The Coolest and Most Eco-Conscious New Safari Lodge in Africa: Asilia Highlands in Tanzania by Ann Abel

Just about every travel company worth its salt brags about its authenticity these days. The safari outfitter Asilia went one better. Its name is taken from the Swahili word for genuine—i.e., authentic.

That’s not just lip service or a bit of trendy marketing. Since its founding in 2004, Asilia has worked hard to create meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with the communities surrounding its camps and lodges. And as the company has grown to encompass 20 properties in Kenya and Tanzania, that connection has only strengthened.

The new Highlands camp

The new Highlands camp

That’s on clear display at its new Highlands camp in a remote region of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. On equal footing with wildlife encounters—and there is an incredible diversity of wildlife in the nearby Ngorongoro Crater—are the human interactions that guests have during a stay.

The experience is worlds away from the commercialized “cultural bomas” in the area, where it can feel like neither the tourists nor the Maasai are particularly happy about being there. “We don’t want them dancing unless it is time to dance,” says Pietro Luraschi, Asilia’s head guide and guide trainer for Tanzania, a longtime Tanzania hand and one of the smartest, most passionate safari guides I’ve met.

He also serves as something of a cultural ambassador, building relationships with villages around the camps—which in the case of the Highlands don’t see many foreigners, given the camp’s remote location—in ways that minimize the effects on the Maasai way of life. When Asilia takes guests to see a nearby boma (family compound), it visits a different one each day. This does have the effect of making certain households slightly richer, but since visitors come only once in a blue moon, little about daily life changes.

And so when my group visited a nearby boma early one morning, the family there seemed as genuinely curious about us as we were about them. We were told to ask anything we wanted, about marriage traditions, rites of passage and the great importance of cows. Standing there in the cattle pen, with camp staff translating, it felt like a real conversation. (I was a guest of Asilia.)

The next day, Asilia arranged for a group of Maasai women to come to the camp and teach us how to make the beautiful, elaborate white beaded jewelry they festoon themselves with. Their shyness turned to shared laughter as we clumsily attempted to do what they do so smoothly and we discovered the common language of craft.

Of course, people visit East Africa for nature too. A whole lot of them visit the crater, but Asilia has found ways to make the experience more private. “It’s not what you see,” says Luraschi, “but how you see it.” Whereas most operators do game drives in the morning, Asilia goes in the afternoon, when the crowds have thinned out. It reserves a secluded spot for a beautiful picnic in the bush while most tourists each lunch off the hood of a Land Cruiser in a busy parking lot near the visitor center.

“The new luxury is space, being away from everyone,” says Mercedes Bailey, Asilia’s communications director. She’s right. The crater itself was the same thing I saw a few years ago with another safari outfit, but my experience couldn’t have been more different.

The lounge dome

The lounge dome

That said, a lot of the old luxury is relevant—good service, delicious food and comfortable and stylish rooms still count for a lot. And the Highlands has nailed these. The design, by the Cape Town firm Artichoke, is stunning, with the eight tents taking the form of geodesic domes. The shape is practical—it’s strong enough that the domes don’t have to be cluttered with internal columns or walls, and it’s efficient for warming air (important, since the camp sits at an elevation of around 8,500 feet and gets cold when the sun goes down, so those wood-fired stoves have a lot of work to do)—but also delightful to the eye. A good portion of each dome is clear to the gorgeous views outside, and the interior details, such as Maasai tartan cushions and captivating portrait photography by Graham Springer, are pretty too.

It’s one of the coolest camps in East Africa now, but ultimately, the memories of an Asilia safari reflect the company’s authenticity. On our last day in Tanzania, we hiked into and up from the Empakaai Crater (a place most camps have trouble accessing because they’re too far away). It was a tough uphill, and a reward of sundowners seemed to be in order. As we watched the sky start to tinge pink, a group of Maasai approached us. It was time to dance.