It’s National Geographic’s Big Cat Week, time to turn our attention to the plight of the beleaguered felines of the world, the lions, leopards, cheetahs and tigers facing pressure from poachers, environmental destruction, crazed Chinese medicine practitioners and Minnesota dentists. If you want to see many of these majestic animals at their best, in high style, while doing good, there are few better places to consider than Zarafa. This ultra-luxury, ultra eco conscious lodge may be Africa’s best kept travel secret.
Interest in wildlife safaris has boomed in recent years, and with it there has been an expansion of high-end options, with more and better luxury safari lodges. At the same time, the geography of safaris has grown, and while South Africa has long dominated the luxury segment of the market, Botswana has quietly been nipping at its heels. On my most recent trip to Southern Africa, just two months ago, many in the industry conceded that Botswana has wrested top honors, not just for its swank lodges but also for its top down dedication to both excellence and environmental responsibility. Again and again, hoteliers told me that standards for everything from food safety to impact on the ecosystem were higher and more carefully monitored by Botswana’s government than any in Africa.
Not all the big cats at Zarafa are big – if you like leopards and leopard cubs, this is the place.
“Tourism is important, but 70% of our wealth comes from diamonds, so the government is really focused on preserving nature for the future. We take the opposite approach of Kenya and Tanzania – less visitors with higher quality,” one lodge manager explained. At the same time, regulations for newer properties forbid building permanent structures, so that should the entire complex disappear tomorrow, the land would return to its natural state within months. As a result, Botswana is awash in tiny, intimate, and luxurious tented camps, with tents often slang for canvas luxury homes, and at the very top of this heap is Zarafa, which opened in 2008.
The entire camp, or resort, has just four tents, each the size of a pretty nice house, with plunge pools (built above ground), decks, outdoor showers, and pretty much every luxury you could desire. Most deluxe safari lodges include booze, but Zarafa takes this – and everything – a step further, equipping each tent with full bar, stocked with niceties like 18-year-old Glenfiddich, as well as a regularly iced cooler full of beer and soft drinks. Many lodges offer loaner binoculars, but Zafara puts a four-figure pair of Swarovski binoculars, the nicest I have ever had the pleasure of looking through, in each tent. There are painting sets for budding artists, early morning coffee delivery service, a high tech mister/cooler for the netting shrouded bed, and high powered, tripod mounted spotting scopes. These come in handy because the tents all overlook the wetlands of the wildlife rich Okavango Delta, and everything from lions to rare African wild dogs to giraffe wander by the room at all hours. Elephants are so close and so plentiful that you sometimes have to wait to leave your room because they are nibbling on the leaves at your front door, and have been known to drink out of the plunge pools. In the three days I was there, there was not one when I failed to see animals within ten feet of the tent. You don’t even have to get out of bed to see wildlife here. As the manager told us during our orientation, “Let me know if you have any problems with the Wi-Fi. Sometimes the elephants bump the dish.”
Ditto for lions cubs – lots of lion cubs.
But the best of all amenities is the camera. Every room comes with a professional quality loaner kit, including a Canon 5D camera and the highest quality 28-135mm and 100-400mm lenses. We are talking four to five thousand dollars worth of optics here, and they copy all of your photos onto a memory stick for you to take home. I have been to several of the most vaunted luxury safari lodges in the industry and have never seen this. Taking it a step further, the camp’s custom Land Cruisers hold fewer people than most game drive vehicles, have trays for photo accessories, pivoting platforms with sandbags for stabilizing cameras, and even charging outlets.
Each room receives complimentary use of a professional Canon 5D camera with 28-135mm lens and 100-400mm lens. That’s about five grand worth of optics.
The focus on photography is no coincidence, since Zarafa is the most opulent of several lodges comprising Great Plains Conservation, a group founded by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The couple are among the most acclaimed wildlife photographers and videographers alive today, award-winning filmmakers who have been National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence for years. If you have seen some of Nat Geo’s most popular documentaries, including the famed Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas, it was made by them and it was made right here. So was their most famous film, The Last Lions. The Jouberts have been filming and researching in Africa for quarter of a century and are responsible for 22 films, ten books, and countless National Geographic magazine articles which have earned them five Emmys, a Peabody, and the World Ecology Award. Besides Great Plains, which strives to keep some 1.5 million acres of Africa in its natural state, they established the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic, an emergency action fund to develop real solutions to a problem that includes a drop in lion numbers from 450,000 to just 20,000 in the last 50 years. Most recently they have begun a new initiative to reintroduce rhinos, perhaps the single most threatened species, to Botswana in a way that allows them to be protected from poachers. The first load of relocated rhinos arrived at one of their Great Plains camps last month.
They have grown up leopards too!
As a result, Zarafa is the kind of place I’d want to stay even if it wasn’t the poshest safari lodge around, but it is. The food is the weakest link at many top lodges, but here it is superb, and this in part is why it is the only member of the cuisine-focused Relais & Chateaux association in the entire country. I can’t remember the chef organizing a special single malt Scotch pairing dinner at any other lodge. Everything is totally customizable every day – want to stay out longer and do lunch in the bush? Done. Want to sleep in or stay out later? Done? Walking safari? Done. Because of the lagoons and wetlands, the resort has a pontoon boat it does sunset “cruises” on, another safari lodge anomaly, and if you absolutely cannot miss your workout, they will deliver a stationary bike or other exercise equipment to your tent deck.
You know you are on a luxury vacation when your “hotel lobby” looks like this one. Photo: Zarafa
But ultimately any safari lodge is about wildlife viewing, and Zarafa has it in spades. The top folks at National Geographic take an annual staff wildlife retreat, and they could go anyplace in the world, but they come here, again and again. Four-room Zarafa is one of three tiny lodges sharing the 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve, so you rarely see more than one other vehicle. The region is rich in lions and leopards, one of the best places to see the elusive wild African dogs, chock full of bird life, and absolutely overflowing with elephants. All three camps are part of Great Plains, which has a monopoly on the incredibly rich, lush spot, so the same level of game spotting and environmental consciousness is available at lower price points at Zarafa’s little siblings. Selinda Camp, one level down, has nine tented villas, while the more “rustic” but still luxurious Selinda Explorer’s Camp has just four. That’s about 20,000 acres per guest room. Totally all-inclusive rates at Zarafa run $1,700-$2,600 per person, per night, with low season from November to mid-December and high season June to October.
This is what the marketing materials suggest we might see from our super swank tent and plunge pool.
This is from the Great Plains Mission Statement: “To find the right formula of conservation, communities and commerce that would make a lasting, sustainable difference to the world’s iconic wildlife and wildernesses… Our model takes stressed and threatened environments, surrounds them with compassionate protection and intelligent, sustainable management, and funds them with sensitive, low-volume, low-impact, tourism. Communities are an intrinsic part of this model and benefit directly from it. The final piece of the puzzle is you – our clients and guests – who pay to visit the camps we create, and through doing so, become our valued partners and agents of positive change. When we started on this incredible journey, we didn’t feel like we were eco-tourism operators. Most eco-tourism companies are primarily involved in the business of travel… But Great Plains is first and foremost a conservation organization that uses eco tourism as a tool to sustain conservation programs. We even coined a new name for what we do – “Conservation Tourism.” We define it as the use of quality led tourism experiences that are environmentally sound, with the benefits going specifically into making the conservation of an area viable and sustainable. It is important to us that this is done without any negative influence on the land, on any species that uses that land, or, indeed, on any individual animal.”
This was the actual view from the front porch. Zarafa delivers the goods!
They have won several high-profile international conservation awards for this approach and it is hard to imagine anyone who would be disappointed there.
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