What It’s Like to Go on a Mobile Safari in Tanzania
Mobile safaris may not be fancy, but they offer something else: unadulterated solitude.
I don’t want you to suffer,” says our burly guide in his deep, clipped cadence. He’s not tending to a poisonous snake bite or dressing a wound inflicted by the pack of lions sitting a scant few hundred feet from our tent. Rather, he’s referencing the amenities in our camp—three-course gourmet meals, a round-the-clock open bar and an actual flushable toilet—because our comfort is George Mavroudis’s main priority. His other priority, of course, is keeping us alive, but I’ll take the creature comforts tonight after the epically long journey we’ve undertaken to get here.
I’ve landed in Arusha, Tanzania, by way of Kilimanjaro by way of Amsterdam by way of Vancouver, and, just like when Teddy Roosevelt left for his grand safari adventure post-presidency, there will be no luxe Singita Lodges on offer here. I’m here to rough it because when Hemingway set out to test his mettle against the continent, he didn’t use his Fairmont points. Back then, a safari was a huge undertaking, with people and pack animals brought along to carry, set up and break down camp each day while the guests followed migrating wild beasts. But the stratospheric cost of such endeavours became their undoing.
It’s a logistical nightmare to assemble then disassemble an entire safari camp at a moment’s notice—think of it as akin to dismantling and moving a small village in just one episode of The Amazing Race. It makes far more economical sense to erect high-end resorts and then just zip guests and their binoculars around in off-road vehicles before depositing them back at night in temples of luxury, where wifi, Michelin-starred chefs and bathrooms swish enough to make a Manhattan socialite blush have become the norm in the middle of the bush.
Don’t get me wrong—I love luxury, but I fear that the stillness and magic of the African wild gets lost amid all that opulence. And that’s how I’ve alighted upon Mavroudis. “Why on earth would you come all the way to Africa to sit out by a pool for the afternoon?” he muses within minutes of our meeting. Such a sentiment could very well be the mantra for a man to whom old school is the ultimate compliment. For the past three decades, the Tanzanian-raised Mavroudis has been guiding the intrepid into the African bush, far from crowds, cars and massage tables—each new day bringing a new campsite and a new kind of animal, all done in a manner that’s faithful to an anachronistic way of doing things: setting up tents for each individual guest (including pits dug for their temporary but, as aforementioned, flushable toilets), a canvas mess hall replete with Persian rug, and a full-service open-air kitchen. The Herculean orchestration required to accomplish this means that almost no one offers these bespoke services anymore.
Typically, Mavroudis takes out private groups—large families looking to bond or Fortune 500-style CEOs looking to escape work—but this year marks the first time couples, singles or small groups can sign up. Our motley group of eight consists of Betty, a 93-year-old mother and her daughter, Alicia, from Texas; a former UN Security Council member and his wife; a socialite from Los Angeles with her 10-year-old; and me. If Betty can face down lions as a nonagenarian, I’m confident I can face primitive septic systems.
A Private Oasis
First up: our crew has set up our tented oasis in advance of our arrival at Tarangire National Park—complete with private showers. Bathing this way is luxurious if you’re a card-carrying member of Mountain Equipment Co-op but rustic by Westin standards. Each shower is a basic pulley with overhead bucket. If you use up all your water, there are two people on the other side of the tarp who will quickly and wordlessly exchange your empty bucket for a full one—all you have to do is call out, “More water, please!” Although shorthand will also do: I overhear the socialite next door blurt, “Uh-oh!” after her water stream ceases mid-shampoo—her pail is swiftly replaced by an experienced team who are clearly familiar with the sounds of shower discontent.
Midway through my brief dousing, I begin to wonder who would opt for the more austere comforts of Mavroudis’s excursions over the luxuries of a five-star lodge. But I’m told that model Christy Turlington and actor Ed Burns have toured with George—twice—and, later, I sneak a peek at his guest book, which confirms it. One of the guides shows me a picture of Sean Penn and Robin Wright also enjoying Mavroudis’s expert tutelage, while rumours of many other A-listers abound (Mavroudis, for his part, is fiercely private about his well-heeled clientele and demurs when asked about celeb-patronage). “Anyone with money can stay in a Four Seasons, but then someone will inevitably ask for your autograph in the dining room,” is all he’ll say. “Luxury”—he waves a hand across a view unencumbered by any other humans—“is having the Serengeti all to yourself.”
And after the first night, I start to get it. There’s a primal rush to communing with nature with only a tarp between us and the almost 3,000 square kilometres of Tarangire’s wild bush. And when an early-morning scouting trip reveals fresh lion tracks, we’re able to swiftly mobilize. We track these majestic creatures by open-air Land Cruiser and, in short order, we spot a mother and cub under the shade of a baobab tree, both of whom accord us the same threat level as a fly. Still, we keep our distance and hunker down with plenty of food and a strategically placed cooler stocked with refreshments should our ogling exhaust us. Mavroudis assures us that being elevated on four rubber tires keeps us safe, but he adds that if we were to step outside the vehicle, our two spindly human legs would immediately ring the cats’ dinner bell.
Given the expense of a safari, it’s imperative that you do all you can to make sure you beat back the jet lag that can hamstring a trip in its first few days. Step one: connections. Do whatever it takes to make your trip two legs and avoid connections through Nairobi (delays) if at all possible. From Western Canada, that means KLM to Amsterdam, Amsterdam direct to Kilimanjaro. Firstly they fly the Dreamliner, which lives up to its name with its low-air-pressure environment. You sleep on the first leg (a must), stay awake on the second, and when you land that night, you immediately go to sleep (around 10 p.m.). You’ll probably still wake up early, but that’s fine because so do the animals—who you’ll alertly be following. klm.com
That night, before dinner, we celebrate with Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which Mavroudis stocked because it’s the favourite tipple of one of the guests. (Before stepping on the plane, we all had to file our food and drink preferences.) Drinks are followed by lamb osso bucco shared around a giant wood table (this, too, will get dismantled and packed up when we leave), then under the light of twinkling stars we head back to our tents by way of a Maasai warrior (an actual one, not a hotel employee dressed up), who escorts us safely to our zippered outposts.
In the morning, we make like celebrities and pile back into our private Land Cruisers and simply set off—and therein lies the gift of a true mobile safari. We can go wherever we want, whenever we want, ambling around the bush and checking off the Big 5 or visiting new cultures like it’s the most natural thing in the world. The indulgence of such freedom is underscored the following morning at the famed Ngorongoro Crater, a World Heritage Site, where the bowl-shaped layout of the land is perfect for wildlife viewing. But its renown, coupled with its small size, means that even with the benefit of Mavroudis-style freedom, there’s no real respite from the hordes of tourists. Thousands of Cape buffalo surround us, but all I can concentrate on are the other jeeps from nearby resorts that have the temerity to be in our vicinity. It’s just then that I realize I’ve become a true convert to Mavroudis’s modus operandi of what is really special about experiencing Africa.
I’m still processing my epiphany over the next days when we hit the Serengeti, where the endless expanse means we’re back to being blissfully alone in our expedition. Mavroudis has found a spot literally smack in the heart of the blue wildebeest migration—this is where we’ll camp. There are almost a non-hyperbolic million of these roughly 350-to-550-pound creatures milling about right outside the tents, and our camp is but a dot in their vast 14,600-square-kilometre stomping grounds. Wildebeest graze day and night but, as it turns out, their 24-hour soft braying makes for the perfect sleep app. With a gentle breeze blowing through my netted windows, I drift off on our final night. Not even the greatest Four Seasons concierge could procure such a rest.