An African safari has long been considered the grand prize in travel, an experience that combines intimate encounters with exotic wildlife complemented by creature comforts in the middle of wild and remote locations. No one knows this better than Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founder of Indagare, the Manhattan-based members-only boutique travel company that caters to travelers seeking custom-crafted journeys. Delving into her decades of African travels, Bradley has written Safari Style: Exceptional African Camps and Lodges, a lavish coffee table book with photos by Guido Taroni, a Milan-based interiors and fashion photographer and a regular contributor to AD, Town & Country, and Cabana. These are hand-picked by Bradley, the best of the best luxury and eco-safari lodges. The properties span seven countries and multiple styles of interior design, touching on different ways of experiencing a safari. This is a smart and insightful look at some of the most exquisite properties on the continent, a joy for the armchair traveler and for those who are eager to get back out and explore the world. I recently caught up with Bradley for more insight on the creation of Safari Style.
Everett Potter: Melissa, this book is clearly a labor of love. How long did it take you to visit and experience all of these lodges and then wind down the list down to the best?
Melissa Biggs Bradley: In many ways the research for the book began the moment I first set foot in Africa and has continued with every visit because the book is about the most spectacular lodges, but also about how safari tourism in the past thirty years has evolved into a conservation agent. As visionary guide, Colin Bell, has described it, safari tourism has gone from being an extractive industry like mining and become one that nurtures and protects communities and the natural environment. So while I have been visiting for 40 years and the book reflects dozens of visits, it is less definitive than it is illustrative. Of course, it features the lodges of conservation visionaries like Singita’s Luke Bailes, filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert, Harley Davidson CEO Jochen Zeitz and operators like Wilderness Safaris and andBeyond. I love every lodge in it and had to include stand-out properties, such as Singita Sasakwa in Tanzania, Mombo in Botswana, Royal Malewane in South Africa, and Bisate in Rwanda. Every lodge in the book is exceptional, but there are many deserving ones as well that aren’t in the book, so I hope Safari Style broadens and inspires discovery and doesn’t limit anyone’s vision of safari lodges in Africa.
EP: When did safari lodges begin the transformation from canvas tents in a clearing to high design lodges?
MBB: In the early 1990’s, around the end of Apartheid, the tourism industry was being shaped by a few key visionaries who realized that they could entice global travelers to experience the raw natural beauty of Africa’s landscapes and wildlife if they created stunning places in the bush. Places like Phinda Homestead, in South Africa, really raised the bar on what wildlife viewing accommodations could be. With features like glass boxes and plunge pools, the property showed how architecture and design could be inspired by the bush landscape. Phinda started a competition of sorts that spread all over east and southern Africa. These super lodges drew more diverse travelers to the region – individuals who might not have traveled on safari otherwise – and as a result, inspired passion in a new group of travelers and drove wealth to local economies.
EP: In Safari Style, you profile lodges in seven countries: Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Rwanda. The ones you’ve chosen are all striking. But is there a defining description for each country’s style?
MBB: I organized the book by region because each one has its own unique identity and the experience in each country is influenced by its own history, culture and environment. The destinations each richly impact the design of the lodges and the safari experience, but all lodges also celebrate wildlife and wild places. The book focuses on design, as well as the intangible spirit of the teams that give these lodges soul and illuminate those stories. For example, Namibian camps emphasize their desert or coastal landscapes, while the camps in Rwanda incorporate volcanic stones, and the lodges in Kenya include woods from the coast and pay tribute to the local Maasai culture with the art on display and the colors used around the property. One must really travel to the lodges themselves to experience that holistic beauty.
EP: Which lodges would be great for traditionalists, those who want to have an Out of Africa fantasy?
MBB: Traditionalists are going to be happiest in East Africa, which is where the tradition of safari began—first with big game hunting safari and later photographic safaris. Lodges like Segera in Kenya and Singita Sasakwa in Tanzania actually contain some wonderful antiques and memorabilia like Hemingway’s letters or the vintage plane used in the film, Out of Africa. And of course, the iconic landscapes celebrated by Isak Dinesen, Hemingway and others are the wide open plains of the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. When most people envision a safari landscape, they conjure that area.
EP: What is the most extreme lodge, design-wise, that really pushes the boundaries?
MBB: Some of the most innovative designs are in the regions that are newer to safari like Rwanda and Namibia. Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge in Rwanda is a lodge that sits on the edge of Volcanoes National Park and incorporates volcanic stone and bamboo, and also fiber-thatch strips that resemble leaf strips, but are made from recycled plastic. The cottages at Bisate look like giant weaver nests tucked into a hillside. Hoanib Camp in Namibia features tents with innovative weather-proof, UV protective canvas and suspended concrete floors to capture breezes and increase energy efficiency. Both are stunningly beautiful examples of eco-luxury.
EP: If there’s one lodge you could wake up at tomorrow morning, which one would it be, and why?
MBB: Such a hard question, but – if I had to pick – probably Singita Mara River because it would mean waking to bird calls under canvas in the middle of the Serengeti. I have vivid memories of such mornings with my grandmother on safari when I was 12. That was the trip that sparked my love for Africa. Every time I am in the bush there are elements of the joy and wonder that I felt being in the wild for the first time. Memories that take me back to my first moments on safari that bring the same gratitude for the spectacular beauty of Africa’s natural environment.