Solar-powered tents and silent game drives – the anatomy of a green safari
I hadn’t expected to see a green mamba on a behind-the-scenes tour of Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of Africa’s deadliest snakes, but a powerful machine that crushes cans and bottles – given that name by Albert Ndereki, the lodge’s ecotourism manager, “because it is so aggressive”.
The green mamba is just one of many waste management projects that has earned the lodge – and Albert – accolades. In May, he won the Shape Africa Innovation Award at the We Are Africa show in Cape Town for his commitment to sustainable initiatives in one of the country’s oldest lodges.
Albert joined Chobe Game Lodge as a builder in 1971. Nearly 50 years on, he takes guests on behind-the-scenes tours like mine to see his inspiring initiatives. They include producing biogas from food waste and grass cuttings, burning rubbish in incinerators and using the ash as fertiliser, and making bricks out of crushed glass bottles. There’s solar power, too, and Chobe was one of the first lodges in Africa to offer silent safaris on electric vehicles and boats.
Albert’s award reflects the significance now being placed on a greener safari experience, with the emphasis on protecting a fragile environment. “Our clients love to see sustainable camps, and they object when they see poor practice,” says Chris McIntyre, managing director of specialist tour operator Expert Africa.
“We highlight the best green camps to our travellers, but sustainability isn’t the decisive criterion for choosing where to stay just yet. Factors such as location and cost can take precedence, but we’re sure this will change as awareness of these issues grows.”
Today, leading safari operators such as African Bush Camps, Asilia Africa, Elewana, Singita and Wilderness all embrace green technology, particularly solar power: the tedious drone of a generator is rarely heard these days.
Two years ago, Singita created an off-grid renewable energy plant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, when their Sweni and Lebombo lodges were redesigned. It was the first project in Africa to include Tesla Powerpacks for solar power storage, enabling the company to power both lodges and its entire staff villages with solar energy.
The green effect has dramatically influenced design in camps and lodges. At Asilia’s Namiri Plains, all decking is 100 per cent recycled plastic and walls are a local natural stone, calcrete, which helps to regulate room temperature.
Entirely covered with painted canvas, the staff village has been ingeniously constructed to resemble a classic Serengeti kopje (rocky outcrop), blending in with its surroundings. Both the camp and the staff village are completely solar-powered.
Solar-charged electric vehicles and boats are also gaining traction. Vincent Kouwenhoven, founder of niche operator Green Safaris, developed Zambia’s first electric game drive vehicle (the eLandy) for its Ila Lodge in Kafue National Park.
“I came up with the idea of an electric vehicle many years ago,” he explains. “As I drove from one property to another, it suddenly struck me that you only switch off a diesel engine when you encounter lions or something.
“Only then do you get to enjoy the sound of the bush. This is where the idea of silent safaris was born, using EV’s to enhance the customer experience. We built the very first one and started experiencing way more sightings, since most animals don’t hear us coming or they are simply more at ease. The investment is substantial, but the savings on diesel and wear-and-tear definitely make it worthwhile.”
Green Safaris offers solar-powered boats for sunset cruises on the Kafue river, and silent safari vehicles will feature in its new camps, Chisa Busanga in Kafue and Shawa in South Luangwa, when they open in June.
In South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve, the Cheetah Plains Houses has added more luxurious touches to its electric Land Cruisers, including customised suspension, heated bucket seats for chilly mornings and side-lighting on steps for easier access.
With all the well-publicised concerns about plastic, single-use water bottles are hardly ever seen on safari. Most lodges provide branded, refillable stainless-steel bottles with filtered water for game drives, which guests can take home afterwards.
Minimising the impact of safaris on wildlife is also a top priority for enlightened companies. For night drives, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa recently introduced an innovative “Night Eye Experience”.
High-definition infrared cameras connected to screens show guests the night’s wild action in real-time viewing. The absence of spotlights means animals carry on their normal business undisturbed.
In Zambia, where walking safaris were born, three walking-only bush camps opened last year, suggesting a greener, “less is more” approach with a lighter carbon footprint. Mapazi in South Luangwa, Tusk and Mane in Lower Zambezi and Jeffery & McKeith Safaris in Kafue are all run by renowned guides.
Instead of the sometimes incongruous luxuries associated with safaris (private plunge pools, minibars and hairdryers in vast suites), these intimate, pared-back camps have a “back-to-nature’ vibe with exceptional guiding in exclusive wilderness areas as the main draw.
Mobile camps tread lightly on the environment, too, especially in the Serengeti, where they move to follow the Great Wildebeest Migration. Roving Bushtops has created a unique hi-tech mobile camp with solar-powered tents which fold out on to a platform, complete with a king-size bed, hot tub, flush lavatory and Wi-Fi, leaving little trace on the landscape.
I recently stayed at Wayo Africa’s far simpler exclusive-use mobile camp in the Serengeti’s Wilderness Zone, walking by day and sleeping on comfortable beds in dome tents at night. In the less-is-more mode, our bathroom tent had a bucket shower and a compost lavatory.
Wayo’s founder, Jean du Plessis, is a renowned guide and National Geographic TV presenter. He explained to me the importance of water conservation in Wayo’s approach to safari holidays.
“I calculated that all these fancy camps using flush lavatories take around a million litres a day out of Serengeti water sources,” he told me, adding that Wayo adds sawdust to waste to neutralise it, then mixes it with kitchen waste to make compost.
In Wayo’s main camps, the square tents have gutters to catch rainwater, which is then stored in black 1,000-litre bladders that are left to warm in the sun. The result? Naturally-heated bucket showers.
Every morning, I awoke to see the vast plains of the Serengeti all around me, with no one else there and a footprint so light that we were barely tiptoeing on these fragile lands. What could be greener than that?
Further information: chobegamelodge.com; expertafrica.com; africanbushcamps.com; asiliaafrica.com; elewanacollection.com; singita.com; wilderness-safaris.com; greensafaris.com; cheetahplains.com; andbeyond.com; surefootsafaris.com; tuskandmane.com; jefferymckeith.com; bushtopscamps.com; wayoafrica.com