Photo: Africa Adventure Company
The perfect safari should involve plenty of up-close-and-personal encounters—ideally involving wild animals and not the strangers in the tent next door.Many high-end safari companies are responding to the yearning for even more exclusivity in what is already one of the world’s most elite travel experiences, offering private excursions that allow guests to choose their travel companions, customise their itineraries and witness plenty of once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Andy Cluver, CEO of South Africa–based airline Civair, has organised private travel for scores of celebrities, royals and politicians. High-profile travellers including Bono, Richard Branson, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana have entrusted Civair with their vacation plans. And while some boldfaced names like Bill Gates have been low maintenance (the Microsoft founder opted to travel with just his wife, Melinda), others have asked for a little more. Privacy, security and a support network are key for many private-safari clients.
Adventure outfitters are increasingly catering to guests who want to book an entire camp, boat, balloon or helicopter for themselves and their group.
Experiential travel is hot the world over, and a host of destinations are getting in on the act, which was pioneered—and perfected—in Africa. Safari companies today offer the chance to encounter a whole ark’s worth of animals, from kangaroos and blue-footed boobies to mountain gorillas and crocodiles.
A river safari down the Amazon with National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions offers a look at mythic river monsters like piranhas (without a swarm of camera-happy passengers snapping at your heels). At Anantara in Thailand’s Golden Triangle, guests learn to handle elephants in utterly tranquil surrounds. And at Wildman Lodge in Australia’s Northern Territory, kangaroo safaris through the bush encounter a variety of marsupials. Whichever you choose, the experience is truly like nothing else.
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Located within a private concession of Kruger National Park, the six suites at Singita Sweni Lodge are elevated on stilts to provide a secluded game-viewing platform reminiscent of an eagle's nest (if eagles had WiFi, outdoor showers and daybeds, that is).
Guests plan their own game-drive schedule and can fully expect to see the big five--lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, Cape buffalo--along with rarer, more brag-worthy animals like black rhinos, sable antelopes and a trio of the world's most unusual big cats: the serval (with the body of a cheetah and the ears of a bat), the caracal (a bobcat-like feline once used as a hunting companion) and the African wildcat. From $10,150 a night (including meals and drinks); 12-person capacity; 27-21/683-3424; singita.com.
For a bird's-eye view of some of the most inaccessible and untouched wonders of Ethiopia, sign up with Uncharted Africa Safari Co., whose owner, Ralph Bousfield, leads guests on a 10-day odyssey, working off an itinerary that is easily customisable according to weather and whim.
Typically, Bousfield searches for game over the Omo River Delta and soars to dizzying heights over the jagged Simien Mountains (home to the Walia ibex and Simien fox) before plummeting into the surreal volcanic wasteland of the Danakil Depression, Africa's lowest point. The heli-safari uses three main base camps near the eerily quiet Makgadikgadi Pans, the remnants of a vast lake that once covered much of Ethiopia and Botswana. $130,000 (all-inclusive); 2-person capacity; 27-11/447-1605; unchartedafrica.com.
Experience the Serengeti from the perspective of an African white-backed vulture via an hour-long balloon ride at dawn (available as an extension to any Abercrombie & Kent Serengeti itinerary). It is a magical way to experience this vast floodplain. While ordinary balloon flights soar high above the Oloololo Escarpment, A & K's specially trained safari balloon pilots manoeuvre just a few feet above the grassland and treetops, even rotating the basket so all passengers get the chance to face forward.
Thanks to the stealthy approach, you'll spot unsuspecting leopards lazing in tree boughs, alligators and hippos wallowing in creek beds and antelope and Burchell's zebras on the vast plains. The toast-worthy safari ends, fittingly enough, with a Champagne breakfast on the Serengeti. $4,000 (including breakfast); 8-person capacity; 800-554-7016; abercrombiekent.com.
Few experiences sharpen the senses or bond a group like stalking big game on foot. The 15-day Eyes on Elephant Safari offered by The Africa Adventure Company is designed to bring small groups of six people much, much closer to nature. While there are still game drives (big game respond differently to vehicles), the focus here is walking in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.
The terrain is ideal for viewing animals on foot, and guests are taught the basics of tracking lions and rhinos. The relatively dry grasses are lower, and much of the action takes place around three year-round water sources. The park is famous for large herds of elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions and the rare African wild dog. From $44,970 (including all meals); 6-person capacity; 800-882-9453; africa-adventure.com.
Some cruise ships try to spice up a voyage with shuffleboard or quiz nights, but this is not that kind of cruise. The National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions Delfin II plies the waters of Peru's Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and offers a host of activities specifically designed to allow private guests unprecedented access into the Amazonian wetlands.
Visitors frequently abandon ship to kayak among the giant Amazonian lily pads of the Pucate River (some reach 10 feet in diameter), fish for piranhas as they feed on fallen fruit in the swollen flood plain or swim with the bizarre Amazon River dolphins (one of just two freshwater dolphin species on earth). Trained naturalists also spot sloths, tamarins, caimans and abundant bird life throughout the trip. $173,000 for 10 days (including meals); 28-person capacity; 212-765-7740; expeditions.com.
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