Satao Elerai Camp, Amboselli, Kenya

With fantastic views of Kilimanjaro, Satao Elerai is a comfortable camp a stone’s throw away from world-famous Amboseli National Park

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

We didn’t see it at first – Africa’s highest peak is usually tantalizingly shrouded in cloud – but our tent faced due south and as the sun set, casting its amber rays over the bush, its snow-capped peak peeped over the clouds, impossibly high. From the comfort of the deck of our luxury tent, we watched it until the light died completely. There can be fewer more moving sights in the African landscape than this.

And Satao Elerai is a great place in which to experience it. It’s twenty minutes down a bumpy road to the camp, which is unfenced and within a Conservancy adjacent to Amboseli, so you really feel you’re in the wild. The tents are well-spaced and feel private, while the main lodge area is refreshingly unpretentious, cool and shady, with views over the plains (and of course, of that little mountain).

Pool at Elerai

Pool at Elerai

A highlight for us is the rim-flow pool, deliciously cool, again with wonderful views out over the bush.

We arrive in time for lunch before enjoying a relaxing afternoon at the lodge. There’s not a huge amount of game around the lodge itself (though anything is possible, and there’s a waterhole in sight of the main deck), but over dinner (served at private tables) we were serenaded by the most vocal frogs we’ve heard yet, some just metres away. You have to hear this sound to believe it.

Next morning we’re treated to a clear view of Kili and head into Amboseli for a game drive. It’s only a few minutes before we’re surrounded by a herd of more than two hundred elephant, with iconic Kilimanjaro framed in the background. It’s the stuff of wildlife documentaries, a truly memorable sight.

Views of Kili from the lodge iteself

Amboseli is not without its problems. Frequent droughts and conflict between wildlife and the Masai have had a serious effect on the Park over the last few years. Few trees remain and in the dry season it can be unbearably dusty. All the rhino and most of the lion have now vanished, while park fees continue to increase. Yet Amboseli continues to draw the crowds, and to see the hoards of other game framed by Kilimanjaro (if it’s not in cloud)…well…it’s one of those things you have to see.

Most people come to Satao Elerai  with a car and driver from Nairobi, which is 5 or 6 hours drive away, but it’s possible to fly in and/or arrange game drives in Amboseli with guides from the lodge.

Our verdict: Solid choice with great views of Kili, close to iconic Amboselli National Park

Good for: Groups of all sizes, good value

Not so good for: Less intimate atmosphere than some smaller lodges

Wild Frontiers – Ishasha Wilderness Camp and Buhoma Lodge, Uganda

Wild Frontiers is one of the few companies to offer world-class safari accommodation in Uganda. Jonathan and Sophie visit Ishasha and Buhoma to see for themselves.

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

Uganda is still an emerging safari tourist destination, but in our minds it’s currently in a sweet spot – developed enough to offer enough top class accommodation to put together a luxury safari itinerary, but without the mass market issues of Tanzania and Kenya. If you’re looking for something a bit different, Uganda is it.

A river runs past it

And Wild Frontiers makes this possible. Ishasha Wilderness Camp is the gem of Queen Elizabeth National Park’s southern Ishasha sector, a remote area renowned for its tree-climbing lions.

We arrive on a hot day before the season’s rain has started, and immediately feel the cool of the shady trees along the river where the lodge is set. This river location is what sets the camp apart – it’s big enough for elephant to bathe in (we watched a big herd doing just that right across from the lodge) but not big enough to invoke that restless feeling of the sound of gushing water. It’s the sort of sound you can fall asleep to peacefully.

Main lodge, Ishasha

Main lodge, Ishasha

We’re greeted by the manager Abu and his staff and are impressed by their professionalism, which can be a rarity in Uganda. The luxury tents are spread out along the river; being mostly made of mesh, you really feel like you’re part of the bush and at night the sounds of hyena, hippos chomping just outside and (if you’re lucky), lion, feel all the closer. Ishasha feels wild, and it is.

Being a wilderness camp, there are certain compromises on luxury – no hair dryers for example, and electronics charging at a point in the main lodge only, but it’s a small price to pay. The lodge has excellent eco-credentials too; it’s run on solar, has hot bucket showers and flushing eco-toilets.

Even better is to come, with the most scrumptious 4 course dinner we’ve ever had in Uganda, served with style. If you like your food, you won’t be disappointed at Ishasha where all meals are fresh and prepared mostly with local produce.

The river at Ishasha Wilderness Camp

The river at Ishasha Wilderness Camp

Most people will head out on a game drive to spot the (sometimes elusive) tree-climbing lions but even without these, the Ishasha section of QENP is spectacular, with huge herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as antelope to admire.

Alternatively you can opt to stay where you are and soak up the extremely relaxing camp atmosphere where you’ve got a fair chance of seeing all of the above from your tent’s verandah, or the sundowner deck virtually hanging over the river.

Mountain Gorillas

From Ishasha, it’s a scenic 3 hour drive out of the plains and into the forested hills of Bwindi, to what, for many people is the highlight of their Ugandan safari – the mountain gorillas.

Buhoma Lodge is situated two minutes walk from the starting point of the most popular gorilla treks in East Africa. Several habituated groups are within easy striking distance and we had a spectacular encounter with the Mubare Group, including a 5 day-old baby. Be sure to have your gorilla permit organised weeks or months in advance at popular times year.

View from Buhoma Lodge

View from Buhoma Lodge

Buhoma lodge is the ideal place to relax after the physical strains of tracking these beasts through thick, steeply forested slopes. You’ll enjoy a complimentary massage, and the staff will even clean your boots!

We loved the location, each suite set on a steep slope with views out across the forest. There’s fantastic birding around the lodge itself, and even better on the track that runs through the forest right past the lodge.

Most people who stay at Ishasha and Buhoma will be with a hired vehicle and driver, as part of a larger Ugandan trip. QENP and gorilla tracking are virtually compulsory parts of any serious visit to Uganda, and Wild Frontiers’ offerings here are hard to beat.

Ndali Lodge, Uganda

Mention Ndali to anyone in the safari-know or living in Uganda, and the accolades will follow immediately. Jonathan and Sophie visit what is often described as Uganda’s top lodge to see what all the fuss is about. What did they find? A gorgeous, tranquil, home-away-from-home!

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

Perched on the rim of an extinct volcano, Ndali Lodge overlooks the magnificent crater lake of Nyinambuga. With 8 luxury suites all facing west (for that killer sunset over the magnificent Rwenzori Mountains), this lodge delivers on high standards – from comfort to decor to food – to atmosphere.  Owner Aubrey, who manages the lodge with his wife Clare, is charismatic and warm and its this effusiveness that gives the lodge it’s homely feel.

Ndali Lodge

Ndali Lodge

Joining the guests for all meals (which are all communal), he does an outstanding job in making sure all guests are happy at all times. And most importantly his enthusiasm for the estate, the area and the community projects that Ndali is involved in shines through in every conversation. Communal meals are always a favorite of ours and at Ndali they highlight just how well that concept works for a small, intimate lodge – already at our first meal (a delicious lunch of quiche, salads and vanilla cake) the atmosphere is spot-on and we immediately make a few new friends from around the world, some of whom we’ll be staying in touch with. It’s not just about the beautiful surroundings, or the top-rate chimp trekking nearby – safaris are also about people.

Dining with a view, Ndali Lodge

Dining with a view, Ndali Lodge

That night we enter the lounge and dining room and find both bathed in candlelight – the perfect venue for a cosy, homely and delicious dinner prepared from locally sourced, fresh ingredients.

At Ndali you’re under no pressure to embark on activities all day long. Soak up the views, have a cocktail, go to the spa, the sauna or simply snooze. Most guests visiting the Crater Lakes will spend one day doing chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest (which, by the way, also boasts other primates such as L’Hoest’s Monkey, Black&White Colobus and Grey-cheeked Mangabey); otherwise there are endless hiking opportunities in and around the many crater lakes. Also, birding is phenomenal – on a short walk around the lodge we spotted 20 species in no time – including the stunning Green-headed Sunbird!

Relax with a view...Ndali Lodge

Relax with a view…Ndali Lodge

In the Crater Lakes / Kibale region of Western Uganda, Ndali Lodge is without a doubt our choice – and a great stopover as part of a larger Uganda tour, between Murchisson Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here you arrive as strangers and leave as family. And so, let the accolades continue!

Kyambura Game Lodge, Uganda

On the border of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Kyambura Game Lodge offers a great level of service to match its awesome location.

Review by Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby

You can see Kyambura Game Lodge from afar, a row of tasteful thatched suites strung out along a rift valley ridge and once you’re up close, it’s even more impressive.

Main lodge, Kyambura

Main lodge, Kyambura

The lodge was quiet when we arrived, all the better to experience the peace and beauty that this place offers. The suites are tastefully built, all in locally sourced materials, and most of them are brand new, following a devastating fire a couple of years ago. But what stands out is the view. Whether from your suite, the sundowner deck or the spotless swimming pool, you look out across the vast plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park. An elephant ambled through the thick bush just below the lodge and the birding in the lodge grounds alone is enough to keep any keen birder happy.

Pool Kyambura Lodge

Other than the lodge itself, the main draw here is chimp trekking in Kyambura Gorge, and the proximity to QENP’s Mweya sector with its game viewing and spectacular river cruises. Both are a reasonably short drive away, making this lodge an ideal base.

The staff are friendly and attentive and we greatly enjoyed our stay.

Most visitors arrive with a car and driver from Kampala, as part of a larger organised tour although the lodge also welcomes independent travellers.

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