It was what the guides in Serengeti National Park call a “small crossing” — slight in both the number of animals involved (no more than 100) and the number of humans who witnessed it (just a handful). But it was hardly minor to me.
The zebras were casual — too casual, I suspected — as they trotted across the Mara River. Murky brown water swallowed up their legs and haunches, yet they remained unhurried. All was peaceful.
Then the crocodiles came. At first one, then two — then six — and within seconds, they had taken hold of an adolescent. The water splashed and bubbled, the young equine scuttled, and the crocodiles worked in unsettling concert. Suddenly, the zebra broke away, bucking its hind legs in one last Hail Mary attempt at escape. But it was too late. At the first sight of red, I put my binoculars down and trained my focus on the distant savannah.
Noticing the tears welling up in my eyes, Chrisple Sikawa, my guide from Usawa mobile camp, offered the salve of logic. “This is the circle of life,” he said. “You wouldn’t want the crocodiles to go hungry, would you?”
Heartbroken as I was, I knew he was right. I also knew that such dramatic sightings are precisely the reason one comes to Tanzania’s most famous safari destination: to see the wilderness at its most brazen and brutish, as real as it has ever been or ever will be.
This mobile luxury safari camp travels across the Serengeti National Park
That’s the promise of the great migration, the mass journey of roughly 2 million wildebeests and zebras, and the headlining act of almost any Serengeti safari. The event is constant and year-round, spanning 500 miles (804.67 km) from the southern Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara, just north of the Tanzania border, making it a moving target for the nearly 500,000 tourists who come to the national park every year.
That transient nature is what enticed Keith Vincent, co-founder and CEO of the hospitality company Wilderness, to create Wilderness Usawa Serengeti, a roving camp that opened on its first of nine eventual sites across the Serengeti on July 26. “In the old days of guiding, you had a vehicle and a tent, and you moved wherever the wilderness went and set up camp along the way,” Vincent says. “With Usawa, I wanted to give that freedom back to our guests.”
Wilderness Usawa Serengeti
• A luxury mobile camp, Usawa travels across the Serengeti National Park, popping up seasonally in nine locations across the national park, all set along the path of the great migration.
• The luxury safari camp’s six en-suite tents are designed to have minimal impact on the environment, with off-grid power and water systems, and an innovative design that requires only manpower to build and disassemble.
• The main attractions of any stay at Usawa are the daily game drives and safari walks, during which guests can glimpse the great migration, Big Five animals, and other wildlife.
• Usawa’s custom-designed tents are decorated with art, furniture, and crafts made exclusively by Tanzanian artisans.
• The camp’s all-inclusive rates include three meals a day, all game drives and safari walks, and on-the-ground support from the moment your journey starts.
To do so, Vincent first had to strip down the luxury safari camp experience regularly found at other Wilderness camps. There are no plunge pools or spa treatments at Usawa, but rather a wide-open expanse on the crest of a remote hill, where six guest tents and a larger main tent are wrapped 360 degrees in mesh and canvas, giving a sense of near-total exposure to the elements. The entire operation is off-grid, with lighting supplied by rechargeable lanterns and solar-powered lamps (romantic or vexing, depending on your task) and showers fed by buckets of manually heated water that funnel into taps by simple gravity (and, boy, do they feel amazing).
Still, nothing comes close to roughing it. King-size beds are dressed in crisp white linens, bathrooms are stocked with Inaya Zanzibar’s all-natural products, and décor is a curated assemblage of local design and ingenuity. The greatest luxury of all, however, is Usawa’s connection to nature: the cool breezes that drift through your tent, the sound of raindrops and elephants trumpeting as you drift to sleep, the first sliver of early morning sun as it stretches across the horizon to gently wake you.
“But the real fun of it,” Vincent insists, “is the chase.” Thus, Usawa moves with the great migration — from the south’s calving season, during which hundreds of wildebeests are born every day, to the mass crossings that take place on the Mara River — with Wilderness operating up to three identical camps at any one time, while a fourth transitions to the next site. Guests can easily follow the action, hopscotching from camp to camp. Once the herd moves on, Wilderness packs up and makes for the next location, leaving no trace behind.
Over five days at one of the camp’s northern locations, I found that however great the migration itself is, it was only a small part of any experience in the Serengeti, which is home to one of the most wildlife-rich expanses in Africa. Spanning more than 5,500 square miles (14,244.93 square kilometres), it is the quintessential picture of sub-Saharan wilderness, home to an abundance of big cats, as well as the rest of the Big Five animals (including a growing population of rhinos), plus giraffes, elephants, hyenas, and more than 500 bird species.
But, in the end, it was the great migration that once again beckoned. Though the heartache of our earlier sighting was still fresh in my mind, I agreed to let Sikawa show me what he called “the magic of a big crossing.” And so, we set out for the Mara, tracing its banks until a massive swirl of dust caught our attention — a scuffle of hooves pounding the dirt, Sikawa explained.
We arrived at its source minutes later, just as the first wildebeests were crossing, grunting and bucking all the while, literally running for their lives. One by one, as they made their safe passage across the river, they surrounded our vehicle, their mews nothing short of celebratory to my ears. The crossing carried on for close to an hour, and when the dust finally settled, not a single casualty had occurred. Then, a calf, clearly exhausted, dropped onto its knees to nurse from its mother’s teat. I felt the tears welling up once again, and this time they poured out like rain. It had been quite the journey — for all of us.
Designed by Luxury Frontiers (whose other hospitality projects include Camp Sarika by Amangiri in Utah and Naviva, a Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, Mexico), Usawa’s six en-suite tents are made from overlapping swatches of canvas and mesh to eliminate the barrier between the indoors and the great outdoors.
Still, every creature’s comfort has been accounted for. King-size beds are dressed in luxury linens; minibars are stocked with fresh coffee, tea, and snacks; and toiletries are from the all-natural skincare brand Inaya Zanzibar. Interiors throughout the camp showcase Tanzania’s artisans and designers: handwoven baskets, blankets, and pillows are sourced from a local collective that empowers women to achieve financial independence. Glassware, beaded chandeliers, and leather details come from Sanaa, a non-profit that teaches lucrative crafts to those with disabilities. And tables and chairs made from upcycled plastic are the ingenious creation of Arusha-based DuniaDesigns.
Outside, my husband and I lounged on our hammock (often with a bottle of South African rosé) or watched the surrounding hills through binoculars from a pair of canvas chairs. We regularly witnessed game drive–worthy sightings right outside our tent, from a family of elephants crossing the hills to the hundreds of zebras and wildebeest that wandered right through camp.
Food and drink
Usawa is all-inclusive, including spirits and a wide selection of wines from the African continent. The culinary team takes full advantage of Tanzania’s robust farming culture, serving both international and traditional Swahili dishes. Okra takes on heavenly forms in spicy curry, South African syrah sings with fragrant Zanzibari-spiced pilau rice, and creamy mtori soup, made with fresh plantains, is equal parts sweet and savoury — and utterly irresistible.
All mealtimes and menus are customized for guests as they plan each day with their guide. Pre-safari breakfasts are lavish spreads of porridge, fruit, pastries, and made-to-order eggs. Lunch is served overlooking the savannah at the edge of the luxury safari camp or as a picnic on game drives. Dinners are multi-course affairs served under the starry night sky or in the main tent.
Experiences and amenities
Activities are centred on the magnificent theatre that is the great wilderness of the Serengeti. As Usawa travels among nine locations throughout the national park, guests are afforded the chance to witness the great migration up close in its many phases. From January to March, the southern Serengeti bears witness to the birth of thousands of wildebeests (an estimated 800 calves are born each day). Come July, the herds move north and river crossings are the main event.
Game drives and bush walks are offered daily. One morning we set out straight from the luxury safari camp on foot, skirting a family of elephants as they broke down an entire acacia tree for an afternoon feast, then catching sight of a cheetah sprinting across the hillside 100 yards away. On a drive the next day, we encountered a mother cheetah and her cubs, the white of their bellies fat and round, the scruff of their chins blood-stained—and vultures circling overhead in pursuit of the remains of their kill. We waited patiently outside a cluster of bushes for a leopard to at last poke out its spotted head; watched a thick-maned lion perch proudly atop a boulder, keeping a watchful eye over a valley filled with prey; and counted the many crocodiles ominously patrolling the banks of the river.
Usawa welcomes children from six years old. Buy-outs are available for families with members of all ages. All safari activities can be customised to accommodate different ages and abilities.
Accessibility and sustainability
Wilderness’s greatest ambition in creating Usawa was to create a luxury safari camp that would minimally impact the Earth. Power is provided by solar panels and portable batteries that are recharged at a main power bank. Tents are constructed only by employees, ensuring the least possible disturbance to the native wildlife and enabling the camp to be easily and quickly moved from location to location. “We’ll leave no trace,” Vincent says. “One storm and the grassland will look like we’ve never been there.”
To preserve the land, Usawa has forgone constructing sewage systems, employing a series of innovations to stay more eco-friendly. Toilets operate on portable septic systems, with waste routinely removed from the park or used to fertilize the grounds when possible. Filtered cold and hot water are supplied to guests throughout the day. Showers are especially clever in their operation, supplied by heated water that is manually fed into overhead buckets and then funnelled into taps. Simply pull the chain for a steamy cascade.
Usawa is not ADA-compliant, which is typical for luxury safari camps like this one.
To arrive at Serengeti National Park, travellers can fly via Hamad International Airport in Doha to Kilimanjaro International Airport, then connect from Arusha Airport to one of Serengeti National Park’s airstrips. Wilderness plans all itineraries end-to-end with VIP travel perks, including Al Maha service when flying with Qatar Airways. In Arusha, we stayed at Elewana Arusha Coffee Lodge, a Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards 2020 winner set on a coffee farm.
Usawa’s nine locations stretch from the southern Serengeti National Park to Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya. Up to three camps will operate simultaneously to allow guests to follow the great migration as closely as possible. Wilderness arranges guest stays based on predictions of the great migration path.
How to get the most value out of your stay
Safaris are admittedly costly, but Wilderness’s all-inclusive pricing includes everything: accommodations, unlimited meals and beverages, all activities, and transfers within Serengeti National Park. Wilderness also partners with airlines such as Qatar Airways to offer discounted flights for safari goers. Nightly rates at Usawa start at USD 950 (INR 78,795) per person, with a minimum two-night stay.
(Hero and feature image credit: Jackie Caradonio/Travel + Leisure)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com
All currency conversions were done at the time of writing