Hotel Crashing, Bushtops Serengeti, Tanzania

Back when I was a nubile young woman–aka: my broke-as-hell-and-unable-to-afford-any-sort-of-vacation period–my friends and I would often retreat for into the verdant hills of Central Texas and go camping for a couple of days.

And believe me, I do mean camping. Not glamping. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it.

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Not at all like a Real Housewives camping trip. Except the rusty fire barrel. That’s fairly universal.

We’d load up our respective cars and trucks with coolers brimming with cheap beer and wine, various meats and cheeses, and foil packs of veggies to throw on a grill or open fire. We’d scrounge up a few old tents of questionable structural integrity, a couple of sleeping bags (or comforters that could be adapted into sleeping bags), a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s All Purpose Soap, maybe some bug repellant, and off we’d go to the nearest wooded area, riverside or greenbelt we could find—preferably one with a swinging rope already in place for true feats of drunken courage.

It was definitely fun, but far from comfortable.

Bushtops Serengeti may technically have what they call “tents,” but it’s about as far from any traditional camping experience as you can get.

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And it was, hands down, the most romantic place I think we’ve ever stayed.

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There are a total of 15 tents spread out across the property, and a large dining/bar/library-type tent sort of in the middle, near the pool/deck area. And what a pool! It overlooked the Serengeti plains and was just gorgeous.

We were at the far, far end of the property in tent 14 (Oribi). All of the tents are around 120 meters, are made of traditional canvas and sit atop a large wooden deck with a private hot tub and built-in seating area overlooking the Serengeti plains. We definitely made good use of that built-in sofa for reading, taking naps or just soaking in the amazing landscape.

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There was no air conditioning but the tent opened pretty completely on all sides and we found we didn’t need the A.C. In fact, during turndown service, our butler Fahldi left these adorable hot water bottles to heat up the bed and we definitely needed them when we visited in early October (3 days, 2 nights).

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Oh, do you like how I oh-so-casually mentioned the butler? Yeah, I know. We had a butler. Faldhi, who brought us afternoon gin and tonics (on a mile-long walk from the bar to our tent without spilling any of it!), took care of our laundry, ran a hot bubble bath after our evening game drive, and arranged for us to have a super romantic, lantern-lit dinner our first night at the camp. He was so, so, so wonderful.

Bushtops Serengeti is also where I learned an unexpected lesson about myself: I had no idea how food-motivated I am. Apparently, I get very cranky about a place (no matter how nice it is) if the food isn’t good. Lemala Kuria Hills was very, very nice but the food was a bit of a letdown.

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The food at Bushtops, however, was phenomenal, especially the passion fruit soufflé we had for dessert at our tent that first night. I seriously don’t know how it made the journey all the way from the kitchen to our tent while still staying so light and fluffy and intact.

(The main tent with its cool, cowhide bar and outdoor fire area) 

The staff at Bushtops were wonderful. Everybody was so, so professional and accommodating. They really went above and beyond. Juma, our driver/guide and John, our tracker, made sure that we saw plenty of lions (including large pride with 3-4 day old babies and a pregnant female), cheetahs and even black rhino, an animal that had eluded us for most of our time in the Serengeti.

(Clockwise from top left: lions mating, black rhinos, female leopard stalking a Thompson gazelle, mama lion and a baby peeking out just by her foot). 

The game drives in the Serengeti were long (generally 6:30 am to 3 pm then back out for an hour or two right before sunset) but Juma and John did everything to make the drives comfortable and pleasant, even stocking our favorite rose in the cooler and making sure we had hot water bottles and blankets for those morning game drives.

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My excellent photography skills at work again: That’s John cut off on the right and Juma cut off on the left. But look how well I captured the truck!

Some of my favorite Bushtop memories (besides that romantic dinner and the drives):

  • Snuggling up in blankets on our tent deck with a glass of wine and neglecting my book because I was too busy watching the clouds roll in.
  • Sundowners by the outdoor fire near the main tent.
  • Having a delicious lunch under a tree out on the plains with nothing but zebras and wildebeest off in the distance for company.
  • Falling asleep to the sound of some major rain on the tent top and our hot water bottles warming our sides.
  • Waking up that same night to the sound of buffalos, hyenas, and some other animal friends (we saw zebra hoof prints in the morning) scraping or licking the sides of our tent.
  • Lying in bed in the morning and listening to all the little bird feet running up and down the tent roof.
  • Our barman, Dennis, delivering coffee with Amarula (African Bailey’s) to our tent early on our last morning.
  • The outdoor shower. And that outdoor tub!
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Just waiting for a refill.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was blown away by the tub. Bushtops Serengeti made it onto this list of “10 of the Best Bathtubs on Earth that are Totally Worth Traveling For.”

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Let’s have a better look at that tub.

Pricewise, Bushtops Serengeti was a far cry from my Texas Hill Country camping days. This is definitely not economy lodging–in fact, it was the most expensive of the three lodges we stayed at during this trip (2017 rates are here)—but it was definitely my favorite and well worth the splurge if you can swing it.

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Hotel Crashing: Lemala Kuria Hills, Tanzania

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I was a bit bummed out by the election results.

For a variety of reasons, I’m not going to get too far into this topic, but this post from my favorite blogger, The Everywhereist, pretty much sums up EXACTLY how I feel. Go. Read it. It’s really good. Then come back here to read about luxurious lodges in Tanzania and maybe I’ll throw in a few gratuitous cute animals, just to soothe all our souls.

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See? A baby zebra and it’s mommy. Makes everything all better, right?

It was not easy leaving Leopard Hills, in part because the place and its’ staff were just so wonderful, but also, literally: it was not an easy transit. We’d had enough foresight to rent a car and drive ourselves to Sabi Sands because we knew from our last trip to South Africa just how unreliable Federal Air (the small-plane airline that flies into Sabi Sands) can be. We didn’t want to risk it.

So, on the day we left Sabi Sands, we got up at the crack of dawn so that we’d have plenty of time for the four-hour drive from Sabi Sands to Johannesburg, where we’d catch our 1:30 pm flight to Dar El Salaam, Tanzania. I had slept horribly the night before, dreaming of dead giraffes. Then, we forgot where we’d put our Sabi Sands/Kruger Park exit pass (which was my responsibility to keep track of) and had a 5 am panic attack before we finally were reminded that we’d stored them safely in the car when we arrived five days before. And then I spilled coffee all over the front of my t-shirt (the exact same t-shirt I’d spilt coffee all over at the airport before we’d even left D.C.). Oh, and then, honey badgers. Very eventful morning.

There was, of course, some confusion at the Precision Air check in at Dar El Salaam (which I described here), but we caught our 3 pm flight to Arusha (landing at 11:30 pm). Where we had the pleasure of taking a $70 cab ride along 50 kilometers of the worst road I’ve ever been on (and I’m including unpaved ranch roads in West Texas, y’all), for the honor of spending the night in Arusha ($200 basic room!) before our 8 am tiny-plane flight to Kogatende.

In case you can’t tell, I was not at all charmed by Rip-Off Arusha.

After two full, long days of not-completely-smooth travel on sketchy-ass small airplanes, we were thrilled to see the Lemala Kuria Hills Land Cruiser at the Kogatende airstrip.

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
A sight for sore eyes.

(I just looked it up and it’s about 4,000 miles from Sabi Sands to Kogatende and Google estimates it would take you 52 hours to drive it. We flew and it took us about 2 days, so yeah. That checks out.)

And right away, just during the drive from Kogatende to Lemala Kuria Hills, you realize that the Serengeti is about to blow your lid off. You basically do a game drive right after you get off the plane. We saw a wildebeest crossing, lions mating, and got a flat tire, all before we even arrived at the lodge. (I don’t think that last event was supposed to wow us).

Mating lions in the Serengeti
Right before the big (and very quick) main event. You can see she’s flirting with him.
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The other main event on our drive to the lodge.

We were met by the managers, Anita and Peter. I had already been in contact with Anita to arrange a few birthday surprises for XFE and she was incredibly helpful and gracious in every way. From what I understand, they took over management of the lodge about six months ago and there have been a few minor changes, from what I understand, including a new upcharge for premium alcohol—which was only a couple of extra bucks per drink, but still a bit annoying.

Main tent & bar at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti
Main lodge with bar in the background. And Peter photobomb.

After getting the rundown on the schedule and amenities, we were shown to our tent, Room 12, on the far end of the camp, and it was gorgeous. Huge, comfortable bed, beautiful modern African artwork, sliding glass doors lead to an expansive deck overlooking Rift Valley with a plunge pool and outdoor shower, and huge bathroom with a giant soaking tub in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. I will say, those floor-to-ceiling windows turn out to be a bit of a negative. There’s no air conditioning in the tents and the windows really turn the room into an oven in the late afternoon.

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Here, as at the other lodges we stayed at this trip, we were told that it was high season and we had been charged high season prices. But in fact, none of the three lodges we stayed at had full occupancy on any of the nights we were there. If you aren’t going to be fully booked, maybe offer us a better deal?

The main reception/staging area at Lemala Kuria Hills is a collection of tents, including the dining tent and a large central tent with lots of nice seating areas for reading, talking, playing board games, and the long bar area on the other side. A tree-shaded deck runs along the back of the tent and leads down to a very cozy fire pit area.

The staff is amazing and everyone—from the management to our guide (Nahume) to the housekeeping staff to the bartenders and waiters—went above and beyond to make sure XFE’s 40th birthday was celebrated in fine African style. So for that, I will be forever grateful. It was a great, great night.

Guide at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
Our guide, Nahume, during an amazing sundowner on top of a rock.

There are, however, a couple of areas that could be improved at Lemala Kuria Hills. We thought their safari trucks had seen better days – in addition to the flat we got on day one, our truck also got stuck in a mud hole another day, and there was a super annoying, persistent and loud squeak along the pop-up part of our Land Cruiser where the joists meet the top of the vehicle. Three days in and we were hearing that squeak in our sleep.

And, unfortunately, the food was not that great. Or, I should say, the food at the lodge wasn’t that great. The food out on the bush was just fine. Simple, but fine. Most days, you’re up and out early (6 am) and you eat a bush breakfast of pancakes/crepes, bacon/sausage, hard boiled eggs, homemade granola with milk and fruit and coffee. I actually liked the bush breakfast very much. Then you’d stop midday for a bush lunch, which would be maybe some tortilla-type rollups of some sort, strips of grilled chicken, pasta and vegetable salad, some cookies and again, I liked that a lot.

Bush lunch in Tanzania, Lemala Kuria Hills

But the dinners were kind of a disaster – meats were often overcooked, sides were a bit lackluster, potatoes tasted slightly off. I probably would have just written it off as some difficulties in logistics except when we finished our trip with a two-night stay just down the valley at Bushtops Serengeti, we found the food there to be really, really excellent.

Sundowner at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

Still, a beautiful, friendly lodge in a gorgeous setting. Just bring some earplugs for the squeak!

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

The Wildest Ride: A Wildebeest River Crossing in the Serengeti

“This is not at all like the shows on NatGeo,” my restless mind was thinking. “This is actually sort of….boring.”

We’re sitting in a beige, pop-top Toyota Land Cruiser in the midday African heat with four other people. All six pairs of eyes are trained on the nervously shuffling, brownish-gray mass of wildebeest on the far bank of the Mara River, a couple of hundred yards away. And I’m thinking about when we might have lunch.

We were just picked up from the Kotagende airstrip about an hour and a half, maybe 2 hours ago and now, we’ve joined about 20 (or so) other safari vehicles amongst the trees and bushes and dry grasses overlooking the Mara River’s famous Crossing Point #7. All of the nearly-identical Land Cruisers are parked far back from the river so as not to scare the notoriously skittish wildebeest.

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We are here, in the Serengeti National Park at this particular time of year specifically for this: The Great Migration. Each year, approximately 2 million wildebeest (as well as several hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, impalas and elands) complete a 5,000-mile trek every year known as the Great Migration aka The World Cup of Wildlife.

The animals are doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years: following their stomachs. Specifically, the wildebeest are following the grass as the rains move south through the short grass plains of Kenya and the Serengeti at the end of a long, dry winter.

The herds are hungry, starving even, and we’ve already seen several wildebeest carcasses on our way to this spot (we’re told that they die from starvation or exhaustion from the Migration, and sometimes, from a bacteria that lives in very young grass that they know they shouldn’t eat, but they’re so hungry, they just do).

The wildebeests will eventually settle in the Southern Serengeti and Western Ngorongoro Conservation area in January and February to give birth to their calves during a synchronized two-to-three week period before they head west at the end of the rainy season (March) and eventually north again (April), all the while following the rains and the grass.

Back on the banks of the Mara River (or, more accurately, the plains overlooking the river), the air is thick with tension from the indecisive wildebeest and excitement from the safari vehicles. As a lone, brave wildebeest moves up to the waters’ edge, you can hear a murmur ripple through the visitors peeking out of the tops and windows of the gathered cars. “There goes one.” “Looks like they’re going to go.” “Will he or won’t he?”

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As the lone wildebeest sniffs the water, shakes its’ head and backs up in retreat, you can hear a sigh from the assembled visitors and drivers. “Nope, not yet.” “Changed his mind.” “Something spooked him.”

There’s plenty for the wildebeest to be afraid of. For one thing, there are loud hippos in the river, who I prefer to think are honking their encouragement. But the hippos won’t hurt the wildebeest. The crocodiles lying in wait however, certainly will. And do.

Then there’s the swift river currents that can carry the already-weak-from-hunger wildebeest away. And do. Sometimes into the waiting jaws of those crocodiles.

Then there’s the slippery river rocks. It’s not at all uncommon for a spindly-legged wildebeest to break a leg on those rocks, limping out of the river only to be caught by a predator a couple of hours or days later. Or die as it falls further and further behind the herd and gets picked off by a lion, a leopard, a cheetah, a hyena, etc. etc.

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Oh, and then there’s the panicky herd in general. Even if a wildebeest has made it through the currents, outmaneuvered the crocodiles and traversed the slippery rocks, they’ve still got to get out of the river. There are hundreds if not thousands of wildebeests stampeding each other in a rush to make it out and on to the dry shores. It’s a mad crush that can lead to potentially life-threatening injuries and, of course, death from any of the many, many carnivorous predators lying in wait throughout the Serengeti.

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Did I mention that wildebeest crossings, aka “Tango With Near-Certain Death,” happen several times a day at various points along the Mara River? So yeah. It’s no wonder that these particular wildebeests are a wee bit hesitant to get started on this—our first—crossing.

But the waiting and the multiple false starts isn’t the stuff they show you on NatGeo. And on that particular day, while I’m getting warm and impatient in a non-moving, non-air-circulating safari vehicle, I don’t yet have a clue as to just how dangerous and powerful and exhilarating a wildebeest river crossing really is. Sure, I’ve read about it, briefly, but I don’t really know. They can’t really show you the full emotional breadth of such a breath-stopping spectacle on NatGeo.

So, we wait, as lines and lines of wildebeest come and join the hesitant herd gathering on the banks.

Finally, there on the sandy bank, a brave wildebeest throws caution to the wind. His or her survival instinct and hunger finally overrides all the numerous fears and common sense and the first wildebeest charges into the water, followed by another, then another, until the whole herd starts making its way through the river.

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We all hold our collective breaths until the first wildebeest reaches the halfway point and the CB radios cackle and the trucks start moving forward very, very fast, as if someone has shot a start gun.

(Actually, at least one of the trucks did jump the gun a bit at this particular crossing. The proper protocol is to wait till the animal gets to the halfway point. But some impatient folks start gunning a bit earlier than that, which can totally cause the animals to turn back around. That is, providing they don’t have the crush of the herd behind them. I know this because a few days later, on our fourth crossing, our truck was the premature racer and we did cause the wildebeest to turn back to safer shores. Womp, womp. Don’t worry. They did eventually cross.)

All 20 or so Land Cruisers lurch forward and what follows is the wildest 30-second ride in the Serengeti as all the lodge drivers maneuver to get their well-paying (and potentially well-tipping) clients in the very best spot to view and photograph the crossing.

I have to admit: I was really bothered by all the zooming vehicles and I was pretty concerned about the effect we were having on the poor, already-stressed wildebeest. I get the why and I understood that getting to see a wildebeest crossing is what we were all here to see and our drivers were just trying to deliver.

I started to get a bit emotional about us awful humans and our intervention into nature just for entertainment’s sake when I looked over and saw a crocodile take a small wildebeest down in the water, its dying bleats ringing in my ears. Then I saw another one get carried away by the current. And a younger wildebeest waiting on the far shore while its mother made it safely across. And another wildebeest come limping out of the water, me knowing that it probably was going to die.

Well, I thought, there’s that, then.

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I tried to focus instead on the tremendous power of the sight going on in front of me, the thunderous sound of approximately 500 animals charging through the water, intent and intense and singularly focused on just making it across. And the relief they must have felt when they did make it across, pausing to catch their breath and slow their heart down and let the African sun dry their backs.

While the river crossings were not my favorite part of our safari in the Serengeti (honestly, I could have just seen one and been done), I do have to admit, they did stir up a powerful mixture of emotions. I was in awe of the power of the herd, bemused by nature’s impulses, and dumbfounded and sad that these wildebeests chose to go through this every year. I didn’t understand it but I was definitely awestruck by it.

And there’s nothing on NatGeo that can prepare you for it.