© www.virgin.com/uluasba
Maverick Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson owns 10,000 hectares of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve astride the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The two properties on the reserve are seven-suite Rock Lodge, and the dramatic Safari Lodge, with 10 treehouse-style rooms built in an ancient forest on a dry riverbed.
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updated 3/16/2007 1:54:47 PM ET 2007-03-16T17:54:47

The thoroughbred horses in the equestrian center are saddled up and ready to go. The tennis coach is hitting balls on the courts nearby, and the masseuses in the cliff-edge spa are preparing your hot stone therapy rub. But wait: Through telescopes on the edge of the lush green front lawn, someone’s spotted a lion stalking a gazelle on the plains below. Get the helicopter ready to buzz down and see if she catches her prey.

It sounds like the realm of fantasy, but this is pretty much the world Wall Street billionaire Paul Tudor Jones (and the few guests able to afford it) get to experience at Sasakwa, the flagship hilltop lodge Mr. Jones built on the extraordinary 346,000-acre Singita Grumeti Reserves he leases in a remote western corridor of Tanzania’s Serengeti.

Used to be when the super-rich wanted to get away from it all, they jumped on the private jet or yacht and retreated to the secluded island they owned in the Caribbean or the South Pacific. Now another part of the world is becoming home away from home: the African bush. And not only are the super-rich buying property in Africa, they’re opening hotels there. The lineup of tycoons who now own luxury African safari lodges -- Tudor Jones, Branson, Oppenheimer, Aga Khan -- is starting to resemble the Forbes billionaires list.

And what a getaway these places provide. At Getty House in South Africa’s Phinda Game Reserve, for example, guests can hire out the four-suite Getty Lodge, the private bushveld home of Tara Getty (one of the heirs to the oil family fortune), as their sole-use property. Tara and his wife Jessica live in it nine weeks a year, and the rest of the time lease it out to guests who can sleep in their master bedroom, peruse family photos on the walls -- including those of grandfather and scion John Paul Getty II -- and have access to their personal chef and butler.

“We lock up some of the most personal family items when they’re not there, but this is very much their own home and they want guests to experience it like that,” said Wilna Beukes, marketing representative for Conservation Corporation Africa, which runs Phinda.

On the other end of the continent, Richard Branson’s new Kasbah Tamadot hotel in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco is big news, but Branson was in South Africa long before with Ulusaba, twin luxury lodges in the heart of South Africa’s Sabi Sands Reserve. While the lodge stops short of flying guests into the private air strip on Virgin, you’d be well-advised to book the master suite at Rock Lodge, Branson’s personal room on his frequent visits, with its gorgeous views of the bush below. You’ll also be dining a la Branson: He eats the same European-African fusion cuisine in the two restaurants on the property.

Why all this investment in the continent? “Wealthy people fall in love with Africa and then want to help it,” said Dennis Pinto, the Kenyan-born Managing Director of luxury-travel company Micato Safaris, which sends clients to some of the most exclusive lodges in Africa. “Paul Tudor Jones started Grumeti as a conservation project. A lot of the funds from wealthy guests staying there go to local communities.”

© Tswalu Lodge
Diamond boss Nicky Oppenheimer's 100,000-hectare Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in the rugged thorn-draped Kalahari Desert accommodates a maximum of 32 guests. The eight stand-alone clay and thatch legaes (houses), each with en-suite baths and pillow-draped sun decks, are modeled on a traditional Tswana village - albeit one that has clearly won the lottery.
But he also notes that with such favorable exchange rates, one’s billons can go that much a further in Africa than it can elsewhere. “You can get several thousand acres of land in Africa with the kind of money that won’t get you a townhouse in Manhattan. And who doesn’t want to sip a martini and gaze out at miles and miles of their own green plains?"

Not that foreign billionaires owning safari lodges in Africa is totally new. Saudi tycoon Adnan Khashoggi made the Ol Pejeta Ranch House in the Sweetwaters Game Reserve near Mount Kenya his private hideaway for many years before losing it (legend has it) in a gambling debt to Lonrho chairman Tiny Rowland. The property is more rambling ranch house than modern luxury, but staying in the Khashoggi suite with its access to a private swimming pool has a certain Bond-villain allure to it. Ol Pejeta is now managed by Serena Hotels, which is owned by billionaire prince The Aga Khan.

Post-September 11, it appears that a handful of wealthy Arabs are turning their attention to East Africa, perhaps after finding it more difficult to invest in the West. Saudi soft-drink mogul Adel Aujan owns Rani Resorts, which has recently added Lugenda Lodge in northern Mozambique to the three deluxe island lodges it had already built off the Mozambique coast. Mr. Aujan fell in love with Africa on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe, and the tents and décor of Lugenda are a throwback to the romantic 1920s Edwardian age of East African safaris, when wealthy westerners such as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemmingway first started falling for the green plains of Africa.

But not all billionaire safari lodge owners are foreign. In South Africa’sthorn-draped Kalahari desert, De Beer’s diamond boss Nicky Oppenheimer owns Tswalu, a 32-person, desert-chic property modeled on a traditional Tswana village. A South African, Oppenheimer visits up to eight times a year and stays at Tarkuni, a private six-room thatched villa available for sole-use hire to guests. Apart from family photographs in the library, personal mementos are few and far between, and you’ll have to go to Kimberly to buy a DeBeers diamond, but fun and games include night telescopes and hot-air balloon rides.

The best way to get there? Charter a private jet from Johannesburg. Oppenheimer, of course, usually takes his own helicopter.

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