By Costas Christ
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life's July 2011 issue
As noted above, this article originally ran in July 2011 in Virtuoso Life. As such, some of the itineraries and packages may not reflect 2015 (and beyond) conditions for those suppliers. You can navigate countries using the arrows at the bottom of the text; within each country, click on the link to the tour company (the supplier) to see their current offerings.
On a continent filled with stunning wildlife, mountain gorillas may be the jewel in the crown. More than four decades ago, the late legendary mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey set up her base camp in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park on Mount Visoke, where I have come in search of those primates. As I push my way through tangles of liana vines, carefully step over patches of stinging nettles, and watch the ethereal mist float in and out of this cool mountainous jungle, I marvel at Fossey’s stamina to do this every day as she studied these rarest of the great apes. Suddenly, our guide stops and, using hand signals, motions our small trekking group to sit low on the ground. He grunts softly, mimicking the gorillas’ communication, to let the dominant silverback know we are here. Then he parts the tall grass and the mountain gorillas appear less than ten feet away, a family of eight with two infants, digging shoots and grooming each other. I am spellbound.
In 1978, the year I first met Fossey’s research team when I was studying vervet monkeys in Kenya, only an estimated 268 mountain gorillas were left in the wild.
Today, that number has grown to nearly 800 – a conservation success story largely attributed to tourists paying for the privilege of seeing these majestic creatures in their natural home. As the sustainable tourism movement gains momentum around the world, it was here in Africa that it all began. In the 2011 Travel Dreams Survey, safaris topped your list. These outfitters can make that dream come true.
Rwanda and Uganda
: As the official travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund, Natural Habitat Adventures
has saving nature embedded in its DNA: Part of its safari proceeds goes directly to supporting WWF conservation projects. Its new 13-day primate safari takes in the famous mountain gorilla parks of Rwanda and Uganda, while also helping ensure that the people who live closest to the gorillas are benefitting from tourism and, as a result, supporting efforts to save them from extinction. Not only will you encounter the mountain gorillas, you will also visit Kibale Forest, with one of the highest concentrations of primate species in the world, including chimpanzees and colobus monkeys.
Win-Win Wildlife: Big Five Tours and Expeditions
has raised the bar higher this year in a bold move to support wildlife conservancies – the most effective model of conservation through tourism in Africa – on all its Kenya safaris. Conservancies, private nature reserves managed in partnership with local communities, put income from tourism into the hands of the people who need it most: the villagers who are the stewards of Africa’s amazing wildlife. It is a win-win for the traveler, too, offering wildlife viewing without the crowd of vehicles that has been known to surround a pride of lions or family of elephants in the national parks. Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust, for instance, comprises a collection of community-owned wildlife reserves protecting more than 3 million acres of pristine habitat that is also home to some of Africa’s last pastoralist tribes. Big Five’s 11-day outing brings you to this area, in addition to private reserves in Masai Mara and Amboseli.
Off the Beaten Track: Abercrombie & Kent
has been a defining presence on the safari scene as far back as the late 1950s, when company founder Geoffrey Kent made his own life-changing safari riding a motorcycle solo from Nairobi to Cape Town. This trip instilled in him a love for adventure and exploration that continues to drive the company today. Its motto: adventure by day, comfort by night. A commitment to safeguarding Africa’s natural heritage is also integral to A&K: It was a pioneer in helping launch a community wildlife scout program to protect the endangered black rhino. Like its charismatic and intrepid founder, A&K continues to take clients off the beaten track. Next stop: a 12-day Zambia safari, including a visit to unspoiled South Luangwa National Park with a stay in tree- house-inspired rooms.
Before ecotourism was even a word, Wilderness Safaris
declared itself a conservation company first and a tour operator second. It has been instrumental in garnering protected status for more than 2 million acres of big-game habitat, all while creating some of the continent’s most awe-inspiring wildlife experiences. Its 13-day Namibia journey brings guests into otherworldly landscapes – sleeping in open-air “sky beds” amid some of the highest sand dunes on the planet – along with rare wildlife encounters. Many safari veterans contend that Namibia is the most spectacular country in Africa to see wildlife – and this is the way to see it.
You could go to Botswana (perhaps Africa’s most iconic wildlife destination) during peak dry season in July and August, when camps and lodges operate at full throttle. Or consider “green season” from January to March and have the place almost to yourself. Sporadic rains carpet the arid terrain with wildflowers and lush vegetation, leading to an influx of migrating wildlife giving birth. Food is abundant, and life is easier for a while: Newborn zebras, impalas, and other game frolic as the herds rebuild their strength munching on the nutrient-rich pasture, before the harsh dry season returns. With a mantra of responsibility, andBeyond
guides you there in sustainable style on its nine-day tented safari.