Safari means journey in Swahili, and the journey itself is an essential part of what makes a good safari camp. Here's what I look for:
1. A sense of place - A long dirt track (or better, no track!) that appears to go nowhere. The camp should be tucked away from view so you really feel like you’re in the bush. Most importantly, there should be no fences or signs saying “keep away from the hippos”, this is the bush after all.
2. Location, location, location - national park vs. conservancy? Personally I prefer conservancies (either private or community owned). There are no restrictions on the number of tourists who can enter a national park, but there are strict limitations on the number of beds (and guests) within a conservancy. Since there are fewer people, the fees are higher, but the experience is also much more exclusive and intimate. Put simply, watching a rhinoceros surrounded by twenty 4WD vehicles and mini vans is no fun.
3. Feeling at home - who wants to stay in a hotel when you can stay in a very beautiful home instead? There is no reception, but someone will always welcome you. If you're lucky, they will serve delicious homemade delicacies, like carrot cake and tea on arrival. And since it's more like a home, it’s small and intimate, meaning 8 tents or less, spaced far apart for maximum privacy.
4. An element of romance - there is something terribly sexy and romantic about being on safari. When night falls, I look for a camp lit with lanterns, enormous beds with luxurious white linen, and white muslin mosquito nets billowing in the breeze.
5. Small details - "it's all in the details" as they say. A hot water bottle when you get into bed, French press coffee and home-made biscuits brought to your room as a morning wake-up call, fresh flowers picked from the garden, kitenge bathrobes, and authentic local fabrics.
6. Travel in style - not all safari vehicles are made equal. I look for Land-cruisers that are as big as boats, completely open for maximum game viewing. The best ones have leather-bound metal work to soften the cage like feeling of the vehicle, and mod-cons like charging stations and an on-board fridge that charges while you drive (for ice cold drinks at sundown). Tiered seating is important, and while the seats at the back are the bumpiest, they also have the best view. Above all, a good safari guide is essential! One who can read the crowd, who is well informed, good humoured, makes great drinks, and takes great photos “say chapati”.
7. The Staff - sometimes the most average place can be made extraordinary by the people in it. You know you're in the right place when there is a warm and genuine greeting on arrival. The staff use your first name when they interact with you, which makes it more personal than being called sir or madam. Finally, don't underestimate the role of the camp manager(s). A good camp manager will have an exceptional eye for detail, be a charming host, an experienced and knowledgeable game spotter, and create harmony among guests and staff.
Now, let's talk about price, or why you should pay $700-1,000 per person per night if you can.
If there's one place where it's worth paying a LOT of money for accommodation, it's in the Kenyan bush. Remember, you're not just paying for a place to sleep, this price also includes:
When you think about it, that's excellent value for money. So if you've got it, and you're not paying for a family of five, then SPLASH THE CASH and have your very own Out of Africa experience. My top 3 choices in the Maasai Mara are:
Of course, not everyone can afford to spend that kind of money. So what are the other options? Unfortunately even mid-range properties in the Mara are expensive, however I recommend:
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