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Wild at Hearth

Although it's booked when I arrive, I'm able to visit the best and remotest of Makalali's four 12-bed camps, the one called Phiva. Set on the Makhutswi River, its conical structures, approachable only by rope bridge, resemble the steeply pitched Tsonga houses of Mozambique. Or they would, that is, if Tsonga villages also had glamorous open-air bars. Three of Phiva's suites overlook a weir favored by hippos; the other three are set on a scrubby rise frequented by baboons. The decoration throughout is a Rech collage of walls painted to imitate Bushman murals and Ghanaian kente cloth and tribal masks and overstuffed furniture to cosset Western behinds. The restrictions on nightly movement, common to all the bush camps, are also enforced at Phiva. "Lions like it up here," a pretty blond ranger tells me. So, she adds, does Kate Moss.

IT'S A SHORT RIDE OVERLAND THROUGH scrub from Makalali to Garonga, a 14-bed camp that shares Makalali's traversing rights and compensates for its relative scarcity of nearby game with a schedule of New Age pampering and the best food I am to have in the bush. Owned by Briton Bernardo Smith (no relation to the Makalali Smiths), Garonga was decorated by locals James and Trish Marshall, who also used objects of far-flung origin: hand-hewn Turkana bowls kept filled with grapefruits; a whitewashed wall whose numerous Moorish niches are smudged by the smoke of votive candles; an austere bed made by the Senufo tribe from the Ivory Coast occupying pride of place in the lobby in a way that strikes me as an African version of the Motel 6 promise: "We'll leave the light on for you."

Garonga is a series of seven half-tented, fixed-frame rooms around a meadow that in rainy years lies submerged. There is a small swimming pool and an open-air treatment room in which guests receive aromatherapy and reiki. I happen to know that Hemingway never had his aura read, although historical evidence suggests that it probably wouldn't have been such a lousy idea. Certain parts of my own aura are somewhat out of whack, the practitioner informs me; I'm blocking my blue and my spirit is hungry for green. Drifting, as she gently waves her hands about my midsection and head, I make a mental note to buy a houseplant when I get home.

Each room has a wide porch, an outdoor shower, and a slightly trippy sense of remove. The game viewing here is unremarkable on my visit, so I settle into observing the bush itself, lazily analyzing the chromatic elements of a landscape composed of bleached grass and matte green jackalberry leaves and lichen-gray marula and a morning haze tinted the nicotine blue of Marlboro smoke. Then I pack my bag and head for Nairobi, my ultimate destination the lodge at Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater.

A GREAT DEAL HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT this unearthly place, where morning mist curtains a vast prehistoric caldera; where the palisades of a collapsed volcano enclose a semi-permanent population of old tuskers and endangered black rhino; and where the fever trees are filled with flycatcher nests that appear as though some deranged drag queen had gone around tossing wigs into branches. Extravagance is always a defining African quality, whether of wildlife, of sky, of enterprise or misery. You can experience this in the distinctly unpicturesque Masai villages near Lake Manyara, or in the view from the crater rim of light falling in slabs on hippo pools. You can also easily find yourself becoming tangled in a skein of conflicting mythologies.

A relic of colonial Africa, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge occupies the former site of the British governor's hunting camp. Redesigned by Silvio Rech in 1996, its four camps are built in a style once dubbed "Masai Versailles," by one of the few designers who possess the hubris to attempt competition with the crater's panoramic sweep.

The huts are goofy, generic cones of thatch and daub. Ugly as they are, they do sit lightly on the land (in sharp contrast with a nearby monstrosity put up by the Aga Khan and evidently modeled after CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia). It's in the arrangement of interiors that Rech goes crazily astray, lavishing rooms with carved wood and hand-forged "horn" lamps, with folded banana palm ceilings and silk curtains hung seemingly by the mile. This note of "civilization" in the bush has been struck often since the days of the first European arrivals. No account of Karen Blixen's doomed East Africa sojourn omits an inventory of her Baccarat champagne flutes. But the beauty of the bush isn't easily trumped by import glassware. And the baroque chandeliers strung by Masai locals turn out to be hung with plastic prisms.

If it's clear by now that Rech's brand of ersatz is not to this visitor's liking, I should in fairness note that I'm in a minority. Pages of the guest book are a thicket of exclamation points. "Amazingly beautiful!" notes Cecile Coneway of Houston, Texas. "Simply superb!" add Susan and Fred Kampo of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "The most beautiful place on earth!" claims Simon Catt of London. "Awesome!!!!" write Kevin and Teena Cardiel of Villa Park, California, generously allotting themselves two punctuation marks apiece. But it's an English couple's dry entry that most closely comports with my own. "Would love to know which drug the architect was taking," write the vacationing Johnsons. So would I.

armchair africa
A trip to Africa is destined to confound a visitor whose image of the continent originates with Dinesen, Hemingway, and Roosevelt. Africans are consuming global styles and attitudes at nearly the same rate as the rest of us—sometimes at the expense of traditional customs.

"African cultures are disappearing even as we record them," says photographer Carol Beckwith, whose monumental two-volume African Ceremonies (Harry N. Abrams, $150), released in November, took more than a decade to research. "Perhaps thirty percent of the things we documented no longer exist." To amass the book's 850 images, Beckwith journeyed to the back of beyond with collaborator Angela Fisher, risking contagion and worse (the two came close to being slaughtered by the Surma of southwestern Ethiopia for breaching local etiquette). "We want our book to be a record not just for Westerners, but for Africans, too, as they make the transition into the modern world."

If any element of African culture has made an easy transition from the regional to the global, surely it's music. "There are three indisputably classic compilations," says music critic Robert Christgau: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie); Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks); and African Connection, Vol. I, Zaire Choc! (Celluloid). I packed Worotan, a collection of Malian griot Oumou Sangare's songs, some of which were used to haunting effect on the sound track of Jonathan Demme's Beloved.

sandibe game lodge
A recent addition to the constellation of game camps strung across subequatorial Africa, Sandibe works subtle changes on the current vogue for safari lodgings gone native. Architect Nick Plewman's thatched rondavels and open-air boma are typical of the region, the outdoor showers somewhat less so. And there's reason to be grateful that the builders opted for stucco walls over the more authentic ones of baked mud and cattle dung.

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