The first time I went to Tanzania’s famed Serengeti – some 40 years ago now – I was awestruck by what I found there. We stayed in simple government lodges, which, apart from some mobile camps and a couple of small private ones, were all there was. Butter and soap were scarce, you couldn’t be sure there would be a lightbulb in every room, and lavatory paper was strictly rationed. But we shared the Ngorongoro Crater with barely a couple of other 4x4s. And what we saw was wondrous. It seemed to me the wildest, most magnificent place I’d ever seen.
Today there are over 130 lodges, hotels and camps in the Serengeti, ranging from more affordable big ones to the swanky Four Seasons Safari Lodge and Singita’s six über-stylish camps, lodges and private houses. Pressure on viewing the Ngorongoro Crater is so great that vehicles have to queue up for entry, while down on the crater floor it can seem almost as crowded as a London street.
As populations continue to swell (in 1978 Tanzania was home to 17.6 million; today the figure is 58.5 million), it’s becoming harder and harder to find the old, wild, empty Africa. And the small, simple camps run by passionate lovers of wildlife rather than remote (if efficient) corporations – people who do it not because of fat profits (they’re clued up enough to know there won’t be any) but because they love the way of life – are becoming evermore precious.
If you look hard enough, though, there are still a few camps whose real USP isn’t co-ordinated cushions or fancy grub but the sense of being deeply immersed in Africa’s natural environment, where the tales told round the campfire will linger long in the memory and where what you get is the owners’ profound personal commitment to sharing the world they love with their visitors. Some are run by those who have lived in Africa most of their lives; others are owned by newcomers who have found in Africa something that moves and touches them, something they couldn’t find elsewhere.
Geoff and Vicky Fox, for instance, have been in Tanzania since the 1960s, when Geoff came to work on Brooke Bond’s tea plantations. Today the Fox family is deeply embedded in Tanzanian life. Three of their sons own a series of safari camps in the country, as well as an airline. Meanwhile, Geoff is long retired from the tea business and he and Vicky now live at Mufindi Highlands Lodge, high up in the East Arc Rift Valley, surrounded by tea plantations and rainforest with absolutely stunning views. Here they have 10 wooden chalets in which visitors can stay and get to share their way of life. It’s not a place for the big five or those keen on fancy interior design. It’s where you come to get away from the dust and heat of a safari, to sleep in after all those 5.30am starts, to stretch the legs after sitting for too many hours in 4x4s and to get a real feel for a fast-vanishing way of life.
Mufindi is a proper working farm, run by Geoff and Vicky, who are always there, sitting round the table sharing their ample, straight-from-the-farm food, along with their stories of the past and how they’re coping with the ever-changing present. All around are the schools and clinics their trust supports; there are lakes to fish or kayak in, horses to ride, a tennis court, great birdlife, picnics to be had. But most of all, it is worth visiting for its old-fashioned charm.
A few hours’ drive away is one of my favourite parks in Africa: the Ruaha – little known, little explored, wilder and more vast than Serengeti, with 20,226sq km compared to Serengeti’s 14,750, but in all that space are just 120 beds (compared to Serengeti’s 3,000). At its heart lies the mighty Ruaha river, and the landscape is strewn with forests of baobab trees. Palms line the river banks, acacia trees dot the savannah and rolling hills form the horizon, while black eagles nest in rocky escarpments.
Once, like most of Africa’s parks, it was stuffed with game. As recently as 2009 it had some 34,000 elephants; by 2015 it was down to just under 16,000, but if you had never been there before you would scarcely know it. Wherever one looks there seems to be small groups of elephants, often with babies, munching their way happily through the acacia trees. It is also home to 10 per cent of Africa’s total lion population.
And better still, it is here that you will find Kichaka, one of the most enchanting camps in all of Africa, and Ikuka, a highly sophisticated and delightful camp set high on the edge of the Mwagusi escarpment. Ikuka is owned by a small group of family investors and run by two of them, Mark and Chloe Sheridan Johnson. Mark first came to the Ruaha as a six‑week-old baby (his father too worked in the tea industry) and, growing up in the surrounding area, he grew to love it dearly. After working for nine years in the Selous reserve, where he met Chloe, they opened Ikuka just under two years ago. It is their own very personal project, which Mark oversees. Though he doesn’t do the guiding – he has highly experienced guides who seem to love the place as much as he does – he is a constant presence, making sure that the guests get to see and do what they have come for, that those who want to walk can tramp through the bush and those who want to chase after big game (the “cats”) can have a go. It has just six spacious and beautifully set-up tents, each with its own private balcony and a huge adjoining bathroom. There is wonderful food (when I was there everybody asked for the recipe for the chef’s astounding fish curry) eaten at a traditional communal table, round which tales of sightings are told, friendships made, addresses swapped.
Way over on the other side of the park, where he alone presides, is Andrew Molinaro’s Kichaka camp. Moli, as he is known, is a charismatic guide who was born in the UK but taken toKenya as a young child. He meets me at the airstrip and tells me that although the drive to Kichaka is long (about five hours), it is, in fact, one great big beautiful game drive. He soon stops and gives me a vivid account of the history of the local Hehe people, pointing out the mountain where its chief held out against the German troops until, surrounded by them, he finally committed suicide. We stop for elephants, to admire the home-making skills of the weaver birds, to have a simple lunch of salad and kebabs cooked on a small gas ring.
When we arrive at his camp, I love it at once. He has just three large and luxurious tents (though a fourth can be conjured up if necessary) and a further one for eating and lounging around in. Some couples, he tells me, hire the whole camp just for themselves, staying up to seven days at a time so that they can immerse themselves in the environment, walk, drive and just “be”. Kichaka is small, intimate, deep in the wilds, has wonderful views of the Ruaha river and, apart from a nearby ranger station, there is nobody else for miles and miles.
Here Moli can take you walking through the bush, fly‑camping by the side of the river or driving in his 4x4. He and his partner Noelle Herzog do this, he tells me, “not for the money – hardly anybody makes any money in the Ruaha – but so that we can wake up every morning with the birds and the animals around us and look out at the great river down below. This is where I hope to die.” This is an old-fashioned, proper bush camp of the sort that these days it is hard to find – a place where you feel safe and protected, but never disconnected from the natural world around you.
While the Foxes, the Sheridan Johnsons and Molinaro all have Africa deep in their DNA, Nicolas Negre and Fabia Bausch were both born and brought up in Europe, falling deeply in love with Africa as adults. Negre was a big-game hunter and Bausch an investment banker when they met; Africa drew them together. They were each at a turning point in their lives, looking for change, freedom and meaning. They found it in Chem Chem and Little Chem Chem, two enchanting small camps set in private concessions on the edges of Tarangire and Lake Manyara, where they have brought to life what they call a “conservation haven where all – the wildlife, the people, the land – are respected”. Here they want their visitors to slow down and succumb to age-old rhythms, but they also see the camps as offering an opportunity to enrich and uplift the lives of local people. They employ over 160 people (despite never having more than 32 adult guests), many of whom are engaged in philanthropic efforts and in helping to conserve the local environment. Opening later this year will be their forest camp. Set deep in the bush, it has been created with families in mind, offering space for eight people.
Both camps are highly sophisticated, with delicious food as well as great guides. Little Chem Chem, with six tents, is wilder, home to lions, cheetahs and elephants, as well as the usual antelopes, giraffes and zebras. Chem Chem Lodge, with eight tents, has a spa and no elephants, lions or cheetahs, so for nervous first-timers it is a safer, gentler option. “We do what we do because of our passion for it,” Bausch tells me, “and because when we started we had a dream and we just followed it.”
These small camps are evermore precious because the general trend is towards mass tourism. Governments, strapped for money, are eager for the income from the high taxes they place on every single bed night. Keeping these brave little ventures viable takes more time and effort than most people would ever contemplate. Their owners do it because they love the country, the wildlife, the way of life, and while they may not be rich in the material sense, all of them are rich in the experiences they have had and the stories they have to tell. These are gems where the old Africa is still to be found and where luxury comes in an unconventional form. Enjoy them while you can.