Emerson on Hurumzi, Zanzibar Stone Town

In the heart of Stone Town, the ‘capital’ of Zanzibar, lies a gem of a hotel with a unique history. Jonathan and Sophie step into Aladdin’s cave and find themselves (almost!) lost for words…

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby 

Finding your way around Stone Town can be a challenge – as we arrive, straight off the ferry from Dar es Salaam, we realize that Google Maps isn’t quite up to the challenge that comes with the maze-like streets. Luckily, there are lots of friendly locals to help us navigate our way and we quickly find ourselves in front of a beautiful building with a giant wooden antique door and a very humble façade…

View from our room,  Emerson on Hurumzi

View from our room, Emerson on Hurumzi

Stepping inside is like stepping into a hotel that almost defines ‘bohemian chic’. An Aladdin’s cave of beautiful antique furniture, quirky portraits (of Queen Elizabeth II among others), ornamental trays, four-poster beds, romantic stone baths, stained glass and different colour schemes in every room. This is not your average hotel. There is no easy way to describe all the magical rooms that are on offer – they are each absolutely stunning. Some of the rooms are named after the points on the compass – the East Room is naturally set in yellow tones, with a beautiful wooden lattice wall enabling the perfect balance of sunlight and catching a breeze.

We check into the Tour Suite – decorated in delicate blue nuances, with probably the best views in the house. From our very own Tea House (a covered roof-top terrace), we enjoy our complimentary bottle of champagne while relishing the magnificent views, the sights and sounds of the hustle and bustle in the maze below us. Absolutely breathtaking!

For the perfect sunset cocktail, we head to the rooftop restaurant – one of the best in town. With magical views over the harbour (with its many dhow boats), delicious cuisine and very friendly staff, this is a top-notch airy spot to enjoy the vistas and have a relaxed meal, seated on beautiful Persian rugs, cross-legged, in true Arab style.

Welcome! Emerson on Hurumzi

Welcome! Emerson on Hurumzi

It’s not every night you get an opportunity to sleep in a World Heritage Site building, but that’s exactly the experience you get at Emerson on Hurumzi. In 1883, when slaves were declared free on Zanzibar, the mostly Arabian slave owners came to this very building to claim their reimbursement offered by the British authorities. Seeped in rich history, it is a genuine privilege staying at Emerson on Hurumzi, waking up to the sounds of both the neighboring Hindu temple and Muslim mosque. It’s obvious that the renovation of this building was a passion of love for its owners.

On our second day in Stone Town, after touring the city and taking in the sights, such as the old Slave Market and the Palace Museum, we head to Emerson Spice for a tour of this landmark hotel. Emerson Spice is the sister hotel to Emerson on Hurumzi – both hotels now under the same management. The atmosphere at Emerson Spice is very similar to Emerson on Hurumzi, the rooms have the same bohemian feel, but the finishes are a tad more modern.

Quirky staircases,  Emerson on Hurumzi

Quirky staircases, Emerson on Hurumzi

At both hotels though you’ll get top-notch hospitality and a memorable experience – we certainly did.

Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a fantastic destination in its own right, or combined with some beach relaxing, with or without a safari thrown in. See the safari section of our blog for our top recommendations on East Africa safaris.

Good for: Those who appreciate art, antiques and bohemia!

Not so good for: Those with disabilities – there are a lot of (steep) staircases to negotiate here, and it’s all the quirkier for it.

Our verdict: An outstanding hotel with an authentic Zanzibari feel, excellent location and fabulous restaurant.

The Zanzibar Collection

On the East Coast of Zanzibar, on one of the island’s award-winning beaches lies a trio of beach resorts, each with its own unique character, each exquisite in its own way. Sophie and Jonathan visited The Zanzibar Collection’s Breezes Beach Club, Baraza and The Palms and discovered peace, tranquility and proper beach-TLC!

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

Breezes

We’re impressed the moment we arrive at Breezes. Ayman has only been head of operations for one week and yet we get the impression that he’s been here for years – as he gives us a grand tour, his enthusiasm for this beautiful resort is obvious and makes us feel right at home.

Pool at Breezes

Pool at Breezes

It’s low-season and still Breezes is running at almost full capacity, and we quickly discover why this resort is a favorite among Zanzibar regulars. With everything a beach-lover’s heart could possible desire right on the doorstep, such as a PADI-certified dive centre, endless water sports opportunities (kayaks, wind and kite surfing and more), a beautiful pool, spa, gym and several dining venues – this place delivers.

Breezes villas

Breezes villas

After settling in to our tastefully appointed and well-equipped room we head straight to the pool for a swim (well-deserved after biking 60 km here from Stone Town!), followed by lunch in the pool bar. As a nice touch, Breezes offers all new arrivals a pre-dinner welcome drink and canapés on the first night – this creates a nice informal atmosphere and encourages guests to mingle. The Gala Dinner in the Sultan’s Restaurant is an à la carte 3-course gourmet experience with a good selection of seafood – a natural highlight of Zanzibar’s culinary delights. Accompanied by a live jazz band with excellent singers, we tuck into avocado hummus, coconut prawns, white snapper with rock lobster and finally passion fruit pavlova for dessert. Breezes may be a 4-star hotel but it certainly doesn’t ‘settle’ for that – the aspirations are sky high and that shows – we would happily award 5 stars!

Beachfront at Breezes

Beachfront at Breezes

Best for: Families and couples alike

Not so good for: Struggling with this one…

Our verdict: Excellent value for money – prime property on a prime beach with top-notch facilities.

Baraza

It’s a short bike ride for us the following day as we move 250 metres down the beach to Baraza, the 5-star sister hotel to Breezes. With its distinctive Omani design in not only the symmetrical architecture and layout but also in the interior décor, Baraza has 40 private villas, some with garden views, others ocean views and some with an exclusive ocean front location.

Pool at Baraza

Pool at Baraza

The 2-bedroom villas are perfect for two couples travelling together, or a family. Interiors are simple, yet lavish – brass lanterns, ornamental trays, private plunge pool, a king-sized bed, TV, mini-bar, bathrobes, slippers and the essential air-con. We are thoroughly impressed as manager Valeria shows us around the giant property – the feeling of space is overwhelming and even with a fully-packed Baraza it would never seem crowded. The pool is big enough to do laps (although there is also a separate lap pool in the spa), and the area is beautifully designed with lots of areas for relaxation.

Buffet at Baraza

Buffet at Baraza

Lunch is a culinary buffet – we are spoilt for choice as we struggle to decide between lobster sandwiches, chicken satay, pizzas, salads, not to mention the desserts (chocolate éclairs, coconut mousse, apple cake, and more)… the decadent lunch leaves us in need of some exercise. Luckily, Baraza has a fully equipped gym and even its own yoga instructor! We spend the afternoon lazing by the pool, enjoying the sea breeze and watching the tide come in. Just as we start to feel thirsty, one of the many waiters arrives with a bottle of water in an ice bucket… timed to perfection, what more could you ask for? A cocktail perhaps, so we order one of those.

Our suite at Baraza

Our suite at Baraza

The staff at Baraza deserve a special mention – gracious and welcoming, with incredible attention to detail, we were in good hands from start to finish. It is often the level of service that truly characterizes a place, and at Baraza they’ve got that down to a fine art. There’s even an impressive Kids Centre with its own pool and babysitters available. Before dinner we enjoy a cocktail in the Dhahabu Bar, where a group of musicians perform traditional live taarab music.

The culinary ambitions are not to be underestimated and for dinner we enjoy an outstanding Asian-themed buffet with (again!) an overwhelming amount of choice (including sushi, our favorite). Baraza delivers, on every level.

Good for: couples, honeymooners, families…basically everyone.

Not so good for: Still contemplating this one…!

Our verdict: An exquisite and quintessential 5-star resort with an outstanding level of service and amazing food. Our personal favorite of the three Zanzibar Collection resorts.

The Palms

It’s no coincidence that we visit The Palms on our last night. Located on the middle stretch of beach between Breezes and Baraza, The Palms is an exclusive collection of 6 colonial villas nestled amongst palm trees. The atmosphere here is laid back, quiet, relaxing – the guests are truly the centre of attention. Service is discrete and very respectful of those wanting an intimate, private holiday. Best of all? No kids allowed! In other words: this is honeymoon heaven. And with the added benefit of being able to use all the facilities at Baraza and Breezes, you really get the best of all worlds at The Palms.

Pool at The Palms

Pool at The Palms

As we walk into our villa, we are greeted by a bottle of complimentary champagne and there are traditional ‘kangas’ as gifts to wear on the beach. Each villa has its own plunge pool and its own private thatched beach “banda” with sun loungers and a sheltered day bed for that essential afternoon snooze. All meals are à la carte and the culinary levels are as high here as at Baraza – for dinner we have a trio of avocado, prawns with aubergine, fish stew with lobster and chocolate fondant for dessert. It’s the perfect wrap-up for our beach break.

The Palms

The Palms

Good for: Honeymoon couples and those wanting a very private holiday.

Not so good for: Those not wanting all meals à la carte – but then again, with the option of going next door to Baraza to indulge in their buffets, you really get the best of both.

Our verdict: An intimate resort with a compelling sense of peace and tranquility.

The Zanzibar Collection has something for everyone at different budgets and it’s our recommendation for beach resorts in Zanzibar. Whether you’re looking for a stand-alone beach break, or looking to unwind after an East Africa safari, you won’t be disappointed here.

For our top safari recommendations, see the safari section of our blog.

Singita Grumeti Reserves

Situated on 350,000 acres of private, prime Serengeti real estate, the Singita Grumeti lodges promise some of the most spectacular game viewing in Africa. Jonathan and Sophie do a tour of the lodges

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby 

Sasakwa – a Palace on a Hill

The Serengeti is not all flat. Small rocky hills, or koppies, rise out of it and it’s atop one of these koppies that Sasakwa lodge perches, looking south. As well as picking up a nice, cool breeze, it also results in probably the most jaw-dropping view from any safari lodge, anywhere in Africa.

You see it framed as you walk in, on oriental carpets, next to the antique furniture – like a vast open-air window, the view out across the plains suddenly catches your eye and wrenches you. We wanted to just stop and stare.

View from Sasakwa

View from Sasakwa

This is the view of Africa that people dream of – even those that live in Africa – of a vast savanna plain dotted with acacia trees, against the backdrop of distant mountains and a dark, stormy sky. And just visible far below, tiny dots – wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, hartebeest, gazelle – in their thousands. And it’s not even the migration season.

We could quite happily sit out on the main lawn all day and just gawp at the view (and try to spot the odd lion) and this is what we did over a two hour, boozy lunch, table set out on the edge of the hill while our waiter Fabian brought us seared salmon and chocolate fondant. We defy you to name a more spectacular lunch spot anywhere in Africa.

Sasakwa welcome

Sasakwa welcome

But our suite beckoned, before afternoon tea and a game drive. The main lodge and suites at Sasakwa are built ‘in the grand style of an English manor home’ – and as with all Singita properties, tremendous emphasis is placed on the quality and precision of the interior design. Paneled writing desks and old leather armchairs provide the opulence and as always there’s a twist – elements of contemporary African design merge (somehow) seamlessly. The effect is of overwhelming luxury – another Singita trademark.

Our suite comprises a lavish sitting room / study, bedroom, dresser and bathroom, all leading onto a wide, shaded verandah with private pool. And oh, did we mention the view?

After high tea we head out with guide Agnes for a tour of the surrounding plains, quickly locating the local pride of 15 lion, before the heavens open and we get a good soaking. The rains, at last, have arrived.

Back at the lodge, the fire is roaring in the lavish drawing room and we pot a few balls in the billiard room before dinner on the veranda. There’s also a TV room with giant LED screen (if you have to) and gym (if you need to), morning room and spa.

Suite at Sasakwa

Suite at Sasakwa

One of Singita’s most impressive offerings is the option of horse riding throughout the reserve, with big game. From a half-day to a multi-day horse safari staying at more than one lodge – as with everything at Singita, anything is possible. Or even probable. 18 beautifully kept and trained horses at the Equestrian Centre at Sasakwa are kept for guests’ use, with a full selection of riding apparel, meaning you need bring nothing with you.

We’re not big riders ourselves, but we have it on good authority that the riding at Grumeti is likely to surpass any riding you’ve done, anywhere in the world. It’s certainly hard to imagine that anything could beat mingling with thousands of wildebeest and zebra and galloping across the Serengeti Plains. Be aware though that you need to weigh under 100kg and be a more-than-competent rider before you’ll be allowed to take the reins in an environment like this, so don’t exaggerate (or be delusional about) your abilities. Your riding will be assessed first.

Sabora – a Paradise on the Plains

Next morning we combine a morning game drive with breakfast at Sabora. Sabora somehow manages to be almost the polar opposite of Sasakwa but without feeling diminished.

While Sasakwa is set up high, Sabora is right on the plain itself, leading to the pleasant dilemma of whether (during the migration) you prefer to look down on your million wildebeest, regal-like, or have them up close, virtually stampeding your veranda and crushing your tent with surround-sound mooing and the chance of watching a close range kill over your morning tea. Decisions, decisions.

Sabora Camp

Sabora Camp

Things are more tranquil over our morning tea at Sabora, but the location again is simply incredible, the hospitality no less impressive. The tented camp is small and intimate, intended to invoke the era of ‘Out of Africa’ – the library tent is decorated with antique furniture, fascinating old books and letters – even an old gramophone. It feels like we’re stepping back in time.

If the grandeur of Sasakwa seems too much, this smaller intimate camp brings you into the heart of nature. We love it.

Singita’s Explore Mobile Tented Camp takes one more step in this direction – trading a bit of luxury for a true middle-of-the-bush feel. Now with a mandate to move throughout the Reserve, the camp moves with the wildebeest herds giving the best chance of up-close action and is especially popular with multi-day horse safaris.

Faru Faru – Harmony by a River

For us though, it was saving the best until last. Of all the Singita lodges, one must be our favourite and Faru Faru is it.

View from Faru Faru

View from Faru Faru

When comparing lodges of this quality, it becomes very personal. We couldn’t fault the hospitality anywhere in Grumeti and our waiter Zed and managers Madelein and Roger were no exception. The lodge overlooks the Grumeti River, with all the wildlife and diversity of birds that brings with it, and the suites look out directly onto the river, or a close-by waterhole where we watched giraffe and buffalos drink.

For dinner that night we had lobster and fresh tuna on the barbeque. We’ve never had lobster in the bush before – the food was simply sensational. And to the accompaniment of lions roaring.

Suites at Faru Faru

Suites at Faru Faru

Faru Faru is smaller than Sasakwa with a slightly more intimate feel, yet it also has a gym and spa, and a different, more modern, feel – like all the Grumeti lodges, it’s about variety. Really, you need two or three nights at each to understand what Grumeti is  all about.

The suites at Faru Faru defy description. Take the best of Singita Lebombo and Singita Boulders, merging bold modern with classic style, and throw in a sliding glass wall that opens up the whole suite to the African bush. Lie back in bed and it’s like having an 8 metre HD cinema screen running a wildlife documentary in front of you. Except it’s real.

Pool at Faru Faru

Pool at Faru Faru

Enough said. Singita Grumeti blew our minds – if you only go to one place in Tanzania, make it here. You won’t forget it.

Good for: The most luxurious, privileged safari you’re likely to find

Not so good for: It’s not cheap of course

Our Verdict: Probably unbeatable

Beho Beho Camp, Selous, Tanzania

Exclusivity within an exclusive reserve, Beho Beho offers a unique experience away from the crowds. Jonathan and Sophie discover more…

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby 

Compared to other Selous lodges, Beho Beho literally stands out. Most guests fly in but we drove, away from the Rufiji river that carves through the northern Selous, and up into the hills, from where the lodge looks down across the hills and plains.

We’re greeted by manager/head guide Walter, and Karin, with a cold beer and refuge from the searing afternoon heat.

Sunrise, Beho Beho

Sunrise, Beho Beho

Beho Beho stands out not only physically – it’s also the most luxurious and polished lodge we’ve seen in Selous. Things are done differently here. All dining is communal and there’s great emphasis on personal relationships, a sense of exclusivity, and being made to feel part of the ‘Beho Beho family’.

With no other lodges in the immediate area, it feels almost as if Beho Beho operates its own concession within Selous, and there’s a good chance you won’t see another safari vehicle on a game drive. Compared to the traffic jams at sightings in the Serengeti, this is almost unheard of in Tanzania. Unlike all other lodges in Selous, Beho Beho is away from the main Rufiji river and lake systems – but this is its strength, not its weakness, and its private airstrip is just a few hundred metres from the lodge.

Suites, Beho Beho

Suites, Beho Beho

Considering the remote location, the food is exceptional; chef Karin personally oversees the kitchen with carefully crafted menus.

The main lodge is beautifully furnished (complete with full-size billiard table), as are the traditionally constructed suites; the décor harks back to the time of Selous and the Great White Hunters.

Main area, Beho Beho

Main area, Beho Beho

Nearby Lake Tagalala is the venue for boat trips, with plenty of game, especially hippos and crocs. And Beho Beho is the only lodge in Selous licensed to conduct walking safaris with guides Walter and Werner without a Tanzanian Parks ranger in tow, allowing guests the freedom to benefit from two of the most experienced South-African trained guides in the country.

Hippo pool, Beho Beho

Hippo pool, Beho Beho

We took a walk with Walter down onto the plains, through thickets of Borassa palms, watching the swarms of white-throated bee-eaters, looking for tracks and the small things that make walking safaris special. And not only small – we looked down on no less than 70 hippos crammed into a small pool, a heaving mass of fat and flesh, just metres away. This is a truly special place, with a beauty of its own.

Under a baobab tree (named after the Camp’s founder, Christopher Bailey), Walter pointed out recently discovered human graves – children that died violent deaths, perhaps 19th century victims of slave raiders that terrorized these hills. Nobody knows – Beho Beho has many secrets. Nearby are WW1 battle fields where Selous himself met his end; remnants of these battles still remain.

Pool at Beho Beho

Pool at Beho Beho

Perhaps it’s haunted, but at Beho Beho you feel part of something greater – the fusion of incredible scenery, close-up wildlife and rich history. It’s as if you’re being watched by ghosts of the past….or just a leopard through the palm leaves.

Later that night, after a gourmet 3-course meal (including duck à l’orange) under the stars with our hosts, we sat in the moonlight, cool at last, listening to the rumble of elephants and looking down on that ancient baobab.

It alone knows the secrets of Beho Beho.

Good for: Just about everything, except families traveling with very young children (no under 12s).

Not so good for: Those that prefer private dining or prefer not to socialize with other guests on safari.

Our verdict: Fantastic combination of first-rate guiding, great game viewing (especially Wild Dog), location and luxury make this our number one choice in Selous. Due to the nature of the experience and the many activities on offer, a minimum stay of three nights is recommended.

Karen Blixen Camp – Mara North Conservancy, Kenya

Superbly situated on the banks of the Mara River in Mara North Conservancy, KBC offers great game viewing over the Mara Ecosystem

 Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

You arrive at Karen Blixen Camp from above. The first rains have turned the land green and we slither down the muddy tracks to the river, where the Camp sits just below the rift valley escarpment.

Straight away we fall in love with the location right on the river bank, and a resident pod of twenty hippo honk loudly just metres away. Our tent nearby also looks straight onto the river and we relax before the buffet lunch in the shade of our deck, watching impala coming down to drink, as the first distant rumbles of thunder echo across the plains.

Mara North Conservancy

Mara North Conservancy

“Three days ago it was completely dry,” our Maasai guide, Jackson, explains. “The cattle have been suffering here – more than 2,000 have died”. We couldn’t fail to notice the epidemic of Tawny and Steppe Eagles feeding on the carcasses of the fallen, as we drove in. Already the Mara is bathed in the green of fresh new grass, bringing life to land once again.

KBC is located in one of the Conservancies that surround the Maasai Mara National Reserve – meaning the land is shared between the Maasai and their villages and cattle, and the wild animals we come to see. Areas are set aside for grazing and for wildlife and although the system is not perfect, it’s nevertheless a model for how a balance can be struck between the need for conservation, and the livelihood of the land’s owners – the Maasai.

View over the river, Karen Blixen Camp

View over the river, Karen Blixen Camp

Jackson grew up in a neighbouring village and has seen the transformation of the land since the Conservancies, and we chat about this and Maasai culture as we pass herds of cattle at the start of our game drive. The cows take a bit of getting used to when you’re geared up for a wilderness experience and we’re curious to see how the game shapes up once we enter the wildlife zone.

We’re not disappointed. From the start, there are zebra, wildebeest, topi, impala and gazelle everywhere you look, and views across the endless plains to distant escarpments are everything you imagine the Maasai Mara to be. Throw in the ominous sky, the shafts of sunlight splitting storm clouds, the unearthly vividness of all the colours and we were so overawed that we hardly noticed the leopard crouching under a bush.

Cheetah brothers, Mara North Conservancy

Cheetah brothers, Mara North Conservancy

Not far away, the famous Cheli pride of lions were spread out, paws in the air – we counted no less than 21 of them, the largest pride we’ve ever seen, and with even more out of sight.

Next, we came across two beautiful cheetah brothers resting under a tree, before they stood up, stretched, and walked off into the savannah, vanishing into the distant horizon. We watched, spellbound.

Finally we returned to the leopard, a fine male, as the sky darkened and the first drops of rain began to fall – watching him prowl around the tree where his dead gazelle lay, the most beautiful cat you’ll ever see.  We forgot about the cows.

Karen Blixen Camp

Karen Blixen Camp

With 22 tents, KBC is the largest in Mara North, making it excellent for families and groups, although it lacks the intimate atmosphere of some of the smaller camps. Hospitality staff and guides are excellent and the camp is efficiently managed.

Those that prefer a ‘true’ wilderness experience will opt for a lodge within the Reserve itself, while the Conservancies offer equally impressive game viewing, with a chance to interact with, and learn from, the Maasai herders that share the land. In Mara North, Karen Blixen Camp won’t disappoint.

Good for: families, superb wildlife viewing

Not so good for: more intimate safaris, wilderness experience

Our Verdict: Solid choice for Maasai Mara safaris, with superb location on the Mara river

Asilia Oliver’s Camp, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Jonathan and Sophie check out Asilia’s Oliver’s Camp in the underrated Tarangire National Park

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

We’d never seen so many elephant in one place before. Driving through the parched woodland of Tarangire National Park (the rains had yet to arrive), we suddenly descended to The Swamp, a strip of bright, bright green – so green we thought we might be hallucinating. And there they were – more than 250 ellies feeding in the swamp. And only 20 mins later, we arrived at Oliver’s.

Oliver’s Camp rates as one of our favourite lodges in Africa. And we’ve been to many. Where do we start?

Location. Tarangire is a fantastic park, not just for its vast herds of elephant. During the dry season, game from the surrounding ecosystem congregate in numbers almost unrivaled outside the Great Migration. Oliver’s has its own special place, tucked away far from other lodges. Tarangire sees only a fraction of the visitor numbers of Serengeti and Ngorongoro, allowing you to enjoy some of the best game viewing in Africa in relative peace.

Elephant at The Swamp

Elephant at The Swamp

Vibe. This is a crucial part of a safari experience – a safari lodge is not merely a hotel in the bush (although some can feel that way). It’s a place to learn, socialize and share life-changing experiences. Managers Justin and Jackie manage this with ease, bringing guests together to form a relaxed environment where everyone can be themselves, while maintaining the standards of luxury expected by guests.

Tents. With mesh on three sides, a wooden verandah overlooking the bush and outdoor shower, the tents strike just the right balance between luxury, and allowing you to feel close to nature. When a lion roars outside your tent, you’ll smell it as well as hear it and that’s a good thing.

View from the suite, Oliver's

View from the suite, Oliver’s

Guides. Here Oliver’s scores maximum points, with heavy-weights such as Zimbabwean trained Lewis and Blessed being among the best walking guides available in East Africa. And Tarangire offers probably the best walking safaris in East Africa, with regular close encounters with elephant, buffalo and lion. If you prefer safaris of the pulse-racing kind, this is your place.

Star walking guide Lewis

Star walking guide Lewis

Around the camp fire that night, we chat to Lewis about his nine years of training as a guide in Zimbabwe, at a time when you had to shoot several elephants before being considered even remotely competent as a guide. We join a family from Nairobi for a hearty communal dinner and it’s late when we retire to our tent, almost tripping over some fresh buffalo dung outside our tent. Where’s Lewis when you need him?

Above the sound of lions roaring that night, the gentle cough of a leopard. Jackie had peered out of their tent in the dead of night to see it lapping from the bird bath, metres away. Oliver’s has plenty of night action and every morning Justin checks his infra-red camera set up outside. Once he caught a leopard taking a nocturnal stroll through the dining area!

Oliver's Camp

Oliver’s Camp

Put it all together and Oliver’s has all the ingredients of a classic, and ranks high on our all-time list. Oliver’s is usually visited with a guide and driver from Arusha as part of a tour of the northern Tanzanian parks, but fly-ins are also possible.

Good for: Intimate feel, getting close to nature and some of the best walking safaris in Africa

Not so good for: if you’re scared of animals around your tent at night. But then maybe Africa’s not for you

Our Verdict: Almost guaranteed great sightings and a great experience, we recommend Oliver’s highly

Asilia Rekero Camp, Maasai Mara Reserve, Kenya

Few places in Africa stir the imagination as much as the words ‘Maasai Mara’. Jonathan and Sophie visit Rekero Camp in the National Reserve to sample its magic

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby.

It’s lunchtime with our hosts Conway and Clea and our table looks out right down the Talek River as a herd of a hundred wildebeest gather nervously at the banks. “It looks like we might get a crossing”, says Clea and I reach impulsively for my camera and prime it – high ISO, ten frames per second – ready for action.

During the migration season the crossings are regular – the stuff of wildlife documentaries – complete with lurking crocs and lions. We know the lions aren’t far away. “Sometimes we’ll be eating lunch, watching the lions ambush the wildebeest crossing”, Clea continues. The close proximity killing might put you off your lunch but we’d still like to see it!

View over the Talek river, Rekero camp

View over the Talek river, Rekero camp

Today though something spooks the wildebeest (the lions, perhaps?) and they draw back at the last minute, disappearing into the plains in a thunder of hooves.

So that’s the setting for Rekero – right on the Talek river, in the heart of Maasai Mara Reserve. Our tent is a good two minute walk from the main tent, also overlooking the river – rustic (bucket showers, hot water to order) but comfortable, and very, very close to nature. Last night lions surrounded the camp keeping everyone awake, and camp-friendly elephant and buffalo put in regular appearances. We prefer tents over bricks and mortar – all the better to hear the lions.

But the main attraction here is the profusion and quality of the game watching and that afternoon we head out with our Maasai guide, Sammy.

Rekero camp

Rekero camp

The Mara really is special. Even if there were no animals, the breathtaking landscape alone would be worth visiting for – we drive up Rhino Ridge for incredible views across the plains. The sky is stormy but the sun is out, casting a rainbow across the sky; the colours are so vivid you almost have to reduce the colour saturation in the photos or friends will accuse you of Photoshopping them. That the plains are sprinkled with thousands of wildebeest and zebra, and that we’re watching a leopard crouching under a bush are an added bonus.

But the real prize comes later – parked next to three cheetah, one of them spots a Cape Hare and suddenly streaks off in pursuit. Nanoseconds later the other two are following and all we see is a blur of spots, and a hare running for its life. The hare wasn’t quick enough and we watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the three siblings ripped the hare apart and consumed their respective shares. I didn’t even have time to get the lens cap off my camera!

Suddenly we didn’t mind as much about missing the wildebeest lion ambush.

Cheetahs with kill, Rekero camp

Cheetahs with kill, Rekero camp

Back at the camp the evening rains have set in (the short rainy season is upon us) and we eat a delicious dinner with our hosts and other guests as the rain beats down on the canvas roof. Rekero is small and meals are mostly communal (our favourite) – at Rekero you’re made to feel part of the family.

There are pros and cons to being situated in the main National Reserve, compared with the surrounding Conservancies. If you want to feel as if you’re in a proper wilderness (we do), then the Reserve is the place to stay – you won’t see Maasai with their cattle on your game drive, or drive through villages en-route to your game viewing. Sightings can be more crowded in the Reserve though, especially during peak season. Personally though, we don’t mind sharing our cheetah kill sighting with a few other vehicles. And Rekero, in the heart of the Reserve, is exceptionally well run. Most guests fly in from Nairobi to the nearby airstrip. To drive in can be an adventure in itself (we know, we did it), especially in the rainy season…

Don’t just take it from us – Rekero has a high proportion of return guests, which is testament in itself, and it’s a top choice for Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Good for: Fantastic wildlife viewing in Kenya’s prime Reserve in a friendly, informal yet highly professional camp

Not so good for: Not much: see notes above on the pros and cons of the Reserve v Conservancies

Our verdict: All round superb choice for the Maasai Mara, not much to fault here