Walk on the wild side

Author: Emma Sloley
Photography: Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti

If an African safari is high on your wishlist, you're not alone. For growing numbers of travellers in the past decade the trip of a lifetime is followed up with another safari, another style, another unforgettable location. And another. For Sujata Raman, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent Australia and New Zealand, safaris are a window to a world that once seen, can't easily be forgotten.

"There are few places left on earth where wildlife still roams vast tracts of land," says Raman.

"I think going on safari still holds the glamour that travel once used to offer. I hear time and again from safari-goers that Africa gets in the blood. It's difficult to do just one trip."

So how to decide which safari experience is the right fit? Raman usually suggests East Africa for first-time visitors - the wildlife is diverse and in large numbers. "Botswana and Zambia are great for second-time travellers, or to follow on from an East African safari," she says. "The game is a little harder to spot and not as prolific, but the experience is far more intimate and very rewarding." And for those with limited time, she suggests South Africa. "It's easy to get to and provides an amazing level of safari accommodation."

With all that in mind, we've sampled some of the hottest new openings in East Africa and a few firm favourites in Botswana and South Africa.

From style hunters to vintage aficionados, there's a safari to suit all personalities.

Safari personality: The Cool Hunter
The camp: Mahali Mzuri, Kenya

Why you'll love it Unveiled in August, this latest addition to Richard Branson's Virgin Limited Edition portfolio is a game-changer. The resort hews to the traditional African tented camp idea in spirit while completely departing from it visually. The 12 tented suites (each named after a Maasai clan) are set along a ridge overlooking the Motorogi Conservancy and, at first glance, resemble either spaceships or giant Ottoman-era helmets, with swooping lines, peaked roofs and monumental steel frames. 

Tent interiors, designed by Yvonne Golds of Real Studios, combine old-school safari style - four-poster beds, claw-foot tubs, indigenous timbers and vibrant Kenyan textiles - with touches of contemporary quirk; the shower stall is coated in a glittery, copper-coloured, disco-ready stucco. The suites are linked by walkways to a communal mess tent and lounge area, where the Branson penchant for drama has full effect. Guests dine at a six-metre glass-topped table supported by a mammoth cedar tree trunk, and gather around a central fire pit with a glass from the help-yourself bar, perhaps some Pimms or vintage Champagne. 

The Nasaro spa, meanwhile, offers a potent combination of wildness and tranquillity. Wander past the infinity pool with its view over the valley and down a flight of steps to a tent set on the edge of the plain. There, therapists perform massages and treatments using traditional healing rituals and Kenyan products (Africology), while the breeze and sounds of the bush waft through the open tent flaps.

The camp overlooks the lush, ever-changing landscape of the conservancy and all its creatures. During my visit I'm mesmerised by a huge herd of elephants that wanders to the river. The staff is a mix of Maasai locals and British and Australian expats with a passion for Africa, and the game drives and cultural experiences emphasise community outreach and benefit local communities.

Safari personality: The Five-Star Addict
The camp: Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, Tanzania

Why you'll love it Reaction to this first venture into sub-Saharan Africa for the global luxury hotel brand promises to polarise along the lines of authentic versus luxury. It's a traditional resort in many ways: the 77 rooms have air-conditioning, marble bathrooms and every luxury amenity you could dream of. Unlike other African bush experiences, the rooms here are sealed off from nature - no chance of clever monkeys figuring out how to work the zipper on your tent or hippos roaming uncomfortably close. As someone who has experienced my fair share of tented camps, I have found this level of comfort can be just the tonic at the end of a long, outdoorsy safari. 

It opened in December last year after a makeover and the location is incredible: at the centre of the incomparable Serengeti National Park, with views over plains flooded with wildebeest during the migration and dotted with monumental rock structures called kopjes. A watering hole right in front of the horizon pool is visited by wildlife each day, most often a herd of elephants who treat the spot like their private swimming pool. A fabulous spa set in six freestanding stilted suites in the grasslands offers traditional Maasai massages, and there are two restaurants, Boma Grill and Kula's Restaurant, a wine cellar stocked with excellent South African drops, and an impressively high-tech Discovery Centre with museum, lecture room and an onsite naturalist-biologist who leads fascinating walking safaris.

For design aficionados the resort is full of show-stopping African art and antiques - I fell in love with the Nigerian ceremonial beaded crowns on display in the lobby - Tanzanian stacked stone walls and whimsical touches such as a long wall covered with woven straw baskets.

Safari personality: The Seclusion-Loving Adventurer
The camp: Orient-Express Botswana collection

Why you'll love it If you yearn to go on safari but feel Kenya and Tanzania are too crowded in high season, Botswana might just be the destination for you. Orient-Express's three tented camps in this tiny, sparsely populated southern African country are secluded and peaceful, with a remote beauty that can feel almost hypnotic. 

Khwai River Lodge in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve is considered one of the best regions in the country for viewing hippos, elephants, lions, leopards and birdlife. The camp's 15 thatched-roof tents have been updated recently with sliding glass doors, a welcome alternative to canvas for those who never tire of watching the drama of the African bush. The appeal of Savute Elephant Camp, meanwhile, is all in the name: this 12-tent camp is pachyderm heaven in the heart of Chobe National Park, often referred to as the elephant capital of the world.

The third property, Eagle Island Camp, is in the famous Okavango Delta on the edge of a lagoon teeming with wildlife. Here you can embark on a safari of a different kind, navigating the waterways by mekoro, a traditional canoe. It's a transcendent experience to see nature so close and in such minute detail, in a way a game drive can never offer.

There are walking safaris on the surrounding islands and romantic sundowners at the Fish Eagle bar, a thatched-roof hut overlooking Eagle Island and its abundant birdlife. The recommended way to travel between the three camps? By helicopter.

Safari personality: The Romantic
The camp: Cottar's 1920s Safari Camp, Kenya

Why you'll love it Sometimes in East Africa the urge to channel early safari enthusiasts is irresistible. And you can at Cottar's. This high-end family-run camp on the edge of the Maasai Mara embraces the romantic, sepia-tinted mythology surrounding safaris evoked by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, complete with liveried staff, tents dotted with European and African antiques (vintage leather travelling trunks, brass gramophones, hurricane lamps, crystal decanters), and walls bearing historical photographs of bygone adventurers. Don a pith helmet and sip G&Ts in the mess tent, or mug for photos in the vintage safari Jeep parked in the drive. The experience never veers into theme-park territory, however, thanks largely to the Cottar family's passion for the Mara. They've been there for four generations and are dedicated to helping build schools and clinics, and working with Maasai clans to conserve the land. 

The camp has 11 spacious tents, including a honeymoon tent and four family tents, each with their own dining area, fireplace and unspoilt view. There's a gorgeous free-form pool with an adjoining dining pavilion and a gift shop that allows guests to take home a little piece of safari - an African antique or original artwork, perhaps. The game drives are conducted by extremely knowledgeable guides and there's the chance to visit Maasai villages to meet the elders. Then back at camp, wannabe Hemingways can begin their bestsellers on vintage typewriters.

Safari personality: The Ultra-Luxist
The camp: Singita Lebombo, South Africa

Why you'll love it The Singita brand has become synonymous with African luxury; its 11 lodges and camps scattered over 200,000 hectares in South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe regularly garner awards and accolades. It's not just hype - the camps ingeniously combine extravagance with an impressive record of conservation and sustainability in some of the most breathtaking locations on the continent. Lebombo, in South Africa's game-packed Kruger National Park, is a standout. The 15 suites are strung along a wooded cliff-face above the N'wanetsi River in the far reaches of the park, near the border with Mozambique.

A neutral colour palette throughout the camp and the use of organic forms and natural materials help to create a sense of being at one with the environment, while the clean lines of its Modernist interiors - curved steel-framed chairs, glass chain-link chandeliers, billowing white curtains separating spaces - appeal to the design savvy. The emphasis on dining and wine is another hallmark of Singita's appeal: expect classics with a twist, such as gazpacho laced with rosewater. Singita has an award-winning wine list comprising 20,000 bottles stored in the cellars of its South African lodges.

It's common here on game drives to have a certified tracker on board, as well as the customary naturalist guide. The former is perched on the front of the vehicle, studying the landscape for signs of recent animal activity, which adds an exciting dimension to the usual practice of scanning the area from inside the vehicle. But perhaps the most exceptional feature of Singita is the people. On a recent visit, staff happily arranged to have a replacement camera flown in when a guest's was broken, and sourced a requested liquor an hour's drive away. You could definitely get used to this.

Safari Personality: The Novice Safari Traveller
The camp: Giraffe Manor, Nairobi, Kenya

Why you'll love it So you like the idea of safari but you're not sure about camping in the wilderness with man-eating animals? Ease into it at Giraffe Manor, an urban oasis in affluent Langata (neighbouring the equally well-to-do suburb of Karen, named after its most famous resident, Out of Africa author Karen Blixen). 

The lodge could have been transplanted from 19th-century England, with its ivy-covered brick walls, mullioned windows, chimneys and manicured lawns. But look out of those windows and the scene is pure Africa, particularly when one of the manor's resident giraffes pokes its head inside to say hello (and seek out the giraffe pellets provided so guests can feed them). Eight Rothschild giraffes, an endangered species, live here and roam the sanctuary's 56 hectares. To say these stately, doe-eyed creatures are tame would be an understatement: there's a good chance you'll experience the most surreal breakfast of your life here with them.

For human residents, the manor has 10 rooms, each individually decorated in a nostalgic style that includes parquetry floors, fireplaces, deep tubs and European antiques. Need a further urban wildlife fix? Head to Daphne Sheldrick's elephant orphanage nearby, where you can coo at adorable baby elephants and even adopt one. It's open to the public only in the mornings, so check visiting times before you go. After this introduction to East Africa's marvels, chances are you'll be ready for full safari immersion.

Given the complicated logistics involved in an African safari, arranging the trip through an experienced tour company is highly recommended. New York-based Micato Safaris offers set itineraries throughout sub-Saharan Africa and bespoke safaris, all of which include transport within Africa, accommodation, meals, game drives and thoughtful extras, such as duffle bags and torches. Safaris cost from $8000 (per person twin share), excluding international flights. Other reliable safari operators include Wildlife Safari (1800 998 558); The Classic Safari Company (1300 130 218); and Abercrombie & Kent (1300 851 800).

Mahali Mzuri, Kenya
Virgin's new-generation tented camp with rooms from $650 per person twin share per night, including all meals, drinks, game drives, transfers from the nearest airstrip, guided walks and free WiFi. 

Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, Tanzania
Show-stopping design, a magical location and five-star amenities make this a fine pick for safari veterans seeking enhanced comfort. Double rooms from $1210 per night, including all meals and drinks. Game drives, park fees and airstrip transfers are extra. 

Orient-Express Botswana Collection
Three camps set in remarkable and varied landscapes. A new Birds of a Feather program in 2014, led by South African naturalist and bird expert Braam Malherbe, will take guests on a unique tour to discover rare and endangered birds. A six-day journey exploring all three camps costs from $7180 per person, including all meals and drinks, game drives and tours, park fees, laundry, transfers between camps, helicopter safari flight and a Windows on the Wild game-viewing experience with night-vision goggles. 

Cottar's 1920s Safari Camp, Kenya
A nostalgic safari experience with rooms from $690 per person twin share per night including all meals and drinks, game drives, airstrip transfers, one massage and cultural visits. 

Singita Lebombo, South Africa
The last word in luxury safari, this ultra-chic camp justifies its price tag with superb dining and superior game-viewing. From $2918 per person per night, including all meals and drinks, game drives, walking tours and laundry; excluding airstrip transfers. 

Giraffe Manor, Nairobi, Kenya
A safari experience, starring friendly giraffes, in the heart of the capital. Rooms from $535 per person per night, including all meals and drinks, airport transfers, laundry and entrance to the giraffe centre. 

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