Four Seasons opens a luxury hotel in the Serengeti National Park
Want to see the spectacular wildlife of the Serengeti in style? Jane Knight visits the region’s first five-star hotel
We make a strange procession skirting the waterhole, my son and I sandwiched between a ranger brandishing a sub-machinegun and two spear-bearing Maasai warriors. The sunburnt savannah is splashed with pools of khaki, bush-topped kopjes sprouting from the plains along with the occasional tree.
As we reach the tree where we attached a camera 24 hours earlier, our Maasai bodyguard starts fidgeting, urging us to hurry. We recover it and move on minutes before a column of trunk-waving elephants comes plodding through.
We find elephant aren’t the only visitors to the waterhole when we download the secret stash of photos; the first image staring straight at us is the majestic profile of a male lion, prowling around at night not far from where I sleep with Christian, 8. Buffalo, wildebeest and more elephant follow.
But then we are, after all, in the middle of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, some 5,700 square miles stuffed with millions of hooves, trunks, and claws, not to mention the snapping jaws of 3,000 lion.
Not perhaps the kind of place you’d take a child, let alone go for a walk with them. But then it’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find a Four Seasons hotel either; the lodge where we are staying represents the first dip of the five-star hotel group’s luxurious toes into the safari market.
It’s an exciting concept — all the wealth of Africa’s wildlife outside, with the comfort, security, and activities of a top resort inside. What’s more, it’s incredibly child-friendly.
We have been on safari before, my son and I, staying in a luxury tented camp in South Africa. We loved every second of it, but there were moments when we got a little too close to nature, like the hooded cobra Christian nearly stepped on by the swimming pool. Insects partied on the mosquito net, a giant millipede hung out in the bath, and the 5am start for four-hour daily game drives proved gruelling.
So when we rolled up at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge after a series of kangaroo flight hops and an early start from Nairobi, it was a relief to find a room that wouldn’t be out of place in a London hotel, with its walk-in cupboard and air-conditioning, its television and room service.
There wasn’t an insect or snake in sight. What there was, though, was a large herd of elephant right outside our window, where all the drama of the African savannah lay waiting. Sitting on our terrace, we embarked on one of many “sofa safaris” as we watched entranced while baby elephant gambolled beneath their mothers’ legs and baboons trooped by so close we could hear the grass swish as they walked.
It was a scene that played like a video on replay (with optional extras of impala, wildebeest and zebra) when we sat at the restaurant, in the bar, and when we swam in the infinity pool, which appears to flow into the elephant waterhole. Here it was hard to tell who was having a better time, my splashing, jumping son, or the elephant, spraying and trumpeting.
Safari purists may well be horrified at the incongruity of all this luxury plonked in the middle of one of the world’s best game parks. A television on safari? How sad, they’d say. Not, though, if you tune it to channel 24 to watch the live link to the waterhole. And if they saw it, I suspect they would agree that the Four Seasons has upgraded this former Kempinski hotel in keeping with its surroundings; the 77 rooms are on two levels along a raised walkway with African touches from thatched roofs and wooden floors to safari-coloured furnishings with African artefacts.
“I totally feel that I am in the Serengeti but that nevertheless I feel safe here,” said a Turkish guest, Iclal Timmer. “I am a little bit scared of the wildlife and hygiene issues in a camp, so this gives me confidence.”
So far, so safari light. But from this safe, comfortable base, my son and I could head off along the bumpity-bump tracks that criss-cross the seemingly endless plains of the Serengeti for some real exploration. In an enclosed vehicle with an experienced guide (recognising that its expertise is more to do with king-sized beds than hippo-infested river beds, Four Seasons has appointed Abercrombie & Kent as its safari operator) we readied our binoculars.
We soon found a lion draped, paws hanging, on a tree and a leopard and her cub sprawled on a fallen trunk, as if placed there by some African stylist for our photo shoot. We saw — and smelt — a couple of hundred hippos squirting green poo into the water as they lay like tightly packed stepping stones in the river. And we waited for real zebra crossings as they passed in a bevy of barks in front of our vehicle, the forerunners to the wildebeest migration, when 1.5 million of these strange animals move in a trotting, grunting mass.
We didn’t see anything like the numbers I was expecting, nor did we see any rhino (there are only about 45 in the Serengeti) but any disappointment disappeared when, just ten minutes from the lodge, we watched the rare sight of a mother cheetah stretching and rolling in the sun with her five almost-grown cubs.
“The cheetah researcher will be so happy with these pictures,” said our companion, Oli Dreike, as he snapped away.
Oli is the Four Seasons’ secret weapon it its bid to bring an added dimension to luxury safaris. Full of enthusiasm and ideas, this former safari guide and zoologist runs the kids club and an intriguing concept called the Discovery Centre, a place for daily wildlife talks and hands-on exhibits to give guests of all ages a greater understanding of Africa’s animals.
Showing us how cheetahs can be recognised by the patterns of their spots — part of research under way in the park — Oli filled us in on other projects, including one that showed how lions reacted to males with different length and colour manes, using remote camera placement.
Photography is one of his pet topics — it was with him that we set up the cameras by the waterhole, an instant hit, and one we repeated several times. For the record, we were never in any danger from the advancing elephant — the Maasai seem to have a sixth sense regarding animals — although cameras will probably be placed nearer the hotel in future. “We are trying to introduce fun to science,” said Oli, as my son enthusiastically filled up his animal passport with stamps.
And fun is exactly what we had, doing everything from star gazing, to examining animal skulls, comparing the grinding teeth of a giraffe with the sharp tearing ones of the big cats. Then, accompanied by Maasai warriors Edward and Kassi, dressed in traditional shukas with shoes made from tyres, and carrying their traditional weapons, we went in search of the “toothbrush tree” which is used for daily ablutions.
Game drives were just one of a number of activities; one day I found another use for the Maasai wooden stick called a rongu, which forms part of the spa’s signature massage, while Christian joined chef Simba in the kitchen to make delicious brownies and pizza.
A word about the food — if there is a downside to this hotel it’s that, brownies and pizza aside, the food isn’t quite up to what you’d expect from a Four Seasons anywhere else in the world, although the service is slick and smiling. But this isn’t anywhere in the world — it’s in the heart of the Serengeti.
And because it runs as a resort hotel, with safaris an optional extra, it is, above all, extremely relaxing and safe. There’s even an in-house doctor on hand for that added peace of mind. As the manager James Kostecky said, “People underestimate how challenging and tiring it is to go on safari.”
Don’t think of coming here for for just a day or two — you need four or five days to fully appreciate all that’s on offer. When, in the next few years, Four Seasons opens a tented camp near the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest unbroken caldera in the world, and another hotel on the island of Zanzibar, the safari lodge will form part of an amazing circuit.
Too soon, our last full day rolled around and we were awakened at 4am for a balloon safari. We drifted to the click of the wicker basket and the blare of gas over hyenas, a serval, giraffe, wallowing hippo and wildebeest; not perhaps the wall-to-wall carpet of them I’d expected in the migration, but enough.
It was exciting and exhilarating, with every care taken on safety — this was the Rolls-Royce of hot-air balloons. But the early start meant that on our return, we were in need of some wallowing of our own by the pool. Before that, though, there was one more thing to do — it was time to check the remote cameras with Oli again.
Need to know
Jane Knight was a guest of Expert Africa (020-8232 9777,expertafrica.com), which has five nights at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge from £2,891 per adult and £1,801 per child over the age of 8 sharing with two adults, including flights from London on Kenya Airways, onward flights to Tanzania, transfers, park fees, and full board in the Four Seasons, including most drinks. Game drives cost an extra $150pp half day or $300pp full day in a shared vehicle or $500 per vehicle half day and $1,000 full day. The kids club operates 10-6pm and is complimentary. Serengeti balloon safaris (balloonsafaris.com) cost $500pp plus an $80 transfer.