LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

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Apr 7th, 2004, 04:48 PM
  #1
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LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

After reading Diane's report, I have been thinking about what is the one element that is the most important in a safari. My conclusion is location. No matter how grandiose the accommodation, if the location is poor then your safari will most likely be second-rate. So what should one look for in a location?

Camp/lodge location - look for a place that is by a river, a swamp or a waterhole. These attract birds and other wildlife and makes the day between game drives really absorbing. On my first packaged safari several years back there wasn't one camp or lodge included in the package that had such a location. Dissatisfied with that safari and its lightening pace, I switched to custom ones and gradually discovered more and more places with amazing locations, some more expensive than others and some cheaper. These locations lured me into learning about and appreciating the beauty of the African habitats. Sitting by the river I became familiar with the African Jacana, Fish Eagle's cry, The Grey Heron's stealth, the Hammerkop's cunningness, the hippo's family dynamics...I soon realised that the big 5 were no longer the be-all and end-all of my safaris. One day I must have set for 4 hours transfixed by a group of weavers building nests in a tree by a river. After 2 hours of seriously hard graft, one of the nests fell into the river and the look on the face of the stunned weaver was so amusing and at the same time heart breaking. A few seconds later it returned to rebuilding the nest and a day later I noticed it had almost completed it. Those 4 hours were just as thrilling as the 3-minute cheetah or lion hunt.

Choose a camp or lodge which is small. Small camps have less or virtually no light or noise pollution thus allowing you to appreciate the sights and sounds of nature better. When you have paid a few thousand dollars, there is no worse thing than having a raucous crowd or children running around, a situation usually likely to occur in larger camps and lodges.

Game reserve location - look for a place that has abundant wildlife. Abundant wildlife indicates a flourishing ecosystem. Sometimes it may be better to be outside a reserve so that you can do walks and night game drives. In Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana walks are not allowed inside the designated national parks but are allowed outside the parks and in private reserves. In Zambia walks are allowed inside the park.

Look for an area which does not attract a crowd. For me seeing 20 cars around a few lions is the worst from of game viewing. For example, in the Masai Mara, consider camps like Mara Interpids, Governor's and Serena but avoid the larger lodges on the eastern side of the Mara. There are a couple of camps on the eastern side - Siana and Dream Camp which are excellent, but the rest leave a lot to be desired. One of my favourite camps in Kenya is not in the Mara but in Tsavo. In Botswana avoid Chobe in the peak time and do the private reserves in the delta or in Savuti areas.

The second most important element - do not rush. Spend at least 3 nights in each location, sometimes even 4 to 5 nights. There is so much to do, for example you can focus on a particular pride of lions or a group of elephants and follow them for hours and days learning about their relationships, character and habits. The more time you spend in one camp, the more enthusiastic the guide will also become. Usually they are accustomed to rushing the guests to the big 5 but after 2 days of big 5 viewing they will try to keep your interest going by introducing you to new things. Most serious guides love the times when they can get away from the big 5 viewing and do a bit of birding or tree indentification or catching up with a herd of eles....

The third most important element - the guide. A lousy guide will kill your enthusiasm. How can you tell that the guide is lousy? Many ways: he is mainly interested in showing you big 5 (for them the biggest tip earner); rushes you from one viewing to the next; rushes back to the lodge as soon as the 2 hours are over because that is the limit set by his company; does not know his birds, trees and ecology; breaks the rules by driving anywhere for the sake of better viewing; is badly dressed, does not carry binoculars and good wildlife reference books .... If you can afford it, get a private guide, a private car and ask for unlimited game drives. This means you have the freedom to do what YOU like and not what the guide wants you to do. If you can't afford it for the whole trip then try it for one or two days - the extra investment will be worth it.

The fourth element - comfort. A decent shower and bed is essential on a safari. A warm shower relaxes you and a decent bed gives you decent sleep and rest for the following day's game drive. Generally most places are fine but there have been occasions in East Africa when showers and beds have just been unsatisfactory. I have discovered that a more expensive camp will not necessarily have better beds and showers.The best shower I had was in a camp costing $80 per night.

The fifth element - camp ambience. A small camp can be delightful or dull. Paying hundreds of dollars to stay at an expensive camp which is stuffy with unfriendly hosts and has low occupancy will break your safari. If I had to choose between Governors and Il Moran (Governors more expensive sister), I would choose Governors. Similarly I would choose Little Vumbura or Xigera over Jao. A more expensive camp would not necessarily be the most fun camp. Also do not always believe the hype - magazines select the top 10 and top 50 but what do they know - they have probably visited the place only once in their lifetime.

There are more elements but I am exhausted! Leave it to you all to continue.
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Apr 7th, 2004, 05:29 PM
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Djuma Vuyatela, in the Sabi Sands, (www.djuma.com) is the perfect example of a GREAT lodge in a horrible location. In just visiting their website, a lake or river is shown after clicking onto the Vuyatela link, and I am sure that it must be a mirage, because I didn't see any such thing when I was there.

Overall, king, that is an excellent post and this information should be considered strongly by anyone prior to selecting your lodges/camps.
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Apr 7th, 2004, 06:28 PM
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King:

Excellent,excellent,excellent advice!

Rocco:

The dams you see on Djuma's website do exist,although Bush Lodge dam was lost[washed away]in the recent''mini floods''

Remember when you were there they were in a severe drought and the dams probably dried up.

See their current drumbeat section for the latest photos.

I agree with you about their horrible location.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 12:15 AM
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Wonderful post and I agree wholeheartedly.

Camp/lodge location - you're absolutely right about this and we worked out very very quickly that were often more interested in the non-Big 5 (Leopard, Lion, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino) times than other guests. We too loved to sit out on our privste verandah or in the main bar and lounge area and watch the birds, baboons, monkeys, hippos and all sorts of other sightings. Little Mombo was particularly good for this. I just returned from the Mara and stayed at Main Governor's Camp. Normally I would find this far far too big but since our itinerary was so very full on, since the guests were all in our group and since everything going on was related to our festival, it made sense and worked out well to stay there rather than the other two smaller camps. The river looping infront of the bar and eating areas lead to absolutely stunning sightings that even the experts and camp staff were in tears over.

Choose a camp or lodge which is small - this is something I have repeated many times here because we also prefer the more intimate camp. For that reason we chose Little Mombo, Little Vumbura and Chitabe Trails last time and are selecting similarly small camps for the upcoming trip. We have not yet found that "difficult" other guests made this a problem and have enjoyed the more focused attention from staff too.

Game reserve location - I agree with this too although it can be so hard to know given the differing luck of previous visitors. I can't believe how much we saw at Governor's this past week yet others have had such different experiences. We also do opt for location over accommodation - when we choose Mombo we're choosing the game viewing there not the lovely tents and would choose it even if the tents were same as other camps around about.

Look for an area which does not attract a crowd - Fully agree - because crowds are what happened on my first trip to Kenya I was reluctant to go again but, staying at Governor's this was not a huge issue. It hardly feels as though one is in a remote place viewing untouched wild life if surrounded by 20 vans. Even in Governor's we occasionally had up to 5 or 6 cars around a sighting but, as additional ones arrived, early ones would leave so as to allow all guests to appreciate the sight without crowding the animals or each other. When we went to Sossusvlei we stayed at the Movenpick - far too large and impersonal for us and just did not capture the intimacy that our other camps had.

Do not rush - absolutely. 3 nights is definitely preferable (unless you end up disliking the place and I do enough research that even if I find a like a camp a little less I would't say I really hate it or anything). We actually let our guides know upfront that we are not Big 5 focused and what we are most interested in seeing and this has worked well for us.

The guide - your description of a good guide certainly matches B.K. who has sadly moved on from Wilderness Safaris but was absolutely excellent. Other guides varied - all our WS guides were friendly and enthusiastic but some had far less experience and knowledge than others.

Comfort - the beds and showers at Governor's were fantastic. Excellent water pressure and plenty of HOT water and a really comfy mattress. All the WS properties I stayed at were excellent too. Same goes for Wolwedans Dune Lodge. The hot water was limited in places and heated by solar energy - I was happy to accept this in places where water is scarcer and made sure to have short quick showers.

Camp ambience - agree again (what a surprise). We loved the atmosphere created by size AND staff at Little Mombo, Little Vumbura, Wolwedans and Damaraland - there was a really positive vibe and genuine friendliness and enthusiasm. All guests couldn't help but be bowled over by it.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 04:26 AM
  #5
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King-
Thank you for the excellent post. It was so well thought out that I can tell you took some time and effort on it. This is wonderful advice for folks looking for a way to proceed in safari planning. Also by making it generic it doesn't assume everyone will love your choice of camps, but by making it a general outline, they can find their own camps to love. Ah, the element of discovery.
Unfortunately the times we have spent longer in the camps were mostly boring because the guides have it so drilled into them the "routine" that they cannot vary it. We tried last year in Kenya, and our guide became perturbed with why ANYONE would want to go to the swamp when the Wilebeests weren't in that area, and the Marsh Pride was no where to be found. So I think we could only convince him to let us go there for 2 short visits. This was after I reminded him we had paid for a private safari. So it doesn't always work, but it sounds like you have had very good experiences and thank you for setting a guideline for others to consider. Liz
 
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Apr 8th, 2004, 04:44 AM
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Thanks, King. Very well stated.

Unfortunately, both guide quality and camp ambience -- I agree, 2 absolutely crucial factors -- are very difficult to determine at the trip planning stage. Who knows what guide you'll end up with?

As for length of time, I thought 3 nights at each camp was ideal. In Botswana, we found that 2 nights was the norm. For us, that would have been too short. If you have the luxury of time, that extra night is well worth it.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 05:30 AM
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To continue my thoughts...

The first element extra - location and landscapes. Choosing a camp or lodge on the basis of landscapes should only be considered when the views are so phenomenal that you cannot take your eyes away from them for even one second. Example, sossusvlei in Nambia, skeleton coast (not been there yet but does seem to meet the criteria), Ngorongoro Crater... A camp sitting on top of a hill with nice views should not generally be chosen over a camp by water unless the views are so, so exceptional. You can have nice views in your own country too and most likely you will tire of them after 10 minutes.

The third element extra - guiding and trackers. I would just like to air my thoughts on the use of trackers. I have found trackers very useful for night game drives. A driver alone cannot manoeuvre a 4x4WD over a bad road and at the same time hold a spoty in a straight line. With a tracker your night game drive is probably fifty to hundred per cent better. As a premium safari company in Botswana, Wilderness should provide trackers for night game drives. However, I have my reservations on use of trackers on day time drives. Most importantly they tend to make you lazy in your game viewing. They may be fine for the first day to help you spot all the big 5 but after that you should be getting involved in the spotting game. By the third day your eye will become trained and by the end of the safari you will feel like a budding guide. Training yourself to spot and identify game, birds, trees is the best way to enhance your knowledge and to heighten and sharpen your senses in the wild. If the camp offers all game drives with trackers, on one day try to do one without a tracker and hopefully you should notice the difference. Another slight tracker problem - they sit right in the front and block your view unless you are right at the back on a raised seat.

The sixth element - food. Selecting a lodge on the basis of gourmet food and fine wines is a BIG mistake. As long as the food is of a reasonably high standard, freshly cooked, wholesome and hearty you should be fine. In the last couple of years many lodges, especially in South Africa, have over-emphasized food and even glamorized it. Don't be misled by all this. You can visit the best restaurant in your city and spend only 200 dollars max for top food so why would you want to spend 1000 dollars just for food. It doesn't make sense. Ignore glamour food in your decision making and look for simple, fresh food. Fortunately most small camps usually meet the safari food standards.

The seventh element - spas, pools, plunge pools. Notice this is the seventh element. You should not get carried away by all this. If the first 5 elements are not met by the camp or lodge then you should not even consider the seventh element. Presumably your primary goal on a safari is wildlife viewing so don't get carried away by the extras and start putting them at the top of your pyramid of needs. If 2 lodges offer all the 5 premium elements then you could decide between the lodges based on the sixth and seventh element. Ladies you may agree to disagree.

I appreciate that it would be difficult to find out about all these elements in advance but therein lies the value of this forum. There are so many people here who have travelled to Africa who will be able to help you decide. There are some camps and lodges I will recommend when time allows and hopefully many of the seasoned African travellers will also contribute. I will try and lay out a format so that it becomes easy for people to contribute, hopefully in an objective manner, and to refer to, unless everyone is so much against the idea and my thoughts. I don't mind either way.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 06:10 AM
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Liz

You are right, we should perhaps maintain the element of discovery.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 07:18 AM
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King,
I'd enjoy further posts on this from you and look forward to seeing your suggested format.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 07:23 AM
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Thank you, King. You've described the elements of a perfect safari.

Celia
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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:53 AM
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King-
Your thoughts are 'right on' in my book. I do think the emphasis here has been too much on the 'high end' camps without regard to the fact that ANY camp in the Delta is going to allow you to experience the haunting sounds of the hunt at night from your tent, and as long as you just get there is the most important thing. It seems when people spend that much on a camp, details matter a lot more than when the emphasis is on the overall experience of the bush. Its almost as if unless you spend more than you can afford, you just haven't experienced Africa. Malarkey! Get there, sit around the campfire in ANY camp, see the same stars, the same Delta and smell the smoke. Hear the hyenas in the distance and the lion prowling nearby. These are the important things, not that you have to stay in a camp that requires reservations a year in advance. Both of our trips to Botswana were made within a month or two of actual travel. I decide I want to go, I reserve, I go, its done. If you can't get me in, someone else will. Try it. It works. That way you also get to take advantage of reduced prices, etc. If you reserve a year in advance, how many specials are being advertised?
So King, you are right in the moment for bringing this subject up, and you have put the emphasis exactly where it belongs. Looking forward to any further elements or format. Liz
 
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Apr 8th, 2004, 10:15 AM
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This is an excellent thread, King. You've raised great points. I'm not sure I'd want to miss having a tracker though on one of my precious 2 or 3 days in a camp. I really like having them for the other reasons I mentioned before. And with the driver concentrating on driving and a tracker looking to the left, I was first to spot a rhino to the right first. We all did our own looking, especially up in the trees, even with both tracker and driver.

>Another slight tracker problem - they sit right in >the front and block your view unless you are right >at the back on a raised seat.

In all of our Land Rovers, the seats were raised above the driver/tracker seats. This was true in Botswana and SA so I'm surprised by this comment. Even when the tracker was on his little seat out by the hood of the car, he never blocked us.
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Apr 9th, 2004, 03:58 PM
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To continue on my thoughts which are open to discussion, criticism, whatever....

Guides extra - just a couple of tips which could help you to get a better guide. Firstly ask for a birding guide. This way you know that you have a guide who is dead keen on variety, not only of fauna but also of habitats, and also has sharp vision and brains (it takes brains to learn latin as well as common names of at least 300 species). I find a birding guide will usually be more interesting and also more sympathetic to your needs. Secondly, if the guide is not performing to your satisfaction, try tipping him early on, perhaps 10 dollars. This always brings a smile and will hopefully lead to better game drives. If this doesn't work then you have the option of complaining and getting another one. The most polite way of changing the guide would be to ask for a specialist birding guide. Changing a guide is always difficult as you feel that you will upset him or her but if necessary do it and let the camp manager know what the guide was lacking. Perhaps he will learn from this and overall the camp will benefit. Sometimes you may be lumped with a learner guide but stick to them for a couple of days because they are very enthusiastic and will get you going but later on change to a more experienced one. Finding the right guide is a bit of a hit and miss unless you have been visiting Africa for many years and know the particular guide you want, however, the important thing is that you should be prepared to try some of the things I have mentioned above to get the right guide. A lot of the good guides are usually allocated way in advance to the groups or individulas who are repeat visitors so tell your tour operator that you want a guide who is the camp's best. You might end up getting second or third best but not the worst. Liz I am sorry to hear that your guide was a let down because I have found Governors guides to be pretty good, although not as well qualified as wilderness and kwando guides. Kavey may have more to say on Governor guides in general.

Tracker extra - To answer clematis, my experience of a tracker was at kwando. He set on the front left hand corner of the vehicle. If you are sitting next to the driver, your front left view is almost completely blocked. If you are in the second row your front left view is partially blocked. You may say I should not sit in the front but I have reasons to - one is for photography as you are as low as possible in the front seat, but even more important is you are next to the driver guide and therfore learn a lot more. I have always wondered how much you miss sitting at the back - I should think quite a lot. I have also wondered why instead of a tracker they don't provide a tracker guide in the back with the guests so that it becomes easier for you to listen and learn. Usually the driver guide would stop the vehicle to explain things but I feel it would be more beneficial to have a tracker guide at the back rather than in the front. With a tracker I did feel that my concentration waned quite a bit - subconsciously I was thinking he is there to do a job and he knows the territory well so let him do the spotting, but funnily I never feel that with a driver guide on his own.
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Apr 9th, 2004, 04:13 PM
  #14
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Liz

Just imagine, 6 or 7 nights in the Okavango for the price of 2 nights at Singita. I know which one I would choose. Lucky, lucky you!
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Apr 9th, 2004, 05:02 PM
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I, for one, doubt that I will again spend more than $500 per night per person for lodging. There is really no need for this, even in high season. Of course, that means as a non-local, that unless I am given local pricing, that I will likely never stay at Singita, Londolozi, Mala Mala or any of the other top lodges in the Sabi Sand, although despite the excellent game viewing, I still don't think that the Sabi Sand experience is as special as, for example, the South Luangwa, and as many have reported, Botswana.

I would much rather be able to spend five nights at Star Of Africa's lodges early in high season for the same price as one night at Singita. Even at $2,000+ USD per night, transfers are not even included in the room rate at Singita! Meanwhile, I am paying $240 per night ($120 pppns) at Kaingo, and they are picking me up from Mfuwe Airport, about 90 minutes away, then dropping me off at Puku Ridge afterward, nearly two hours away and this is included in the tariff! My four nights at Kaingo & Mwamba would basically get me about 11.5 hours at Singita!

Honestly, it would cost me the same to transfer from Johannesburg to Singita for two nights, as it is costing me for my entire 11 night safari in Zambia!

Anybody still going to Singita??? (From a Singita veteran) It's not too late to cancel and spend your money a little wiser, whether it is eleven nights in Zambia or possibly seven nights at Kwando's camps in Botswana.
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Apr 9th, 2004, 05:25 PM
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King-
To clarify my earlier statement. What I meant is that Governor's seems to have a strict routine for the drivers. You stay on that set routine. You do not infringe on anything Jonathon Scott & Co. is doing that day. You may not be around the cats when they are tracking because there will be a car following and taping. You must ask permission before approaching a site where their folks are waiting and unfortunately they get there first and stake out every cat. You do the same thing every day. You start in the morning with the lions at a certain spot, from there you proceed to point B, etc, etc. If you try to vary this like going to the swamp to see birds, the driver patiently explains the routine again to you. We thought by paying for a private car, we would set the pace. Not so, all it means is you don't have others in the car. That is nice, don't get me wrong. It was just frustrating. Both my husband and I decided that 2, or tops 3 nights at Governors Camp is best at least for us. That is how most camps are set up. The guides seemed to be a group unto themselves. When you are gone, they are still together, and they will give preference to another guide depending on their pecking order I guess you could say.
I wished I had listened to you before I went and split my time between the Mara Serena which was closer to where the Wildebeests crossed and had much more wildlife than they did in the Governor's Camp area at that time. As the Wildies ate the grass down and moved closer to the camp, I'm told the predators shifted closer in with them. I think our guide who grew up and learned guiding from Governor's Camp was quite good. Just not what we expected having been to other areas of Africa.
Thanks for the kind words, I just learned early on when they didn't even have the choice of luxury camps what is important, and I think you nailed it down quite well. I'm glad I had that experience in the beginning, it taught me the important things and how little luxury really helps a safari experience. Very seldom does anyone at home really care about the camps where you stayed, they always want to see the pictures of the animals and the bush. Just tell them you had a hot shower each day and a flushing loo and they are satisfied you had it good.
This was a difficult post as I had decided when I returned from Kenya last year not to share these things, because most people who are new to Africa wouldn't notice them. It did affect our enjoyment tremendously however. Liz
 
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Apr 9th, 2004, 05:55 PM
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Liz, I am really glad you're going into detail. I would hate that kind of ordered drive.

King, thanks for talking more about the tracker. At Singita the tracker would sit on the little seat but he came over and sat in the left front passenger seat by the driver whenever we came close to predators. At another camp the tracker never sat on the little seat, only the passenger seat. But that is a perfect seat for photographers because you can rest your lens easily.

We were able to hear the guide although in the very last seat (the third row) it was harder. We always rotated our seat order to be fair to everyone - when a new couple would join us, we'd all give them the first row.

We tried requesting a specific tracker but for some reason that person wasn't chosen to work at that time (he was in camp, not away with his family). And I heard a woman at Singita, the only negative moment, getting quite angry when she arrived and found out they were not getting their requested guide. I would be tempted to travel with a guide of my choice now, because then you know what you're getting.
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Apr 9th, 2004, 07:49 PM
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Liz, no wonder you do not want to return to Kenya! If I had such experiences, I would not return either. Ours was the complete opposite of yours - the drives were what we wanted, not what the guide said. In fact, each day our guide (not a camp guide, but rather a tour operator guide) asked if we wanted to look for anything in particular or try to catch up with something we had seen of interest the day before or just drive around and see what we could find or whatever it was WE wanted to do. And as for not being able to join in with the Big Cat Diary people, we had one encounter with Jonathan Scott and another with Simon, and each was as pleasant as could be. In fact, our guide knew one of their guides, so while they shot the breeze through their vehicle windows, I chatted a bit with Simon. Their vehicles may be at an animal siting first, but they don't own the land on which the animal is located, so any and all vehicles also have access. When we saw the leopard with its kill, there was a Big Cat Diary vehicle when we arrived. By the time we left, there were six or seven other vehicles. No one got in anyone else's way - all the guides treated one another with wonderful "road" courtesy. Well, I could go on ... but I won't. Suffice to say, I would not have liked what you experienced either.
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Apr 10th, 2004, 05:26 AM
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Wow Liz - that experience certainly would have had me ticked. We've never gone out with a camp guide, alway with our own guide who was with us the entire trip, similar to Susan's experience. But in your situation, you stayed, if I recall, at Governor's most of the time, so if you had had your own guide you would have had to pay for their time, sleep accommodations, meals - when the camp also had guides - redundant. But that seems to be Governor's rules - will have to remember that!

But the nerve that you couldn't be at the same places as the film crew! We met up with the film crews from National Geographic while at the Ngorongoro Crater and they were great with our driver and let us tag along with them for awhile; we just held back when they came across photos ops, but they didn't mind that we were there. Sorry to hear about your experience.
 
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Apr 10th, 2004, 09:53 AM
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Gosh Liz that would definitely have peed me off hugely...
When we were there the Scotts were taking photos for an upcoming book but there was no Big Cat Diary filming going on - but we were often sharing sightings with them without any feeling of "seniority" of viewing rights.
I'm so sorry that the Big Cat Diary filming meant reduced access for ordinary visitors - that's not fair. I guess guides are keen not to piss the BCD team off since many of them are employed as spotters for the programme and get a real kick from that.
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