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Wild at Hearth

Flying low over the grass runway, the pilot eyeballs conditions and banks for a turn. He announces cheerily that we'll have to make another pass. "Wild pigs snuffled up the strip," he says, lowering the Piper Cherokee's nose and bringing us to a stuttering stop in the middle of . . . well, I'd like to say the middle of nowhere, but this particular nowhere has all the infrastructure of a Swiss canton—and suddenly a truckload of hype.

Africa is, as a friend says, "the flavor"—in fashion, in home design, in style. You can hardly thumb through the waiting-room offerings at the dentist's these days without encountering a pale-faced journalist attempting to strike a note of post-colonial insouciance. "Jambo!" comes the welcoming cry of local children in a Vogue feature shot on the Kenyan island of Lamu. Luxuriate in "ethnic baroque," exhorts a French interiors magazine in a story on the hilariously overdone Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. During the recent couture shows, fashion-forward designers offered quantities of "African-inspired" garments, among them Jean Paul Gaultier's woven Masai cuffs and beaded aprons that frankly ape the designs of South Africa's Ndebele tribe. The fabric of the moment in New York's TriBeCa design shops is a striped cotton handwoven in Dakar. The model of the moment is Sudanese Alek Wek. The music of the moment, in clubs at least, features the griot songs of Mali's Oumou Sangare, fractured and remixed to the dance floor's accelerated beats. And, in one of the demented little ironies globalization has made commonplace, the most popular singer in East Africa right now is not African at all but the scary Québécois megastar Celine Dion.

It's this very cross-cultural blur that brings me to the dirt airstrip we've just landed on. Well, that and the opportunity to experience the African wild before Disney snaps up the continent, fires the endangered critters, and replaces them with non-union animatronics. I'm on safari. At least that's what it says on the elaborately bound brochure my travel agent provided. This may be the place to say that safari strikes me as a slippery concept, a "journey" in its literal translation from Swahili, yet for much of the century an altogether more elaborate fantasia conjured from the pages of second-rate literature. Safari , as I understand it, has come to mean gauze and khaki and stiff sundowners. It means Denys Finch-Hatton pith helmets and Beryl Markham bucket showers and Elspeth Huxley mosquito veils. It means paddock boots and starched lawn dresses and Meryl Streep's risible imitation of Isak Dinesen's way of speaking (anyhow, Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman points out that Dinesen's accent was itself somewhat affected). Anyone who doubts the potency of the images retailed by early East African colonists has yet to see the arrivals hall at Nairobi's airport. On the day I land in Kenya, I spot a married couple claiming their luggage at the carousel dressed in full bush gear, with skinning knives strapped to their calves.

Who knows where they're heading and what to kill?I myself am off to a series of high-end game camps and lodges, places so replete with First World luxury that they'd be all but unrecognizable to Francis Macomber. The first of them is Singita, a 35,000-acre private game reserve adjacent to South Africa's vast Kruger National Park, a place where it's all but forbidden to raise a gun. Singita was once described to me as "Hollywood in the bush," an observation sustainable only if you ratchet up your general estimation of L.A. taste. At Singita's newly built Boulders Lodge, overlooking the Sand River, there are lounge chairs of macassar ebony, cocktail tables made from Zairean drums, lamps fashioned from ostrich eggs, Kuba cloth cushions, and enough chic Africana to make it clear that the politics of a postcolonial era have forced some changes in what constitutes safari style. If it's true that a half-century ago Hemingway shaved his head and daubed himself with clay to impress a Masai girlfriend, then it also seems that the industry he did so much to invent has resorted to wearing African drag.

"People love Singita," claims Olivier Souchon, former manager of the reserve's Ebony Lodge, "mostly because it doesn't matter who you are. Everyone's treated the same." Democracy of the privileged doesn't come cheap, as we know. Rooms at Singita cost $1,300 a night. Yet even an impecunious nobody would probably concede that the tariff is justified by a staff-to-guest ratio of better than three-to-one; by the almost embarrassing ease of daily laundry service; by freshly laid fires and private plunge pools; and most of all by the fact that the lodge has some of the best game viewing in subequatorial Africa.

At Singita, animals migrate with less restriction than perhaps anywhere outside Botswana's Okavango Delta. Travelers, too, are able to move about in startlingly unfettered ways: in open vehicles or on ranger-guided walkabouts, generally enjoying a kind of access that seems heady and somehow too good to last. Over the course of a three-day stay here, I encounter not only big cats but white rhino and abundant elephants and all manner of hoofstock and birds so outlandish they appear to have escaped from Saturday morning cartoons. On the first of two daily game drives, a ranger guides our Land Rover up from a riverbed to an old sand track and brings my small group face-to-face with a prowling leopard. In the vaulted dark of one evening, a tracker spots a group of just-roused lions and then follows them to a remote copse. There we find them battling over a zebra kill with a yelping clan of hyenas. "I've been in the bush a dozen times and never seen anything like this," says a South African woman riding in the Land Rover with me. "You don't know how lucky you are." Actually, she's mistaken. I do.

Days at Singita begin around dawn with an armed guard's knock on the door. In this, Singita varies little from the routine followed at most camps. Rusks and hot coffee are waiting in the great room, where a fire is lit against the chill. The early-morning game drive is followed by a huge breakfast and an insignificant pause before it's time to eat again. What meals lack in culinary refinement they make up for in quantity. You eat a lot on safari and a lot of what you eat is elevated boarding school food. But if it were haute cuisine I wanted, I'd be back on some overcrowded banquette in New York. Instead I'm idling in my suite, pretending to read while a troop of vervet monkeys in a nearby jackalberry tree feign interest in its offerings as they scope out the fruit bowl in my room.

My loafing spell is preparatory to a late-afternoon game drive timed to what I think of as an evolutionary shift change; the day workers of the wild head home as the night crew punches in on some immemorial clock. This tensely held balance between diurnal and nocturnal feeders is one of the wonders of the bush. A ranger points out that large carnivores are rarely adapted to daytime hunting; they're too big to stalk and sprint in the heat. Daylight belongs to the lighter-bodied ungulates, which can graze in the relative safety of the herd and then revisit their meals later as cud. Most big cats don't rouse themselves until twilight and after; it's then that you encounter them moving through the high grass, or lazily skulking down sand roads in dry-bed dongas, their voices carrying in the clear air, a complex of territorial vocalizations that are so various and subtle they must be language.

FROM SINGITA, I LEAVE THE SABI SAND RESERVE and drive five hours across Blyde River Canyon to Makalali, a 28,000-acre camp owned by an American, Charles Smith. Located well outside Kruger's Mpumalanga province, Makalali lies in a region of South Africa's lowveld given over mainly to vast fenced preserves. Some, like Makalali, are for people who prefer to view big game; others are for people who would sooner hunt game down.

There are those who envision a time when the fences fall, the hunters pack up, and the animals again roam free. Against that day they use translocated animals to repopulate their corner of the African ark. Most of the Big Five—elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and buffalo—can be found at Makalali, which shares traversing rights with an adjacent camp. None of the game viewing there disappoints. One bracing morning at daybreak, our vehicle stops for a herd of cow elephants traveling with their young. We sit in silence as they lumber past and then vanish into the forest, snapping branches as they go. Often enough, though, as the ranger-driven vehicle bashes through the bush, we find ourselves fetching up at spooky electrified fencing, which tends to dampen the spirits, as though one had been dreaming of the bush and awakened in Discovery Channel jail.

MAKALI CAMP WAS THE BRAINCHILD of Charles Smith's older brother, who was killed, along with his mother and a close friend, when their small plane crashed in South Africa's Drakensberg range in 1994. The younger Smith carried on his brother's vision of a camp that would draw on the various idioms of African tribal architecture, erecting a four-camp preserve styled after African thatched-roof rondavels and designed by Italian architect Silvio Rech. Among Rech's many African commissions are Mombo Camp in Botswana, Conservation Corporation Africa's renovated Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania, and a new hotel in the Seychelles. In each location he has deployed indigenous idioms (wood carving from Zanzibar, the mud huts of the Masai) and materials (thatch and folded palm leaf, crude pierced ironwork, hand-stitched bark, and Congolese Kuba cloth) to assemble rooms that some find fantastical and others deride as kitsch.


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