As the co-founder of two of Africa’s leading safari companies (Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation), Colin Bell has long been one of the industry’s most respected figures. Now retired from both companies, he has joined South African nature writer David Bristow to launch a campaign against greenwashing in the safari industry. They assembled a team of researchers to assess safari operators, whittling a list of about 1,000 possibles down to the 50 camps and lodges that define best practice on sustainability. Details of these, and the runners-up, have been published in a new book, Africa’s Finest, and on a website that will continue to be updated. Here the authors pick six highlights.
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Campi Ya Kanzi, Kenya
This lodge on the slopes of the Chyulu Hills, some 200km southeast of Nairobi, was founded by Italian couple Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi, who gave up careers in financial consulting and law to move to Kenya. The major challenge facing them was how to involve the local Maasai community in every aspect of the business in order to preserve the wildlife, as well as the people and their culture. Critical to the success of the venture was that the Maasai would own not only the land but also the lodge, to be run by the Belpietros on contract.
The entire lodge is powered by the sun but that is not the most impressive of its green credentials. In an area devoid of surface water, rainwater is captured on PVC sheets on a slope behind the lodge and funnelled into eight 100,000-litre bladders, from where it is gravity-fed to the lodge.
From $750 per person per night; www.maasai.com
Singita Pamushana and Singita Grumeti, Zimbabwe and Tanzania
These two lodges are located in widely separated counties but owned by the same person (billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor-Jones) and operated by the top-notch Singita safari outfit. Both spare no carbon molecules in providing guests with every possible luxury, which could raise eyebrows over their inclusion among Africa’s greenest. What they also share, however, are enormous community and conservation footprints.
Pamushana is located in the tattered southeastern corner of Zimbabwe. With just 16 beds, the lodge feeds more than 20,000 schoolchildren every day. In order to create food security in the region, the company has invested significantly in sustainable agriculture and support infrastructure.
Singita Grumeti, within Tanzania’s Serengeti ecosystem, consists of four lodges, ranging from a luxury mobile camp to a colonial-style manor. Grumeti is the largest private reserve in Africa, which previously had no conservation status, its wildlife threatened on all sides. This 150,000-hectare wedge of land is a critical link in the annual migration across the Serengeti’s Western Corridor, its future now secured within this community-supported reserve.
From $995 per person per night; www.singita.com
Nkwichi Lodge, Mozambique
The out-of-the-way Lago district in northwestern Mozambique is among the poorest corners of the continent. However, 15 years ago, it was just this kind of place, among the stumps and ashes of civil war, that British brothers Patrick and Paul Simkin were looking for to set up their dream lodge and help the local community. Nkwichi Lodge is set among granite boulders above a glistening white beach, beside the clear waters of Lake Niassa (the same lake they call Malawi on the western shore). Surrounding the lodge is the 120,000-hectare Manda Wilderness, managed with local people by a charity set up by the Simkins.
In an area that previously had no roads, no shops, no infrastructure whatever and no hope for help from outside, the communities have since gained control of their own lands and futures. They have also set aside substantial land for conservation and sustainable utilisation of the natural resources.
From $330 per person per night; www.mandawilderness.org
Leshiba Wilderness, South Africa
Although South Africa has many more safari lodges than any other African country, it has a dearth of really green ones. Leshiba Wilderness is an exception. When the Rosmarin family bought the property, then a hunting farm, they reintroduced big game and built an education centre where the local people could relearn lost traditions. But star of the show is the lodge itself, created as a living artwork by celebrated local artist Noria Mabasa on the ruins of an old Venda village.
Mabasa and her assistants used the traditional material dahga (clay from the site mixed with crushed termite mound, which renders the material at least as strong as concrete) for all the structures and sculptural forms, and patterned thatch for the roofs. All power comes from solar panels and other green sources.
From $160 per person per night; www.leshiba.co.za
Serra Cafema, Namibia
While a recce team from Wilderness Safaris [with which Bell no longer has any connection] was scouting the far northern desert lands of Namibia for a location to site a camp on the bank of the Kunene River, they watched the shimmering form of an elderly Himba woman approach them. This area, called Kaokoland, is among the harshest landscapes on earth, yet in its confines live the Himba, just a few steps out of the Stone Age. How, the woman demanded of the interlopers, did they plan to help her and her people? It was her timely appearance that convinced the company to invest there, with the goal of creating a venture that will eventually be run, owned and staffed by the Himba.
From $700 per person per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com
‘Africa’s Finest’ is published by Green Safari. To order see www.africasfinest.co.za
This article has been amended since publication. The original wrongly stated that artist Noria Mabasa had passed away; in fact she is still alive.