Walk on the wild side

East Africa - a stretch of land that boasts some of the greatest natural wonders the world has to offer. Africa - an entire nation crippled due to the near-hysterical media attention over Ebola - a fatal disease sweeping through the western part of the continent this year.

Like the adage about East and West where the twain will never meet, Tanzania in East Africa is far from Ebola's Ground Zero in the west - so we were not deterred by naysayers from exploring what this magnificent country has to offer.

Sadly, many luxury travel agents in Singapore and the rest of Asia are still seeing a decline in African bookings over lingering fears. But three safari destinations later and a safe return to Singapore, we are convinced that it is impossible to ignore this heaven on earth.

Tanzania boasts one of the largest wildlife populations in the world. For the safari adventure-seeker, this is where you'll find everyone on "The Fives" list: namely the Big, Ugly, Tiny, Beautiful and much more.

While most travellers usually converge on the more established, popular safari locations, a new breed of camp that favours the "traditional" experience is appearing on the radars of more discerning travellers - those who value intimacy and connectivity to the environment over conventional hotel indulgences.

The outlying location of the national parks of southern Tanzania provides guests with an experience where the number of animals far exceeds the people, while maintaining a high level of comfort as you immerse yourself in the wild kingdom.

At certain times of the year (December to March), the Serengeti sees just 54 permanent beds, compared with the equivalent area in the Maasai Mara, which has over 9,000.

uch small, boutique camps provide stylish accommodation with the service and charm that you find in five-star hotels, with all the fun and adventure of camping in the wild.

Nomad Tanzania, a comprehensive safari outfitter created by a team of pioneers who first wandered the most remote parts of the country before establishing their safari camps, has a passion for creating such experiences.

"This is their home and we are in their place," says Mohammed, the manager of camp Chada Katavi, who adds that their priority is to respect the environment and the animals that live there, while educating visitors through knowledgeable and seasoned guides.

This unspoilt corner of Africa is not for those looking for the opulence of marble bathtubs and gold-plated taps, but rather the new breed of experiential explorers seeking out raw adventures from which to carve out life-long memories.

For the full experience, you'll need to set aside two weeks to travel from western to eastern Tanzania, following one of Nomad Tanzania's travel circuits.

Sleeping under the stars

Chada Katavi

Travelling to Katavi National Park, in the far west of Tanzania is an adventure in itself. A light propeller plane from Arusha, near Kilimanjaro will lift you eye level with an active volcano, and while you cruise through the clouds you'll enjoy aerial views of the shifting African landscape, ranging from dusty, dry earth to lush green pastures.

Our friendly guide Emmanuel welcomes us on arrival at the airstrip at Katavi, and soon after mopping our sweaty brows with frozen flannel, we are greeted by a laid-back leopard they call Dogo (meaning "the young" in Swahili) on a perch on the branches of her favourite tamarind tree.

A zeal of zebras hiding in the shade from the strong sun are just ahead and as we turn the corner up to the camp entrance, they step out in front of our Land Rover on the dusty track, giving a whole new meaning to the term "zebra crossing" - hardly fazed by our presence.

Chada Katavi is a seasonal camp that blends discreetly into its environment, with green canvas tents camouflaged among the wide, canopied trees.

The vision behind Nomad Tanzania, the safari company that operates Chada, is not about creating a luxury hotel in the bush, but instead designing a "stylishly simple bush camp that shares its resources with Katavi's animals and keeps its footprint light".

Chada Katavi is an intimate six-tented camp, accommodating only 12 people at a time. There's an air of old-world adventure - the camp is filled with antique wooden beds, storm lanterns and cosy wool rugs.

Kenyan Serena Mason is responsible for the camp's design, and every detail has been thought out: the solar-powered lighting, the beaten leather monkey boxes (to prevent the primates from snatching your morning coffee), to the "loo with a view" giving you panoramic scenes of the plain.

Chada Katavi is one of few places that offers fly camping, an unforgettable experience of sleeping in a remote spot under the stars with only a mosquito net between you and the wild.

We arrive at an "undisclosed" location just in time for sunset, complete with blazing campfire and a fully stocked bush bar before a three-course dinner al fresco under a palm tree.

Come nightfall, you are lulled to sleep by lions roaring and hyenas laughing on the Duma plain.

Shower with elephants

Kigelia Ruaha

Touching down in the Ruaha National Park, we are immediately transported to a far-away African desert, with its bleached grass, sand-coloured tones, and dry, quiet air - a far cry from the lush grass just a few hundred kilometres away.

The powerful landscape is defined by forests of mighty 1,000-year-old plus Baobab trees, with their wide hollow trunks, bright flowers and velvety-cased fruit edible to animals and humans alike.

Legend has it that these trees were used for housing prisoners, but now you're more likely to see elephants eroding away the trunks in a desperate attempt to gain moisture from the bark, or mother hyenas using the tree as a nest for their cubs while out hunting.

The newest addition to this national park, Kigelia Ruaha sits comfortably within its environment, with camel-coloured tents arranged under a grove of Kigelia (Sausage) trees, which refers to their long sausage-like fruit.

The six airy tents are beautifully designed with locally crafted light wood furniture, cream cotton sheets and a fully functional en-suite bathroom.

Bathing consists of cleverly devised 40-litre bucket-style showers with hot water, where you can lather up outside under the stars; just be mindful about draining all the water - thirsty elephants aren't afraid to share your shower!

Days are designed to enable guests to enjoy as much as Ruaha has to offer: the day starts early with visits to hippopotamuses and crocodiles wallowing in a river.

This is accompanied by hamper-style picnics to be enjoyed outdoors, often on the bonnet of your truck.

During our sunset drive on our first evening in Ruaha, we are within arm's length from a pride of 10 lions, showing off their teeth with their wide yawns, stretching against the hard rocks, and cavorting under a wooden banana tree.

A river runs through it

Sand Rivers Selous

Established by well-known walking safari pioneer Richard Bonham, Sand Rivers Selous was Nomad Tanzania's first venture.

Beautifully situated on the banks of the Rufji River, the lodge is unique in providing a high level of luxury while maintaining its close connection to the wildlife, which makes this place so alluring.

Eight open-fronted thatched cottages are designed to give guests panoramic views of the Selous game reserve, as well as allowing the sounds of hippos trumpeting to travel into your dwelling.

Huge honeymoon-sized beds sit on a cream stone platform, with a wooden deck in front overlooking the flowing river.

As it's next to a reservoir, water here is plentiful, so no need to feel guilty about having that second waterfall-style shower of the day, accompanied by the songs of nearby birds.

Our cheerful guide, Ernest, whose laughter rumbling through the jungle is nearly as deafening as the hippos, knows a thing or two about the game reserve and its inhabitants, as a member of the region's Gogo tribe.

He sells us on the idea of a river safari, and in the early morning we hop onto a steel, flat-bottomed boat to experience a day in the life of the amphibious kind.

From the low-sitting boat, we are at eye-level with a bloat of hippos protecting their skin, submerged entirely under the cool water, with only their bulbous heads peeping out.

Languid crocodiles lie still against the sand banks before sliding clumsily into the river for a swim, eroding the sand bank as they slide down.

Bird lovers will rejoice at the scenes of pink-back pelicans, goliath herons, young African fish eagles and laughing doves.

Further up the river we reach Stiegler's Gorge, where the boat moors against the sandy shore and we feast on a picnic breakfast of fresh fruit, granola and bacon butties.

A spot of fishing before heading back to camp - on the rocks of the river - while casting a nervous eye at looming crocodiles - pays off with a healthy golden catfish which is later cooked on the barbecue for our final dinner under the stars.


This article was first published on Dec 27, 2014.
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