That was an easy dare for a longtime travel journalist, but once we got into the bush, curiosity trumped any need to play my role. I was in Tanzania’s most wild and biggest national park that no one has ever heard of—said to be home to 15,000 elephants, 10% of the world’s lion population and quite a few leopards (and only six small camps)—with a rock star of a guide. Pietro Luraschi has been working in Tanzania 11 years, been guiding in Ruaha for 6, begun training national park rangers to lead walking safaris, and been profiled in Italian Vanity Fair.
I’ve taken six safari trips across East Africa and bounced along on more game drives than I can count. But I learned more—and saw more—in my first few hours in Luraschi’s company, as a guest of Asilia Africa’s Kwihala Camp in Ruaha, than I had on all my previous trips. (My trip was sponsored by Asilia.)
And that’s what Asilia’s 16 camps in Tanzania and Kenya are all about. The company was founded by former Ker & Downey directors who wanted to get guests deeper into Africa—the name Asilia means “authentic” in Swahili. So while Luraschi is a freelancer, whose latest four-month stint with Asilia just ended, he’s indicative of the outfitter’s priorities, and the caliber of people it hires. Kwihala’s other head guides are equally accomplished, and the safari schedule is focused on wildlife.
There are no distractions like elaborate champagne breakfasts or lantern-lit dinners in the bush. While there’s a cooler in the backseat with the fixings for gin and tonics, sundowners aren’t the point. If you come upon a pride of ten young lions that want to hang out by the Land Cruiser, or a curious elephant checking out the vehicle’s grille with her trunk, as we did, you stay put and watch. (We had to clear elephants off the road—think of moving sheep in the countryside, but, you know, elephants—six times in one day.) Cocktails can wait.
“Asilia has a really authentic product,” says Cherri Briggs, president of Explore Inc., who uses her deep Africa experience to book high-end safaris for demanding Americans. “They’re less about fancy space than good experience. I also like their real commitment to conservation and community.”
Kwihala, which Asilia took over six months ago, proves her point. The six tents are simple, of the canvas-floor variety that can be packed up and moved every so often, leaving no evidence of having been there. They have comfy beds, a few stylish touches in purple and orange cushions, running water for sinks and toilets, and generous bucket showers—a 20-liter deluge I couldn’t use up with multiple shampoos—on demand.
The camp’s decor, chic as it is, isn’t as noteworthy as the fact that it’s there at all, since virtually no one else is. “What distinguishes Asilia from its competitors is its commitment to getting there first and pioneering new areas—going beyond the Serengeti and Maasai Mara and into places like Ruaha,” says Mercedes Bailey, Asilia’s new business development–commercial manager.
Even when Asilia opened its flagship “camp,” the 15-“tent” Sayari in the northern Serengeti, ten years ago, that was somewhat off the most heavily beaten path. (I use quotes because the place is so substantial and luxurious, with wooden floors, free-flowing water and sliding screens that call to mind a Japanese spa, and fabulous dinners—haloumi on the savanna?—in an almost-enclosed dining room.) Comparing Sayari and Kwihala shows how diverse Asilia’s portfolio is.
Now almost all of the Serengeti is crowded, especially during the wildebeest migration, but Asilia still offers one of the best perspectives. My Sayari guide gunned the Land Cruiser so we could reach the prime viewing spot on the banks of the Mara River before 12 other Land Cruisers got there to watch 20,000 animals venture through the currents and the crocodiles.
In another corner of Asilia’s portfolio is Rubondo Island Camp, the only camp in that national park. Located on an otherwise uninhabited island in Lake Victoria, Rubondo is a more challenging way to end a trip than a beach flop on Zanzibar, but also more rewarding.
The island is a grand experiment: In the 1960s, German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek set out to make Rubondo a Noah’s Ark on land. He brought in elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees, rhinos and all sorts of birds that had been rescued from captivity. The rhinos have sadly been poached, and the chimps are not yet habituated (though the process is under way), but the island is a weirdo wonderland. Antelope have learned to swim five kilometers and elephants’ tusks have grown shorter because they no longer need to work so hard for food, and where you’re likely to see hippos waddling up the beach, or giraffes feeding on rain forest palms.
After Asilia took over this camp two years ago, they upgraded the eight rooms to have solid walls (with tent-like “front doors”) and fantastic plumbing. They just added an open-air room that lets guests see the sunset unencumbered and sleep right amid the trees (after an alfresco soak in a dreamy copper bathtub). The dining room and lounge are vibrant and welcoming, and the laid-back schedule is a relief after days of 6am game drives. “Whatever is happening here at 7am is happening here at 10,” says camp manager Henk Ferreiera.
That means guests get to sleep in before setting out on bush walks, bird-watching cruises, or, especially, sport-fishing for Nile perch on Lake Victoria. Asilia is resolutely conservation minded, so the fishing is catch-and-release, but reeling in a 47-inch, 60-pound Nile perch within my first hour on the boat was more than satisfying. I didn’t mind throwing her back.
Even without a lot of culinary bells and whistles, I had no doubt that I’d be well fed—my mind as well as my stomach.