Successful safari days have as much to do with where you’re staying at the end of the day, as what you’ve seen on your game drives.
We spent the last two days at Hatari Lodge in Arusha National Park. Some of my clients had been with me in Kenya for 6 days and others were just joining us. I was concerned that those who had already experienced great game viewing in Kenya might be a bit disappointed with the somewhat limited game viewing of Arusha National Park, but I was wrong.
“I never expected this!” Shelly Lazarus told me. Many of my clients are repeaters, but this was Shelly’s first safari. She was traveling with Ned Grossman, and this is his third safari with me, but Ned was equally impressed.
Hatari is located contiguous with the national park, a couple hundred meters from the park gate. It sits in the towering shadow of Mt. Meru with a huge 5-acre back yard which is a grassland plains usually occupied by buffalo and giraffe. Giraffe often wander right onto the pathways of the lodge to nip the juicy tips of the beautiful fever trees that landscape the lodge grounds.
Arusha National Park is a big game wilderness which surrounds Mt. Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain which rises behind Arusha town. There are developed farms all around the park so it’s almost impossible to take a game drive without seeing farm houses and workers in the not-too-distant horizon.
But the park is a beautiful rain forest with many small crater lakes that always have some wonderful bird life, often hundreds of flamingoes. We happened to be there when the flamingoes were breeding, so there were thousands of them. We found the rare turacos and gorgeous colobus monkeys in the dense forests.
Many of us joke that this is “Giraffic Park” because there are so many giraffe, because there are no lions. There are leopard, although fewer and fewer, and only a few night hooting hyaena. So the park is relatively predator free, and that allows the successful animals like giraffe, buffalo and bushbuck, to prosper.
I especially like the walks that are now well established and led by decent ranger/guides. Climbers take 3 days to summit Meru, but in 4 hours you can hike through some gorgeous rain forest and then step onto the lava field around the fascinating ash cone which finally ended Meru’s rain as a volcano in 1913.
Two of my clients, Illinois farmers, George and Nancy Halley, loved the walk but admitted that coming from the flatlands the 9,000-foot elevation did make things a bit slow going at times. In contrast, recently graduated Alison Eckenhoff who lives in Boulder, Colorado, didn’t miss a breath!
But what I realized this time was that the success of these two days wasn’t just the park, it was as much where the group stayed. Hatari Lodge is a beautiful creation of Joerg and Marliese Gabriel, who took a basic somewhat forgotten property and turned it one of the finest boutique safari lodges on the circuit.
The original property was part of the 1959 John Wayne film, Hatari. It was then a simple unused farmhouse. Fifteen years later it was turned into a very simple lodge by Stephie Leach and Baron Burt von Muteus. They called it Oldonyo Orok [“Black Rock” in Maasai, referring to towering Mt. Meru]. The Arusha couple didn’t market it very well, and it could never handle more than 16 people at a time when safari groups were normally in the twenties and thirties, so it remained something of a secret escape for smaller groups.
Several good American safari companies, like EWT and Mountain Travel, used the property extensively, but it was very basic. I remember having to caution my groups at the time about the “facilities.” A group of more than 10 couldn’t sit around the little, round dining room table that was squeezed into one corner of the single tiny public room. The tiny, tiny bedrooms each had a very compact shower and toilet, that “usually” worked.
But there was a beautiful long verandah that overlooked the current “back yard”, almost always with giraffe and buffalo. And to wake up in the morning in the shadow of gigantic Mt. Meru was worth any slight inconvenience in comfort.
Marliese and Joerg changed this in the early 2000s. They built on the Hatari theme, an extremely romantic and comfortable place to come after a hard day on safari. New individual and spacious bedrooms and large bathrooms were built, somewhat Art Deco and minimalist, but marvelously engineered by Joerg. The living room and bar are long and elegant and attached to the absolutely necessary outside verandah overlooking the game-filled “back yard.” Being contiguous with the park and without fencing, the animals in Hatari’s backyard are the animals in the park.
The secret Oldonyo Orok, spectacularly located which you paid for with a bit of inconvenience, became the masterful Hatari Lodge.
This is unusual in East Africa. The better and more comfortable lodges and camps are often not in good locations, as Hatari is. Throughout the normal safari circuits the properties in the best locations tend to be the mass tourism lodges rather than the luxury boutique ones. This is because the mass tourism lodges were the first built and understandably in the best locations for game viewing.
Luxury boutique properties came much later, well after photography safaris had been established. The original mass tourism lodges didn’t need to wow clients with gourmet food and stylish bathrooms. In the old days, the adventure of coming to Africa was so compelling you were awestruck just by the fact that your toilet actually flushed! Or that you even had one!
Today, there are more than twice as many boutique safari camps and lodges like Hatari as original mass circuit ones like the Sopas and Serenas. But in the vast majority of cases they came too late to get the best locations. Hatari is an exception.