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Into Africa

From photo safaris to rhino wake-up calls, Africa beckons with gripping wildlife experiences
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 3)

Most conventional safaris offer a taste of the Roosevelt experience by spending a few nights at permanent tented camps that are especially popular in the Masai Mara. Here you will find the same canvas tents and services, but they are pitched on permanent concrete platforms, and the camps offer swimming pools, bars and restaurants. For many guests, a night in a tented camp is the highlight of the trip, with lanterns burning and the breeze blowing through the windows.

When you visit Kenya, make sure your itinerary includes a stay at the venerable Mount Kenya Safari Club. Film star William Holden transformed a small inn into what is widely considered to be the continent's finest hotel, and so it remains to this day. In addition to serving as a deluxe resort, Mount Kenya is also a private club, whose membership has included Winston Churchill, Lyndon Johnson, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Conrad Hilton. The resort is home to the biplane rides of Classic Aerial Safaris, and guests can also partake in tennis, spa services, horseback riding, swimming and gourmet dining. Nestled at the foot of Mount Kenya, the continent's second-tallest mountain, the club straddles the equator and golfing guests can hit tee shots from one hemisphere into the next.

Since much of your time on safari is spent out of doors, whether in open vehicles, on viewing decks or on your own veranda, cigar smoking and safaris go hand in hand. Unfortunately, quality cigars are a rarity in Africa, so bring your own. John Paragano, a lawyer and the deputy mayor of Union, New Jersey, was another guest on my safari, and he kept me well supplied with Cuban Montecristos. Paragano and his wife, Sharon, were enjoying a honeymoon visit to Africa. "We looked for something different for our honeymoon, because I'm well traveled," he explained. "A safari sounded like an exciting adventure as well as a unique honeymoon trip."

When Paragano and I returned to camp after an early-morning game run, having just tracked two lionesses on the hunt and glimpsed another elusive leopard, we were the envy of everyone at breakfast. Other groups had returned without spying a single cat. It was our second leopard of the trip, and a few people had yet to see even one. When he was asked how we did it, our guide just smiled.

Choosing quality outfitters and guides is critical in planning a safari. The parks you visit and the accommodations you secure will not affect your enjoyment as much as the professionalism of your outfitter and the knowledge of your guide and driver. Africa is a difficult place to get around on your own, and safaris are very detail-oriented; how these details are handled will mean the difference between the trip of a lifetime and a bitter disappointment. An excellent guide and driver will educate you and be able to find game almost anywhere, while lesser ones will come up empty in the best parks.

Many U.S.-based safari companies are merely booking agents for outfitters in Africa and may have little control over the details. Only a handful, such as Micato, which I chose for my safari, and Abercrombie & Kent, actually own their own vehicles, use their own staff and maintain offices in both the United States and Africa. Micato and A&K operate guide schools, where their personnel are specially trained, and all their guides are multilingual. Our driver, who spotted the leopard, had been leading safaris for Micato for more than 25 years.

Perry Lungmus, the director of tours and specialty operators for API Travel Consultants, a network of travel agents that caters to an exclusive clientele, makes several recommendations for choosing an outfitter. According to Lungmus, a "wholly owned local office in Africa equates to dependable and accessible on-site service. It also means local contacts and current information." And he adds, "There should be a qualified, overall safari guide to keep an eye on quality control. Ironically, although guiding is perhaps the single most important aspect of a successful safari, the quality of guides and drivers varies greatly between companies."

At the start of each game run, our guide would ask what we wanted to see, and when the cheetah was the last major item left on our laundry list, our driver set out to find one. Driving into the rocky hills overlooking the plains, we spotted not just a cheetah but a family--two big cats and four babies--a sight that was rare enough to surprise even our guide. It was a wonderful photo opportunity, one that was made possible because our guide and driver knew where to look.

Group size is also important. The number of passengers per vehicle should be limited, both for comfort and view. For instance, Micato guarantees each passenger a window seat instead of simply cramming as many bodies as possible into the vans. There should also be a limit on overall group size to maintain a feeling of personal service. Some operators require a minimum size, which means that their trips are subject to cancellation, even though you may have bought plane tickets and reserved three weeks for vacation. One reason I chose Micato was its guaranteed departure policy. Once I signed up, I knew the trip was on.

Most outfitters include just about everything, such as lodging, food, park fees, transportation within Africa and incidentals; some throw in international airfare as well. Check the fine print, because items like park admission fees alone can run several hundred dollars. An upscale vehicle safari, excluding airfare from the United States, generally costs between $200 and $400 a day per person. Trip itineraries begin at 10 or 11 days, and 14-, 17- and even 27-day trips are common.

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