The best way to see Africa's Great Migration, on a safari without the crowds
Usawa Camp in the Serengeti takes the mobile lodge concept — in which tents get packed up and moved to new locations daily — from bare-bones to ultra-luxe
We were in hot pursuit. Dust rose up behind our Land Cruiser in a massive cloud as our guide Chrisple Sikawa manhandled the steering wheel like a ship captain charting dangerous waters.
We had just seen thousands of wildebeests crowding the edge of a small cliff like a great swarm of bees. Below them: the mighty, crocodile-filled Mara River. Would they cross? Sikawa suspected they might. But this was not the best place to see it.
My husband, John, and I were racing across the grasslands hoping to catch sight of the great migration, the legendary annual 1,200-mile-long journey of roughly 1.2 million wildebeests between southern Tanzania and Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve. It’s easy for travellers to feel like they’re one of 1.2 million onlookers in this phenomenon, but not us: As guests at the just-opened Usawa, a mobile camp in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, we had the rare treat of having the landscape almost fully to ourselves.
Still, on that day, it was not to be. After zigzagging across the savanna, we waited. And waited. The wildebeests went left, then right, up, then down. But they did not cross. As the sun began to set, we—like the great mass of animals—retreated.
People do not come to the Serengeti to be disappointed. In addition to playing host to the great migration for most of the year, the park is filled with cheetahs, lions, leopards, African buffalos and a growing population of devastatingly endangered rhinos. It’s just about as close to a sure thing as it gets in the wild—which is why more than 500,000 tourists visit every year. It’s also the reason tour outfitters and safari lodge companies are in a constant race to offer the best and most crowd-free way to experience the spectacle.
The South Africa-based luxury safari operator Wilderness may have just cracked the code. Usawa, the company’s new camp, opened on July 26 on a remote hill in the Serengeti’s Bologonja region. It transforms the tried-and-true mobile safari lodge concept—where tents are designed to be packed up and moved to new locations, without a trace—from a necessarily amenity-light option to a truly five-star experience.
“Mobile camps in the Serengeti are usually of a lower standard, while more luxurious camps are considered semi-permanent, only moving twice a year from north to south,” says Raphael Mauget, general manager of Wilderness Tanzania. Usawa’s competitive edge? At any given time, between two and three identical camps will be in operation, so you can sip South African syrah, dine on Swahili barbecue and explore the great expanses just beyond your tent while the next Usawa location prepares for your arrival.
As the migration moves, so do guests. The great migration takes places year-round, typically crossing the Mara from south to north from August through September, then in the reverse direction from October to November; from January to March, the camps move in other parts of the region where guests can glimpse the same animals birthing 8,000 calves each day.
Of course, nature is anything but predictable—even in the Serengeti—as John and I found out on that first unfulfilled crossing. But no matter: At Usawa, we felt the movement of the great migration in other ways.
Our tent—one of six, all composed of overlapping canvas and mesh—felt totally open to nature, allowing us nearly 360-degree views of the savanna where the great migration’s herds regularly passed. From our hammock, and even our bed, the sounds, scents and sensations of the bush were ever present in the trumpeting of elephants, sage-scented breezes and the distant howls of big cats.
The design is a stylish—and sustainable—take on the classic safari aesthetic, with lamps carved from acacia trees and furniture made from upcycled plastic. It’s masterminded by Luxury Frontiers, a company that’s built its name on upgrading glamping to befit such hotels as Amangiri in Utah or Nayara Tented Camp in Costa Rica. But the details are all local. Glassware and textiles were crafted by the artisans of non-profit Sanaa in Arusha, while colorful blankets and woven-basket stools from Joyce Weaving Products provide new income and resources to Tanzanian women.
Elevated cuisine, which is typically hard to pull off at most mobile camps, rises to the level of some of the bush’s most luxurious lodges and puts a focus on produce and protein sourced from nearby communities. During our stay, fresh passion fruit and mango were breakfast staples, as well as sweet additions to rich chocolate ganache tarts after dinner. Zanzibari spices enlivened everything from the pilau rice to the tilapia—and even the coffee. One evening a traditional Swahili barbecue included such delights as mtori, a sweet and savory banana soup that warranted seconds and thirds.
All six tents, plus the communal main tent, are solar-powered, use mobile septic tanks, operate completely off-grid and can be built and broken down using only manpower. Unlike most luxury camps, which build underground sewage and power systems for more brick-and-mortar-style accommodations, Usawa adapts the leave-no-trace environmentalism of roving camps to more high-end accommodations—a win-win for the ecosystem and discerning guests.
“Within a few months, I expect any of these locations will be completely grown back over,” Mauget says. “We’ll have to rely on GPS when we come back the following year because there will be absolutely no trace of us having been here.”
The light footprint means local wildlife weren’t scared away by construction, and we were able to see a plethora of wildlife right from camp: elephants noisily breaking tree branches for dinner; zebras casually munching on long grass just steps away; dozens of wildebeests arriving suddenly, moments after a rain shower.
Still, some luxuries just aren’t eco-friendly and must be done without, or at least adapted. Case in point: hot water, which isn’t easily procured without proper plumbing. At Usawa, there’s no turning on the taps for the relief of a steamy shower after a dusty day in the bush; instead we had to inform staff of our intention to bathe, then wait some 15 minutes for a pair of men to fill the buckets behind our tent with freshly heated water. You turn the shower “on” by pulling a chain—forget about controlling the temperature. This was just the right amount of roughing it for us, though for some it might be a tad too rustic for a vacation that starts at $950 a person per night.
John and I, however, found such mild inconveniences to be part and parcel of an experience that felt blissfully connected to nature. We felt it one day when, just a handful of miles from Usawa, we watched a mother cheetah and her cubs feasting on a Thomson’s gazelle, vultures soaring ominously overhead. That afternoon we patiently waited outside a cluster of bushes for a leopard to peek its head out. Another morning we took to the savannah on foot, hiking straight from camp—and spotted a leopard sprinting across the opposite hillside 100 yards away.
And finally, on our last day, we got our crossing. Using his gut, experience and, we suspected, hot leads conveyed in Swahili over his radio, Sikawa led us through a whirlwind of dust back to the same spot where days earlier the wildebeests had failed to put on a show. This time they were bolder, racing down the promontory, splashing into the river and safely emerging on the other side right in front of us, mewing and bucking all the while. The spectacle lasted for close to an hour. The sheer magnitude left us in awe. It was the moment we had all been waiting for—and the one Usawa was built for.