Going on safari proves there is happiness to be had in simple tents set on open savannah. But all those dawn wake-up calls and early-morning game drives can take their toll. Which is where the comfort of Africa’s finest safari lodges – all with great beds, proper bathrooms, quality guides and tempting cuisine – come into their own.
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But times change and even the grande dames of the African bush, some of which have been around for decades, can begin to look a little frayed around the edges. Which is why, just as the African landscape is transformed by the seasons, from dry and brittle to fresh and green, some of its most magnificent lodges are being treated to a facelift.
Welcome to the new breed of radically redefined classic safari camps.
Singita Sweni & Lebombo, South Africa
These non-identical twin lodges, set on a 13,350-hectare private concession in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, first opened in 2001. Even then they set a new standard for design, with Lebombo in particular flying in the face of convention with its bright-white urban edges and attitude. The revitalised version is just as trailblazing, now sporting a minimalist new look by its original creators, Cecile & Boyd; a new library; multimedia room; and slick lap pool. In addition, one of South Africa’s most innovative chefs, Liam Tomlin, has been brought onboard to create the menus at both lodges. Sweni, built on a quiet riverbank shaded by acacia, jackalberry and river thorns, has been revamped in rich, neutral shades with flashes of iridescent colour and enhanced with expansive outdoor terraces. The addition of two new family suites (they can be taken together as a grand, four-bedroom villa) positioned between the two lodges serves to link the 13-suite Lebombo and six-suite Sweni.
Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, Zimbabwe
A 10-bedroom stone lodge with stunning views over Lake Kariba, Bumi Hills had its heyday in the 1970s before falling into disrepair and eventually closing. Now it’s back, completely refurbished and brought up to date by safari camp specialists Fox Browne Creative, using locally sourced art and basketware (a Zimbabwean speciality) and raw timber furniture. The lodge is now managed by African Bush Camps, owned by the charismatic Zimbabwean Beks Ndlovu, who originally trained as a safari guide and now owns charming lodges and camps in remote parts of southern Africa. Lake Kariba is one of Africa’s most beautiful wilderness areas, an inland sea formed in the 1960s with the damming of the great Zambezi river downstream from Victoria Falls. The hotel’s relaunch last year means the region is once again blessed with a comfortable base for fishing, excellent game viewing (lion, elephant and buffalo are plentiful), or just lying by the lodge’s new infinity pool enjoying those amazing lake views.
Mombo is the flagship property of Wilderness Safaris, a sustainable safari outfit based in South Africa. The lodge opened almost 30 years ago and overlooks 45,000 hectares of private land on Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta, known as a safe haven for endangered rhino. Mombo and its satellite camp, Little Mombo, reopened last year after a complete overhaul by South African architect Nick Plewman and interior designers Artichoke. Each of the nine enormous tented suites has a private plunge pool, while classic and contemporary elements have been combined with vintage brass and leather and the introduction of information-loaded iPads. Some of the old flooring and walkways have been upcycled into the new-build, an example of the continuity and consistency that’s kept this lodge at the very top of the game.
Andbeyond Bateleur Camp, Kenya
Built on land leased from communities on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve, this handsome lodge first opened 16 years ago. Together with big brother Kichwa Tembo, it’s known for its location adjoining the Mara Triangle, the least-visited southern section of the reserve. The 18-tent lodge is split into two camps with nine rooms each. The recent redesign has introduced new glass-encased bathrooms (with standalone copper baths) and an infinity pool for each camp. There is also a new spa and a gin bar. The designers at Fox Browne Creative have kept the look enduring and elegant with antiques and one-off vintage pieces such as old leather trunks and silverware. Evenings are spent as they should be in East Africa: stargazing around the camp-fire listening to lions roar across the open plains.