The South African safari has long been popular with high-end travelers. But recently other southern African countries, including Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, have built ultra-luxe safari camps and lodges that compete with the world's best. I had visited a decade ago, so I was curious to return last summer and see the progress that had been made. I was astonished.
Where I'd had no choice but to sleep in a self-pitched tent on a rocky desert, I now found luxury eco-lodges with designer furnishings and gin and tonics in crystal glasses. Besides the soul-stirring beauty, the three countries have the advantages of no crowds, no yellow fever, little crime and low malaria rates.
The other laudable news about all these new camps is that they are heavily involved in animal conservation, they engage local communities in their developments and they don't "greenwash" -- meaning, they walk the walk when it comes to caring for the environment.
I booked through Colorado-based tour company Rothschild Safaris ( 405-9463), which gave us a selection of camp choices. We selected the following, many of which are owned by Wilderness Safaris, an African company that owns more than 60 camps in southern Africa. The ones we chose were all-inclusive, meaning all food, most drinks, guided tours and ground transfers are included in the per person price.
Savuti Camp, Linyanti Reserve
Savuti sits above a busy watering hole on the Linyanti Concession, outside Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. Because it is 300,000 acres of private land, you don't see another soul for miles. Savuti has seven tents under vaulted thatched ceilings with rugs, hardwood floors, a writing desk, a dressing room and an enormous bathroom. Built on elevated walkways to lessen the environmental impact, each designer-furnished room has a view of the water hole and the elephants, zebras, jackals and hyenas that congregate there.
The rooms are so private and comfortable that it's tempting to skip a couple of game drives and lounge on the deck, read "Out of Africa" and watch creatures cavort in the watering hole. When you do take a dawn game drive in an open-air Jeep, the staff prepares you for the morning chill with a hot water bottle to hug close under your provided poncho. It's the small details that make all the difference at this camp.
A highlight is taking a walk with Kane, the resident San Bushman. Dressed in an ancestral loincloth and skins, Kane takes guests into the bush on foot, demonstrating how to find water in roots, sneak up on a herd of skittish zebra, hunt with a bow and arrow and make a bird trap out of vines. And because small children cannot go by foot, staff members baby-sit by doing African basket weaving (from local grasses), toy making (from wire and tent canvas) or clay molding (from clay dug up out back).
Savuti Camp: $600 per person, per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com/botswana_linyanti_selinda/savuti_camp/
Abu and Seba Camps, Okavango Delta
Randall Moore, an American animal trainer who worked with elephants destined for zoos and safari parks, decided Africa was where he wanted to be. Years ago, he shipped three elephants back to Africa, finding a home for them in Botswana. Later still, he built a camp in the central Okavango Delta and pioneered elephant-back safaris.
Abu Camp quickly became one of Africa's most famous camps, attracting celebrities and elites who dreamed of riding an elephant through the African bush and returning to French Champagne and a copper bathtub in the evenings. The cost of such a safari? $7,700 per person for a three-night minimum.
But I knew Moore had opened another, more affordable camp nearby. Seba does not include elephant rides, but you can meet and pet the tame herd. And there is abundant wildlife to be seen, even from a Jeep, on Moore's 500,000-acre concession. On a flood plain year-round, the game is plentiful and the Jeep rides through wheel-well-deep water are thrilling.
Although not as luxurious as Abu or Savuti, the tents are spacious and private, the game good and the food excellent. You can experience game- and bird-watching from a mokoro (dugout canoe) silently paddled through the high grasses flooded with water.
Abu Camp: $7,720 per person for three nights; www.abucamp.com. There is also a family villa.
Seba Camp: from $600 per person, per night; www.abucamp.com/Seba%20Camp.htm
Little Kulala, Sossusvlei, ,Namib-Naukluft National Park
Little Kulala is also a stylish favorite with celebrities and the jet set, with interiors you'd expect to find in Elle Decor. You don't come to Sossusvlei to see game (although the ostriches jogging past your room will keep you plenty amused); you come for otherworldly scenery and the giant red sand dunes of the Namib Desert.
Built to mimic the desert, Little Kulala has 11 glass-front villas, each with a private plunge pool, terrace and living room. The lodge building has another pool, a bar, restaurant and game room, all done in African neo-chic inspired by Namib elements -- ranches, rippled sand and smooth rock.
Little Kulala has a private shortcut into the park, meaning you can beat the day-trippers to catch sunrise as it sets the sand afire. The lodge has well-informed, enthusiastic local guides who, when not shepherding you up a sand dune or into a dry pan with 500-year-dead acacia trees, will take you for picnics in the middle of the veld.
At night, you can eschew your king-size bed, have the staff lay a bedroll on your villa roof and sleep beneath the most dazzling Milky Way you'll ever see.
Little Kulala: from $532 per person, per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com/namibia_sossusvlei/little_kulala/
Serra Cafema, Kunene River, Hartmann's Valley
Built on the banks of the Kunene River, on Namibia's northern border with Angola, is Serra Cafema, one of Africa's most remote, romantic and unique camps. The chic rooms are built on a series of decks among the verdant reeds and water plants right above the flowing river, a lush oasis in the Hartmann's Valley. Yet just behind the camp is a sea of sand, the northern reaches of the Namib Desert.
By day, you can take boat rides up the Kunene, home to thousands of crocodiles; take hikes without any danger from predators; ride ATVs across undulating dunes; hang out in the hammock on your private deck; or visit the Himba people, a magnificent tribe who live as traditional nomads.
By night, you shower alfresco at your enormous thatched-roof villa (which, if it weren't for the dramatic scenery over the river, looks like a film producer's Malibu pad, with foldaway walls and hip furnishings), then head for the indoor-outdoor dining room and bar, furnished with velvet-covered armchairs and antique objects from bygone Africa.
Serra Cafema: from $532 per person, per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com/namibia_kunene/serra_cafema/introduction/
Toka Leya, Livingstone
Since Zimbabwe has imploded politically, neighboring Zambia has boomed by picking up the tourism slack. The latest to join the luxury camp category is Toka Leya, 15 minutes upriver from iconic Victoria Falls, on the banks of the mighty Zambezi.Its 12 cavernous tents are permanent canvas and wood structures with polished wood floors, private decks, king-size beds, electricity, hot and cold running water, hair dryers, air conditioning and heat, dressing rooms and walk-in showers. Imagine what Dr. Livingstone, one of the first Westerner in these parts, would say about such luxury.
The décor is neutral and chic, with not a horn or a zebra skin in sight. This part of Zambia doesn't have much in the way of game viewing. It's all about adventure, and Victoria Falls is an adrenaline junkie's dream. You can raft the Zambezi's terrifying Class V rapids, bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge, take an ultralight or a helicopter ride over the falls, go kayaking, take dawn boat trips to spot hippos or just walk above the falls and get drenched by all that water.
Toka Leya: from $475 per person, per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com/zambia_victori_falls/toka_leya_camp/
Kapinga Camp, Kafue National Park
Zambia has done a stellar job of limiting development and preserving Kafue, the second-largest national park in Africa (twice the size of Yellowstone). And the jewel of the park is the flooded grasslands of the Busanga Plains.
Kapinga is about as good as it gets for luxurious safari. With only four tents, the camp is ridiculously Sybaritic while still being authentic, outdoorsy Africa. Decorated with stylish whimsy, it has few walls, but it does have canopied sitting areas, bright colors and Moroccan stripes. Set under cooling fig trees, rooms have giant, mosquito net-swathed beds, a sitting area, the essential writing desk and a vast view over the plains. You can bathe at dusk, drink in hand, and watch a lion stalk its prey in the great beyond. Outside, you have your own deck with a built-in sofa -- a place to relax between morning, dusk and nighttime game drives.
The game and bird viewing here are some of the worlds' best. Surrounded by wetlands, grasslands and forest, Kapinga is one of the few places to see endangered cheetah and Kafue's remarkable tree-climbing lions. (Reportedly because of the annoying tsetse flies, lions have taken to shimmying up trees and sprawling, leopard-like, on branches.)
The personal attention by the staff is exceptional, making this camp quintessentially romantic. Imagine a candlelight dinner on the deck of your tent, sipping South African wine overlooking the darkened plains. Because the camp is built on elevated walkways, you needn't fear that something will pounce on you for your steak.
Kapinga Camp: $830 per person, per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com/zambia_kafue/kapinga_camp/introduction/IF YOU GO:
The peak season to visit southern Africa is July through September, which is winter. The summer, from November to March, is also a good time but is considerably warmer.
Rothschild Safaris, www.rothschildsafaris.com; (800) 405-9463. I highly recommend using a specialized agent. They have visited all the lodges, don't mark up the prices, and will arrange bush planes, drivers and international flights.