Book ID 426
Seal, Jeremy High Plains Drifter, 2000
Extract Date: 2000 February 20
JEREMY SEAL - HIGH PLAINS DRIFTERS
Recent incidents have made people jittery about taking to the African wilds with only canvas between them and the carnivores. Jeremy Seal makes camp in Kenya's Masai Mara to quell the fears - and savour the unique experience of a mobile tented safari
Can we take the children?
Confession: it was me who surreptitiously smuggled the camp wood axe into my tent that first night. When there's only canvas keeping Africa at bay, courage can fade as fast as the equatorial evening light across the grass plains of Kenya's Masai Mara. The mobile tented safari, where guests stay in temporary tented camps rather than in permanent lodges, may be billed as the authentic bush experience, but it can cause some guests, myself included, an initial feeling of . . . exposure.
Such misgivings are understandable, especially after the death last August of a young Briton, hauled from his tent in Zimbabwe's Matusadona National Park by a pride of lions. The truth is that most people camping out in the African bush for the first time may find, when it comes to dinner under the stars, that the imagination's appetite is keener than the stomach's, gorging itself on the rising whoops of all-too-adjacent hyenas and the low-slung dance of unidentified green eyes beyond the campfire. At bedtime, guests have been known to pocket the silver-service dinner cutlery for defensive purposes, and make a solemn promise to reaccommodate themselves, first thing, in a high-walled game lodge should they survive the night.
It should be emphasised, of course, that the Matusadona incident was wholly exceptional. Safari-goers in the care of recommended operators (see below) can be confident that life and limb are not at risk on this, the original, African camping experience; all you stand to lose are the walls, doors, windows, noisy generators, light switches, gift shops and crowds that can characterise the lodge, hotel or even permanent tented camp stays - increasingly the staples of the African safari industry. The mobile tented safari, where camp ups sticks every few days before moving on to another setting deep in the bush, is about small-group simplicity, an intimacy with one's bush surroundings and the night-time thrill of hurricane lamps, campfire eyes, wildlife snuffling around the tents and spear- carrying Masai moran (warriors) posted to keep watch.
Our camp, five spacious guest tents and a large dining tent backed by a mess and kitchen area, accommodated eight guests. For logistical reasons, the 'mobile' group is rarely more than 12 - or less than four, when the cost becomes prohibitive. As such, it especially commends itself to groups of family and friends. Camp stood before a spur of forest overlooking the plains of the Masai Mara, where Tanzania's Serengeti spills north into Kenya. The view from our canvas chairs was of scrawled, lead-coloured lines of wildebeest woven into the heat haze. The wildebeest, which had recently migrated north in search of pasture and were survivors of the crocodile-infested Mara River crossing, put up drifting plumes of dust. Superb starlings were blue-and-orange firecrackers in the thorn trees. A pair of warthogs stumbled surprised upon our camp and made off at an alarmed trot, their heads held indignantly high. Out on the plain, a secretary bird was stalking snakes. Somebody brought me a gin and tonic. There was talk of lunch. The sun was high in the sky, and I had never needed walls, doors or windows less.
I woke at dawn, when polite staff inquiries about a missing wood axe reached me from beyond my tent flap. To my shame, firewood supplies were running critically low. Still, there was hot water in the canvas washstand on the porch that fronted my tent, and a welcome tea tray on the table to see off my first-night nerves. It's an appealing paradox of the 'mobile' that it serves up back-to-nature simplicity in a full-on, pampering fashion. My tent was furnished - you wouldn't call it merely equipped - with a proper iron-frame bed made up with fresh linen sheets and sweet-smelling blankets. There was a table topped by a hurricane lamp and mosquito repellents. The tent connected with a private wash area consisting of a freshly dug drop loo and a shower - a tarpaulin bag punched with holes that the staff would fill with heated water on request. On the porch were a table and chair, a washing mirror and, surprisingly, an umbrella. Lavish food was served from tureens, and there was even a bush laundry service; clothes were returned lovingly pressed after their brush with the old-fashioned iron, kept hot by the campfire coals it contained.
On a dawn game drive, we spied an approaching cheetah and her two young cubs. They had recently fed; it was a half-hearted swathe that they cut through the grazing zebra and impala. A confident cub walked right up to the Land Rover and leapt onto the bonnet, where it squatted to deposit the best part of a digested Thomson's gazelle before striding disdainfully away. Grey, hunched cattle filed past. Their two Masai drovers were shawled in black-and-red checks. We were on tribal lands adjacent to the Masai Mara Reserve.
'Many operators prefer to camp outside parks and reserves,' explained Craig, our guide. 'Giving revenue to the local people encourages them to look after the wildlife, which has the effect of expanding protected areas. It also allows us some contact with the local people. And there are no restrictions here on activities. Night drives and bush walks are permitted, unlike inside the parks. And the camping opportunities are often better.'
In the afternoon, one of the Masai spear-carriers led us to his manyatta, or village. His henna-coloured hair was brilliantly braided and he had stretched his holed lobes over the top of his ears (but on a traditionally beaded strap, he wore a digital watch that reminded him of the time in New York, where his girlfriend lived). Those of us who had not been on foot in the African bush before, fearful of lions behind every tree, huddled zealously around the moran and his spear. At the manyatta, a ring of huts enclosed by a thorn boma (barricade), villagers and guests regarded each other curiously. By and by, we loosened up and there was soon talk of the animals back home. Generations of Masai children are sure to grow up on stories of the white man who bounced around the manyatta one day, mimicking an animal that lived in his country, a place called Downunder.
After four days in the Mara, we would move on to our next camp in Laikipia, spending two nights in lodge accommodation en route. Mobile itineraries typically include short stays at permanent camps to allow time for the logistical miracle that is the mobile to be restocked and erected at the next site. We were travelling by vehicle, but mobile safaris have been developed that allow guests to move between camps by a variety of transports; on foot in Zambia, on horseback in Kenya or Botswana, by quad bike in Botswana, by canoe in Zimbabwe or alongside a camel in Kenya.
On our last evening in the Mara, an excited Craig dragged me into the forest directly behind my tent. 'Look,' he exclaimed with relish. He was pointing at fresh scars on the bark of the acacia trees. 'There's been a leopard here, and very recently.' Once, the news might have sent me crawling up nonexistent walls. But after a few days on the mobile safari, I had learnt many things, not least that fear backs off in such conditions, and soon gives way to exhilaration.
Jeremy Seal was a guest of Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions in London, and Cheli & Peacock in Nairobi
Note: prices quoted include flights from the UK except where stated. Phone numbers of UK agents are listed at the end.
Like much of southern Africa, Botswana has plenty of imaginatively located, exclusive-use camping sites in the national parks, reserves and private concession areas. Botswana itineraries emphasise 'wet' areas (the Moremi Reserve and Okavango Delta) but also include 'desert' elements (the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans and the Central Kalahari Reserve).
Afro Ventures' 10-night 'A La Hemingway' safari combines mobile stays in the Kalahari and Moremi regions with lodge accommodation elsewhere. Departures from March to December, from £3,859pp through Carrier.
Less lavish are two-week packages from the well-regarded local operator Kalahari Kavango, including mobile camp stays in Moremi, Okavango and the Mababe Depression, exploring the waterways in makoro canoes and the adjoining plains on foot (from £2,495pp through Scott Dunn World).
Private groups, particularly families, tend to be drawn to operators such as Map Ives, a local guide who leads walking mobiles as well as special- interest mobile safaris, including birding (November-March) and fishing in the upper and Central Okavango (August- February). Travel by 4WD or boat, staying in camp on islands in the upper Okavango and elsewhere. Camp is comfortable - mosquito nets, bedrolls and bucket shower - but Ives's prime assets are his knowledge, and ability with children; this is small-group safari at its best. Discount rates apply on his regular mobiles in April/May, when Botswana is lush but little visited (from £2,102pp for seven nights for a party of six, through Cazenove & Loyd).
Ralph Bousfield, owner of Jack's Camp, in the remote Makgadikgadi Pans, offers a mobile safari programme in the grand style called Uncharted Africa, complete with East African tents, paraffin lamps, baggage trunks and fabulous cuisine. The company runs scheduled seven-night safaris in the Moremi area from May to October, but can also tailor-make itineraries to the likes of the central Kalahari. Tailor-made safaris from £280pp per day, based on a party of four, through Cazenove & Loyd.
Jack's Camp also does three-day quad-biking expeditions from June to September, across endless desert pans to the remarkable rock outcrop of Kubu Island. A support vehicle brings food, tables, chairs and a shower (from £1,353pp, including three nights either end at Jack's, not including flights or transfers, through Cazenove & Loyd).
If you're happy spending up to eight hours a day in the saddle, there's no better way of view-ing the Okavango's abundant wildlife. Okavango Horse Safaris, run by the highly experienced Barney and P J Bestelink, offers scheduled five- and 10-night horseback safaris from March to December in the southern Okavango, moving camp every other day. Competent riders only. From £2,850pp through Safari Consultants.
The classic mobile safari was born in Kenya, which remains the place to play at being Ernest Hemingway or Karen Blixen.
Cottars Safari Service is renowned for period-piece mobiles on the grand scale, including bush dining by candlelight, with port and cigars, Persian rugs, antique side tables and even a 78rpm gramophone. But the prices are not old- fashioned. A 10-night safari, with four nights on concession land next to the Masai Mara and four in the remote Shaba National Reserve, and two in lodge accommodation while camp is moved, costs from £6,111pp, based on a party of six, through Cazenove & Loyd.
Abercrombie & Kent's mobile camps feature superbly equipped 28ft by 14ft tents with ensuite bathrooms and liveried staff at dinner. On its two-week Wild Fig Tree safari, camp moves from Amboseli to the Lewa Downs Conservancy and thence to the Masai Mara (from £5,254pp, based on a party of six).
Cheli & Peacock's 12-day Private Vintage mobile safaris favour the little-known Meru National Park, the Masai Mara, the Aberdares and private concessions on ranchland in the Laikipia Highlands (from £3,700pp, based on eight sharing, through Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions).
For experienced riders, Offbeat Safaris runs horseback safaris in Masai-land and Laikipia. Expect to spend six hours per day in the saddle of these polo-trained horses, covering up to 50km per day and staying at comfortable mobile camps (from £2,200pp for 10 days, not including flights or transfers, through Union-Castle Travel).
Ewaso River Walking Safaris offers camel-assisted walking safaris north of Samburu Reserve into the Northern Frontier District. Follow the dry riverbeds on five-day trips through wild, vehicle-hostile country, where you may see elephants and even rare kudu antelope (£1,443pp, including light- aircraft transfers but excluding UK flights, based on a party of four, through Art of Travel).
In the semi-desert vastnesses of northern Namibia's Damaraland and Kaokoland, Sandy Acre Safaris runs largely off-road camping safaris for small groups (roomy dome tents and field showers). Many are enthralled by lucky sightings of the desert elephant and desert rhino, but don't expect abundant big game. The experience appeals to those who like their landscapes demonic and their solitude extreme (from £2,050pp for 12 nights, 13 days, based on four sharing, through Sunvil Discovery).
South Africa's 'mobile' scene is extremely limited; there are, however, opportunities for equestrians. From his Ant's Nest lodge, in the rolling hills of the Waterberg, Anthony Baber offers four-night horseback trips for groups of up to four, with two nights camping out. Camp is lightweight but comfortable and there is abundant plains game. From £150pp per day, excluding flights or transfers, through Cazenove & Loyd.
Manageable distances separate Tanzania's northern national parks, which offer a wealth of excellent private camping sites. Tarangire and its elephants, Manyara's memorable lakeside setting and the Serengeti's vast plains make up a particularly popular itinerary.
Mark Houldsworth's Nomad Safari Guides offers top-end, tailor-made itineraries into remote areas of the Serengeti (from £1,900pp for six nights, based on a party of four, flights not included, through Roxton Bailey Robinson).
From its lodge near Manyara, Gibb's Farm Safaris has a reputation for tailor-making safaris for groups of up to 14 (from £3,586pp for two weeks, based on a party of four, through Okavango Tours and Safaris). Book early for Tanzania's wildebeest migration, best experienced between December and March on the southern plains and from June to July in the Serengeti's western corridor.
For scheduled departures, particularly suited to singles or couples, Hoopoe Adventure Tours runs mobile safaris for up to eight people. Its Classic Tanzania safari combines the Serengeti (three nights) and Tarangire (two nights) with lodge stays elsewhere (from £2,395pp, including flights, through Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions).
From his lodge at Sand Rivers, Richard Bonham runs walking mobile safaris, normally lasting eight to 12 days, into the river and forest landscapes of the vast and remote Selous Reserve. These expeditions run between June and November and are 'fully portered'; camp, which moves each day, is necessarily lightweight: you sleep on a bedroll beneath a mosquito net (prices from £250pp per night, not including flights or drinks, through Roxton Bailey Robinson).
Northern Tanzania is also well suited to self-drive safaris. Safari Drive (01488-681611) can supply equipped 4WDs for those who wish to do it all themselves - driving, setting up camp, cooking and finding game (from £2,700 for the vehicle for two weeks, including tents, bedding, some food and camping gear; up to four people). The company will book camp sites, create itineraries and advise on basic bush sense.
Zambia pioneered the walking safari. Book at least a year ahead for its best-known operator Robin Pope's five days in the remote South Luangwa National Park. Walk about 10km a day between camps with walk-in tents, a shower under a tree and excellent cooking. The safari includes lodge stays for two nights at either end (£1,650pp,excluding flights and transfers, through Theobald-Barber); June to September; maximum six guests.
Leon Varley runs seven-day mobile walking safaris in the remote and little-visited Chizarira National Park. The trip offers awesomely positioned camp sites on the Zambezi and excellent populations of big game (from £760pp, not including flights, through Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions).
Dodge the crocs and hippos on canoe-based mobile safaris operating along the lower Zambezi River, through Mana Pools National Park, paddling about four hours per day. Natureways offers four-day canoe trails combined with three-day walking trails through the river's diverse, wooded flood plains from May to October, staying in riverside camps (from £1,229pp, including light-aircraft transfers from Kariba but excluding UK flights, through Union-Castle Travel).
Wilderness Safaris offers a four-day canoeing safari in Mana Pools - spectacular, if hot - in October/November, when the game concentrations are almost obscene. No canoeing experience is required. Prices from £565pp, including light-aircraft transfers but excluding UK flights, through Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions.
Those prepared to muck in will find a whole range of budget mobile safaris to suit the stretched pocket.
Karibu offers a 17-day safari where guests pitch their own tents and help with meals (from £1,495pp through Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions). It includes canoeing the Zambezi, game viewing and visiting the Great Zimbabwe ruins.
Guerba (01373-858956) has a 10-day (pitch your own tent and help load the vehicle) camping safari in Botswana, running from July to October and including visits to Okavango, Moremi and the Chobe National Park, from £1,750pp.
Dragoman (01728-861133) has a four-week Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda camping trip, including visits to the gorillas of the Ruwenzori Mountains and to the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, from £1,000pp, plus £410 kitty money, not including flights.
A local cook is on the trip, but all other camp duties are shared.
Aardvark Safaris (01980- 849160); Abercrombie & Kent (0171-559 8666); Africa Connection (01244-355330); Africa Exclusive (01604-628979); Art of Travel (0171-738 2038; www.artoftravel.co.uk); Carrier (01625-582006); Cazenove & Loyd (0181-875 9666; www.caz-loyd.com); Okavango Tours & Safaris (0181-343 3283); Roxton Bailey Robinson (01488-683222); Safari Consultants (01787-228494); Scott Dunn World (0181-672 1234); Southern Africa Travel (01483-419133); Sunvil Discovery (0181-232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk); Theobald-Barber (0171-221 0555); Union-Castle Travel (0171-229 1411); Worldwide Journeys & Expeditions (0171-381 8638).
Can we take the children?
The safari holiday is widely regarded as hostile to children, with few lodge-based safaris or even set-departure mobile safaris accepting children under 12.
Private mobile safaris, however, tend to be far more family friendly, adept at tailoring activities to suit most ages; while the adults opt for lengthy game drives, children may prefer village visits, educational bush walks, boat trips in areas such as the Okavango, Botswana, or Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, or simply to spend time at camp.
Most operators caution, however, against taking children younger than eight, or 10 in some cases. 'Once they've seen an elephant for five minutes,' explains Jane Durham of Okavango Tours and Safaris, 'they tend to want to go home and watch telly.'
A few operators, mostly top-end ones in East Africa, offer discounts for children.
Under 12s pay 50% with Cottars Safari Service in Kenya, while Cheli & Peacock, also in Kenya, gives a US$100 reduction per day on each child under 12. Gibb's Farm Safaris in Tanzania offers 50% discounts on children under 16.
Add the 50% airfare saving for children under 12, and you might even lull yourself into believing the family safari can be cheap. Generally, don't be lulled; the price of a family safari tends to add up.