Eyeing an African safari trip this year? Here’s what you need to know
Before booking your bucket-list trip, consider the new safari outfitters on the scene who are rethinking the traditional wildlife and conservation models
If you’re considering a luxury safari in Africa in 2023 and 2024, expect to find a changing landscape on the ground in Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and Botswana.
When high-spending foreigners vanished in 2020, safari lodges were left struggling to fund wildlife conservation as well as host community projects. They were given plenty of time to rethink the kind of tourism Africa needs and how visitors can better support their environmental and civic goals.
Tourists, at the same time, have redefined their safari priorities to seek privacy in accommodations, flexible schedules, exclusive wildlife experiences and more cultural context. Lodges and tour operators are responding with a new crop of safari experiences and accommodations in hopes of standing out from the competition and capturing the demand that’s roaring back to the continent.
Before you book your bucket-list trip, consider this:
Outfitters are rethinking traditional safari tours
The typical all-inclusive safari in which guests are driven from distant lodges into popular areas of wildlife reserves can quickly resemble a crowded weekend at the zoo.
The rush of humans and vehicles thwarts genuine connection with the surroundings, not to mention that it’s harmful to the wildlife. That’s why in this coming year outfitters will be trying to put guests closer to nature, albeit through private game drives, walking safaris or overnight camp-outs away from crowds.
At Zebra Plains Collection’s luxury boutique Lalashe Ripoi camp, “you can do night safaris by car and walking safaris that you cannot do in the main reserve,” owner Alfred Korir says.
Six tented suites (€3,730 per night apiece), will open on July 1 as one of three lodges sharing 13,500 hectares (33,359 acres) of private concession land leased from the Maasai people and situated on the edges of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Lalashe Ripoi follows the company’s June 2022 opening of Lalashe Maasai Mara (€2,797 per suite), which offers just five tents at a fully catered camp for a maximum of 10 people on site at one time.
The camp overlooks the reserve and a watering hole that attracts wildlife. Each suite features a plunge pool and lounge area, twin outdoor showers, fully stocked bars, butler service and private game drives. Korir calls his new camps “low density tourism” – fewer people per wildlife sighting.
“I came up with this idea because in Covid times people didn’t want to be in a congested place. It’s working for us; possibly, this year is one of our best years ever,” Korir says, noting that Lalashe Maasai Mara is more than 50 per cent booked for July and August.
At Wilderness Meraka, opening in July, nine tents on raised platforms (€1,212 per person, per night) will overlook the wetlands in the remote northernmost Mababe region of Botswana. No other safari company operates this far east of the Okavango Delta. Buffalos, elephants, zebras, and lions are among the residents you’ll spot on drives or walks, depending on the season.
The new safari model offers more flexibility
On a traditional safari, you’re beholden to rigid schedules for morning and evening game drives with other guests, as well as for meals. Jet-lagged or not, you must stick to the offerings lest you miss out on what you travelled so far to experience.
An à la carte approach, from the private game drives you choose at times your group finds convenient to selecting your meals from an on-site deli, is the new safari model at The Bushcamp Company’s upscale KuKaya Lodge. (Kukaya means homestead in the local Chinyanja language.) Set to open in April, the lodge is the former home of Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda and sits within South Luangwa National Park.
Five chalets each enjoy 250 square meters (2,690 square feet) of space, creating an oasis of tented rooms and outdoor ensuite baths, with a private plunge pool and lounge area (€396 per night). Bushcamp also offers walking safaris – a phenomenon owner Andy Hogg says was born in Zambia – which are drawing more interest.
“It’s not the same as sitting in a Land Rover, bumping along a not very good road,” he says. “It’s about the smallest things, and it’s about smelling and seeing and feeling.”
This demand for a unique sensory and immersive experience is what luxury lodge and camps outfit Singita is also betting on with its new add-on overnight camping experience inside its 33,000-acre private concession inside Kruger National Park, on the eastern border of Mozambique.
Available only to guests of Singita Lebombo Lodge or Singita Sweni Lodge (starting at 41,417 South African rand or €2,143 per night), the impromptu activity is for four people at a time. You can’t book this ad-hoc experience in advance, as it depends on the weather and availability of two trail guides, who will also share stories around the campfire.
“People want these raw and real experiences,” says Adrian Kaplan, executive head of marketing at Singita. (Raw at this level is, of course, relative: you still get to sleep on cots with light mattresses, luxury sheets and a coy duvet.)
It’s not all about wildlife viewing anymore
First-time safari goers often focus on wildlife and conservation, forgetting that people in the destination matter as well.
More tourists now want authentic African experiences and an understanding of cultural nuances, Kaplan says. Singita is consequently transforming its boutique and gallery spaces to display work from celebrated, or up-and-coming, African artists. A percentage of any sale goes into conservation work. The menu also features more local dishes following requests from guests.
It may seem superficial, but “the aesthetic makes a difference,” says Naledi Khabo, chief executive officer of the African Tourism Association, adding that it makes the safari experience a cultural one. “For so many of them, that traditional colonial aesthetic is not appealing or attractive to a certain audience.”
Wilderness, which runs 60 lodges in eight African countries, recently rebranded, dropping “safaris” from its name. “The connotation that word has in the mindset of potential guests brings up all of the Out of Africa imagery,” says Hadley Allen, chief commercial officer at Wilderness. The company wants to emphasise it’s about more than just safari.
Case in point: Since June 2022, Maasai people have faced eviction from their lands in the Serengeti in a bid to create additional wildlife game reserve areas for wealthy tourists. It’s not a new phenomenon – the Serengeti National Park was established in 1951 with the eviction of locals – but it’s one that tourists heading on safari are increasingly seeking to avoid.
How to maximise your once-in-a-lifetime trip
The need for tourists to understand the continent better and see Africa as about more than animals is behind AndBeyond’s “WILDeconomy Masterclass,” which is running in partnership with African Leadership University.
The five-day experience (November 3 to 9, €9,324 per person) includes Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve and invites tourists to “see how their safari fits in the big picture.” It includes stays at AndBeyond’s Grumeti Serengeti River Lodge and Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp. It doesn’t include flights, and €93 of each person’s tour fee goes into the university’s internship fund.
In initial tests of the concept, guests listened to information about hunting as they stopped for coffee in the middle of the Serengeti, says Nicole Robinson, AndBeyond’s chief marketing officer. “Or we did a walk through Nyekweri Forest on the border of the Maasai Mara, and we had a very interesting discussion about carbon under the trees.”
As tourism roars back to African safari destinations – the number of arrivals to the continent reached 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022 – there’s “still a lot of, ‘I just want to see the Big Five,’ because it’s a lot of first timers,” Robinson continues. But the goal is to maximise ongoing impact on what is often a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“They’re still going on safari and have their luxury, but it’s much more immersive,” says Sue Snyman, research director for the School of Wildlife Conservation at the African Leadership University. She will lead AndBeyond’s tour.
“They get to understand more about how the people living around the Serengeti and the Mara engage with wildlife and the flora and the impact that the conservation area has on them, positive and negative.” It’s a start, she adds, “of changing mindsets.”
Consider the ethics and sustainability of your safari provider
After three difficult years, safari lodge owners and tour operators say supporting the most ethical safari operators in Africa is an even more critical aspect of your booking. It’s a daunting task: Audacious claims of conserving vast amounts of land in the future and promises of uplifting host communities fill websites and marketing ads in a fresh sea of travel conscience washing.
Supporting companies that prioritise providing education and resources to people over food is key, says Zebra Plains Collection’s Korir. “When feeding people long term, you’re not giving them tools to get rid of poverty.”
Look for those who are consistently doing comparable impact measurements and offer data on what they’re doing, Snyman recommends. When vendors say they’re expanding conservation areas, what does it mean to the communities that rely on those areas? “We can’t have conservation without consideration of the people.”
External companies doing audits of safari lodges also have a role to play, including Regenerative Travel and Long Run, says Snyman. But it’s still up to tourists to check what’s being done to support conservation and the communities. High-end tourism companies are responding in kind: “There’s an understanding they have to do something more.”