Like so many of you, I have been on the move lately. Yet amid the joy and excitement I felt while exploring earlier this summer, I couldn’t help but notice the ever-increasing grind of travel and the drastic increase in frazzled people and noise everywhere. How I longed for Africa’s soothing natural sounds, vast open spaces and warm, unhurried people!
As I write to you, I’m hosting our second Greatest Safari on Earth for 2023. The flood of beauty and peace we’re all feeling here is a reminder that safari is a symphony; a sum of many parts that rely on each other. It is stillness, seclusion, privacy and unscheduled time in vast, wide open spaces. This privilege allows us to drop back into our bodies, encouraging us to yield to the awe we’re all subconsciously searching for when we travel. At least, that’s how I feel. But to access all of the above requires the subtle precision of seamless execution, sublime comfort, intuitive service, hands-on guiding and the removal of the grind and the fight that is so sadly a part of travel nowadays.
French composer Debussy said, “Music is the space between the notes.” As African specialists, we painstakingly choose partners who play the precise notes in our symphony yet still make music in the space between. These partners share our values and apply the same urgency to conservation and women’s empowerment that we do. The lodges that top our list – and the pioneering masters behind them – are exceptional. Each property overflows with emotional intelligence, creativity and sustainable design. Their originality and authenticity are stunning – even more so when you consider our increasingly homogenized world of chain hotels and corporate groups.
As summer winds down and we ponder “Where to next?” it’s my pleasure to share the cathedrals of the wild where the symphony I speak of is present. In these places, the noise is turned down, enabling you to truly hear the music.
When one thinks of safari in Kenya, one probably lands on the Masai Mara, the epicenter of the great migration and home to Angama Mara, an iconic lodge with one of the best views in Africa. “Angama” translated from Swahili, means “suspended in mid-air.” Indeed, you feel as though you are floating over the Great Rift Valley, which unfolds below you as far as the eye can see. The focus of the Kenyan team and the flair for contemporary design and community integration that one finds at Angama is just about unmatched on the continent. When I arrive to that enveloping Angama welcome and settle into my tented suite with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows and bright splashes of distinctive Masai red, I exhale and inhale the space.
The vast open plains of the Laikipia Plateau, in the North of Kenya, hold their own magic too. The conservation stewardship of this landscape is unique in that roughly 40% of it belongs to private owners. Many of these individuals have transformed over-grazed and denuded ranches into oases for wildlife. Most are also heavily involved in community initiatives alongside local tribes. Segera, home to Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching team, is a prime example: owner Jochen Zeitz has restored 50 000 acres of dusty, parched ranchland to its rightful wild glory. Small wonder, then, that we chose it for Return to the Wild with David Whyte (June 12-17, 2024). Today, Segera is a paradise teeming with biodiversity and is a symbol of hope for the future of this landscape.
Arijiju is a privately owned, exclusive-use property in the 90 000 acre Lewa-Borana landscape. With space to host up to 10 adults and four children (ideal for families or celebrations), this architectural marvel is built so unobtrusively into the hillside, one has no idea it’s even there until it appears suddenly before you, like a mirage. Designed as a salute to the sunrises, sunsets and vistas of Mount Kenya, this property is famous for the luxurious pace of days gone by, encouraging guests to sink fully into the rhythms of safari at their own tempo. Unfenced migration corridors and effective human-wildlife-conflict avoidance initiatives have made Laikipia the only region in Kenya to increase its wildlife numbers over the past two decades. What an incredible achievement – proof positive that with determination, empathy and respectful collaboration, we can effect real change.
After time in the grasslands, we recommend a few days unwinding at the coast, allowing the magic of your Kenyan safari to sink in. I spent a week with friends at Sirai Beach House Kilifi and I loved it so much, I’m going back for Christmas. This spectacular villa is like a mini Aman Resort in design. Giant 600-year-old baobab trees rise like pyramids out of the lawn, bougainvillea burst with color wherever you look and traditional dhows bob out on the Indian Ocean. The overall effect is one of breathtaking beauty, to the point that you feel like you are either in a fantasy or an epic James Bond movie. That so much diversity exists in one country – from the savannah to the sea – always astounds and thrills me. There is always more to see, to explore, to discover…
I cannot discuss Africa’s most dynamic and original lodges without paying homage to Xigera in Botswana and to Rwanda’s Singita Kwitonda. No matter how many times I visit or host guests at these lodges, my heart never fails to swell with pride. These temples of beauty and calm are inimitable, wrapping every guest in love and care from the moment they arrive. And yet they are so distinct, each an homage to Africa in its own way.
One can only describe Xigera as a living, breathing ode to African creativity. The lodge is an architectural feat second to none, built in one of the most remote places on earth and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Around every corner you discover more color, sculpture, art, hand-crafted furniture and vibrant textiles. And then you meet the magnificent team who somehow read minds, pre-empt every need, cater to every desire, deliver the most incredible spa experience and serve utterly delicious food. It’s no wonder Xigera is one of my top three properties in the world. There is honestly nothing like it.
Meanwhile, the feminine energy and immediate calm of Singita Kwitonda is impossible to leave off a list of Africa’s top destinations. Resplendent at the feet of three sacred volcanoes, this incredible property sits on 178 acres of ethereal, emerald landscape shrouded in mist. From a design and wildlife standpoint, it’s totally unique. The rainforest that Singita Kwitonda shares a long perimeter with is home to 604 of the roughly 1 000 wild mountain gorillas left in the world and all the forest elephants left in Rwanda. Sometimes, at night, you may see these precious elephants drinking from the pools, or spot herds of buffalo setting up camp for the night, both species secure in the knowledge that no harm will come to them here.
At Singita Kwitonda, architect Sally Tsiliyiannis and designer Geordi de Sousa Costa have, by means of clever, sustainable design and materials, managed to create a nurturing, intimate environment that imprints on you forever. Every detail exudes comfort, warmth and a thoughtfulness that are all too rare in the rest of the world. Kataza House – an adjoining private villa that’s a firm favorite with family groups looking for total privacy and plenty of space – has the same magic, as well as views so spectacular, they stop you in your tracks.
When you read this, I will most likely be on the banks of the Zambezi River at Matetsi, where the energetic pull of the almighty Victoria Falls is tangible. What a force; what a natural feat. I feel more alive here than anywhere. In Zimbabwe, I am present, whole, back in body.
The sheer force of the falls – a crescendo of around 35 000 cubic feet of water per second plunging into a chasm of the Batoka Gorge – is a potent reminder of the power of water. The ultimate source for all living things, water changes the landscape of any safari. The riverside experience of Matetsi, the meandering water channels of the Okavango Delta across the border in Botswana or even the dam at Singita Pamushana are all so completely different to the dry ochre soil of Tswalu in the Kalahari or the sandy Sabi Sands, home to the uber contemporary Cheetah Plains. Each landscape holds its own magic, the flora and fauna forever adapting to nature’s changing mood.
And speaking of nature’s changing mood… The inherent fragility and wonder of the wild is front of mind as I sit, sundowner in hand, observing what surrounds me. Elephants trumpet with excitement as they drink thirstily from the river. Impala dart through the bushes. The well-oiled machine of nature is undisturbed here. Stillness, peace and unadulterated, wild awe strike me as I bear witness to the wild as it should be. Conservation is our collective responsibility. The purposeful support of these privately run lodges in maintaining the untamed, untouched nature of wild spaces gives me hope that Africa will not be subjected to the damage of uncontrolled, high-impact tourism and big chain hotels. I feel utterly grateful for the beauty of this place and its impact on and the many guests who travel with us.
As I say to my team, “Never forget the priceless and immeasurable impact of the wild on the human spirit. If our guests return to their homes a slice kinder, a tad more gentle and with greater care for our planet, then our job is done.” As I travel through this majestic, powerful, life-changing landscape, I feel these people and am pulled deeper and closer to my own very being. I thank my lucky stars for the symphony safari offers and the pure escape that still exists here in a way nowhere else on earth can offer.
To hear and experience the symphony of safari for yourself, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Rwanda and the mountain gorillas experience is also the fourth stop on our Greatest Safari on Earth and is visually expressed within the pages of Assouline’s first-ever book on safari, African Adventures: The Greatest Safari on Earth.