Beyond the never-ending sky, beyond the landscape of tall grass, baobab trees and wild sage, beyond the sighting of a loping giraffe or a darting zebra, there is a stillness on African safari that will carry you away from your reality like no other vacation can. Meryl Streep and Robert Redford filmed their Oscar-winning Out of Africa performances in Kenya, but visit any of the seven countries in southern Africa where Wilderness Safaris has camps and you’ll be swept wholly off your feet. (What you won’t do is hunt — these are photographic safaris — or miss any comforts from home at WS’s luxury lodges.) After just a few days in Botswana, without Internet or phone, with afternoon siestas and slow drives to watch lions, baboons and leopards simply going about their lives, you’ll surrender to safari life completely. But only upon departure will you understand that — Redford’s virility aside — the wistful yearning of Streep’s Karen Blixen was more about a continent than it was about a man.
Wilderness Safaris camps are restful hideaways, most tucked in remote spots. They each have touches of individual character, but superb service and friendly staff are universal. The permanent lodges are all polished wood and stuffed couches, and there’s full plumbing and electricity. You’ll dine under a thatched roof. You’ll have cocktails around a fire under a star-filled sky. You’ll sleep on comfy, duvet-covered beds in “tents” that rival four-star hotels in terms of space. Depending on how long you stay and the camps you pick, your safari can be a five-day, $3,600 adventure or a three-week odyssey that costs $25,000 — or somewhere in between.
The lions might sleep all day, but you won’t. The safari begins early, with a singsongy “Good mooorning!” 5 a.m. wake-up call outside your tent. Remote camps have morning and afternoon game drives, each lasting around three hours. On these treks, your guide is host, driver, entertainer, and provider of an infinite knowledge about your surroundings. He’ll spot an elephant long before you do, and get you in close for quiet observation. He’ll identify a plant whose leaves can be rubbed on the skin for a natural mosquito repellent, or four trees living intertwined on the same patch of earth.
The Food Scene
Wilderness bookings are all-inclusive, and meals are bountiful and delicious: an early light breakfast before your morning game drive (with freshly baked muffins and bread); a decadent brunch with fresh fruits and salads and made-to-order eggs; and four-o’clock tea with sweet and savory snacks. Supper varies — many WS camps offer several entrée choices, and some have a buffet. Hospitality is such that your glass of house South African wine will never be less than half full.
The Photo Op
So many that you must take care not to view the whole experience through a camera lens. You’ll get hundreds of animal shots, so don’t forget yourself: When you stop for “sundowners,” which is cocktail hour on late-afternoon game drives, pose with gin-and-tonic in hand, sun setting, and an elephant ambling by right behind you.
This is one trip you can’t — and probably shouldn’t — try to arrange on your own. The agents at Philly-based Premier Tours (21 South 12th Street, ninth floor, 800-545-1910, premiertours.com) handle bookings for Wilderness Safaris and can match you with your perfect itinerary. (Between the owner and the staff, they’ve visited nearly every camp.) They do the legwork while you just daydream about plunge pools and impala grazing off your private deck. Getting there is a schlep — and a substantial hunk of your trip budget. Either break up the 16-hour flight by flying out of Philly and stopping midway in Europe, or commit to the long haul on a South African Airways (flysaa.com) nonstop from JFK to Johannesburg, South Africa. Premier Tours will also book your private camp-to-camp connections on teeny planes that are an adventure in themselves.
What To Get Before You Go
Binoculars: You’ll get close to plenty of animals, but there’s always something amazing in the distance. Steiner Safari Pros are a worthy trip-of-a–lifetime accessory.
Chestnut Hill Camera Shop, 8614 Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill, 215-248-0263.
Permethrin: Not all mosquitoes carry malaria, but one wrong bite is all it takes. Before you go, spray your clothes with this odorless, easy-app bug repellent for extra peace of mind. For three days of outfits, you’ll need about two cans.
I. Goldberg Army & Navy, 1300 Chestnut Street, 215-925-9393.
For the writer’s safari diary and planning tips, go here!