Why You’ll See Everything but Other Travelers on Your Next Safari

From hotel buyouts, to private islands managed by 5-star resorts, luxury travelers are demanding exclusive experiences like never before. It’s a trend that is reshaping the industry broadly, but for the operators of safari camps and lodges the impact is particularly marked.

The traditional business model at safari accommodations—whose numbers are skyrocketing in regions like the Masai Mara—had been simple: fill the jeep and gobble up guests like crocodiles at a river crossing. Now, many of those lodges are launching or relaunching as private camps for single groups or families. Fewer guests but bigger spends is the goal.

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“Requests for private vehicles and spaces or partial buyouts of a camp were the first signs of this appetite for privacy and customization,” says Katie Fewkes, head of commercial for Asilia Africa. “During the pandemic, that fully evolved to wanting a full exclusive-use experience.”

Today, even at camps with a large number of villas, communal dining rooms and shared jeeps, a private “camp-within-a-camp” villa is almost always available for families willing to spend many tens-of-thousands per person on their trip. For instance, at the Four Seasons Serengeti, there are five free-standing, private villas spread across the property in addition to the lodge’s 72 hotel-style rooms. It’s not alone. Over the last year, Singita Sasakwa Lodge, Singita Milele, Wilderness Usawa Camp, &Beyond Grumeti River Lodge, and Bushtop’s the Beast have all launched their own private lodges apart from their main camps. And that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

A pool at Namiri Plains
The Retreats at Namiri Plains offer private accommodations with all the big lodge amenities.

“Increasingly, we see groups of friends or multi-generational families choosing a safari experience to celebrate a milestone birthday or seek out a new travel adventure,” says Fewkes, whose team is behind new retreats at Sayari and Namiri Plains, as well as the Jabali Private House, which were all designed as private, camps-within-a-camp. “There is a desire to get away from the distractions of modern life and slow down to spend quality time together, make new memories, and explore somewhere new.”

For families, the appeal of “private” is obvious.

They allow for customized itineraries—dawn game drives don’t always mix with kids and teens. They allow for personalized experiences from running in the Mara with a Kenyan Olympics athlete to investigating a rare moth. They allow your jeep to drop you at your doorstep, where your private butler awaits with your bathrobe and a cocktail. They allow for custom menus (for when all five of you have different dietary requirements) and the ingredients you like best to be imported especially.

Most of all they allow families to treat safaris like a holiday. If kids want to play video games, they can. If their parents prefer to spend the day at the spa, bar or pool, rather than on game drives, they can. No judgment.

A safari jeep at Asilia Jabali House
Groups of friends and families are reshaping how camps operate.

“Business in the bush” and “work-in-the wilderness” retreats are also driving the private safari trend, says Vinay Sapra, founder of Lifestyle Safaris. Sapra recently created a premium spinoff of his Tanzania-based company to zero in on the “me, me, me” market dubbed Lifestyle Signature Experiences. Sapra says that he began to see the market shift back in 2018 and 2019, with a number of private villas opening in his home country.

Recently he’s dealt with a growing number of corporations that invite business partners on private safaris to “massage the relationship.” He recently orchestrated a private safari for a high profile mergers and acquisitions exec who had his various ancillaries and attorneys fly in and out of camp during a two week stay to seal an important deal.

Finally, for those who live and travel with a team of trusted staff, buying out a camp, or a section of it, allows you to run things your own way. That’s what Asia’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, allegedly did when he arrived at Great Plains Conservations Zarafa in Botswana. A camp source tells Robb Report that not only did the family have the antique furniture removed from the private Dhow Suite to accommodate the wife’s 40 trunks, they arrived with an ambulance and two choppers in tow. One chopper went off to look for lions and the other was on stand-by for the Ambanis to hop on the moment the scouting chopper radioed in with a sighting.

 A pool at Asilia Jabali House
The Jabali Private House in Tanzania is an example of the race to create bigger and better family-sized safari homes.

If that all sounds obviously superior to you, a necessary improvement, it is. Anyone who has shared a jeep with a safari first timer or a birder knows the peril of mixed company. Yet camp operators say that their communal facilities aren’t being left abandoned.

At Asilia Jabali House at Jabali Ridge, a private safari booking, a honeymooning couple from New York bolted after three nights alone, leaving their cloister to partake in the communal spirit over sundowners around the public camp fire. There is only some much alone time with your lover you can take, “especially on honeymoon!” said the bride.

There was a time when you could be dining next to Donald’s Trump’s lawyer or a billionaire who donated a million dollars to save a rhino. For extraverted solo, and couple travelers, privacy means no more eves-dropping on the other characters in camp; no more chance encounters from your alma mater; and no more tales from the game drive during sundowners.

Besides a cruise, a safari is the only kind of holiday that invites a level of intimacy between guests. It would be a shame to lose that completely. Nevertheless, expect far more privacy in coming years.

“We see a growing demand,” says Fewkes, “not just to travel together but to have more flexibility to dine together—without other guests around—to plan out the days on safari with a private guide—vs. compromising on shared activities—and to have a dedicated living space to relax and unwind when back at camp. We are getting back to the roots of what safari is all about.”

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