I can remember howling with laughter the first time I met a flush toilet surrounded by a grass enclosure in a bush camp and a tent neatly shaded by a thatched roof to stop the canvas rotting. After a childhood spent wandering National Park campsites in our tatty old family tent, the world of the upmarket safari camp seemed inexpressibly funny. I soon learned to appreciate the luxuries, but this strange collision of worlds has never stopped amusing me.
There is great debate about the origin of the safari. The word itself is Arabic, from the verb ‘safar’ ‘to journey’ and the noun ‘safariya’ ‘journey’. That arrived in Africa thanks to the Omani traders and slavers of the Swahili coast in East Africa. However, the first Europeans to do great treks across the African bush were the South African Boers who set off in their wagons to settle new lands. Meat was hunted, cured and dried – biltong wasn’t a snack but a necessity for survival. Many died of disease. There was nothing glamorous about this life.
With all these people trekking across the continent, it was British hunter William Cornwallis Harris who is credited with making the first official safari in 1836, arriving in Cape Town on sick leave from India with the aim of hunting a giraffe and wanting to ‘discover something new’. From then on, increasing numbers of hunters set out in search of adventure and fortune. Life in camp for them was very rough and ready, sleeping around the campfire, living to a great extent off what they shot day to day.
Yet even back then, celebrity culture was a powerful force and from the moment British aristocrat Lord Randolph Churchill set out on an expedition of his own in 1892, things began to change. He did not believe in being uncomfortable or in lowering standards simply because he was away from base. The concept of the English shooting party moved to the African bush, complete with 20 tons of baggage including a dozen crates of Bolinger champagne, servants, formal meals and dressing for dinner. He even took a piano! With the arrival of US President Teddy Roosevelt and his vastly extravagant caravan of 500 African porters in 1908, the concept of the luxury safari in all its crazy glory was born.
Safari goes pro
With more and more people flocking in to try their hand at bagging big game, the professional hunters from Frederick Courtney Selous to Dennis Finch-Hatton, these days most famous as the lover of writer, Karen Blixen, began to realize that the real money was to be made in guiding the enthusiastic amateurs, supplying their expeditions and, hopefully ensuring that they went home in one piece.
Aviator Beryl Markham made a good living spotting tuskers from her plane for hunting parties as well as entertaining a number of the guests (including the Prince of Wales) in great style! In 1919, the American Cottar family set up Cottar’s Safari Service, supplying big game hunting and film safaris. Amongst their earliest guests were Martin and Osa Johnson whose films helped transform safaris from hunting to photography.
In the 1950s, as the world began to recover from the rigours of WWII, Ernest Hemingway led a new celebrity charge to Africa, this time trailing Hollywood glamour in his wake with stars from John Wayne to Kathryn Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, Stephanie Powers and Virginia McKenna not only making blockbuster movies such as Hatari, African Queen and Born Free but putting their money and their star power to use in organisations such as the Mount Kenya Safari Club and the Born Free Foundation.
Tourists flocked in and minibuses followed. Where there were tents and hurricane lamps, now gradually, bricks and mortar, teak, mahogany and thatch appeared. Many say that by the 1970s, the heyday of the glamorous safari was over as the masses arrived but I disagree.
I’ve watched the sunset over the Zambezi up to my neck in bubbles in the giant open-air bath at Ruckomechi at Mana Pools. I’ve had a champagne breakfast in the Masai Mara after a balloon flight over the great migration. I’ve slept in lodges so spectacular that they’ve spawned their own architectural and interior design language – safari chic and safari baroque.
And best of all, most of these glorious lodges and camps are now dedicated not to the destruction but to the preservation of wildlife. To my mind, we are absolutely right bang in the middle of the heyday of the safari – and long may it continue.