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Inside East Africa’s Private Safari Camps and Lodges

When it comes to East Africa, savvy safari-goers know that choosing the right camp is crucial to crafting a perfectly customized and private safari travel story. Gone are the days when private safari camps and lodges were simply a place for weary travelers to rest their heads between game drives. Honestly, when we first started going to Africa many moons ago, we assumed a #luxuryAfricansafari was an oxymoron.

“Roughing it” in the wild can now be done in comfort and style, with amenities like full-service meals and en-suite bathrooms practically coming standard at the region’s camps. But top accommodations are upping the ante by posting up in prime wildlife-viewing spots and offering their own immersive experiences, from walking safaris and village visits to champagne breakfasts in the bush and soothing spa treatments.

With so many accommodation options out there, it can be challenging to sift through all the purported bells and whistles. Traveling under our wing at Penwell Safaris, you can rest easy—we’ll help you choose a lodge that enhances your “down time” in all the right ways. Finding the best luxury safari package is difficult, so we customize our private safari tour packages to match your preferences. Let’s take a look at a few of our favorite safari camps in East Africa to give you some ideas.

Arumeru River Lodge

Just five miles outside of Tanzania’s colorful cultural center of Arusha, the former coffee plantation of Arumeru River Lodge spreads its grounds over a dozen gorgeous acres of lush greenery. One of the best options for larger parties, the colonially influenced compound sports a cluster of garden chalets, including six family suites and one two-story villa. Lush tropical grounds, a large outdoor pool, gourmet restaurant, and free-roaming wildlife (adorably diminutive dik-diks and gallivanting guineafowl are common on-site sights) mean you could just happily kick back here and relax for a good while.

But if the magnificent views of Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro start calling you to adventure, that’s all waiting out there for you—and more. Watch velvet and blue monkeys clamber through the Usa rainforest less than a mile away from camp, see kingfishers and stoic storks stalk the waters at the crater of Lake Duluti, and learn about the local economy in nearby Usa villages and Nkoaranga coffee farms. When it’s time to move on, leave your mark at camp by planting an indigenous tree seedling to grow in your stead.

The Highlands, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

You’ll probably get used to hearing “you’ve got to see this!” out on safari, but trust us—you’ve got to see this place. The Highlands camp, studded into the northern forests of the already stunning Ngorongoro Conservation Area, is composed of eight private geodesic-domed “tents” reportedly inspired by rounded Maasai bomas. A bubbled lounge, well-stocked bar room, and shared dining area—everything connected by walkways running through the brush—and you’ve got a truly unique outpost.

Inside the tents, you’ll find wood-burning stoves and cozy quilts draped over squat poofs and king beds. Outside, enjoy incomparable views of the Gol Mountains and surrounding valleys—and the buffalo, zebras, and elephants that inhabit them. Just an hour’s drive away, there are friends to make in Maasai villages, butterflies to chase on the slopes of Olmoti volcano, flamingoes flocking in a crater lake in Empakaai, and the massive Ngorongoro Crater with its very own world waiting within.

So, The Highlands. Is it American mid-century chic with black-and-white Maasai portraits next to technicolor woven blankets? Is it 1970s futurist architecture with wood-paneled en-suites right out of a ski-lodge? Is it a chance to walk with lions and rhinos on the floor of collapsed ancient supervolcano? Yes.

Rubondo Island Camp, Tanzania

Dotting a pristine pocket of southwest Lake Victoria, the tiny Tanzanian isle of Rubondo packs a lot of wildlife wonder within its shorelines, and one elegant, private safari camp—the sole development on the island—is the access point to it all. Spread out along a sandy beach, Rubondo Island Camp comprises eight contemporarily furnished stone cabins surrounded by towering figs and joined by a beautiful common lounge and shared dining space. A swimming pool provides refreshment—wading in the open waters of Lake Victoria is the purview of the local wild hippos and crocodiles.

The lilting sound of birdsong and the flutters of butterflies are constants in this tropical safari resort, as are the unhindered views of surrounding lake. Boat trips out on the water offer delights for birders and fishers—Nile Perch grow gigantic here, and nearby Bird Island shelters hundreds of cormorants, egrets, and fish eagles. On the island’s terra firma, elephants and giraffes hide within the forest, sitatungas saunter about, and curious chimpanzees await your company—it’d be rude not to pay a friendly visit to the Chimpanzee Habituation Project during your stay.

Private Safari: Kimondo Migration Camp, Tanzani

If you’re tracking an ever-moving annual cycle of migrating wildebeest around the vast plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, it pays to stay on your toes—so Kimondo Migration camp moves between two strategic stake-outs as the circuit plays out across the calendar year.

From July to October, you’ll find Kimondo and its nine heavy-canvassed tents just north of the Mara River in the Lamai Wedge—the sought-after grassy fields of all the millions of wildebeest fording the river over those harrowing months. When the herds circle around to southern Ndutu to birth the next generation of galloping grazers, from November to March, Kimondo’s luxurious private safari camp is there in the middle of the action. The migration brings many thousands more players to the field—and this is the big-five hotspot of Serengeti National Park—so keep your eyes open for lions and leopards in pursuit, and elephants and buffalo in the mix.

Migration tracking can be tiring adventure, but being mobile doesn’t require mean leaving luxury behind—at camp, find king-size beds, shining brass ornamentation, elaborately patterned fabrics, and lavish draperies relaying a regal and relaxing Moroccan vibe to your Tanzanian travels.

Luxury Safari: Sayari Camp, Tanzania

Offering wildlife seekers a luxurious home on the savannah for the past 15 years, Sayari Camp in the northern Serengeti has garnered more awards than just about any other safari lodge. Surrounded by rocky plains and rolling hills, Sayari’s unique location by the Mara River gives superb access to the migration action while avoiding the lion’s share of the associated commotion.

The private safari camp known as Sayari Camp comprises a total of 15 perfectly appointed private tents, effectively split into two smaller camps by a central swimming pool dug right into the rock. Taking a restorative dip after an exhilarating morning of watching wildebeest wager their lives in fording the Mara River, one begins to wonder when some of the tents might make the fateful leap from one side of the pool to the other. Perhaps to keep the stakes stable, each side has been granted its own socializing lounge and open dining area.

Views from the private decks are plainly amazing and frequently rewarding—the vast fields around camp teem with wildlife, from members of the “big five” to lesser-known characters like oribi and klipspringers. Safari drives from Sayari are deservedly famous, but don’t overlook exciting options like a walking safari (a rare treat in the Serengeti) and a hot-air balloon flights followed by a champagne breakfast in the bush.

Virunga Lodge, Rwanda

Tucked away in Rwanda’s mountainous northwest, and perched high above the serene twin lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera, the tiled rooftops of Virunga Lodge peek out from the enveloping canopy. Each of ten stone-built cabins—decked out with wood-carved furniture and beautiful rattan decor—is a rejuvenating retreat after exciting excursions in nearby Volcanoes National Park.

At the peak of the complex, a communal lounge offers a chance to relax with a book or sip a cocktail with a bird’s-eye view of the terraced hillsides. From this lofty vantage point, watch the setting sun lend a fiery outline to the western volcanoes—or, just next door, dine with fellow travelers while clouds swim past the peaks and into the lulls of the Musanze valley below.

Gorilla and monkey trekking is what this area is all about, with visitors eager to follow in the Dian Fossey’s famous footsteps—and since those are some demanding footsteps, you’ll want to avail yourself of the complimentary massages back at camp. Downtime walks along the lakes, or to neighboring towns and Sunzu villages, provide a perfectly Rwandan sense of place. At night, from the vantage of your fire-warmed bedroom, the mirrored shimmering of stars in the lake waters below will take you much farther away.

Get started with your bespoke safari experience at one of these camps

See anything—or maybe everything—you like? We’ve got these and gaggles more to show you. Get in touch with your travel planners at Penwell Safaris, and let’s write your safari story together. And if you’re more attuned to “roughing it” out in the open for a more private safari experience, might we suggest reading up on fly camping and possibly adding this to your safari expedition as well!

Penwell founder Kathy Harvey on a Gorilla Trek

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