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Tanzania – Clawfoot baths on a Serengeti safari

May 10, 2012

Tanzania – Clawfoot baths on a Serengeti safari

Filed under: Tanzania Odyssey News — Tags: , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 6:19 pm

In a Tanzanian reserve that had been virtually shot out by poachers, Brian Jackman enjoys huge herds on a five-star luxury safari.

It is alfajiri – the Swahili word for dawn – and as the sun breaks free of the eastern horizon it floods the plains with amber light, picking out the distinctive shapes of giraffe moving slowly among the flat-topped acacias.
At such a time there is no better place to be than Sasakwa Lodge, high on its hill in the Singita Grumeti Reserve. From here you can see it all: the endless savannah, the herds of game, the distant hills rolling north into Kenya. This is how it must appear to the circling vultures: a view that defines the vastness and unassailable majesty of the Serengeti.

An east wind is blowing, heralding the end of the long rains. Soon the dry season will begin, banishing the anvil-headed storm clouds and scorching the grasslands until they are as brown as an old lion pelt.

Already the wildebeest herds have left their calving grounds in the deep south of the park, forced to move on in search of water. But at Singita Grumeti the land is still green, the air still rain-washed and diamond-bright, and the great migration – upwards of a million wildebeest accompanied by zebras in their untold thousands – is on its way.

It was in 2002 that Paul Tudor Jones, a Wall Street billionaire commodities trader and environmental philanthropist, leased the Grumeti reserve from the Tanzanian government. At that time it was nothing but a collection of clapped-out hunting concessions bordering on the western corridor of Tanzania’s world-famous Serengeti national park.

The land in question – 350,000 acres in total – had been virtually shot out by uncontrolled poaching, but Tudor Jones saw its potential. He began to turn things around, employing ex-poachers to stop the killing. Then he built two safari lodges and a tented camp (each one an hour’s drive apart), and went into partnership with Singita, whose South African lodges are the ultimate in safari chic. The result is the classiest piece of wildlife real estate on the planet.

Sasakwa, the reserve’s flagship lodge, is built in the image of an Edwardian manor house and furnished to match, with Venetian mirrors, crystal chandeliers, log fires and a grand piano in the lounge. David Shepherd paintings and photographs by Peter Beard add a touch of authentic Africa, as does the life-size bronze of a stalking cheetah on the lawns. And – as if game viewing wasn’t enough – there are also tennis, croquet, archery and horse riding.

Its 10 guest cottages are named after the key figures of East Africa’s safari history: Selous, Hemingway, Beryl Markham – and are so secluded that clients are shuttled to dinner by electric golf buggy.

How Tanzania has changed since my first visit three decades ago. In those days such lodges simply didn’t exist, and if you were lucky enough to be given an egg for breakfast there was no bacon; if you had bacon there were no eggs; and sometimes there were neither eggs nor bacon.

Today, Sasakwa’s guests are pampered with everything from air conditioning to complimentary Havana cigars, and every cottage comes with direct telephone facilities and internet access, and its own heated infinity plunge pool.

Here, safely tucked up each night in your stone-walled capsule of five-star comfort, you live in the sky, far from the savagery of the savannah below.

But while Sasakwa wows you with unrestrained opulence, Sabora is a tented camp that sets you down on the plains at the heart of the action.

At Sabora you sleep under canvas, serenaded by lions. There are no fences to keep animals out, and at the height of the migration you can wake up to hear the wildebeest armies honking and grunting all around you.

Sabora’s nine lavish, air-conditioned Bedouin tents are decked out in the style of a Twenties hunting camp, with Persian rugs, silver candlesticks, cut-glass decanters and claw-foot bathtubs. It is so Out of Africa that I half expect to bump into Karen Blixen or find Denys Finch-Hatton sipping whisky on my sofa.

In the evenings, under a tree in which oil lamps hang like Christmas decorations, I dine on smoked salmon and fillet of beef while hyenas yowl in the surrounding darkness and the Southern Cross cartwheels in slow motion across the sky.

Yet for all its glitz, Sabora is a place in which to live at ease for a while in the open; to enjoy the space and catch the pulse of an older world that is no longer easy to find.

Outside my tent grows a desert date tree beneath whose canopy stands a bed and an umbrella for extra shade. Here after breakfast I lie one morning, with a herd of impala browsing around me and nothing else but waving grass and the blue faraway hills beyond. I feel the wind rushing over the earth, watch a bateleur eagle rocking and tilting across the sky, and think there is no finer place to be.

Most days, as the bush comes alive to a chorus of doves, I meet Joe Kibwe, my guide and driver, and we set off into the boundless grasslands to look for cats.

The herbivores are out in force. Quicksilver gazelles scud away at our approach. Giraffe – “the watchtowers of the Serengeti” – observe our progress and every ridge is adorned with a frieze of zebras. At one point we count 400 eland in a single herd, yet even they are nothing compared with the wildebeest that have finally arrived in unimaginable numbers.

For half an hour we watch them and when we leave they are still pouring out of the distant woodlands. “The nearest thing to a traffic jam you’ll ever see at Singita Grumeti,” Joe says.

It reminds me of the Mara in its age of innocence 30 years ago, a place where the grass meets the sky at the edge of the world, with nothing but horned heads between you and the horizon. All day long, from blood-red dawn to apocalyptic sunset, we drive with the sounds of the plains in our ears – the sad cries of larks and long-claws, the shriek of crowned lapwings, the squeal of zebra stallions calling to their mares – while all around us the wildebeest are moving in endless, grunting columns.

As always, it is the carnivores that steal the show. First a leopard, lying full length along a bough with all four legs and tail dangling. Then the Sabora Pride, a 15-strong family of lionesses, small cubs and older offspring lorded over by two resident males with luxuriant tobacco manes.

A few years ago they would have slunk off at the first sign of our presence. Now they regard us with almost total indifference, and at a time when lions everywhere are losing ground, it is heartening to find such a healthy family enjoying Singita Grumeti’s protection.

“Seeing how relaxed the animals have become is a joy,” says Brian Heath, the managing director of the Grumeti Fund, the private conservation trust set up by Tudor Jones. “When I first came here eight years ago they would take off as soon as they saw us. They had all been hunted from vehicles. That was why they were so spooky. Now it is so different. We have so much game and everything has settled down.”

In May, the week before my arrival, there was great excitement when five black rhinos were flown in from South Africa, to be greeted by a welcome party that included Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete.

Black rhinos, once common in the Serengeti, were so heavily poached that by 1991 only two females remained; their return marks the beginning of a multi-million dollar relocation programme backed by the Grumeti Fund.

Eventually, with GPS chips inserted into their horns and a round-the-clock guard of specially trained rangers to protect them, they will be released into the national park, where they will be joined by another 27 rhinos over the next couple of years.

“Rebuilding the biodiversity of the Serengeti ecosystem is our ultimate aim,” Heath says, “and bringing back the rhino is a key part of it.”

How appropriate, then, to discover that Singita Grumeti has a lodge called Faru Faru (Rhino Rhino in Swahili), with a spectacular location unlike any other in the Serengeti.

Just as Sabora belongs on the open plains, Faru Faru hides in an enchanted forest overlooking the Grumeti river.

Here, as in a painting by Rousseau, colobus monkeys peek through the forest canopy, shy bushbuck wander beneath arcades of flowering creepers and swallowtail butterflies flip through the sunlight on green velvet wings.

Into this jungle of shady fig trees and riverside acacias, nine luxury suites have been unobtrusively inserted. Each one has vast plate-glass picture windows that slide open at the press of a button, and the décor is a pleasing mixture of cutting-edge minimalism and full-on Africana.

The result is more like a penthouse suite than the conventional safari lodge – but with wildest Africa all around you. Penthouse it may be, but it comes with a tented canvas roof and at night, with the moon illuminating the silhouettes of baboons roosting in the trees outside my window, I listen to a lion calling from somewhere upriver.

Wherever you stay in Singita Grumeti there is no disguising the fact that you are living deep in the comfort zone. This is top-end tourism territory with knobs on, and it comes with a platinum price tag. But it also comes guilt-free.

Forget the idea that roughing it in a basic bush camp is the only way to prove your green credentials. You can chill out here with a clear conscience, knowing your tourist dollars will support all kinds of eco-friendly initiatives, from bankrolling local schools and clinics to bringing back the rhino.

Of course, what you are really buying into is a Serengeti experience in a wilderness roughly the same size as the Masai Mara. The difference is that the Mara has beds for 4,000 visitors, while Singita Grumeti draws the line at 70. And that, together with forgotten pleasures such as the freedom to drive off-road and the abundance of animals, is the greatest luxury of all.

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