Wild at Hearth
Four lodges redefine the safari experience, from postcolonial africana to new age tribalism. Guy Trebay reports from the bush.
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.
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.
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.
Sandibe's interior is a tad Safari Generic. But the camp's real draw is location, location, location. It's deep in Botswana's Okavango Delta, with a front-row seat on the great seasonally flooding basin that many consider the last best place for viewing African game. Forget Land Rover traffic jams converged upon a dozing lion. Instead think of poling silently through the delta in a mokoro to pools where inyala drink and elephant clans come for their Saturday-night bath.
Reserve through Conservation Corp. Africa; 27-11/784-7077, fax 27-11/784-7667; doubles from $770.
To visit these African lodges, fly directly to Johannesburg. From there, a small-plane flight or a five-hour drive will take you to Singita, Makalali, or Garonga. Regularly scheduled flights deliver you to Kilimanjaro via Nairobi for Ngorongoro in Tanzania, or to Maun for Botswana's Sandibe. Any number of outfitters can help you plan your itinerary; I used Classic Encounters (888/808-1999 or 212/972-0031, fax 212/972-0032).
Singita Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa; 27-11/234-0990, fax 27-11/234-0535; doubles from $1,300. Singita comprises both Ebony Lodge and Boulders Lodge (for a total of 16 rooms) and borders on Kruger National Park. The rate includes three meals per day, two open Land Rover game drives, and laundry and valet service.
Makalali Private Game Reserve Makalali Conservancy, Harmony Block, Gravelotte, South Africa; 27-11/883-5786, fax 27-11/883-4956; doubles from $710. Four 12-bed camps, each with its own swimming pool. The rate includes three meals per day, two game drives, guided walking safaris, refreshments, and laundry service.
Garonga Makalali Conservancy, Hoedspruit, South Africa; 27-11/804-7595, fax 27-11/802-6503; doubles from $480. An intimate camp with only 14 beds. The rate includes three meals a day, all drinks, two game drives, and laundry service. Reiki, reflexology, and aromatherapy treatments are extra.
Ngorongoro Crater Lodge Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania; doubles from $800; reserve through Conservation Corp. Africa (27-11/784-7077, fax 27-11/784-7667). Three 12-bed camps. The rate includes three meals a day (lunch can be a picnic on the crater floor), all drinks (excluding champagne), two extended game drives, refreshments, laundry, and personal butler service. Excursions to Olduvai Gorge are additional.