Fly-in safari camping trips

From Kenya’s Northern Frontier to Ladakh’s Nubra Valley, a clutch of new mobile safari camps – offering low-impact but high-luxury bivouacs – are redefining what it means to penetrate true wilderness. Sophy Roberts reports

Chamba Camp Thiksey in the Indus Valley, Ladakh
Chamba Camp Thiksey in the Indus Valley, Ladakh

It is early in the day, when the prayer halls are filling up with the chants of Buddhist monks in Ladakh, the barren Himalayan region where we will be camping for the next few days. We pass a number of these monasteries on our way to the 5,300m-high Wari La pass, where the air gets thinner, the sun brighter, and the signs of habitation few and far between. On mountain bikes, we drop 2,000m on a 24km run down a gravelly track. We freewheel past herds of yak and glacial splints carving up the rock. On a velvety, grass‑covered plateau, we stop for breakfast. It is a grand affair with a chef in a white hat, orchestrated by the camping outfit we’re staying with, Chamba Camp Thiksey, in Ladakh’s Indus Valley.

It’s here, mid-afternoon, that I collapse exhausted in the privacy of my tent, and from the swagged four-poster, take in the view. The high canvas flaps are drawn open like the curtains to a play. Wooden decking, shadowed by a beige and white cotton stripe awning, is furnished with a footstool and tan leather campaign chair. This colonial tableau gives on to a meadow of fescue grasses, with russet seed heads ruffled by the wind. The meadow is backed by willows and poplars – they bend and sway like lung-ta prayer flags fluttering from roadside stupas – that frame the white and ox-blood walls of the 15th-century Thiksey Monastery, which grips a craggy hill. Beyond that lie the naked mountains, the Himalayas’ raw flanks burnished copper in the high‑altitude sun against a stark, azure sky.

One of Chamba Camp Thiksey’s tents
One of Chamba Camp Thiksey’s tents

When I last visited, there was no such comfort in territory this extreme, which makes Chamba Camp’s staff – some 59 servers to 13 tents – conspicuous. This is soft‑landing Ladakh. The eight tents that opened last summer became the first in a new line-up of five such places across India operated under The Ultimate Travelling Camp (or TUTC). It is a clever idea, delivered with polish, the crew moving with the seasons.

In Ladakh, Chamba catches the snowless months of June to September. The World Heritage Site of Hampi, in Karnataka – which features historically significant monuments but no luxury hotels – is another in development.

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In terms of luxury quotient, TUTC is hard to fault. I wash under a hot drench shower. There is a mobile phone beside my bed to call my “valet”, and an air‑conditioning unit that I can switch to heat if the weather closes in. I have copies of Town & Country in my tent, a wooden drinks cabinet modelled on the kind “Britishers” made good use of pre‑Partition, two suede armchairs, three red wool rugs, a writing desk and a chandelier. The ensuite bathroom has a built-in wardrobe and a flushing loo.

Still, there is something missing: the feeling of freedom – of impermanence – that true fly camping allows, by which I mean the lightweight outfit that goes up in a flash, leaves nothing when it comes down, and is transported easily to places others can’t reach. Champa’s tents are connected to septic tanks, which means you can have a bathroom that competes with a world-class hotel; the lighting never fails because it is hooked up to the national grid. The true travelling camp, on the other hand, draws a different line in the sand, making you think on which side of comfort your decision-making lies. While I’m grateful for two nights of easy-going luxury, I’m more seduced by the idea of TUTC’s lighter mobile unit – using smaller, solar-powered “Kenya-style” tents – which travels to Nagaland, in northeast India, in December for the Hornbill Festival, where 16 different tribes gather for 10 days. Called Kohima Camp, it still claims to deliver comfort, with the site taking over 30 people more than two weeks to construct, but doesn’t rely on any permanent infrastructure. The company has also launched a private-charter service using these smaller tents, which presents a different set of opportunities, with the areas of mobile exploration – camping “on the fly” – including Ladakh’s Nubra, Sham and Rumbak Valleys, and Tso Moriri Lake.

A hot-air balloon at Arctic Safari Camp in northern Canada
A hot-air balloon at Arctic Safari Camp in northern Canada | Image: © David Briggs

“The concept really only comes into its own when the camps are taken to places no one else ventures, be it in the Himalayas, Iran or southeast Asia,” says Jonny Bealby, founder of tour operator Wild Frontiers. Bealby is among a group of outfitters using these more agile means to open up remote lands. “To my mind, the luxury doesn’t have to be in the taps and beds, but in penetrating a new frontier.” “The trend’s evolution is rooted in safari,” says Will Bolsover, founder of tour operator Natural World Safaris. “To follow animals, you need to be able to move quickly and lightly. What we’re now seeing is a shift into much more interesting geography, beyond the Masai Mara.”

Examples include the middle-of-nowhere tented Arctic Safari Camp in northern Canada – “it’s African mobile camping, on snow and ice,” says Bolsover – to see polar bears and narwhals. The trip is led by Inuit guides who used to be hunters; the tents, available from May to the end of June, are constructed on the ice floe’s edge. Another expedition tracks Asiatic leopard in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka; Bolsover uses a tented mobile that can be set up on a private basis in other parts of the country, depending on a client’s interests. Hot among the emerging destinations are Chad – in April, South African Michael Lorentz led the recce mobile safari through Zakouma National Park in the south – and Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, where lightweight camps are the only way to get in deep.

A luxury tent at Kohima Camp in Nagaland
A luxury tent at Kohima Camp in Nagaland

Even in Botswana, a destination well served by high-end lodges, this mode of travel is on the rise – and among clients who could well afford the fanciest lodge around. “I’ve just returned from the 10th African safari I’ve led for one particular group of guests,” says Lorentz, “and the brief was simple: they wanted to escape the predictability of the luxury-safari industry. We are increasingly being asked to unclutter the ‘luxury’ experience; our guests want to embrace the serendipitous in travel, which is exactly what the fly camp allows.”

“Sometimes it is the most high-profile client who is choosing the on-the-fly approach,” says Will Jones, founder of Journeys by Design, with whom I travel to Kenya’s Northern Frontier region, where the company offers a range of camps. “With mobile, you are low‑key by definition, which means you can penetrate the very edge of wildness without drawing attention to yourself.”

A ceremony at the Hornbill Festival, Nagaland
A ceremony at the Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

We go in March – a brittle, merciless time of year. The ground is parched and wrinkled like dried-up hide. We fly into Sera-Melako and the tourist lodges dwindle until there is nowhere left to stay. But then the absence of other people is exactly why I’m here. We land the helicopter on an empty riverbed. With no wind to relieve the stillness, my whole body absorbs the silence. I feel the vibrations of the intense African heat. When night closes in, the arc of stars burns brightly above my head in this new frontier where anti-poaching has stepped up and the regional banditry is relatively calmed. There are five of us in the party, sleeping in a line of raised safari “cots” hooped with mosquito nets. We have sundowners beside gullies where Lichtenstein’s sandgrouse take flight in the last minutes of evening light. We visit “Gong Rock”; as stone strikes stone, a deep and primal sound rolls across the land. We walk the confluence of two luggas (dry riverbeds), to a hidden valley in the heart of Rendille country, and at the end of the day, I wash under a bucket shower of cooling water.

To me this is zen safari, an almost meditative way of travelling with nothing superfluous to interfere with the experience. Each piece of kit has a purpose, with every kilo carried thought about with care: from the quality of the cotton sheets to the softness of the pillows, from the pitch of the canvas chairs that circle the evening fire to the style of the palm awning strung up to provide midday shade. This is the ultimate travelling camp – a textbook example of how light luxury in the wilderness can be – defined by its ability to reach into logistically complicated territory.

Journeys by Design’s Sera fly camp in Kenya
Journeys by Design’s Sera fly camp in Kenya

It’s also what I’m looking for in Ladakh, when I cross into the Nubra Valley over the more than 5,350m-high Khardung La pass, leaving behind Chamba Camp to experience Kaphila, a brand-new mobile-tented operation providing bespoke itineraries anywhere in India, often oriented around festivals or seasonal wildlife migrations in parts of the country where luxury hotels don’t exist. The founders are three Indian naturalist-conservationists: David Sonam, Hashim Tyabji and Rahul Sharma. I’m travelling with Sonam, the Ladakhi in the group who leads Kaphila’s Himalayan trips.

The higher we go, the further we drive into a blizzard that within a few hours will close the road. We press on, getting ahead of the army convoys headed towards the Siachen Glacier – a key area in the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan – and sink into the Shyok River Valley. There are no signs of man (Shyok means “Sorrow”, a chastening reminder of the area’s history of floods), which gives a sombreness to the place that also comes from being trapped between two high mountain walls. When we stop the car, I pick up granite stones that have been ground by the river into perfectly round spheres.

The main mess area at Journeys by Design’s Sera fly camp in Kenya
The main mess area at Journeys by Design’s Sera fly camp in Kenya

Our camp is reached by a precipitous switchback cut through overhanging rocks plastered with clay, which drips off the cliffs like melted wax. At the top of this gorge lies an apron of green and gold – fields of barley, wheat and peas, tipping off the edge of a 4,000m-high plateau. In front of it parades the aggressive beauty of the Karakoram Range, the mountains’ ragged crests dusted with white. The colours shift and change with streaks of cirrus clouds; light moves across the peaks, turning them purple, peppermint and cream; white rain blurs the glaciers until the light shifts again and the patchwork of snow glimmers like mercury in the sun.

Facing this vista is our simple but elegant camp: a cook’s tent, a mess area and a guest tent with an ensuite bathroom. The shower is a copper bucket and cup, on a wooden deck arranged over riverstones. The copper sink sits in a pretty wooden console with a mirror hinged in brass. The loo is a wooden box (the system performs some kind of eco-friendly alchemy used by NASA), while the bed is like sleeping on a cloud, with the line of sight opening up to an awning strung with Buddhist prayer flags. The near view is lit up by lanterns that burn with a real flame, and beyond that are the wildest Himalayas I have ever seen. The bespoke design is truly mobile, with everything from beds to poles broken down to parts not more than a metre in length at most, which means the whole camp can be mule-packed to reach corners of the Himalayas without roads. This is surely the point of a tented camp – the privilege of access, which this new Kaphila outfit nails.

An Asiatic leopard in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
An Asiatic leopard in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka | Image: © Sri Lanka Tourism

In Khema village, Sonam shows us a ruined house with a small family prayer room hidden deep inside. This is where Ladakh’s most well-regarded 20th-century artist, Spon Rigzin, came to paint in the 1950s. His delicate thangkas are barely protected by silken rags; they are hung among 18th-century Tibetan prayer scrolls gathering dust. At the head of another valley, where in winter Sonam tracks snow leopard, we walk for an hour beyond Digar village to a 10th-century, 11ft-high stone, on which four figures of the Bodhisattvas are carved in the three rock faces.

The imagery is almost erotic in its beauty, with each body carved to show the alluring curve of hip and breast. Despite its monumental presence, this exquisitely beautiful piece of art remains almost entirely unknown to all but the local 300‑odd people, and the community-based NGO, the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation. Occasionally a villager might come to make an offering at the foot of the statue, which sits precariously on a cliff; at any moment, these foundations could give way to the emptiness below, where the wind yawns and the rocks groan and a river runs fast in the summer melt.

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Pressing my hands to the stone, I find myself going to that shadowy place of wishing I had been born in another time, when the Great Game was being played out from here to Baltistan. Yet this trip has also proved that in 2014 there are still secrets to uncover – and that it can be done easily, given knowledge, tentage and a few luxury amenities that weren’t available to those 19th-century spies dressed as monks, the same who smuggled artefacts out of these wild passes where the air is so thin that everything burns more brightly, even the ice.

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