African Diaries — Kenya’s Maasai Country

African Diaries — Kenya’s Maasai Country

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari. An early leader in the preservation of game and its natural habitat, the country now features close to 50 national parks, game reserves and private conservancies covering some 20 percent of its total landmass. The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) can all be found here, as do cheetah, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and many other carnivores and herbivores, large and small. 

Giraffes congregate around under a flat-topped acacia.

But so can herds of minivans filled with eager tourists, drawn to Kenya by visions of abundant game roaming across endless open spaces punctuated by flat-topped acacias, and proud Maasai in crimson robes minding their cattle in the distance. As Kenya’s popularity as a safari destination increased, the country has developed one of Africa’s most advanced tourism infrastructure, and with it the potential of a considerable threat to its environment and native cultures.

Playful Maasai children pop out of the bush to check us out.

These were the considerations that had kept me from realizing a long held desire to visit this iconic safari country. Until I came  across a local organization reputed for addressing the challenge of enhancing the tourism experience while giving local landowners a chance to improve their quality of life in the present, and preserve land and wildlife for the next generations.

 

Gamewatchers Safaris

Amboseli Porini lounge and dining tent.

With its four Porini (Swahili for into the wild) camps: Amboseli Porini, Porini Rhino, Mara Porini and Porini Lion, Gamewatchers Safaris offered small tented camps (between six and ten tents depending on the venue) on private conservancies located in close proximity to the famed Amboseli and Maasai Mara National Parks. The exception was Porini Rhino Camp, which was in the heart of one of the largest rhinoceros sanctuaries in East Africa, in the shadow of Mount Kenya. In these rigorously eco-friendly tented camps, power was exclusively solar generated, and great efforts were made to minimize the impact of the properties on the environment.

Kisonko Maasai welcome us to the Selenkay Conservency.

The host conservancies were on private land leased from the local Maasai tribes, who received financial benefits and employment opportunities as well as infrastructure development (such as roads and improved access to water). Local tribesmen also had access to training in various aspects of the tourism industry and employment at the camps. As the time of my visit, close to 90 percent of the camps’ staff came from local clans. 

Amboseli Porini

This elephant cow seems unconcerned by our presence.

A secluded camp under the giant umbrella of a cluster of thorn acacia trees within the Selenkay Conservation Area, a 15,000 acre (6,000 hectare) private game reserve at the northern edge of the Amboseli National Park, Amboseli Porini epitomized the timeless romance of Kenya. The distant Mount Kilimanjaro outlined the horizon as the land-cruiser that was delivering me there after a few days on the Indian Ocean seaside entered the Conservancy. A cheetah flashed across the track just ahead of us. A pair of elephant cows and their calves unhurriedly ambled by. Giraffes peered at us over the treetops and potbellied warthog piglets scampered behind their mother into the high grass. By the time we reached the camp, I had already enjoyed an exciting impromptu game drive.

A Maasai Welcome

Maasai mother and child.

Access to the local Maasai community was exceptional at Amboseli Porini. The camp was a cooperative venture between its owners, Gamewatchers Safaris, and the Kisonko clan of the Maasai people who who owned the Selenkay conservation land, which enabled guests to get a close up experience of Maasai daily life and culture. During my stay, I enjoyed nature walks with Maasai guides who introduced me to various aspects of their traditional lifestyle and highlighted how indigenous natural resources were used by the community. We also had insightful conversations about the tribe’s history, current life, challenges and aspirations. And I was introduced to people of the village, invited into their homes to observe the activities of their daily lives as well as enjoy their ceremonial songs and dances

Legendary Game Drives

A blue wildebeest shows its annoyance at our proximity.

Every subsequent drive in one of the custom-designed, open-sided land- cruisers was equally rewarding. A private four-wheel-drive track linked the Conservancy to Amboseli National Park, and the abundance and variety of wildlife in both the conservancy and the park was startling. We consistently came across lions, cheetahs, caracals, hyenas, buffalos, zebras, wildebeests and gazelles; and bird species too numerous to recall. Most thrilling of all was the dense elephant population. At most recent count, over 1,500 of the great pachyderms were said to live in the park, many of them on the move wherever we went; large swaying herds stirring red dust across the plain, unerringly heading toward the grassy swamp in the distance. Unconcerned by our presence, they sometimes came so close to our vehicle that I felt tempted to reach out to them.

The rare gerenuk (giraffe gazelle) is endemic to the Horn of Africa.

My stay at Amboseli Porini was everything I had envisioned a Kilimanjaro safari should be: legendary vistas and superb game viewing, enhanced by comfortable accommodations in an intimate, environmentally responsible setting. Now it was time to head northward to a much more confidential destination in the highlands of central Kenya.

The entire Kisonko Maasai village gathers to welcome us.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Amboseli Porini Camp was located in the Selenkay Conservancy, on the northern boundary of Amboseli National Park in southeast Kenya.. By road —From Nairobi  Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the entry point  for most International visitors to the sountry, it was a 170 kilometer (100 mile), 3-hour drive drive along the Mombasa Road to the Camp. From Mombasa, it was a 434 kilometer (260 mile), 6 hour drive to the camp. By air — Charter flights are also available between Nairobi or Mombasa and the conservancy. In all cases transfers can be arranged through Gamewatchers Safaris.
  • Gamewatchers Safaris, is one of the longest established safari outfitters based in East Africa. They also own and manage the intimate, eco-friendly Porini Camps in Kenya. For well over a decade they have been frequent recipients of  “Best Green Tour Operator” and “Best Social Impact” awards, at the annual Eco Warrior Award event held by Ecotourism Kenya. They are also internationally recognized, with many awards such as National Geographic Top Ten Safari Outfitters, and  “Africa’s Responsible Tourism Award 2019 and 2018” in the World Travel Awards.
  • WTTC Safety Stamp and WHO Covid-19 Safety Standards — The Porini Safari Camps were among the first in Kenya to be checked and certified to re-open with new Covid-19 safety standards in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Kenya Ministry of Health requirements. They have received the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Safety Stamp, and their teams have completed “Covid-19 Sensitization” training with the Kenya Red Cross Training Institute.

A herd of elephants on the move across the Amboseli plain.

Location, location, location!

Amboseli National Park

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

Having returned from the remote South Luangwa National Park irrevocably enthralled by my first experience in the African wilderness, I was yearning to get back to Zambia. When there is a will… I was off again the following June, to discover the national parks along the Zambezi River, right at the start of the ideal “dry season.”

Lower Zambezi National Park

Byy the end of the rainy season, the Lower Zambezi flood plain turns into a broad expanse of lagoons.

Located on the northern bank of the Zambezi, downstream from Lake Kariba, the Lower Zambezi National Park remains an area of primeval wilderness. This 75-mile (120-kilometer) stretch of land between the Chongwe River and the confluence of the Luangwa River extends 20 miles (32 kilometers) inland to the Zambezi Escarpment. Although the park covers an area of 1,580 square miles (4,092 square kilometers), the escarpment acts as a natural barrier to many species, concentrating most of the game’s activity near the edge of the river.

Hippos rush to the Chongwe River.

The valley was home to many mammal species including hippopotamus, elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion, leopard, genet, civet, and a large number of gazelles. It also offered some of the most abundant and colorful birdlife I had come across anywhere. The river bank was scalloped with channels that created lush islands along the main river. This idyllic environment had led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of luxury camps along the river. My favorites had managed to retain a laidback bush camp vibe.

Chongwe River Camp

The view extended across the Zambezi to the Zimbabwe.

Stretched along the bank of the Chongwe, at the point where it met the Zambezi, the Chongwe River Camp offered a sweeping view of the western boundary of the Lower Zambezi National Park and Zimbabwe’s famed Mana Pools on the far bank of the river. The inspired architecture of the lounge with its curving concrete platforms lined with thick pads and toss pillows, showcased the exuberant wilderness that surrounded the camp. Throughout the day, elephants and buffalos came to the water for a drink or a bath, while pods of hippos filled the river like so many moving islands.

A Goliath Heron takes flight. With a wingspan of 185–230 cm (73–90.5 in), it is the world largest living heron.

Drives across the Chongwe River into the park were always exciting, but my favorite way to explore this unique environment was from the water. Canoeing down the quiet, shady channels was as blissful a safari experience as I have ever come across, enhanced by the expertise of my guide, Wedmore Kumbani. He could unobtrusively stir our canoe to find a leopard stealthily quenching its thirst or a fifteen-foot long Nile crocodile sunning on the bank. I also credit him for introducing me to the joys of birding by allowing me observe close-up the rich birdlife on the river, from the giant Goliath Heron to the jewel-like Malachite Kingfisher.

Memorable first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher.

My first sighting of the latter remains an adrenalin-charged memory to this day. Wedmore spotted one of the tiny birds clinging to a reed and maneuvered us to it. I single-mindedly began shooting while he was nudging the canoe to get me ever closer. Suddenly, from beneath us, a submerged hippo decided to make its presence known. It abruptly surfaced, its flank scraping the side the canoe, sending it spinning. Wedmore skillfully steadied it while I clung frantically to my camera. The bird was long gone by now, but I had memorable images of my eventful first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher, and after calm had returned, of my closest encounter ever with a hippo.

Chiawa Camp

My tented suite featured an open deck with an irresistible claw-footed Victorian bathtub with a view.

Chiawa Camp was my idea of what Eden should be: spectacular views, abondant game activity, and outstanding creature comforts. Nestled under a lush canopy of riverine forest in the heart of the Park, Chiawa blended so unobtrusively into its surroundings that elephants and buffalos routinely paraded within feet of my tent on their way to the river. More than once, the short walk from the lounge to my tent was delayed while a pachyderm ambled down the path, claiming its incontestable right of way. 

An unexpected visitor shows up for lunch at Chiawa.

The two-story open-front lounge sat a short walk up a gentle slope from the edge of the water. The upper deck offered a panoramic view of the river. A telescope made for close up observation of the game hiding in the high undulating grass that covered the small islands nearby. With so many enticements to an armchair safari, the hardest thing about Chiawa was to select from the variety of daily game watching activities, on land and water, available at the camp.

Connecting with a young lion with along the Chilanga channel.

My visit to Chiawa was rich in exceptional moments, such as canoeing along the secluded Chilanga channel. As my guide smoothly navigated the canoe in the dappled shade of overhanging winter thorn acacias, we came upon a pair of lions enjoying a drink a few feet away on the riverbank. I experienced a prolonged spine-tingling eye contact with one the gorgeous felines before we all carried on with our own pursuits. Another moment forever imprinted on my mind, while star-gazing in the warm night echoing with bird calls and hippo snorts, was to discover the Southern Cross, perfectly outlined among the millions of stars in the black velvet of the African sky. Safari doesn’t get any better than this.

Victoria Falls

Mosi-oa-Tunya is the largest sheet of falling water on the planet.

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Mosi-oa-Tunya (“Smoke that Thunders” in the Kalolo-Lozi tribe’s dialect) plunge 108 meters (355 feet) down in a stunning 1.7- kilometer (1.05- mile) wide waterfall across the Zambezi River. Columns of spray can be seen from miles away from the estimated 500 millions cubic meters (150 million gallons) of water per minute that plumet over the edge. British explorer David Livingston is thought to have been the first European to set eyes on the falls (on November 16, 1855), which he named after his queen.

My Tongabezi guide took took me to the edge of the chasm for a close up rainbow experience.

The Falls are within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a 66 square kilometer (25 square mile) stretch of land that goes from the Songwe Gorge below the Falls in a north-west arc along about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of the Zambian river bank. Roughly one million people visit the Falls each year, which has prompted the development a large tourism infrastructure, especially around the town of Livingston, just upstream from the park, where lodges now crowd the river-frontage and hotel buildings lurk on the horizon. Fortunately further up-river, a few prestigious, long established river lodges have retained their timeless elegance and pristine riverfront environment.

Tongabezi

A magical Tongabezi sunset.

While exchanging experiences with kindred adventurers traveling through the game parks of Zambia, conversation would often drift to favorite lodges and camps. Invariably, someone would bring up Tongabezi. Those who had visited where enthusiastic; those who had not were wistful. Guides and staff always spoke of “Tonga” with respect. As soon as I arrived at Tongabezi, I understood how it had come to be a standard by which Zambian luxury properties were measured.

Al fresco dining at Tongabezi.

Some 20 kilometers (12 miles) upstream from Victoria Falls and Livingstone, across from the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side of the river, Tongabezi was nestled in a  meticulously tended grove of ebony trees overlooking a magnificent bend of the Zambezi River. With its superb service, exquisite cuisine, and the mighty Zambezi shimmering under the midday sun or reflecting the rising moon, it was a serene haven for a gentle re-entry into the outside world after two weeks weeks in the bush. And the perfect venue from which to explore the Falls.

Pied Kingfisher were a constant sight along the river.

My first visit to Mosi-oa-Tunya was at ground level in the company of my guide, who took me along trails that allowed me to get dizzyingly close to the abyss, where I could feel and breathe the spray, and capture perfect rainbows. After this exhilaratingly visceral experience, I went to gaze upon the Falls just as Livingston first did. Tongabezi held the concession for what is now known as Livingston Island, at the head of the Falls. Here, after a short boat ride, I enjoyed a gourmet picnic lunch at the edge of the chasm. David Livingston never had it so good!

Areal view of  the geological evolution of the falls and gorges.

I returned the next day for a bird’s eye view of the Falls, in a small bubble-canopy helicopter that flew me all around the area. In addition to taking in the thunderous natural wonder, this areal perspective gave me a fascinating view of its geological evolution. Since its original formation in the Upper Paleolithic age (20,000 b.c.), six individual gorges have formed, and the Falls have recessed eight times, all previous positions clearly visible from up high.

The Lower The Zambezi National Park stretches between the Zambezi River and the Escarpment.

Good to Know

  • Lower Zambezi — Because of its remote location and limited infrastructure, the Lower Zambezi National Park is not easily accessible. It is best reached via small (loosely) scheduled prop planes to air strips barely larger than a dirt road. However, its pristine isolation and the outstanding density and variety of game congregating along the river, coupled with the luxury of the camps along the river make it superb destination well worth the effort.
  • Chongwe—Chongwe River Camp has nine classic tents under thatch and two private tented ‘suites’, the Albida (two-bedroomed) and the Cassia (one bedroom honeymoon). 
  • Chiawa— The camp is a property of Chiawa Safaris https://www.chiawa.com . It has nine luxury tents that can accommodate up to 16 guests, each raised on wooden decks with river views.
  • Tongabezi—The awards-winning Tongabezi Lodge https://tongabezi.com offers six private Houses and five River Cottages nestled on the banks of the Zambezi River, accommodating two to five guests each.

Location, location, location!

Victoria Falls, Zambia

South Luangwa National Park,

African Diaries—Into Zambia

African Diaries—Into Zambia

First, travel plans for this year ground to a halt in early March. Then came the realization that it could be well into next year before it may be reasonable to begin dusting off my passport. That’s when Africa started calling me – again. But memories will have to do for now.

South Luangwa National Park

On approach for landing in Mfuwe.

My love affair with Africa began well over a decade ago in the South Luangwa National Park, a 3,500 square-mile (9,050 square-kilometer)  stretch of pristine wilderness hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Zambia. After years of yearning, months of planning and a mind-numbing 48-hour succession of flights that had taken me from Houston to the tiny airport of Mfuwe, I was bouncing in an open-top land-cruiser, on a rocky dirt trail heading deep into the park.

The valley draws a rich concentration of game.

Its eastern border follows the Luangwa River as it makes its convoluted way toward the Zambezi River, leaving behind a patchwork of oxbow lakes and lagoons. This remote valley, with its ruggedly varied landscape of savanna and forest, is considered by experts to hosts one of the richest concentration of game in Africa.

 

Comfortable bush camps are nestled along the banks of the Luangwa River.

Unsurprisingly, this has led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of small seasonal bush camps in close proximity to the river. Over the next couple of weeks, I was to visit several of them. Each had a unique character, influenced by its location and the wildlife it attracted. I credit the exhilaration of this first experience for my a lifelong passion for the African bush.

The demise of the giraffe is a bounty for a hyena.

Into the Wild

The hyena’s cub intently takes in the scene.

The two-hour drive to Kuyenda, the camp where I was to spend the next two nights, might be long forgotten by now if not for a couple of images forever imprinted on my mind. First came the breathtaking blood-orange sunset that briefly set ablaze the endless African sky before the entire landscape faded to black. 

Then sometime later, a dead giraffe. My driver detoured off-road into the brush, lights muted, explaining that the carcass of an old male had been reported here earlier in the day, and would I mind if we checked it out? I wouldn’t. The still relatively intact giraffe was sprawled across a small clearing, and a hyena had beat us to it.

Behind her, her cub was peering tentatively out of the shadows. “This is the circle of life in the bush,” my companion commented philosophically. “Within a week the scavengers will have it all cleaned up,” he added, doubtless to assuage my tourist’s sensibilities.

 

Kuyenda

Phil has been active in the valley for over half a century in various wildlife preservation capacities. He is considered one of Zambia’s most respected naturalists.

Kuyenda was a classic African bush camp: four cozy wood and reed private guest rondavels (circular huts) under thatch, with open-air en-suite bathrooms and overhead drum showers, clustered around a spacious open-walled dining and lounge area. This is where we congregated at dawn over a hearty cooked breakfast, four guests from various parts of the world and our host, the resident camp manager and guide, Phil Berry.

Open top land-cruisers are the limousines of the bush.

Game watching meant adapting to the rhythm of the sun and the moon, as the wildlife has since the beginning of time. But the wonder of a pristine new day was well worth the ruthlessly early wakeup call. We settled into the land-cruiser, with Phil stopping to point out every new animal or bird sighting. A herd of skittish impalas snapped to attention as went approached, while baby baboons roughhousing in a tree didn’t even grant us a look.

 

My very first elephant sighting ever!

Then we came upon a venerable bull elephant, standing within twenty feet of our truck, apparently still half asleep himself. My very first elephant in the wild! I’d see many more in the days to come, but that first sighting remains unforgettable, even though he gave us only a perfunctory glance before turning his attention to the foliage of a nearby Mopane tree (an elephant favorite treat) for his breakfast.

The magic of a Kuyenda dusk.

The instant that sealed my fate as a hardcore safari enthusiast came that evening, as we were sipping our Sundowner – alcoholic (or not) beverage of your choice (make mine Gin and Tonic, thank you), usually enjoyed while watching the sun set over an especially scenic vista. We were stopped in the dry, sandy bed of the Manzi River, taking in the the perfect stillness of dusk, when we spotted a pair adult male lions unhurriedly making their silent way across our line of vision.

 

Chamilandu

A family of pukus drops by for a morning drink near the camp.

Chamilandu was the most intimate of the camps I visited on this trip: three spacious tree-houses with outdoor showers, perched on ten-foot high platforms. Each was fully open onto its private deck with a startling 180 degree view of the Luangwa River and the distant the Nchendeni Hills. This privileged riverfront location ensured outstanding game viewing at camp as well as on walks and drives nearby.

An hippo mother and young calf emerge from the river at sunset.

A pleasant morning walk offered an excellent close-up view of the abundant water-fowl population. A sundowner drive took us to a nearby cliff to observe a large pod of hippos as they emerged from the river to browse, and afforded us the treated of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters nesting into the cliff. On the way back we got the added excitement of sighting a leopard stealthily on its way to its nightly errands.

 

Kudu bulls sport impressive spiraling horns.

Other favorite memories of Chamilandu? The ready access to water repeatedly brought herds of elephants to the river, and a varied population of antelopes, among them the majestic spiral-horned kudus. This abundance of antelopes meant predators weren’t far behind. We came across an especially regal male one night, who seemed quite offended by our intrusion.

 

Chindeni

Dawn over the Chindeni lagoon.

Tucked in the shade of ancient ebony trees at the apex of a permanent oxbow lagoon, Chindeni was a verdant oasis in the parched immensity of the park when I visited in the final weeks of the dry season. The four tented guest accommodations were raised on wooden platforms at the edge of a bluff overlooking the lagoon. As was the panoramic lounge, cleverly arranged around the trunk of a giant ebony tree that contributed both a sculptural quality and cooling shade to the structure. It was the perfect spot to enjoy an early pre-drive breakfast while contemplating the dramatic sunrise over the hills.

Lionesses are settling in for their siesta.

While the overall variety of game viewing in and around the camp was impressive, my Chindeni experience is forever associated with lions – a major pride of them! We first spotted them at the end of a morning drive, several females of various ages and a couple of adolescent males, all looking sated and ready to settle down in a shady glade for their afternoon siesta.

Tree-climbing lions are an extremely rare sight.

We returned to the area to look for them at the start of our late afternoon drive, and were rewarded with a startling sight: a tree full of lions! The entire pride was draped high in the branches of a huge winter thorn tree, having climbed there, doubtless in search of a cooling breeze to relieve them from the heavy afternoon heat. Now they were gingerly starting to stir, contemplating the challenge of every treed cat in the world: how to get down?

The Mfuwe Lodge

Elephants are a constant sight at the Mfuwe Lodge.

Although time seemed to stand still during my enchanted stay in in the park, sadly, it hadn’t. With a morning flight out of Mfuwe to start the long journey home, I spent the last two nights of my visit at the Mfuwe lodge. With 18 guest chalets and all the amenities expected from a luxury full service hotel, the Lodge was a good way to ease myself back into the “real world.” Although located within the park, it was a mere five-minute drive from the main gate and 45 minutes away from the airport. As in the camps I was still able to enjoy a day’s worth of game drives.

Elephant and hippo are having a territorial disagreement.

A tiny elephant calf is learning to manage a mud hole.

But the highpoint of my stay unfolded right in front of my chalet. From my balcony overlooking the lagoon, at the time reduced to a series of puddles, I spent an entertaining afternoon watching a mud fight between a hippo and a breeding herd of elephants. The hippo had laid claim to the patch, and in spite of all the persuasion the matriarch elephant could muster, it wouldn’t be dislodged.

The two contestants ultimately pretended to ignore each other, and the pachyderms made the best of whatever slime they could appropriate. 

 

I reluctantly left Zambia, promising myself to return. And so I did, the following year. My main destination was the Zambezi River this time, but I couldn’t resist starting my visit with detour via the South Luangwa National Park.

 

 

Nkwali

Nkwali offers a spectacular view of the park and the river.

I opted to stay in the Game Management Area this time, immediately across the river from the South Luangwa National Park. Discretely tucked into a grove of soaring ebony trees on a prime vantage point of the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, Nkwali coupled the casual atmosphere and intimate proximity to wildlife that only a bush camp can offer with the indulgent amenities of a boutique safari lodge. Its six guest chalets and lounge area offered a spectacular view of the steep far bank of the river and the acacia forest that constituted the boundary of the park.

The private pontoon is an picturesque way to access the park.

For all its superb isolation, Nkwali was less than an hour away from Mfuwe Airport. Access to the park was either via a colorful hand-cranked pontoon near the camp or across the Mfuwe Bridge, 10 kilometers away. Game activity was intense in the Game Management Area as in the park itself, and the the pontoon crossing gave us the unique opportunity to witness at close range the sudden eruption of a domestic argument within a pod of hippos floating nearby.

First close range sighting of a leopard!

The splendid cat indulged me with a photo opportunity.

It was exciting to reconnect with all the familiar wildlife of the bush but the most exhilarating moment came when we began tracking a leopard. I had casually mentioned to my guide, Joseph, that on my previous visit I had only managed a night-time glance at one, and I that I was hoping to get a proper look this time. He made it a matter of professional pride to grant me my wish. Locating the elusive feline took cooperative efforts of Joseph and one of his colleagues. They engaged in an extensive radio dialog to direct us to the appropriate location. They were assisted by the terrorized screeches of a troop of baboons who had apparently just lost one of their own to the feline.

Then suddenly there he was, glaring defiantly at us through a jumble of grass, a magnificent adult male, his spotted coat still showing tell-tale red shadows. He seemed to weigh its options for a while, before strutting nonchalantly out of the brush and across the clearing, and fading once again into the high grass. Definitely the ultimate memory of my visit to Nkwali!

From my chalet at Nkwali, I spent a blissful siesta time watching a herd of elephants wade their way out of the park, across the Luangwa River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Because of its remote location, the South Luangwa National Par is not as readily accessible from North America and Europe as other better known southern Africa safari destinations. This isolation naturally limits the number of visitors, which enhances the authentic bush experience.
  • Staying there—Chamilandu, Chindeni, Kuyenda and the Mfuwe Lodge are properties of The Bushcamp Company. Kuyenda and Chamilandu are open June to November, Chindeni is open May to December and the Mfuwe Lodge is open year-round. Nkwali is a Robin Pope Safaris property. It is opened year-round

A view from the pontoon – A bloat of hippos sunning themselves on the bank of the river.

Location, location, location!

Mfuwe, Zambia

Motswari – Responsible Tourism in Action

Motswari – Responsible Tourism in Action

Nestled in the heart of the famed 5,400 square kilometer (210 square mile) Timbavati Nature Reserve, one of the oldest and most pristine in South Africa, and with an unfenced border to the western boundary of the legendary Kruger National Park, Motswari Private Game Reserve is a safari-goers’ dream. It is teaming with the iconic Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) and a supporting cast of over 140 other mammals and 500 varieties of birds.

To Conserve and Protect

South Africa - Motswari rhino.

Motswari takes an active part in supporting rhino protection.

In the local Tswana language, Motswari means “to conserve and protect.” Motswari Private Game Reserve has been living up to its name since the Geiger family acquired the property in 1992.
From the onset, the original owner, the late Paul Geiger, focused on wildlife conservation, environmental management, and the creation of meaningful employment and growth opportunities for the local communities.

 

 

South Africa - Motswari elephants

The look of environmental protection excellence.

On the public stage, this has earned Motswari an impressive number of prestigious accolades, including its on-going accreditation by Fair Trade in Tourism, South Africa (FTTSA), a distinction the property first earned in 2008. Motswari also achieved Gold Class status in 2013 on the Heritage Environmental Certification Program (based on internationally recognized sustainability and responsible business initiatives), making it the only environmentally certified lodge in Timbavati.

 

What does this mean to me, the tourist? A lot actually. Beyond the personal satisfaction of knowing that my visit contributes in a small way to supporting a shared environmental and social ethos, choosing Motswari has a considerable positive impact on the quality of my safari experience.

A Family Country Estate

South Africa - Motswari main lounge

The main lounge.

The first thing I notice as I settle in is the relaxed atmosphere of the property. The décor, an unpretentious mix of comfortable rustic furniture, local safari antiques, crafts and random personal mementos, has the charm of a family country estate that has developed organically over time. The lounge and dining area open onto a free-form swimming pool overlooking the river and the bush beyond. There, as in the nearby library, intimate seating arrangements invite to settle in, chill out and enjoy the view.

South Africa - Motswari, Duiker

All the bungalows are named after bush animals. Mine is Duiker.

My own bungalow is a light-filled circular space with large French doors that open onto a private terrace overlooking the dry riverbed. It is furnished in an uncluttered, retro-style mix of rustic wood and rattan furniture, with a sumptuously comfortable king-size bed swathed in mosquito netting taking pride of place. But nothing retro about the vast en-suite bathroom with its deep built-in bathtub and separate walk-in shower with rain showerhead and great water pressure. Or in the thoughtful details at my fingertips to ensure a comfortable stay, from quality biodegradable toiletries to electrical outlets conveniently fitted with universal adapters to accommodate North American and European plugs.

South Africa - Motswari library.

The library.

Another detail that enhances the enjoyment of my safari is what is not found at Motswari. (Spoiler alert – here comes one of my pet peeves). There had been a trend in recent years for upscale properties to include such sophisticated urban amenities as elite spas, painstakingly curated antique artifacts boutiques or haute cuisine restaurants with pre-dinner visits to in-house wine cellars.

 

South Africa - Motswari pool

The pool overlooks the bush.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the occasional bit of over-the-top pampering, in its own time and place. In the bush, however, I find it an unwelcome distraction from my wilderness experience. On behalf of safari purists everywhere, thank you Motswari for keeping it authentic.

 

The People Factor

In incorporating responsible tourism as a key principle in its operating philosophy since its inception, the property has created a close-knit community where some employees have been with the lodge all of their working life and others are now second generation staff members. All are regarded as members of the extended Motswari family and feel enormous pride in their lodge. This is reflected in the positive way staff and management interact with each other and with the guests. I take with me warm memories of the genuine friendliness and concerted attention to details from the entire team to ensure that I enjoyed a memorable visit.

South Africa - Motswari leopard.

Guiding excellence means repeated leopard sightings.

The people factor is not just about superior service. It is inscribed in the success stories of staff members who, with management support, were inspired to follow their passion, and went on to raise the bar in their chosen field to deliver outstanding experiences for the guests. People like Godfrey Mathebula, the now Assistant General Manager, Motswari Private Game Reserve, who grew up on Java, Paul Geiger’s original property, where is parents were caretakers.

South Africa - Motswari leopard with kill.

This elusive male has concealed his kill high in a tree.

The Geiger family supported him through school, then gave him a job in the maintenance workshop before his passion for the bush led him to the guiding field. After passing with a near perfect score the first level certification of the prestigious Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGSAS), he began guiding, went on to pass every level of certification available, become Motswari’s lead guide, and set a very high standard for every guide that followed.

 

Outstanding Game Viewing

South Africa - Motswari lionesses

After the hunt, two lionesses groom each other.

With the property’s privileged location at the unfenced edge of Kruger National Park, its 150 square kilometer (60 square mile) swath of traversing right within the game-rich Timbavati Nature and its long established wildlife conservation efforts, my guide could have ensured daily Big Five sighting with relatively little effort. But that’s not the Motswari way. Less than an hour into my first drive I am reminded that regardless of the abundance of game and birdlife, it is the guiding team that ultimately makes the difference between routine game viewing and an unforgettable experience.

South Africa - Motswari lion kill

A male lion and his buffalo kill.

My guide and tracker are among the best I have come across anywhere. With them every drive is a front row seat to the ever-unfolding drama of the African wilderness. We track through dense bush a leopard stealthily returning to the tree where it has concealed its fresh impala kill. We witness a territorial dust off between two males leopards, so sudden that the pursued has literally propelled itself to the top of a 20 meter (65 foot) yellow acacia by the time we spot its discomfited pursuer.

South Africa - Motswari elephant and calves

An elephant cow and two calves.

We observe at close range the dynamics between two male lions feeding on the carcass of a young buffalo, and lionesses and cubs from a resident pride grooming off each other the traces of a recent kill. Then there are elephants, large breeding herds of them on the move with their nursing calves, mud-encrusted rhinos crashing their way out of a waterhole, and cheetahs on the prowl.

 

 

When we eventually return to the lodge, still buzzing from the experiences of the past few hours, it is to sumptuous brunches cooked to order or to formally served dinner or braai (South African barbecue) around the boma’s central fire pit.

Amazing Grace

South Africa - Motswari teatime

Teatime is announced with a song.

Meals are a never-ending feast here. And another Motswari people success story. Young Grace Mnisi discovered her passion for cooking when she joined the kitchen staff as a kitchen assistant right after school in 1996. She steadily worked her way through the ranks to pastry chef and sous-chef and finally head chef in 2004. Along the way she has ranked for Best Food among the top lodges in the country in national Bush Banquets competition and even found the time to earn herself a Professional Chef college certification. Today, Amazing Grace, as Chef Mnisi is often called, and her kitchen team treat the guests throughout the day to imaginative meals beautifully prepared from fresh local products. Her cuisine focuses on South African specialties with subtle international accents.

 

South Africa - Motswari, boma.

Dinner is served around the fire under the stars.

Dinner is always a delicious three-course course affair, served plated at candle-lit tables under the stars. But I have a special fondness for the teatime ritual. Served in the lounge just prior to the departure of the afternoon game drive, it is announced by the sound of female voices singing in the close-harmony style for which South Africa is famous. The voices belong to the kitchen staff who regally walk in bearing large trays and bowls of delicious salads, relishes, meats and savory and sweet pastries that are promptly arranged onto a long buffet table

A Better Place to Be

For three decades now the owners of Motswari have managed the property according to principles that would later be summarized in the 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism as caring for the wildlife, the land and the local community to “create better places to live in and to visit”. Thank you to everyone in the extended Motswari family for making it one of my best safari experiences ever.

Good to Know

  • Motswari has been owned by the Geiger family for two generations. Current owner is Marion Geiger. The property is managed by Newmark Hotels, Reserves and Lodges. Motswari Private Game Reserve. motswari.co.za e-mail: reception@motswari.co.za or reservations@motswari.co.za. Or call: + 27 (0) 21 427 5900.
  • It is a six-hour drive from Johannesburg or 75 minutes from Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport .
  • Accommodations consist of 15 bungalows that can welcome a total of 30 guests.
  • Complimentary WiFi service is available throughout the day and evening in the public areas.
  • First designated as a protected area in 1898, Kruger National Park became South Africa’s first national park in 1926. It is also one of the largest, covering an area of 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 square miles) in the northeastern corner of the country. Two dozen private reserves that share an open border with the western boundary of the park contribute an added 18,000 square kilometers (700 square miles) of unfenced land dedicated to conservation where the rich game population of the overall Kruger area can roam at will.
  • Collectively known as the Greater Kruger National Park, these private reserves are home to a number of upscale lodges ruled by charters that strictly limit the number of guests and game viewing vehicles allowed on their land to ensure that their guests enjoy an optimum game viewing experience as well as activities such as nature walks as well as off-road and night drives that are not allowed within the boundaries of the Kruger National Park.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Motswari Private Game Reserve

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.

A LIVING LEGEND

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.

CLOSE CALLS

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.

 

 

 

BREATH-TAKING MOMENTS

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.

UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE

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:

Cobra

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