The perfect safari should involve plenty of up-close-and-personal encounters--ideally involving wild animals and not the strangers in the tent next door. Many high-end safari companies are responding to the yearning for even more exclusivity in what is already one of the world's most elite travel experiences, offering private excursions that allow guests to choose their travel companions, customize their itineraries and witness plenty of once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Andy Cluver, CEO of South Africa-based airline Civair, has organized private travel for scores of celebrities, royals and politicians. High-profile travelers including Bono, Richard Branson, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana have entrusted Civair with their vacation plans. And while some boldfaced names like Bill Gates have been low maintenance (the Microsoft founder opted to travel with just his wife, Melinda), others have asked for a little more.
"When Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen flew with us, he was accompanied by his entire security detail of ex-Navy Seals," recalls Cluver. "They required a separate helicopter and fleet of four-wheel-drives to act as an advance guard to secure the landing sites." Not every adventurer travels with an entourage like Allen's, but privacy, security and a support network are key for many private-safari clients. Adventure outfitters are increasingly catering to guests who want to book an entire camp, boat, balloon or helicopter for themselves and their group.
Experiential travel is hot the world over, and a host of destinations are getting in on the act, which was pioneered--and perfected--in Africa. Safari companies today offer the chance to encounter a whole ark's worth of animals, from kangaroos and blue-footed boobies to mountain gorillas and crocodiles. A river safari down the Amazon with National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions offers a look at mythic river monsters like piranhas (without a swarm of camera-happy passengers snapping at your heels). At Anantara in Thailand's Golden Triangle, guests learn to handle elephants in utterly tranquil surrounds. And at Wildman Lodge in Australia's Northern Territory, kangaroo safaris through the bush encounter a variety of marsupials. Whichever you choose, the experience is truly like nothing else.
Located within a private concession of Kruger National Park, the six suites at Singita Sweni Lodge are elevated on stilts to provide a secluded game-viewing platform reminiscent of an eagle’s nest (if eagles had WiFi, outdoor showers and daybeds, that is). Guests plan their own game-drive schedule and can fully expect to see the big five—lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, Cape buffalo—along with rarer, more brag-worthy animals like black rhinos, sable antelopes and a trio of the world’s most unusual big cats: the serval (with the body of a cheetah and the ears of a bat), the caracal (a bobcat-like feline once used as a hunting companion) and the African wildcat. <em>From $10,150 a night (including meals and drinks); 12-person capacity; 27-21/683-3424; <a href="http://singita.com" target="_hplink">singita.com</a></em>.
For a bird’s-eye view of some of the most inaccessible and untouched wonders of Ethiopia, sign up with Uncharted Africa Safari Co., whose owner, Ralph Bousfield, leads guests on a ten-day odyssey, working off an itinerary that is easily customizable according to weather and whim. Typically, Bousfield searches for game over the Omo River Delta and soars to dizzying heights over the jagged Simien Mountains (home to the Walia ibex and Simien fox) before plummeting into the surreal volcanic wasteland of the Danakil Depression, Africa’s lowest point. The heli-safari uses three main base camps near the eerily quiet Makgadikgadi Pans, the remnants of a vast lake that once covered much of Ethiopia and Botswana. <em>$130,000 (all-inclusive); 2-person capacity; 27-11/447-1605; <a href="http://unchartedafrica.com" target="_hplink">unchartedafrica.com</a>.</em>
Few experiences sharpen the senses or bond a group like stalking big game on foot. The 15-day Eyes on Elephant Safari offered by The Africa Adventure Company is designed to bring small groups of six people much, much closer to nature. While there are still game drives (big game respond differently to vehicles), the focus here is walking in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. The terrain is ideal for viewing animals on foot, and guests are taught the basics of tracking lions and rhinos. The relatively dry grasses are lower, and much of the action takes place around three year-round water sources. The park is famous for large herds of elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions and the rare African wild dog. <em>From $44,970 (including all meals); 6-person capacity; 800-882-9453; <a href="http://africa-adventure.com" target="_hplink">africa-adventure.com</a></em>.
Some cruise ships try to spice up a voyage with shuffleboard or quiz nights, but this is not that kind of cruise. The National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions Delfin II plies the waters of Peru’s Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and offers a host of activities specifically designed to allow private guests unprecedented access into the Amazonian wetlands. Visitors frequently abandon ship to kayak among the giant Amazonian lily pads of the Pucate River (some reach ten feet in diameter), fish for piranhas as they feed on fallen fruit in the swollen flood plain or swim with the bizarre Amazon River dolphins (one of just two freshwater dolphin species on earth). Trained naturalists also spot sloths, tamarins, caimans and abundant bird life throughout the trip.<em> $173,000 for 10 days (including meals); 28-person capacity; 212-765-7740; <a href="http://expeditions.com" target="_hplink">expeditions.com</a>.</em>
With fewer people per acre than anywhere in the lower 48 states, Montana and neighboring Wyoming constitute the last great American wilderness. The Resort at Paws Up, in Greenough, Montana, near the Blackfoot River, comprises 37,000 acres of Big Sky country perfect for an all-American safari experience. Guests seeking complete privacy can hunker down in the Morris Ranch House, a four-bedroom property with an additional four-person safari tent, and ride horses on day trips into the backwoods of Montana. Expert cowboy Max Salisbury and his dog, Lady, teach the finer points of mustering 100 head of Corriente cattle (a Spanish rodeo breed) over a distance of roughly four miles. Salisbury also gives private tuition in advanced horsemanship and leads horseback safaris to Garnet, an eerily well-preserved abandoned gold-mining town established in 1898. <em>$2,970 a night; 8-person capacity; 800-473-0601; <a href="http://pawsup.com" target="_hplink">pawsup.com</a></em>.
Teaching an elephant to respond might seem like trying to steer the Titanic using telekinesis, but at Anantara Elephant Camp in Thailand’s Golden Triangle, communing with these gentle giants is an everyday affair. During the resort’s three-day mahout training course, guests meet some of the 32 elephants rescued from the streets of Bangkok that now reside in the 160-acre park. What follows is instruction in some of the more than 70 voice commands (pai means “go”; baen means “turn”; how means “stop”) and the art of alighting a pachyderm with the aid of its trunk. The following two days are spent steering the mount through the bamboo forest as trainers share their knowledge of herbs, edible insects and jungle medicines for both man and beast. At the end of the safari, guests receive a certificate of competency printed—naturally—on paper made from elephant dung. <em>$200 for three days (in addition to an Anantara all-inclusive accommodation package); 8-person capacity; 66/2365-9111; <a href="http://goldentriangle.anantara.com" target="_hplink">goldentriangle.anantara.com</a></em>.
For travelers eager to shun the company of humans for the companionship of man’s nearest relatives, Cox & Kings offers a Great Ape Safari in Rwanda. The easy eight-day hiking excursion provides insight into the social lives of the Angolan colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and golden monkeys that congregate around the Virunga volcanoes and the Nyungwe Forest. The stars of the show, however, are the Rwanda mountain gorillas that travel in family troops of up to 20. Rather convenient for exclusive guests, the Rwandan government now restricts the number of visitors meeting mountain gorillas to eight for an hour at a time. The private eight-person lodges can organize fire-lit dinners on the shores of Lake Kivu or midnight cruises to the Virunga volcanoes.<em> From $55,840 (including meals); 8-person capacity; 800-209-0400; <a href="http://coxandkings.com" target="_hplink">coxandkings.com</a></em>.
The Northern Territory of Australia is one vast, unfathomable wilderness steeped in eons of indigenous history. At Wildman Wilderness Lodge, join expert Aboriginal guides for a wetland safari and culinary tour, during which you’ll walk among giant termite mounds on your way to Home Billabong while searching for “bush tucker” (Australian slang for wild food). Keep your eyes peeled for the four varieties of kangaroo that inhabit this area: black wallaroo, antilopine wallaroo, agile wallaby and short-eared rock wallaby. On the way, forage for picnic provisions and dangle a line for barramundi, a delicately flavored fighting fish considered a delicacy here. (There are also visits to Arnhem Land’s sacred cliffs, festooned with indigenous catacombs and traditional dot painting.) Although Wildman is the largest property on our list to offer exclusive use, it divides guests into three groups for better wildlife viewing. <em>$14,000 a night; 30- to 50-person capacity; 08/8978-8955; <a href="http://wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au" target="_hplink">wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au</a>.</em>
Most visitors see the Galapagos Archipelago by cruise ship. But regardless of how idyllic the daytime adventures or how luxurious the berth, falling asleep onboard can’t compare to being out in this paradise. The Galapagos Safari Camp is a luxury encampment where the twitter of exotic birds and the whisper of grasses add an authentic soundtrack to what most adventurous travelers consider the planet’s ultimate wildlife experience. For private guests, the experience is fully customizable. One family wanted a ceremony to mark the crossing of the equator, so camp organizers chartered a boat and made elaborate pirate costumes. Surprisingly, the favorite safari of camp owner Michael Mesdag has nothing to do with blue-footed boobies. He recently took a group on a surfing safari, chartering a yacht to visit a new break each day. <em>$7,320 a night (includes breakfast and dinner); 18-person capacity, plus 6 in a family suite; 593/9179-4259; <a href="http://galapagossafaricamp.com" target="_hplink">galapagossafaricamp.com</a></em>.
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