You should see some of the guests - they've got very sharp teeth
The past decade has seen a boom in luxury lodges that put you closer to the beasts. Jeremy Laurance tries a break to the bush and beach in Tanzania
Sunday 08 May 2011
The memsahib and I faced a dilemma. We had a week to spare after working in Nairobi and she had never seen tourist Africa. But where to go?
The agent we contacted – Expert Africa – does not offer trips to Kenya on the basis that it "does not know it well enough". There may be another reason – that Kenya has become a mass tourist destination where a game drive or a beach holiday is as predictable as a Disney ride.
So we took the agent's advice and flew to Tanzania – an hour and a half to Dar es Salaam – where we caught a connection with Safari Air which runs a drop-off service to the camps in the less-visited southern half of the country (The northern parks – the famous. Ngorogoro crater and the Serengeti – have also fallen prey to mass tourism.)
Our first encounter with Africa's wildlife happened sooner than we anticipated. Coming into land on the tiny, undulating airstrip at the first camp we surprised a small herd of elephants that harrumphed off into the bushes. But an impala – a small, delicate antelope – was less lucky. Running beside the plane as it touched down it suddenly cut across in front and was caught a glancing blow by the propeller. Result – one dead impala and one unflyable plane.
We pushed the plane under the trees, sat on our bags and waited. In the blinding light, the air shimmered. Giraffes emerged from the bush, curiously examined the corpse, and passed silently on. Vultures circled lazily and we dozed in the sweltering heat – until the drone of our replacement aircraft disturbed our reverie.
Only a couple of hours late at Mwagusi Camp in Ruaha park – 22,000 square kilometres of savannah – we were greeted with cool, lavender-scented flannels, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and, possibly, the most spectacular bedroom I have stretched out in anywhere.
Our banda was an enormous thatched affair with low stone walls, dividing screens made from reeds, and a huge terrace overlooking the dried-up river bed. At the terrace's far end was a separate reading area with hammock and sofa set among the boulders. Inside was an enormous bathroom, dressing area and separate bedroom in a zipped mosquito-proof tent containing the biggest bed I have ever seen. There was easily room for six – and it was all ours.
There has been a sharp rise in luxury game lodges in the past decade as holiday companies have discovered an untapped appetite for five-star living in hard-to-reach locations. The appeal of Mwagusi, we soon discovered, lay in its determination to provide an authentic wilderness experience without compromising on comfort.
Outside the banda, animals wander freely through the camp – at night guests are escorted everywhere – and we watched elephants digging for water in the river bed below our terrace, troops of baboons ambling past. An Agama lizard, with luminous orange head and turquoise tail, hunted dragonflies on the boulders in front of us.
Inside, it was the details that caught the eye – towel rails fashioned from driftwood, stone water baths for the birds, bunches of dried grasses, animal skulls, woven baskets, arched recesses in the reed screens for clothes, a big wooden trunk for our bags. You could almost define Mwagusi by what it is not – not mass tourism, not over-protected (tents are so much better than walls), not hedged about by the health and safety police.
Dinner on our first night was served down in the river bed, next to a roaring log fire, the riverbank hung with enough oil lanterns to light a small town. With toes in the sand, we ate tender beef in ginger, roast vegetables spiced with chilli and rosemary, fried aubergine, puréed pumpkin and new potatoes – indeed, there were never fewer than half a dozen delicately flavoured dishes cooked by the chef Meru at every meal.
We had been chatting noisily for perhaps an hour when there was a rustling by the bank and someone swung a torchbeam to reveal a bull elephant browsing the leaves not 30 yards away – having his dinner, too. He was a regular in camp and quite unfazed by the commotion. As the memsahib said later, intoxicated by the scents and sounds of the night: "It is the mixture of extreme peace and extreme danger that I find so compelling." Twice during our four-night stay elephants blocked our way to the dining room and we had to be led on a wide detour to avoid them – which helped remind us, if it were necessary, who were the visitors in the park and who the hosts.
Next morning we were woken at 6am with tea, stepped out into the milky dawn, climbed into the open Land Cruiser and set off into the park. It was late January; the first rain had fallen and the thirsty earth had pushed up tender leaves and grasses of vivid green, which glowed against the murram tracks of burnt orange.
Some game parks are flat and featureless. Not Ruaha. Its boulder-strewn hills and tree-lined gullies yield magnificent vistas. We stopped the Land Cruiser on the lip of a valley and sat in silence watching the herds of elephant, giraffe and zebra drifting soundlessly across the landscape under the giant, bull-necked baobab trees. This is the greatest pleasure – to gaze on a scene unchanged for millennia, as if on the origins of life.
There were animals everywhere – families of elephants with young no more than a month old, jiggling their trunks uselessly as they struggled to master the 55,000 muscles that control it, giraffes regurgitating their cud from their four stomachs, the pin-tailed wydah birds which, uniquely, take four males to each female – to the memsahib's unconscionable delight.
Our guide, Jofre, could spot a whisker at 200 yards. He also had that other essential quality, a good parkside manner – knowing what information to deliver, and how to gauge it for his audience. Mwagusi is one of the few owner-operated camps in Tanzania (by the charismatic Chris Fox, a native Tanzanian) and has established an apprenticeship scheme for staff which sees them working as water carriers, waiters, plumbers and stone masons before being identified as potential future guides.
Then they get a chance to track the big cats. On our second day we came upon a solitary lioness, seeking the rest of her pride. She uttered an impressive roar, sauntered a couple of hundred yards and lay down again to wait. Then Jofre took a call on his radio – cheetahs had been spotted on a kill. We drove swiftly to the spot where four sleek, long bodies were lying in a perfect cross, their heads bobbing as they pulled violently at a carcass. It was a mother and her three full grown cubs. Every few minutes one would sit up, its jaws smeared with blood, and look around warily for rival predators. Cheetahs are fast but not strong and must eat quickly before they are challenged for their kill.
We shared that scene with two other vehicles, the only time we encountered other tourists in four days. A key part of what draws people to Ruaha is its isolation. Being distant from the coast (and expensive to get to), it has a fraction of the visitors of the northern parks. When a queue of vans is passing through it feels less like a wilderness and more like a zoo.
On our final night we came upon a pride of six lions with their cubs waiting to ambush a group of approaching zebras. While the cubs frolicked and the adults prepared to pounce, a back-up vehicle delivered our drinks. As dusk fell, white wine in hand, we raised our glasses and toasted our extraordinary luck.
Next day it was back to the airstrip and by teatime we were lounging on sofas gazing out on the Indian Ocean. The standard route from Tanzania's game parks is to the exotic island of Zanzibar, but we had opted for the lesser-known and less-visited mainland coast, which promised peace and quiet away from the tourist hordes.
As we bounced along the dirt track, unmade and unsigned, to the small beach lodge resort of Ras Kutani – 15 elegant bandas linked by sandy paths, each with terrace, twin hammocks and huge bed – we understood why, when Charles Dobie, the English owner built the place 18 years ago, friends had jeered. "There is nothing there," they said. "Exactly" came Charles's cryptic reply.
The empty beach stretching to the horizon, the stiff warm breeze rattling the palms, the wide terrace outside our room and vast bed, created a sense of airy space that was utterly beguiling. After the hot dusty game drives, involving hours of concentrated looking (and listening), it was wonderful to sit and stare at the horizon and feel the soft air washing over us.
Ras Kutani does not admit day visitors. One of its only bad reports on Trip Advisor was from a couple frustrated at being turned away at lunchtime – which brought extra bookings from others delighted at its tough approach. But it should be mobbed on the strength of its food alone. We had a delicately flavoured Thai curry the first night, snapper in lemon sauce for lunch next day, and the most sensational pork kebab I have tasted, marinaded in ginger and spices, of extraordinary succulence and tenderness. And this in Tanzania, a predominantly Muslim country.
I last visited this coast, camping at Malindi, north of Mombasa, more than 40 years ago. While Mombasa is now heavily built up, with hotels protecting guests from hawkers behind high fences, that is no problem here. No people, no development, no hawkers. Just peace and emptiness where the mind can roam. Perfect.
How to get there
Four nights at Mwagusi in Ruaha National Park and four nights at Ras Kutani on the coast costs from £3,268 per person through Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com). Price includes return flights with British Airways, all transfers in Africa, current park fees, full board and some drinks, guided safari activities at Mwagusi, some activities at Ras Kutani.
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