Call of the Wild

Issue 5 - 2016
· Images Benjamin McMahon, Getty Images

Born and raised in Swaziland, Richard E Grant has been on safari many times, but the purity of observing nature in the raw never ceases to amaze him. We join the actor and his family on an unforgettable trip to Tanzania

Issue 5 - 2016
· Images Benjamin McMahon, Getty Images

Born and raised in Swaziland, Richard E Grant has been on safari many times, but the purity of observing nature in the raw never ceases to amaze him. We join the actor and his family on an unforgettable trip to Tanzania

Safari is a Swahili word in East Africa that derives from the Arabic word safar, meaning “a journey”. In my experience, most holidays require a two-part journey, the first being the international flight, which has to be endured rather than enjoyed – bearable only because the second journey, to your destination, is the one you’ve been dreaming of.

After an eight-hour night flight to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and barely four hours’ sleep in an airport hotel, we’re not in the best shape when we return to the airport at dawn to catch a single-prop plane to Tanzania. But once aloft, the seemingly unpopulated landscape below is breathtaking, and from the moment we land on a gravel airstrip in the bush two hours later, met by our Singita guide, Robert Kibwana, and are packed into his open-sided safari Land Rover, all stresses dissolve in a nanosecond. The silence, the smell of the grasslands and the hair-dryer warmth of the air work their magic. Somehow, the sky here seems bigger than anywhere else. This is what we’ve come so far for – an incredible landscape teeming with game and an encyclopaedically well-informed and welcoming guide. What more could this middle-aged “Swazi-boy” ask for?

Elephants! As soon as we head for the Singita Mara campsite, we come upon a herd. So quiet. The only sound is their trunk-pull on clumps of grass as they slow-motion forwards. Our faces resemble Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone open-mouthed “O” poster. It’s jaw-dropping. And this is my point – no matter how many times I’ve seen animals in the wild, the wonder remains exactly the same. The experience is made all the more poignant knowing the appalling statistics of how elephant numbers are being decimated in the pursuit of ivory baubles and trinkets.

The Mara campsite situated on a hillside above an enormous bend in the Mara River is a wonder. We’re offered mint-scented face towels, iced drinks and a tour of our tents. Just like in those well-known high-street store adverts, “These aren’t just any old tents, these are Singita tents” – which means your every creature comfort is catered for, from the staggeringly comfortable crisp linen beds swathed in mosquito nets, converted travelling trunk wardrobes, shower and outdoor bath, to the breathtaking views of the Mara River beyond, replete with elephants and basking crocs. Except this isn’t a five-star hotel in Manhattan, but a campsite in the middle of nowhere. Solar-powered and with Wi-Fi to boot.

The rooftops of Reykjavik
Five-star hospitality at Singita Explore camp
Oliver and Bruno embark on the "Golden Circle" tour
Richard zooms in on the animal kingdom with his “binos”
Richard E Grant hangs out in the wild
Dinner is served at picturesque Mchenja Bush Camp

We have an incredibly delicious three-course lunch beside the plunge pool and unwipeable smiles on our faces.

We first took our daughter to the Mkhaya reserve in Swaziland for her seventh birthday. Two decades later, we’re beside the Mara river for her 27th – an unforgettable day that begins with a dawn drive after a breakfast of freshly baked bread and croissants, eggs any which way, fruit platters and smoothies.

No sooner have we left the camp than we see a herd of giraffes in the distance. Robert drives off-track to get us “chewing-sounds" close to these elegant giants, eliminating the need for “binos”, as they’re nicknamed here.

An hour’s drive further on, we arrive at a vast, open, game-filled plane that resembles the “all aboard” call for Noah’s Ark: topi, impala, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebra, hyena, jackals, warthogs, elephants, and before you can say, “I spy with my little eye”, we see two lions under an umbrella-shaped acacia tree. No sooner have we stopped than the “king” gets up and mounts his “queen” for a quickie, growls and displays his fangs, humps, grunts and collapses in a post-coital “deadfall”.

a morning bath with a view of the crocs on the river bank below feels pinch-yourself unreal

We then chance upon three cheetahs gnawing on the carcass of a Thomson’s gazelle. The male lion saunters over, sniffing for scraps, cueing the cheetahs to scarper, ignores the stomach bag, then moseys away, leaving the coast clear for the vultures to descend and squabble over the spoils.

Lunch al fresco around the Jeep at a “safe” distance from the predators is dramatically interrupted by the hysteria of a hyena kill 10 metres behind where we are parked. Two hyena have attacked a sleeping topi antelope. Within minutes, 42 hyena join the scrum.

A seething frenzy of blood, bone crunching and bared teeth, with sudden escapees hurtling off with mouthfuls of flesh, liver, leg and tail, none of us has ever seen anything like it in our lives. In 10 minutes flat, there is not a scrap of the animal left. Not even a blood stain.

Unlike every wildlife documentary on TV, there is no orchestral soundtrack to drum up the drama. It all happens in near-total silence until the actual kill unleashes the war cry of hyena cackling. It takes our breath away. Our daughter declares: “This is the best birthday I have ever had.”

The dinner menu has two options for each course, all of them scrumptious, which seems incongruous being in a campsite without a road, village or shop for miles around. We all feel it’s going to be very difficult to match this day or the intimacy of this camp. It’s crowned with a birthday cake and candles to put us into a food coma. The quality of sleeping in a luxurious bed, under mosquito netting, with the surround sound of wild animals and insects cannot be overestimated.

An early morning outdoor bath with a view of the crocs on the river bank below feels pinch-yourself unreal. Even though we have only known our campsite team for 48 hours, it’s emotional saying goodbye ­– the experience is so personalised at every level.

We take a 40-minute flight to the Singita Sabora camp, which is designed to replicate a luxurious turn-of-the-century camp, replete with dark Edwardian furniture, rugs, high-backed chairs and crystal, which whispers that Karen Blixen’s nostalgia-charged Out of Africa is still within reach. There’s even a clay tennis court and a fully equipped gym in a tent, plus a swimming pool with panoramic views in every direction. Buffalo wallow in a mud pool that’s a stone’s throw away.

We’re disheartened to see one family parked beside a fresh cheetah kill, playing chess on their mobiles. Robert, our guide, is sanguine about this and, with a knowing look, drives us off in pursuit of other game-filled pastures. The game is all. He intuits perfectly where to park to catch a potential “chase”, when to move forward, all the while sharing his fathom-deep knowledge of every bird, plant, insect and animal.

TIME Has stretched here in a way that makes us feel as if we’ve been away for at least a month

Next it’s a dawn drive to yet another game-filled plane, including a dazzle of zebra, herds of impala, wildebeest and topi antelope standing to sculptural attention, looking out for the throng of Thomson’s gazelles around them. A set of snorts warns of approaching danger, prompting the grazers to retreat, and, sure enough, five lions come loping into view directly ahead of our vehicle. They stop off at a waterhole to quench themselves, then heartstoppingly walk within inches of our open-sided and doorless Jeep. Robert has advised that we are not seen as bait or considered worthy of attack, but in the moment we’re eye to eye with these carnivores in such close proximity, it’s hard not to imagine being Simba’s choice for lunch – a true “hold your breath and don’t move a muscle” moment, before you realise you’re safe.

 
 
 

.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, nature proves otherwise. Watching these cats climb high up into a tree to escape the flies and get a better view of their next meal, with added shade, has us transfixed for hours. During our evening drive back to camp, we encounter a cheetah chasing and killing a Thomson’s gazelle to feed her two waiting cubs, only to have half of it stolen by a hyena. Later, dinner by the pool lit by lanterns, and a rose-petal-strewn tent with an already-run bubble bath, eases us into the sleep of dreams.

We move on to Singita Explore camp, where we’re the only guests. The barbecued food served to us under the stars is expertly cooked by chefs Bianca and Stanley. Like Mara, this feels much more intimate and simple than Sabora. Every camp has its own signature style and this feels closest to my childhood experience of going on safari, but at a mightily welcome five-star level. No Wi-Fi here, and all the more liberating for that. Later, we walk into the bush with two armed guards and our guide. It’s an amazing feeling to be in the landscape rather than driving through it.

As the sun sets, Robert times our return drive to perfection, arriving at a lone tree hung with lanterns, a barbecue below, and 16 dancers and musicians to party out the day. There’s a brief moment when I feel like a westerner from outer space, but we are welcomed and invited to join in and end up dancing in a conga line around the fire. Going to sleep, with only a stretch of canvas between us and the keening hyena outside, is like being a child again, “safely” tucked under the covers, imagining demons under the bed and in the wardrobe. Robert tells us about a couple who flew home after only one night, such was their terror at being in the bush.

From the most basic but personalised camp, we move on for our safari farewell, to Singita House, which is for the exclusive use of a family or friends. Ours alone. Uber-luxurious, it boasts high-ceilinged rooms, books, games, a veranda, infinity pool and immaculate service, as well as sublime food and every comfort you could wish for. Time has concertina’d and stretched here in a way that makes us feel as if we’ve been away for at least a month.

Yet, whether deluxe or threadbare louche, hunting for game with only your eyes is the key to everything: it’s the single-focused pursuit that edits out everything else scrambling your brain. The waiting, watching and wide-eyed wonderment of being a silent witness is something so pure and perfect, it’s worth whatever price you’re able to pay for.


Scott Dunn offers a 10-night family adventure in Tanzania from £4,800pp, based on a family of four travelling together on an all-inclusive basis while on safari, and including a stay at Singita Faru Faru Lodge as well as flights, transfers and game drives. Call 020 3603 3566 for more details

THE BIG FIVE: find your perfect safari

Whether you want isolation, travel, or to stay put in one incredibly luxurious location, there’s a wealth of safari options to choose from. Here are Scott Dunn’s favourites...

THE UBER-LUXE LODGE

Set in a vast private reserve that straddles the Selinda Spillway in northern Botswana, there are few more luxurious places to stay than Zarafa Camp, with four luxury tented rooms, each on polished wooden decks with en-suite bathrooms including large copper baths and both indoor and outdoor showers. Every suite comes with a “toy box” with Swarovski binoculars, guide books, yoga mats and more inside.

 

THE WALKING SAFARI

The South Luangwa National Park in Zambia is the birthplace of walking safaris and offers some of Africa’s best on-foot experiences. Mchenja Bush Camp is set beneath a magnificent grove of ebony trees on the banks of the Luangwa River. From there, explore the park’s pristine wilderness, which boasts 60 animal species and over 400 bird species, on foot.

 

THE MOBILE CAMP

Take a fully serviced mobile camping safari through Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Chobe and Savuti rivers with &Beyond. Staying in various wilderness camps, you’ll also encounter animals from a variety of perspectives with low-level flights, mokoro canoe trips, bush walks and game drives.

 

THE WILDERNESS ESCAPE

Head to Sarara luxury tented camp, situated on 75,000 acres in the Mathews Range of mountains in northern Kenya, to get truly off the beaten track. A dry-season refuge for several hundred elephants, there are also a number of lions and leopards in residence, and two separate groups of the endangered African wild dog. A highlight of the camp is its natural rock swimming pool, which overlooks a waterhole frequently visited by the animals.

 

THE COMMUNITY CAMP

Lying on the edge of the Kalahari, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve (pictured above) boasts luxurious accommodation in two camps on South Africa’s largest private game reserve. The camp offers horse-riding, sleep-outs under the stars, a spa and even interaction with the resident meerkats. What’s more, Tswalu is heavily involved in community programmes, including maintaining an ostrich farm and helping Khomani Bushmen repopulate reclaimed land with indigenous wildlife, so you can rest assured that your trip is beneficial to others too.

 

For more information, visit scottdunn.com

Liked that? Try This ...

Kingdom of Secrets

Feature · Issue 6 - 2017

This website uses cookies that will help and improve your experience. By using this website you are agreeing to the use of cookies on this website.
More info
Ok