In Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the protagonist hunter gets an adrenaline-spiking close-up view of an African legend: “Macomber saw the lion now. He was standing almost broadside, his great head up and turned toward them. The early morning breeze that blew toward them was just stirring his dark mane, and the lion looked huge, silhouetted on the rise of bank in the gray morning light, his shoulders heavy, his barrel of a body bulking smoothly.”
Some 70 years later, Abigail Dillen, an attorney from Bozeman, Mont. on a safari in Kenya led by Karisia Limited, described her encounter with the queen of the savanna this way: “We saw a lioness five feet away. She was hunting; there was a pride of cubs lounging around like house cats in the sun. My heart was pounding we were so close to her.”
Much may have changed since Hemingway’s swaggering, big-game-hunting colonial Africa of the 30s, but the thrill of the close encounter remains central to the modern safari experience.
And that early-century ethos of Jeeps and gin-and-tonics has more than a residual presence. Safari-goers still revel in “sundowners,” or evening cocktails on the bushveld, set out with linens and ice buckets and seemingly transported from some Edwardian drawing room. And while getting “The Big 5” now more commonly refers to photographing (rather than bagging) the game hunter’s checklist (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo) high thread count sheets and private helicopter tours are staples of the high-end safari scene.
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According to James Christian, co-proprietor of Karisia Ltd., which runs full-service safaris out of Nairobi, “The finest aspects of Safari are not new ones but were developed many years ago when explorers moved across the African countryside with extensive camps and supplies.” The legacy, he says, is a combination of excellent cuisine and accommodation with a first-rate wilderness experience. “A martini savored by the camp fire while lions roar in the distance is, for some, the essence of luxury.”
Christian and his partner, Kerry Glen, emphasize African ecology in their many safari packages, and ensure, as Christian puts it, that “adventure need not stand in the way of luxury.”
In other words, Papa never had it so good. In 2007 the legendary outfitter Abercrombie & Kent will be offering an "East Africa Hemingway Safari" through Tanzania utilizing tents that resemble minor Bedouin palaces. The safari is limited to roughly a dozen guests to ensure an exclusive experience, and includes a visit with the company founders Jorie and Geoffrey Kent at their African home.
But beyond cocktails and cushions, safari-goers tend to remember the animals: Nadia LeBon, who joined a Rwanda gorilla-trekking expedition with Mountain Sobek Travel, where she is the director of special programs, recalls encountering a group of gorillas: “One of the females had a six-day-old baby; they were 10 feet way from us,” she said. “There was a group of 38 of them — picking lice, sitting around like a family at a Thanksgiving dinner. The little ones would do somersaults, trying to get your attention.”
It is the thrill of the wild that continues to impress Africa travelers, just as it did in Hemingway’s day.
We talked with travelers, safari operators and specialists to compile this list of African safaris that will help you look nature in the eye without sacrificing a shred of comfort and style.