I‘ve been reading lately about the early days of African safaris and an interesting juxtaposition occurred to me. Today, a lot of safari operators attempt to recreate the bygone days of tented camps, cooking over open fires and generally roughing it like the East African safaris of yesteryear.
Ironically, however, the people who actually roughed it back at the turn of the century didn’t do so by choice. Far from it. They did everything in their power to import all the comforts and luxuries of home! When the Duke of Connaught went on safari in 1910, he had dozens of cases of champagne shipped to Mombasa along with fine porcelain for his table. Menu cards were printed with “The Duke Of Connaught’s Safari” and then the evening meal was written by hand. (Ox tail soup followed by filet of eland, for instance.)
The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) went on safari twice with PH Denys Finch Hatton. His accompaniments included royal linen, his favorite champagne and cases of French claret. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari utilized over 500 porters to carry Teddy’s baggage. An Indian maharaja once brought a piano on safari!
Today, luxurious thatched-roof rondavels with granite and marble bathrooms overlook heated swimming pools. Satellite TV, wireless Internet and in-room refrigerators are not unheard of in the more ostentatious lodges. Super-luxury accommodations are usually found in South Africa, but I’ve seen five-star camps on Namibia and even Zimbabwe as well.
Alternatively, you can experience a safari camp like Alfred Vanderbilt did during the “champagne era” (1920s and ‘30s). In his Rungwa camp in Tanzania, Michel Mantheakis offers traditional canvas tens with imported Persian rugs on the floor. Meals are served on 18th century Delft china that served as ballast on a Dutch East India Company trading vessel that once docked in Zanzibar. A white-coated waiter greets you wearing a traditional red fez, silver tray bearing your favorite beverage. Champagne is of course an option.
At Jamy Traut’s Namibian camp appropriately named Eden, guests stay in similar canvas tents, complete with attached bathrooms made from local rock with flush toilets and hot-and-cold running showers. Electric lamps are positioned on hand-carved bedside tables and several receptacles are available for charging camera or laptop batteries.
Eden’s guest lounge, a separate building, would be at home on any baronial estate. Towering ceilings with taxidermied kudu, gemsbok, giraffe and other trophies from the ranch adorn the walls while a handmade teak bar stands ready to serve you a libation. Just outside the triple-wide French sliding doors is an infinity swimming pool overlooking a stream where semi-tame impala and waterbuck come to drink in the evening.
The bygone days of East African safaris are wonderfully nostalgic and I’m definitely one of those guys who seeks to recreate that magical ambiance of yesteryear. I love a tented camp, and I try to avoid the overly indulgent five-star camps, but I’m nonetheless looking forward to my upcoming South African safaris (a 10-day and a 7-day back-to-back) with Garry Kelly and then Dean Robinson. They will be of the five-star type rondavel camps.
Unquestionably, my favorite African experiences have come in tented camps. There’s something special about having only a flap of canvas (or plastic) between you and the stars.
The era of the champagne safari is over, but there are ways to mimic the experience. This time, however, you have to intentionally down-grade the level of luxury instead of trying to import all the finery as European royalty used to do. Africa is still Africa, and nothing captures the romance quite like a tented camp.