Why owner-run lodges really matter

A holiday in Africa’s about the animals right? Well, to an extent- but it’s also about the people. Africa attracts some pretty wonderful characters and the owner of your safari lodge can make as much of a difference to your trip as the wildlife can.

The owner’s the person who can ignore the rules, who can give you the fun, because, frankly, she’s enjoying your company and wants you to have a great time. The owner’s the guy who can help you meet an elephant because he’s been here for 20 years and knows them. The owners’ the guide who tells you the outrageous stories that you’ll tell your friends for 20 years to come. And the owner’s the person who might just say “Ah, you’re travelling with Alex. We had a few drinks in Durban a while back- have an upgrade.”

So, I’d like to introduce some people who made my most recent holiday in South Africa especially wonderful:

Lindsay and Catherine (pictured here with their Dad, Anthony) owners of Montusi Mountain Lodge

Owner run Montusi Mountain Lodge

Lindsay, Catherine and Anthony in the hills

Montusi Mountain Lodge was the surprise treat of my road trip around KwaZulu Natal. I arrived mid thunderstorm, and was the only guest eating in that night. “We’ll bring dinner to you”, I was told. So instead of trudging to the rain to sit in a lonely restaurant, I snuggled up on my sofa beside the fire, with the curtains drawn wide watching the lightening crackle across the top of the Drakensberg. Would a hotel manager have done the same? Maybe….

Ant and Tessa, owners of Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill

Ant and Tessa

Ant and Tessa

Visiting Ant’s Nest is very much like visiting someone’s home (in fact, when we visited the lodge was so full we actually stayed in Ant and Tessa’s home, and couldn’t have been made more welcome).  Meals at are eaten around one big jolly table and the rapport between the staff is so strong Ant’s been heard to joke that he’s running a marriage bureau as a well as a safari lodge.  Having Ant and his wife Tessa on site creates an incredibly fun and welcoming atmosphere for a family safari one that we think would be impossible to recreate without themOn top of this, as Ant’s family first settled here over a century ago, taking it from cattle ranch to wildlife conservancy, chatting to Ant and Tessa is a fantastic way to properly understand the land and the challenges they face- not something you’d find in an every day hotel. We learnt more about rhino conservation in our stay here than I have done in 10 years of taking safaris in Africa.

And, of course, there’s the safari camp owner who told us the tale of the unfortunate guest found roaming the camp the nude in the wee small hours, but he’d better remain nameless…

Flying South for the Winter: Winter Sun in Africa

It’s no surprise than when the weather turns cold, phones start ringing at Extraordinary Africa HQ. As much as we love snuggling up beside a blazing fire and listening to the windows rattle, sometimes we’d really just rather feel the sun on our skin and the warmth breathing out of the sand. So, if we could fly south with the swallows for summer, this is where we’d pick.

Cape Town: Food, wine, and African sunshine…

For an easy winter break with reliable sunshine, an incredible gourmet scene, and barely any time difference Cape Town would be difficult to beat. During the chilly northern hemisphere winter, there are direct flights from London to Cape Town, so you as you leave work on a Friday evening,you can wave goodbye to your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow be eating lunch with a glass of rosé on the Waterfront. Hotels in Cape Town are boutique and effortlessly chic, the glamorous beaches of Clifton and Camp’s Bay are the perfect place to spend a few days snoozing, Table Mountain provides incredible views and fabulous hiking if you really must, and there are world class restaurants scattered throughout the city (just ask us to book early for you- many of them fill up months in advance).

If you have longer to spare, hire a car (we love whizzing around in a soft-top mini) and head out to the Winelands, where you can ride from vineyard to languorous lunch, or head down to Cape Point to see the utterly adorable penguins.

Tanzania’s Tropical beaches

For something a little more remote and wild, Tanzania’s beaches are incredibly low-profile, but utterly gorgeous.  During our winter temperatures are hovering at a balmy 30 degrees, conditions are perfect for diving and snorkelling and deep-sea fishermen will have a serious challenge on their hands.

Zanzibar’s beaches are the real show stopper, and perfect if you want to combine your beach with island life- exploring the ancient streets of Stone Town, being guided through spice plantations, and cycling through the fishing villages. There are some seriously lovely 5* hotels here, as well as some adorable boutique options, so we can almost always find a perfect option for you somewhere.

For divers and snorkelers there’s really only one choice: Mafia. We probably wouldn’t rate the beaches on Mafia Island as highly as those on Zanzibar, but if you want somewhere utterly unspoilt and charming and impossibly laid back, this is it.  If you want to cut yourself of from a frenetic job and the rest of the world, Mafia is the place to be.  Plus there’s the chance to dive with whale sharks. And if that’s not worth travelling for, we don’t know what is.

Finally, over on Tanzania’s mainland coast, visiting Pangani is like stepping back in time to a Zanzibar of 40 or 50 years ago.  You’re more likely to see a fisherman, pushing his bike along the beach with a cheery wave, than you are to see another tourists. Ladies sing as they wade into the sea to haul in the nets, and dhows potter past, sailing gently by as they have for centuries. Bliss.

My latest crush: Montusi Mountain Lodge

If you have a temper tantrum because you have to leave your lodge, it’s got to be pretty good right? To be fair, my sulks on leaving Montusi were between me, the grasses and the birds,  but I couldn’t help resenting the long drive and the perfectly blameless hire car that were to break me and Montusi apart. Why couldn’t the irritatingly efficient machine break down and leave me stranded, just for a day or two?

Night time at Montusi Mountain Lodge

Starlight at Montusi Mountain Lodge

My most recent trip to South Africa had got off to something of a rocky start, with unseasonal storms in almost every place I visited.  After a long drive through rural KwaZulu Natal  Montusi welcomed me with a cosy fire and vast windows that framed the lightening crackling along the top of the Drakensberg.

Opening my eyes the next morning to glorious sunshine and the sort of view you have to photograph (just so you can show off about it later) I headed for the peak of Mount Montusi. Hiking through meadows that smelled of wild mint and listening to the clanking cowbells only cemented my love for Montusi. Sadly, it seemed as if I had just a few brief stolen moments to admire the view and the bushman rock art (in the UK it’d be behind glass and a velvet rope, here it’s on an open cave wall), and then I had to leave.

Au Revoir Montusi, I’ll be back!

The signs of modern South Africa: A Road Trip around Kwa Zulu Natal

We love visiting Africa, especially on a self drive trip- it’s the best way to experience a country as locals do, rather than flying into remote luxury resorts and never seeing a local village or experiencing an elephant firmly blocking the road. Sometimes it can be exhausting, at others frustrating (a huge thank you to our wonderful client Calynne for putting up with crackly phone calls from deep in the bush), but generally, it’s just wonderful. Most recently we took a road trip around Kwa Zulu Natal and felt as if we’d finally discovered the soul of South Africa (as someone else said- “KZN is where Africa starts…”) Rather than droning on ourselves, just click to let the signs of modern South African speak for themselves…

 

Where to spot… Leopards

There’s something about spotting a leopard on safari that sets people’s pulses racing.  It’s often men that fall passionately for this slinky cat (sorry boys!)- it’s the ultimate predator, perfectly designed for the silent stalk, the stealthy hunt and the efficient kill.

Luxury Safari in the Sabi Sands

Leopard at Singita Sabi Sand

It’s possible to spot leopards on safari all over Africa, but they’re notoriously elusive. Stories abound about leopards successfully disguising themselves, even amongst large human populations. Legend holds that when a lone leopard was spotted on Nairobi railway station, the storyteller was rubbished. 3 years later, the bones of a recently deceased leopardess was spotted under a rarely used platform… Well, so the story goes.

For those who want more reliable leopard sightings there are a number of places to visit in Africa where a safari of two or three days should give you a very reliable chance of seeing a leopard. We’ve put some effort into personally checking these out, so do ask us if you have any questions.

Okonjima Safari

Okonjima Leopard

3. Okonjima, Central Highlands, Namibia

The AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima is utterly absorbing for anyone who’s ever been fascinated by the big cats. It’s important to stress- these cats aren’t wild. They’ve been collared and are closely monitored by the research team. This makes it possible to get up close to leopard (also cheetah and wild dog) in a way that’s just not possible elsewhere, and learn more about hands on research and conservation than you would in 10 safaris.

2. South Luangwa, Zambia

I’ve had phenomenal sightings in the South Luangwa and a colleague who (though good at rather tall tales) claims to have spotted 7 leopard in one night drive. The leopard here are often spotted on night game drives with spotlights- this is the time of day when leopard are most active, as they’re on the hunt for fresh food. By day, look for the flicker of a tail up in the sausage trees, where leopards like to lounge on long flat branches.

Luxury Safari in the South Luangwa

Leopard spotted with Bushcamps on safari in the South Luangwa

1. Sabi Sands, South Africa

Without a shadow of a doubt, of all the places I’ve done safari in Africa (and there have been a few) the Sabi Sands has been by far and away the best place to spot leopards.  I’ve tracked adults through the grasses at Lion Sands, watched leopards lounging in trees from Nottens, and most satisfyingly of all, clocked a spotted face stalking me through the reeds over breakfast at Singita Ebony. If you’re a leopard lover, go tomorrow, take my camera, and never look back.

African titbits: the Cullinan Diamond

To be honest, I only read about the Cullinan Diamond for a quiz I was setting. Jewellery’s pretty to look at, but it doesn’t really hold the same fascination as watching an elephant for half an hour.  When I started reading about the Diamond however, I was sucked in by Wikipedia, passed through numerous anonymous websites and spat out the other end by the Daily Mail. I was fascinated.

The Cullinan Diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905, and (according to the Daily Mail, though no other sources I can reference) was so implausibly large, it was nearly thrown out with the rubbish. The superintendent rescued it and recognised the diamond for what it was:  3,106 carats and thought to be the largest diamond ever discovered. In fact, a smooth fracture down one side suggests this is only a small portion of an even larger diamond.  The diamond was named after Sir Thomas Cullinan the owner of the mine, and purchased by the Transvaal Government for £150,000. They voted to send it to King Edward VII as a token of their loyalty, and although this was shortly after the end of the Boer war, this was mainly driven by the Boer population and opposed by English settlers.

The Cullinan Diamond was so valuable it had to be sent to London from South Africa by roundabout means. A parcel was ceremonially placed on a steamer ship in the captain’s safe, and guarded by detectives all of the way to London. Meanwhile the real diamond was sent in an unmarked box by normal post. The Cullinan Diamond was presented to the king, but without modern precision cutting tools, cutting it was another challenge. Eventually, Asscher and Co, after many months of studying the diamond, faced up to the task. Legend holds that Mr Asscher had a doctor and nurse on standby, and after breaking one blade successfully cut the diamond straight through. He then fainted clean away.

Today the Cullinan Diamond has been cut into 9 large stones (amongst them the Star of Africa), and numerous smaller ones, which form a significant part of the British crown jewels. Their value is priceless, but one estimate puts the combined value at well over £100 million in today’s prices.

Proposing this Valentine’s Day? We have just the idea for you….

Let’s face it – we’ve all sat through a thousand boring ‘and then, suddenly, he was down on one knee!’ stories. A 2014 Valentine’s proposal demands something a little more interesting. Paris is passé, and New York is just a tiny bit naff ­- with direct flights, just an hour’s time difference (two in the winter), Cape Town has world-class food and wine, Valentine’s Day sunshine, and a certain understated cool that makes your moment all yours.

Luxury holidays in Cape Town

The Mother City: what girl could say no?

If you’re waiting for the right time to propose, a long weekend in Cape Town will leave you spoiled for choice. Take a helicopter flight over the city or spirit your beloved away on a speedboat ride in the bay. Whisk her (or him) up to the Winelands for a gentle horseback trot through the vineyards and a glass of award-winning local fizz.  Cycle through the Mother City by night, or hike up Table Mountain and then, when the timing’s just right…

And – assuming the answer’s “Yes”- celebrate with canapés and sundowners on the Waterfront, a picnic amongst the penguins at Cape Point or dinner in the private art gallery at Ellerman House. So much more interesting than a glass of champagne at the Eiffel Tower – and, once you’re factoring in African prices, not that much more expensive. Who could fail to fall in love with that?

Where would you go if you were flying to Africa tonight? Or, holidays worth going to work for.

A few years ago I used to work in a large office of safari experts, all passionate Africa lovers. Our favourite game on a quiet Friday afternoon was to plan our fantasy African adventure. We discussed the safaris that we’d sell our souls to get to, the remote beaches that our bones ached for, and the game reserves we lost afternoons dreaming of. We talked about lodges, camps, and game reserves that made coming to work worthwhile, if only because it meant each paycheque brought us closer to another African adventure.

Time and again, the same names came up, the places that were so magical we all adored them.  And here they are, our ultimate African experiences.

The Best Mountain Biking Safaris

A hundred years ago, the best way to do a safari was on horseback. That way you got to see a little more, and move a little faster than you might if you were on a walking safari, but without the noise and fumes of travelling in a safari vehicle. Fast forward to 2013, when many of us live in cities, and you’re unlikely to find a horse tied up in the back garden.  Bikes however, are everywhere.

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, Zambia

With the cycling craze sweeping Britain, almost every household seems to have a bike or three in the garage or taking up space in the hall. On summer afternoons the country lanes are choked with cycles, and early morning commuter trains are full of Brompton bikes. It almost seems extraordinary that it’s taken till now for mountain bike safaris to take off to such an extent.  Now though, a bike or two is the must-have piece of kit in every safari camp. What better way to burn off the endless delicious meals that seem to come almost hourly on safari?

Mountain bike safaris take you from being an outside observer of the bush to being part of it. Race galloping giraffes, smell the dampness of the dust in the early morning, and hear the birds cry as you move silently past. Africa at its best? Absolutely.

Here’s our pick of the very best biking in Africa:

Bush Biking for Beginners: Tafika, Zambia

Mountain Bike Safari from Tafika, ZambiaTafika, in Zambia‘s South Luangwa National Park was where I fell in love with mountain biking safaris- my first one, and the beginning of a serious addiction.

Cycling through the bush with John Coppinger, 20 years my senior and embarrassingly fitter, was a revelation-we could keep up with the zebras without scaring them, hear every branch crackle underfoot, and really, really appreciate the size of an elephant. I’d recommend as an introduction to anyone- you can just pop out for an hour or so on the bikes before a late afternoon game drive- perfect for dipping your toe in the water.

Multi-day mountain biking: Karisia, Kenya

Mountain Bike Safari in KenyaIf you’re a serious mountain-biker and love nothing better than getting dusty, dirty, and down with the animals, then a multi-day mountain biking safari could be the answer.

Together with our friends at Karisia in Kenya, we’ve put together a mountain biking safari in the Laikipia plateau in Kenya. We’ve limited it to 3 days of cycling, followed by some time in a vehicle for the saddle-sore, but we can make it as long as you like.- even cycling between safari lodges instead of flying. While we don’t like to gamble, we’re fairly confident that your warrior guides, and the camels who carry your kit, will keep pace with you no matter how long you want to keep pedalling for!

Serious adventure, Serious luxury: Singita Sabi Sand, South Africa

On safari at Singita Boulders, Sabi Sands, South AfricaSerious adventure needn’t mean a compromise on serious luxury. If you want the adrenaline thrill of cycling down dusty tracks, watching elephants from the saddle, but don’t want to rough it in the evenings, then Singita Sabi Sands is the perfect solution.

Not only are you smack in some of the best leopard-viewing territory in Africa, at the end of the day you’ll be returning to a seriously lovely room, easily large enough for a London estate agent to describe it as a “spacious, one-bedroom apartment”. These come complete with a decanter of something warm, delicious nibbles and a plunge pool to wash off the dust. Singita has a wine cellar to die for (we made sure to sample it on your behalf when we visited), fantastic guides, and a gorgeous area to explore.

Biking and the beach:

Mountain Biking at Pumulani, Lake Malawi

Though we’re huge fans of mountain biking on safari, if you’re just not quite sure about heading into the wilderness on two wheels rather than four, there are some fantastic options for biking that aren’t quite so wild.

A mountain bike is a fantastic way to explore the villages that line the shores of Lake Malawi.  Every single visitor that we’ve ever sent on holiday to Malawi has commented on just how warm and friendly the local are. For once it seems that a country really does live up to the tourist board slogan (in this case- the “warm heart of Africa”). Stepping away from the confines of a vehicle is the ideal way to meet the local community, and make hoards of tiny new friends amongst the children of the villages.