Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Malawi – Beyond the Lake

Like most visitors to Malawi, the small landlocked country wedged into the southern end of the East African Rift Valley, I was drawn there by its eponymous lake. But beyond the shores of the dazzling “Lake of Stars”, I discovered an endearing little country with exciting, if limited wildlife viewing opportunities.

Liwonde National Park

Malawi - Liwonde Sable Antelope

An elusive Sable Antelope sighting in Liwonde.

Located in the Upper Shire Valley, the 580-square kilometer (220-square mile) Liwonde National Park is considered the premier wildlife-viewing destination in Malawi. It stretches along the left bank of the Shire River, the only outlet of Lake Malawi and the largest river in the country, on its 400-kilometer (250-mile) way to the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

By far the main attraction of the park, the river allows it to support one of the densest populations of elephants and hippos in Africa (about 900 and 2000 respectively). Liwonde is also known for its abundance of birdlife and due to the absence of major predators, it is home to a good a variety of antelopes. It’s where, after five previous trips to some of the most vaunted safari destinations in Africa, I have the pleasure to finally encounter sable antelopes.



Malawi Village

Malawi village home.

It’s a solid two-and-a-half hour drive from Blantyre, southern Malawi’s major city and airport, to the Western gate of the park. The paved road becomes gradually less so as we get farther away from the city. It disappears entirely as soon as we get off the main north-south thoroughfare. It’s all rocky dirt roads from here on, lined with tiny brick homes covered with disheveled thatch, each sitting on its small patch of ground. My driver drops me off at the park’s gate where my arrival is duly recorded and announced by phone to the Mvuu Lodge.

Mvuu Lodge

Malawi - Liwonde Mvuu Lodge

It’s a short boat across the lagoon to Mvuu Lodge.

Ideally located at the edge of a secluded lagoon across the Shire River from the park entrance and the only property inside the park, the Mvuu Lodge can be reached only by boat. It is so well integrated into the dense grove of yellow acacias that I don’t notice any sign of human habitation at first; until a small wooden craft detaches itself from a spindly dock and chugs its way across to collect me.


Malawi - Shire River Hippo Pods

Shire River hippo pods.

The lodge immediately lives up to its name (Mvuu means hippopotamus in the local Tonga language). We zig-zag our way across the lagoon, giving a wide berth to pods of hippos submerged save for dozens of periscope eyes that follow our progress with a baleful gaze.





Malawi - Mvuu Lodge Lounge

Mvuu Lodge common area.

Mvuu is an upscale, environmentally-friendly wilderness lodge with a casual atmosphere and an attentive, friendly staff. Raised high into the trees, the open-sided thatched main lodge provides an perfect hide-like retreat to observe the constant activity of the lagoon.




Malawi - Mvuu Crocodiles

The Shire River is home to a large colony of crocodiles.

In addition to its many hippos, it is home to a large resident family of warthogs and a colony of seriously oversized crocodiles. A late model telescope on a tripod invite guests to take a closer look at the birds that fill the trees all around.



Morning on the Shire River

Malawi - Shire River Kudu

A male kudu in the brush by the river.

The riverside location allows for a mix of cruises and drives that provide a close and varied view of the game as it goes about its daily life. Game-viewing is generally interesting at Mvuu but never more so than on the river. An especially memorable morning begins as a typical pleasant boat ride punctuated by a steady stream of photo opportunities of the waterfowl and raptor population, various antelopes coming to the water and a small breeding herd of elephants wading across in the distance.


Malawi - Shire Sleeping Elephant

A “big tusker” snoozes by the water.

We then come upon a few venerable “big tusker” bull elephants lined along shore, dousing themselves by the trunkfull with river water. I spot one of them snoozing at the edge of a wall of savannah grass. Yes, elephants do sleep lying down. I can hear his stentorian snore drift toward me. Suddenly several more begin to emerge from the grass and congregate on the shore. The snorer stretches awake.


Malawi - Shire Wading Elephants

Come on in, the water is fine.

After a half hour of what looks like a palaver to weigh in the advisability of going in for a bath and considerable testing of the waters by various parties, they all wade in over time. What follows is a “horsing around” session of epic proportions, with these grizzled behemoths splashing and dunking each other under the waterline before rearing back up like teenagers at the beach.



Malawi - Liwone Elephant at Play

Liwonde elephants at play in the Shire River.

It is this spectacular encounter with that I take with me at as the iconic memory of my visit to the Mvuu Lodge.





Good To Know

  •  Mvuu Lodge opened in 1998. It is owned and managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS), a Malawi company wholly owned by founders Chris and Pam Badger. Central African Wilderness Safaries,, e-mail:, or call: + 265 1771 393/153.
  • Accommodations consist of eight spacious tents under thatch that can welcome a total of 16 guests. The tents are raised well above the ground on vast wooden platforms that include a wrap-around deck overlooking the bush. They are scattered along neat sandy paths at the rear of the lodge for complete privacy. Each tent has full bathroom facilities, including a shower with hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. There is solar power in the tents.
  • Wifi was not available at the lodgeat the time of my visit
  • Although lion tracks have been occasionally spotted and a male lion sighting reported recently, I didn’t see any “big cats” during my stay. But in addition to the large and active population of elephants, I found the abundance of antelopes, the excellent bird-watching opportunities and the warm Mvuu hospitality well worth my visit.


A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Liwonde National Park

Malawi – The Lake of Stars

Malawi – The Lake of Stars

My friends had a lot of questions when I mentioned I was on my way to Malawi. The most frequent was: Where? No surprise, since I too had to look it up when I first heard of the small landlocked country wedged into the East African Rift Valley system. It’s easily missed on the map of Africa, overshadowed by its much larger and better-known neighbors Tanzania to the North, Mozambique to the east and south, and Zambia to west. It is also one of the poorest countries on the planet and one the least developed in Africa, with only the most rudimentary national infrastructure and thus mainly overlooked by tourists. The only one who expressed enthusiasm was an avid diver: “You are going to The Lake!” he exclaimed with a hint of envy.

Lake Malawi - Beach on Cape Maclear

Beach at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi

The third largest of the great East African lakes, some 580 kilometer (360 mile) long and 75 kilometer (46 mile) wide, Lake Malawi is the main topographic icon of the country. But rather than its size, its pristine shores and deserted islands of towering boulders rising from crystal clear waters alive with small brightly colored fish are what earned its international renown among water sports enthusiasts and naturalists. It was these hundreds of endemic species of cichlids as well as the beauty of the scenery that drove the Malawi government to set aside the southern end the lake as Lake Malawi National Park in 1980 making it the first fresh water marine reserve in the world. It subsequently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Feersum Endjinn and the Magical Island

Cape Maclear jetty and Feersum Engjinn

Cape Maclear jetty and Feersum Engjinn

My driver drops me off by a sundrenched beach, deserted except of the representative of Kayak Africa here to welcome me, and a cluster of half-naked kids frolicking in the gentle surf. I am in Cape Maclear on the southern shore of Lake Malawi. A brave little wooden boat bobs at the end of a precarious jetty, the name Feersum Endjinn carved in its weathered bow. Thus reassured, I take the extended hand of the pilot and come aboard.

Feersum Endjinn at Mumbo Island

Feersum Endjinn docks at Mumbo Island


It’s an hour’s ride to Mumbo Island, one square kilometer (250 acres) of granitic rock topped by lush miombo woodland located ten kilometers (six miles) off shore in the heart of the 9,400 hectare (36 square mile) Lake Malawi National park. At first glance it looks just like another of the rocky dots rising out of the shimmering water that we’ve whizzed by along the way. But as we draw closer, tiny reed and thatch chalets barely distinguishable from the tangle of trees begin to materialize; then a small crescent beach of golden sand.

Lake Malawi - Mumbo Island Guest Bungalows

A long footbridge leads to the guest bungalows

The camp is located on two islands. The dining room, lounge and tiny gift shop hut sit just above the beach on the main island. Meanwhile, a long footbridge leads to a promontory of giant boulders jutting into the lake, where guest bungalows are perched high in the rocks to better admire the dazzling waters of the lake.

Off-the-Grid into Eden

Lake Malawi - Mumbo Island guest bungalows

Guest bungalows offer a dazzling view of the lake

This is off-the-grid living at its magical best. Until Kayak Africa was first award the exclusive rights to operate tourism accommodations on Mumbo Island in 1996, it had never been populated. To preserve the primeval beauty of its unique lake setting, the company’s founders Clive Bester and Jurie Shoeman created a minimalist property based on uncompromising sustainable principles. Rustic bungalows of reed and thatch, comfortable beds swathed in mosquito nets, bucket showers and “eco-loos” and a dining area that serves wholesome, simple foods. In a corner of the beach, a water sports gazebo has snorkeling equipment and kayaks at the ready. There is no electricity, just solar and paraffin lamps and wind up flashlights.

Mumbo Island - Red-billed Hornbill

A red-billed hornbill welcomes the new day

In his remote haven, life naturally falls into the eternal rhythms of the sun and the moon. My days begin at dawn with a wakeup call from a red-billed hornbill enthusiastically welcoming the new day in a tree above my head. I move from my bed to the hammock on my deck to contemplate the blood-orange sunrise slowly morphing into a clear morning while small boats dart across the lake after a night of fishing.

Mumbo Island - Morning coffee with a view

Morning coffee with a view

By now a tray laden with tea and cookies has materialized at the corner of my bungalow. When I finally stir I head for the dining room where a hearty breakfast await. I pause on the footbridge to take in the bright kayaks lined up at the edge of the beach and the crystal waves lapping at the freshly swept sand. Another day in Eden has begun.



Treasured Moments

Mumbo Island Sunset

Mumbo Island Sunset

After a day of snorkeling among the cichlids, the colorful small fish than have evolved into hundreds of varieties for which the lake is famous, or blissfully whiling away hours with a book in my hammock, it’s time to enjoy the sunset. Boatswain Owen takes me around the island to the ultimate sunset viewing spot where we watch the sky turn into surreal shades of bronze to crimson to purple before fading to dark.

Mumbo Island Bungalow

Bungalow Number Four is my personal slice of Eden

After an unpretentious meal by the soft glow of the paraffin lanterns, I return to my bungalow and settle on what I will forever think of as “My Rock” still warm from the day’s sun. Millions of diamond-bright stars pierce the velvet sky. The horizon is outlined by the myriad pinpoint lights of the hurricane lights fishermen use to lure fish into their nets. I send a mental nod or understanding to nineteenth century English missionary explorer David Livingston who gave the place its moniker of Lake of Stars.

Good to Know

  • Kayak Africa is a South Africa based company that has been operating Mumbo Island since its inception in 1996. Kayak Africa,, email:, or call + 27 (0) 21 783 1955.
  • There is no electricity on Mumbo Island. Any battery operated equipment can be sent overnight to the mainland for charging. There is a daily boat connection between the island the Kayak Africa office in Maclear.
  • Mumbo Island consists of five bungalows that can accommodate up to ten guests on the small island. Additionally,  a twin-tents family unit that can accommodate up to four guests in the woods just above the beach and common areas on the main island
  • Getting to Malawi requires flying via Nairobi, Kenya or Johannesburg, South Africa. There are connecting flights from Kenya Airways and South African Airways respectively to the two major cities, Lilongwe and Blantyre. From either, road transfers can be arranged by Kayak Africa.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Mumbo Island

Farewell to Africa – for now

Farewell to Africa – for now

“Once the red dirt of Africa gets into your hiking boots, you will never get it out.”  The place was Kuyenda, a tiny bush camp in the heart of Zambia’s remote South Luangwa National Park and the first stop on my first African safari. The year was 2006. The soft-spoken words came from a man who knew what he was talking about.


Zambia South Luangwa, Phil Berry

Phil Berry is one of the most respected naturalists in Zambia.

Born in England, Phil Berry moved to Africa as a child and grew up in Northern Rhodesia long before it became the Republic of Zambia in 1964. And there he was still, now a living legend well beyond the Luangwa Valley, for his life-long dedication to the protection of elephants and rhinos, and as a pioneer of the walking safaris for which the park is famous.

I nodded. I was still groggy from the 48-hour journey from North America but after one single day in the bush, I already understood. The day’s game drives had taken us from elephants tearing at Mopani trees for their breakfast and hills dotted with skittish impalas ready to bounce away at the first hint of menace to a pride of lions still sleeping off last night’s feast in a shady glade. Then there had been a intoxicating African sunset and a lovely al fresco dinner under the black velvet and diamonds sky. I was already hooked.


Kenya highlands black rhino

In the highlands of Kenya, my first rhino sighting ever.

It took three trips before I was finally able to sight a rhino; and a close up encounter it was. I was at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, in the highlands of Central Kenya. My guide stopped our open land cruiser and pointed into the dense brush. “Rhino,” he whispered.

I got so excited that I jumped up to stand on my seat and brace myself on the overhead roll bars of the open-top vehicle, camera at the ready,thus forgetting one of the cardinal rules of game watching (no abrupt move). The startled black male rhino came charging out of the brush, coming straight at us before finally making a ninety degree turn a mere six feet from impact!

Okavango Delta Elephant

This old bull stares us down and out of his watery kingdom.

Who knew elephants could charge so fast in water? Also in the Okavango Delta, this large bull took exception to our boat navigating in “his” channel. He started menacingly toward us until we finally got the outboard motor into reverse.





Masai Mara newborn Elephant

Newborn elephant learns how to nurse.

We came across this elephant cow in the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya. She stood patiently while her hour-old calf tried to figure out what to do with its nasal appendage in order to start nursing.





Botswana - Leopard in the Okavango Delta.

In Botswana, my first sighting ever of a leopard in a tree.

While I had seen leopards on several occasions on previous trips, I didn’t get to observe one settled in a tree until my fourth visit to Africa. We were driving in the waterlogged world of Botswana’s Okavango Delta when my ranger pointed into the tree canopy right above our open vehicle. Lucky for us that this magnificent cat had obviously already enjoyed a large dinner.



Botswana-Kalahari lion

After a blood-curdling warning roar, this old timer resumed his benevolent attitude.

We were settling in to enjoy our tailgate sundowner cocktails in a sandy clearing in Bostwana’s Kalahari when we heard a chilling moan nearby. It turned into a high-energy rumble, then escalated into a full-blown roar that made the air vibrate around us and my entire body shake.

My guide calmly motioned to me to climb back into the cruiser. I certainly remembered the “no sudden move” rule this time! We then eased at very low speed in the direction of the roar.

Having served us notice that we were trespassing, the old lion had resumed a deceivingly benevolent demeanor.


Then there are all the unique, memorable people I’ve met along the way, too many to include, so I will only mention these two:


My great Zu/hoasi Bushman guide, Cobra.

In the Kalahari, Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet took me on a desert nature walk. He mainly spoke the distinctive clicking language of the Kalahari Bushmen, but somehow we understood each other.




Masai schoolgirl

Masai first-grader and her prized book bag.

In a country where the literacy rate for women is still only around fifty percent, I was delighted to meet this enthusiastic Masai first-grader at a charter school supported by andBeyond, the safari organization with which I was traveling through Northern Tanzania. She even let me admire her book bag, her proudest possession.

Location, location, location!

South Luangwa

Responsible Tourism Practices Enhance Kenya Safari Experience

Responsible Tourism Practices Enhance Kenya Safari Experience

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari. An early entrant in the race to promote its rich game population and preserve its natural habitat, Kenya boasts more than 50 national parks and game reserves as well as private conservancies covering over 10 percent of its total landmass. The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) can all be seen there, as well as cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and many other carnivores and herbivores, large and small; and herds of minivans filled with awed tourists.

Kenya - Mara Lions

“Say, who invited all these people?”

A large number of visitors is drawn to Kenya by visions of abundant game roaming across endless open spaces punctuated by the wide umbrellas of flat-topped acacias, and proud Masai in crimson robes herding their cattle in the open plains. To accommodate these visitors, the country has developed one of Africa’s most advanced tourism infrastructures, including large-scale accommodations that make it a favorite destination for mass tourism. But as Kenya’s popularity increased, so did the potential threat to its environment.

 Enter Gamewatchers Safaris

It’s with these challenges in mind that Jake Grieves-Cook, a long time figure in Kenya’s tourism industry established Gamewatchers Safaris in 1989 to set up an operational model that personalizes the tourism experience while giving landowners the opportunity to improve their quality or life and preserve the land and wildlife for the next generations.

Kenya -Ol Pejeta, Tent

Guest tent at Porini Rhino Camp.

With its four Porini Camps, (Porini is Swahili for “into the wild”), Amboselli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, Gamewatchers Safaris offers an innovative solution: small tented camps (between six to ten tents depending on the camp) on private conservancies located in close proximity to the renowned Amboseli and Masai Mara National Parks. One exception is Porini Rhino Camp, located in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, one of largest rhino sanctuaries in East Africa, in the shadow of Mount Kenya. In these rigorously eco-friendly camps, every effort is made to minimize the footprint on the environment. There are no permanent structures, power is exclusively solar-generated, and all waste is managed according to strict procedures.

Kenya - Mara Porini Staff

The Masai staff at Mara Porini Camp welcomes us with a traditional “jumping dance”.

The host conservancies are on private land leased from the local Masai tribes who receive financial benefits and employment opportunities as well as infrastructure development (such as roads and improved access to water). Tribesmen have access to training in various aspects of the tourism industry and employment at the camps. Because of this close partnership, the guests enjoy extensive contact with the community, such nature walks with Masai Warriors, visits to the local villages where we are welcomed and allowed to observe the tasks of daily lives as well as celebration songs and dances.

Kenya - Amboselli Elephants.

Amboselli is reputed for its large elephant population.

There are also nighttime game drives (these, like the walking safaris are not allowed in the National Parks). I especially enjoy the opportunity for substantive conversations with my Masai guides about their tribes’ history, their current lives and aspirations.



Spectacularly Diverse

Each camp is located in a spectacular site with its own wildlife particularities.

Kenya - Amboselli Wildebeest.

Wildebeest at Amboselli National Park.

Amboselli Porini Camp in the Selenkay Conservancy is adjacent to the north side of the Amboselli National Park, famous for the large herds of elephants roaming its sun-baked plains. Access to the park is via the conservancy’s private road, against the eye-popping backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro.



Kenya - Porini Rhino Camp

Male Black Rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Porini Rhino Camp is located on the verdant plateau of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, between the foothills of the Aberdares Range and the stately snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya. In addition to its large rhino population, it features large herds of rarely seen herbivores such as reticulated giraffes and Grevy’s zebras.

Kenya - Mara Buffalos

Buffalos in the Masai Mara National Park




Mara Porini Camp is nestled in a soaring grove of yellow-barked acacia within the Ol Kinyei Conservancy, ten miles from the Northeast boundary of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The conservancy is host to a large resident pride of lions that I have the chance to observe repeatedly. Early morning game drives on the way to the park in the rolling meadows filled with herbivores browsing for their breakfast in the clear morning air are a special treat.

Kenya - Mara lion

This old male looks like he never shied away from a fight.

Porini Lion Camp is in the Olare Orok Conservancy on the northern border of the Mara. The abundance of “big cats” in the conservancy and  the park is such that it is hard to keep focused on any other game! Although the sight a pair of copulating white rhinos did hold my attention, as does a breeding herd of elephants with several newborn calves; successfully tracking an elusive leopard is a high point of my visit, so is a pride of lions getting ready for their hunt. In the end, a cheetah and her three tiny cubs won my cuteness award for the stay.

Good to Know

  • Contrary to mass tourism organizations who often provide closed, air-condition vehicles for their game drives, Gamewatchers’ drives are in custom-built, open-sided land cruisers, each with three tiers of two individual seats. Although the vehicles can accommodate up to six guests, there are never more than four of us in any vehicle throughout my stay, and more than once I have the special treat of a private game drive.
  • In recent years, Porini Safari Camps and their parent company Gamewatchers Safaris have been consistently honored with various prestigious Responsible Tourism awards such as “Best for Conservation of Endangered Species outside Protected Area” at the World Travel Market in London, and the SKal International Sustainable Development in Tourism Award. They have also have also been repeatedly awarded Ecotourism Kenya’s Eco-Warrior Award in the Accommodation category for “working with communities next to the national parks and resers to create protected wildlife areas.
  • Gamewatchers Safaris Founder and Managing director Jake Grieves-Cook remains personally involved in wildlife conservation projects with Masai communities in Amboselli and the Mara.
  • Gamewatchers Safaries:, email: , or call toll free: +1-877-710-3014.

Location, location, location!

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

The pilot of the four-seater Cessna meets me at the small Maun airport, Botswana’s gateway into the country for all safari-goers. Most of them are greeted there by bright your people in the crisp kaki uniform of the handful of safari companies that operate in the lush, waterlogged world of the Okavango Delta. My turn will come, but not today. I am headed into the sun-baked emptiness of the Kalahari, the great desert that covers about 70 percent of this landlocked southern African country roughly the size of France.

Magic in the Makgadikgadi

Botswana-Kalahari. Jack's Camp.

Jack’s Camp entrance reveals a world of unexpected luxury.

The plane drones on for an hour over a flat, featureless terrain all the way to the milky blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgaki, one of the largest salt pans in the world (4,600 square miles – or and area of 12 000 square kilometers). Then the barren eternity is interrupted by an improbable line of fan palm trees. As we get closer, acacia also materialise, then large green canvas tents. “Jack’s Camp,” my pilot volunteers as he begins his approach toward the oasis’ dusty landing strip. I am handed over to my awaiting guide and one short rocky ride later we stop in front of a sprawling tented pavilion that has me questioning whether I haven’t just stepped into a mirage!

Botswana - Kalahari. Guest Tent.

My tent, Number One, is decorated with antiques.

The polished teak floor is covered with mellow oriental carpets. Inviting lounges flow into each other, decorated in a safari style that harks back to the opulence of bygone era. There is a library, a bar with an antique pool table and a well-stocked drinks chest, a dining room with a long mahogany table that can easily seat a dozen. The walls are lined with natural history drawings, century-old photographs and engravings of long ago safari scenes. Display cases are filled with museum-quality local artifacts. My own tent is decorated in the same vein, including the bathroom where all the features and the washbasin are antique copper buffed to a flawless shine.

But what of the safari?

Botswana - Kalahari. Meerkats/

Meerkats emerge from their burrows in the early morning.

Jack’s Camp’s surreal luxury setting, with service to match, is only the beginning. The activities are adapted to the experience of desert life. Sunrise finds me silently waiting for a community of meerkats to emerge from their multiple burrows. Although wild, these gregarious squirrel-sized mongooses are sufficiently habituated to humans that they are unconcerned by my presence. I am able to closely observe their young at play and their rituals as they set out on their daily foraging for insects, fruit and lizards.

Botswana - Kalahari Baobab

Chapman’s Baobab is estimated to be 4,000 years old.

Botswana - Kalahari Bushman.

Cobra is a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder.

I marvel at the daily sight of hundreds of zebras and wildebeests arriving from the Boteti River to the west on their yearly migration to the pans. I have the pleasure to walk with Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet, who shows me the plants and foraging methods that ensured the survival of his ancestors for millennia. I gape at the sight of the Chapman’s baobab, a giant with a seven-pillar trunk 85 feet (25 meters) in diameter, the largest and oldest baobab in Africa (estimated to be close to 4,000 years old). Nineteenth century explorer David Livingstone initials can still be seen, carved upon its rock-like bark. I have my first ever sighting of an aardvark, this particularly rare and elusive nocturnal animal. 

Riding into the sunset

Botswana - Kalahari sunset.

Sunset in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.

The most unforgettable experience of my visit to Jack’s Camp is a sunset ride deep into the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Our guide leads our small caravan of quad bikes (their balloon tires only skim the fragile crusty surface where heavier vehicles would sink) to what is truly the middle of nowhere. The copper sun slides from the cloudless sky behind the gleaming line of the horizon. With the rising moon, the surface of the Pan turns ghostly white. I lay down on my back on the warm salt crust and stare up. In this otherworldly space, unchanged for millennia, my eyes fill with countless stars, and my ears with a silence so deep I can hear my own heartbeat.

Good to know

  • Jack’s Camp is the flagship property of Uncharted Africa  a safari company founded in 1993 and managed by Ralph Bousfield, a naturalist and conservation expert who comes from a long line of African pioneers and adventurers. His own father Jack, after whom the camp is named was a legendary African hunter and safari operator.
  • To contact Unchartered Africa, E-mail:
  • Jack’s Camp is decorated mainly with original family antiques.

Location, location, location!

Makgadikgaki Salt Pans, Botswana.

Postcard from the edge of the crater

Postcard from the edge of the crater

This is week four of my journey around Tanzania. Several days ago, I entered the Northern Circuit, an itinerary that is taking me to the destinations safari legends are made of: Serengeti, the endless plain of the Masai and Lake Manyara, bright pink from thousands of flamingos. Today, I am headed for the holy of holies of East Africa’s wildlife destinations, and a place that was on by bucket list before I knew I had one, the Ngorongoro Crater.

A three-million-year-old volcano

Ngorongoro Crater dawn

Dawn rises over the Ngorongoro Crater

In the midst of rolling highlands on the southeastern border of the Serengeti National Park, the three million year old crater is all that remains of a once massive volcano. It is the largest intact caldera in the world, a large fertile bowl with permanent sources of water and steep sides that reach 600 meters (2,000 feet) above the crater floor. A diverse population of over 25,0000 animals inhabit its 260 square kilometer (100 square mile) area. It is one of the rare places in Africa that can boast to offer visitors a good chance to see all of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard) in one single game drive.

A fairy tale village

With these statistics buzzing in my mind, I can’t wait to get into the crater; until I arrive at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. I can think of very few places worthy of traveling around the world just for the pleasure of staying there, but this is definitely one of them. Perched on stilts at the very edge of the rim for a jaw-dropping view of the crater and the silvery mirror of Lake Magadi in the center of it, the lodge is a fairytale village of mud and thatch inspired by Maasai mayattas and the architecture of the Dogon villages that cling precariously to the hills of Mali, half a continent away.

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge Villa

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge villas.

However, any primitive reference stops at the door. Inside, a Victorian-inspired extravaganza awaits, with cascading crystal chandeliers reflected in antique mirrors, soaring French windows draped in miles of raw silk, and cut velvet sofas piled with jewel-toned pillows. There are urns filled with long-stem roses everywhere, even in my bathroom, on an antique pedestal behind the deep freestanding bathtub.

Roses and Rhinos

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

My villa is a retreat of serene luxury.

Then there is the over-the-top service. Morning wake-up tea is delivered to my suite in a gleaming silver tea set, with freshly baked cookies in a cut glass jar. Daily laundry is returned wrapped in crimson silk, a rose tied into its bow. In the dining room, haute cuisine meals are served with the flair of a multi-star restaurant. And when I return from dinner, there is a fire in my fireplace and a decanter of cherry set within arm’s reach of my wingchair. I wonder if they’d let me move in?

What about the wildlife?

A pair of rhinos march off to a water hole.

A pair of rhinos march off to a water hole.

Ah yes, the original reason for my visit… As anticipated, wildlife viewing is outstanding; and fortunately for me, so is my guide, Edwin. While we don’t see any leopard, we witness a cheetah kill within a half hour of my arrival into the crater. The next day, we spot 28 lions in one single morning (half of the resident population). But the game is so habituated to visitors that there is a wildlife park feel to the experience. When we stop to observe a pride, one of the lionesses comes to lounge in the shade of our vehicle.

Predictably, the high density of game draws an equal proportion of tourists. When a pair rare black rhinos is spotted crossing the open plain, I count 18 vehicles converging toward them! Fortunately Edwin anticipates the beasts’ itinerary, and whisks me to a place further down the trail, where for a moment at least, I can observe them in relative privacy.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Ngorongoro Crater