks are fishing in it. It looks deep enough to swallow a double-decker bus.

I'm sorely tempted to reverse, or just wimp out and hand back the wheel. But my pride is at stake. Heart in mouth, I push forward. Okavango floodwater the colour of milky coffee surges over the wheel arches, laps the bonnet and gushes into the back. My companions squeak and lift their feet out of the way. Briefly, the car seems to be swimming like a boat. But before we know it, we're through.

Another triumph. Driving a full-sized, four-wheel-drive safari vehicle is the latest challenge Tuelo has set us on our crash course in safari bush skills. We've already been shown how to tap a palm tree for palm wine, weave a basket from strips of palm frond, set the kind of trap that could catch a guineafowl and forage in a reedy pool for tswii, edible water lily rhizomes. So that'd be lunch sorted, then, were we ever to get lost in the middle of nowhere.

Our base for this brilliant new activity programme is Sanctuary Baines' Camp, a tiny, beautiful and unfussy luxury lodge just outside the Moremi Game Reserve. Raised on stilts above the permanent waters of the Boro River in the Okavango Delta, it's an eco-lodge with a low-impact design: its walls are made from local timber, rustic plaster and a core of stacked-up drinks cans, collected by the local community in a massive village clear-up. A web of walkways designed to keep guests out of range of visiting elephants links the main lodge to the five double rooms. Each has a secluded deck; on dry, warm nights, you can wheel your four-poster out to sleep under the stars.

My first visit to Baines' delivered some memorable experiences. On one game drive, a hundred-strong herd of elephants surrounded us, then melted away to splash and wallow at a water hole with blissful abandon. During another eventful drive, a young leopard crept down from a tree to use our vehicle for cover as it tried, unsuccessfully, to stalk a young tsessebeantelope. Its mother, enraged, charged her offspring, which slunk off in embarrassment.

I have high hopes for this, my second visit, and it's great to be trying something different.

On the third day of our course, we're thrown in at the deep end — literally — with a friendly bunch of mokoro polers. Mokorosare canoes that used to be made from dugout sausage wood tree trunks but now, with timber supplies shrinking, tend to be fibreglass. Standing at one end, pole at the ready, we learn how to make a mokoro glide as smoothly as a punt on the Cam.

We're celebrating this new achievement over a slap-up breakfast when Tuelo hears over the radio that some lions have been spotted nearby. Brushing crumbs from our fingers, we hurry back to the vehicle. It's the moment we've been waiting for — the perfect opportunity for a masterclass in the most glamorous of bush skills, big cat tracking. We reckon we're ready.

How to do it: The three-night Bush Skills Adventure at Sanctuary Baines' Camp in high season (July-August) costs from $4,400 (£2,868) per person, full board, including all activities and transfers by light aircraft and vehicle to and from Maun Airport.

06 The yoga safari: Phinda, South Africa or Vamizi, Mozambique

Yoga safaris are catching on. Immersing yourself in a beautiful natural environment — a swathe of pristine bush, perhaps, or an immaculate beach — is a great way to enhance your regime.

One of the best places to try out your stretches to the sounds of the bush is the gorgeous Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Recently launched, Phinda's yoga safaris are tailor-made: one of Africa's top teachers will prepare a programme of classes in your preferred style, interspersed with game drives, wellness treatments and poolside meditation.

For Indian Ocean views, try Vamizi, a barefoot-luxury island lodge in Mozambique's remote Quirimbas Archipelago. Here, the resident ashtanga yoga teacher puts you through your paces in the seclusion of your villa.

How to do it: A four-day yoga safari at Phinda in high season (August-April) costs from R26,840 (£1,958) per person, including accommodation, all meals and activities.

Scott Dunn can arrange a seven-night stay on Vamizi Lodge from £4,385 per person (based on two sharing a villa), including full board, activities and return flights from London. 

07 The conservation safari: Kubatana Camp, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Move fast, and you can be among the first to revisit Gorongosa, a national park conservation success story. Cleared of wildlife during Mozambique's lengthy civil war, it's now gradually being restored, marking a turnaround in the nation's fortunes as a safari destination. Sir David Attenborough, who visited Gorongosa for the BBC's recent natural history series, Africa, was impressed by its potential.

Gorongosa's wetlands and savannas are home to elephants, hippos and rare antelopes. From July, those keen to witness conservation in action here can book a stay at Asilia Africa's Kubatana Camp, a new rustic base with just six en suite safari tents. Don't expect a luxury safari in the indulgent sense; the emphasis here is on authenticity and sustainability. You may be invited to meet the park's resident ecologists for a chat, or to take part in species location studies and counts. At other times, chances are you'll have the wilderness all to yourself — a genuine privilege.

How to do it: From July to November, Aardvark Safaris is offering a six-night stay at Kubatana Camp from £3,554 per person, including full board, all activities, transfers and return flights from London. 

Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue

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